impermanence

Awakened by an Accident

By Robert Reed I am not always mindful while driving the car, but on this particular morning when I cheated death, the radio was off and I was consciously following my breath, alert to the conditions of the road.

As I headed to work in rush hour traffic at 60 miles per hour, a large white car abruptly changed lanes and crashed into me. No warning and thankfully no time to panic. My car spun out of control and careened across two lanes of traffic (Relax, I said to myself). I was then perpendicular to oncoming traffic in the far left lane (the fastest one) and yards away from crashing headlong into a cement wall when I was hit again broadside directly at the driver's door. My Toyota flipped over and then there was complete silence. I wondered if there were going to be more crashes or if the amusement ride was over.

A cool, eerie pain on the top of my head made me feel as if I had just been scalped. I was afraid to touch. I remember seeing the shattered glass of the window scattered on the highway. I spit glass, wondered about the extent of my injuries, and watched my legs shake uncontrollably from cold and fright. I tilted my head back on the headrest, closed my eyes, followed my breathing, and waited for the ambulance to arrive.

That my seat belt saved my life was undisputed. What caused unanimous amazement to the State Troopers, ambulance drivers, and the Emergency Room doctor was that I escaped relatively unharmed. Six stitches for a laceration to the skull, a too-small-to-complain-about scrape on the left shoulder, and not one bruise. The car, however, was totalled.

Incredible luck, the gods' smiling graces, and maybe my relaxed body also helped prevent injuries. I've heard that drunks fare better than sober people in accidents due to the fact they do not tense up. Perhaps my meditation that morning just minutes before kissing my wife good-bye helped save me.

Impermanence is one of the articles of faith in Buddhism. That all things change and die is easy to accept philosophically, but when, at mid-life, you are thrown face-to-face with your own imminent death, it finally dawns on you—I too am impermanent! We delude ourselves by thinking that death occurs to others but for ourselves some time in the distant future. We want to forget that death can come to us unexpectedly—even today!

Life is precious and precarious. Accidents wake you to this. I overheard my wife tell friends the next day that, while she gave me a massage, she whispered a prayer of thanks as she touched each bone, muscle, and limb—she was so grateful I was all in one piece and alive.

For a week afterwards, we were especially close. Now the strain of everyday living threatens to dull our senses once again. Our inability to appreciate imminent impermanence is the cause of much suffering. If life is short, then the day-to-day details, such as how we talk to each other, matter the most. Moments of clarity and appreciation come through our practice Reserving a time for sitting meditation every day helps keep us from taking our own and each other's lives for granted and helps sustain us.

A second grade student of mine sent a get-well card, "Don't do that again!" That is sound advice. Yet, if I were able to practice the way of awareness more often and thus be more alive, I would like to think that when death does catch up with me, it will not be altogether unwelcome.

I escaped this mishap. Many are not so lucky. One of my closest friends died in a sailing accident 20 years ago. I've now lived twice as many years as he did. Miraculously, I was granted just a little more time on this earth. It is my hope that I will live less on automatic pilot, more attuned to the bare essentials, more loving and accepting, less critical and judgmental. Fortunately, major life traumas do not happen to us nor our loved ones every day. But when they do, I think we grow stronger if we listen deeply to what they have to say.

Life is a gift—not just for newborn babies and people who "pull through"—but for everyone. Continuously, we are given life anew. Our challenge is to awaken to and celebrate the everyday wonders.

Robert Reed teaches English as a Second Language to Hmong students in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and practices at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center.

PDF of this article

Poem: Greg's Tree

Soft rain sweeps over pliant meadow grass.Sparrow flocks scatter as we slosh along trails pungent with bay. Fog-veiled curtains hide an entire world from our view. Through laughter and tears we press on, remembering, approaching, Greg's tree.

An image steals into my mind: You, sitting there cross-legged, smiling impishly, waiting for us on a carpet of damp fallen leaves.

Wispy sprays of mist blow sideways around your tree like the soft ash particles sprinkled from a bone white vase. Dressed now in green finery of damp velvet moss, your solid trunk supports us in our need to lean against your strength.

To trust this firmly rooted reliability is to touch, once more, the same solidity that your living, breathing human form once gave us, in our need for you to lean against our strength. Spouse, Friend, Father, Son, Spiritual Brother to us all.

Jewels glisten on spider webs, trusting permanence until they evaporate.

Wind gusts tear at such delicate threads. Acorns stashed in a hidden crevice remind us of how we try to hold on to what we love.

Stephanie Ulrich, Santa Cruz, California

PDF of this issue

Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh  Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 "Heart of the Buddha" retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer's when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can't remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don't believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, "When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence." Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can't remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don't need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It's not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don't want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, "Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn't it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do." I told her, "If I don't grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this." Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don't buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, "Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?" Then, they will begin to ask, "When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn." At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, "Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don't know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive." Use ord­inary language. Don't make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

mb19-dharma2

When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don't look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don't need incense. You don't need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don't say, "I am practicing spirituality, and you don't know anything about it!" Try to avoid saying, "Darling, I am practicing Buddhism." Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, "Darling, how do you do it?" Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, "Who is responsible for this?"

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn't say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one's own life. But I don't want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, "What happens to the consciousness before death?" If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby's diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don't have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby's diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I'm going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on "the art of mindful living."

PDF of this article

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

The River Koan

By Mark Vette mb21-TheRiverOne evening I invited my eight-year-old son, Koan, for a river walk under the near full moon. He lit up, reminding me of my promise to show him the wild duck nest. The dogs joined us. In the joyous fracas we passed Mother Kaihikatea, a huge native tree of great spiritual significance to the Maori people. My mother's ashes are buried there, along with many animal friends. Koan and I bowed. He spoke of burying a pukeko chick he had tried to save. We talked about Pip, a friend we worked with as she died. I realized how maturely he understood death and how fortunate we were to have direct experience of impermanence.

We climbed the fence into the meadow, where I normally begin formal walking. My breath hugged me in the quiet night. The silver river reflected the moonlight filtering through the leaves. Flap-flap-swoosh!! Koan started as the mother duck flew from her nest in a small bush. He rushed to pull back the branches and looked in as if he'd found the king's jewels. In the moonlight, the eggs looked like huge pearls as they were reflected in his joyful face. Koan felt the eggs to see if the mother was sitting, then lectured me not to disturb her nesting.

A short time later, I left him watching a possum and walked quietly on to sit under a tanekaha tree at the water's edge. I slipped into the silver flow of the river and the image of Thay's teaching came back vividly: allow your mind to become as immense as the great river and the muddiness of life is washed clean. Within minutes, I felt fresh and clear.

Koan's muttering to the dogs edged nearer. He spoke to them as if they were human, looking down a rabbit hole with Polly-his blonde hair and muddy pants, and her we€d-ridden coat and wagging, excited tail. Koan rushed over and asked how big I thought the underground rabbit town was and what might they be doing? He asked why I was sitting, not walking. I explained I wanted to sit with the river for a while. He understood, dropped between my legs, and snuggled up.

We sat meditating on sticks and weeds. Bubbles. "Could that be an eel?" We sat. He enjoyed my warm presence and stability. I enjoyed his freshness and energy.

Walking back slowly, we held hands. When I hold Koan's hand as we walk, he quiets and seems to know I just want to walk and be with him by touch. The walk ended with one tired boy falling asleep on my lap. I watched the beauty and peace of my child's sleep. Practice with children is wonderful when it is natural and unnamed.

Mark Vette, True Great Root, is the father of three children and practices with Long White Cloud Sangha in Auckland, New Zealand.

PDF of this article

My Father's Teachings

By Fred Eppsteiner

It wasn't easy for my father to age. To see his hair turn grey, his hairline recede, and then gradually disappear till only a few strands remained. To lose the energy of his youth and feel the weariness and discomfort of his aging body. He was both saddened and angered by this "unexpected" turn of events. He mourned the loss of his body, this form he thought he'd always be.

But old age was not the only infirmity my father endured in his golden years. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's, a degenerative brain disease. I watched as he lost first much of his short-term memory, then his medium-term memory, and, finally, his long-term memory began to go as well. In addition, his reasoning and cognitive functioning slowly became impaired. His ability to think, to retain and process information, and to converse became confused and impeded. To these losses, he responded with frustration, anger, and despair.

As I watched these profound changes in my father, I realized I was also viewing the disintegration of his self-concept. His idea of himself that he had mentally constructed for seventy-five years and that he had held together by imagining a permanent self that continues over time, moment-to-moment, year to year, was no longer functioning. His self that had accomplished this and done that, a self that could remember itself, a self that came from here and went there, that was productive-he couldn't find any of those selves anymore. He became lost and frightened. He didn't know who he was anymore! And he had lost the ability to recreate a new self to solve this profound dilemma. My father fell into a state of depression, alternating between despair, fear, and rage. It is a common emotional state for people with Alzheimer's in our culture.

As I lived with him, observed, and listened, I realized something else was occurring. As his cognitive capacity diminished and he slowly got used to his new condition, he began to live more and more in the present moment. The whole apparatus of conceptualization through which he had always related to reality no longer functioned, and he just experienced things directly. I joked with him that be had attained what many meditators and seekers worked so hard for-to do nothing, accomplish nothing. I told him that to spend a day looking, sitting, walking, eating was enough; he was enough just as he was.That it just didn't matter that he couldn't remember what he ate five minutes before, or what he did that morning, or even who he was.

And gradually my father began to change, to soften, open, and accept. A complicated man for much of his life, he became simpler and more direct. A man of some hardness and emotional distance, he became much softer and loving. He would constantly tell us, his family, how much he loved us and would ask us to love him. He would want to kiss us and to have us kiss him. A man who would always fall asleep when my mother took him to a classical music concert was now in love with music and dance. And every concert and performance he went to was always "the best one ever."

I want to relate a little story that happened two years ago. My father would come to our meditations, sit and listen, and the people in our Sangha got to know him. One day, one of the men told me that when he had greeted my father before the sitting, my father had asked him, "Lee, do you love me?" Lee, who is sixty-six, told me this anecdote with tears in his eyes. In his whole life, he said, never had a man asked him that question, and it had touched him deeply.

I also watched as my father became a child again (or perhaps one he never was). All his higher cortical functioning, his social training, his adult self-consciousness fell away. He could be impulsive, inappropriate, spontaneous. A man who was never known for his sense of humor, and certainly never the clown, now delighted (sometimes mischievously) in making people laugh, in being a buffoon at times. Music would play, and he would just stand up and dance by himself, impervious to the judgment of others. Like a child, he thought he was always terrific!

For me, the son as caregiver, I had to constantly reaffirm to my father that it's all right not to remember, not to think, analyze or judge; not to retain any information for more than a brief moment. Yet, on the other band, I had a very strong concept, supported by fifty-plus years of experience and memory, of who and what my father was, and should be. I had to deal with my own judgment, evaluations, selfconsciousness, and often embarrassment as I watched my familiar father disappear and become someone totally different from all my prior concepts about him. I had to learn to accept, to let go and to love my father in the most challenging and unusual way of my life.

Then, unexpectedly, came death. My father, who had never had a heart problem, had a mild heart attack and was hospitalized. My brother, sister, and I came to New York to be with him and my mother, and to aid in some decision-making about a course of medical intervention. The doctors gave him six months to a year to live. There he lay in cardiac intensive care, hooked up to endless tubes and monitors, and all he wanted to do was "go home" or as he said, "just let me get up and I'll come right back." And then he died. One minute alive and then, all the vital signs disappeared one by one on the monitors. There, before my eyes, he exited his body, he was gone. The doctors and nurses all disappeared and we were alone with him. Holding him, stroking him, kissing him. Expressing our gratitude to him for all he had given us in this life and wishing him well on his journey. We stayed with him for several hours, his face serene, his body becoming colder and colder. For thirty years I've studied and practiced the Buddha's teaching, and yet never so clearly had the truth of impermanence, of birth and death, of death and deathlessness, of change and changelessness, so directly and clearly been pointed out. In that hospital room with my father, mother, brother, and sister, a palpable sacredness emerged, a profound experience of Dharma that brought my palms together in deepest gratitude.

Several days later, my father was cremated. We took his ashes to his family plot in Queens, New York and dug a hole by the graves of his mother and father. Lighting incense and chanting the Heart Sutra, his wife, children, and grandchildren each put a spoonful of his ashes in the hole, said good-bye, and wished him a speedy and auspicious rebirth. Your body, cold to my touch. Your face, peacefully at rest. The candle's wick, all burnt up. Shakyamuni's Truths, totally revealed. With moist eyes, I receive your final gift.

Dharma Teacher Fred Eppsteiner, True Energy, was 52 and his father, Larry Eppsteiner, was 80 when he died. Fred is a psychotherapist in Naples, Florida.

PDF of this issue

Dharma Talk: Unified Buddhist Church - Community of Mindful Living Merger

Transcription of a Dharma Talk Given by Thich Nhat Hanh on March 2, 1999 at Plum Village Monastery, Dieulivol, France

Dear Friends, it is now the beginning of March 1999, and we are in Floating Clouds Meditation Hall, New Hamlet, Plum Village. We have just completed the Transmission of the Lamp ceremony for twelve monastics. Their training has been very steady, including a three month retreat each year. Of the twelve Dharma teachers that we ordained yesterday, many of them are very young. Most of them began practicing at the age of 22 or 23 as a monk or nun, and they have spent six or seven years practicing as monastics. Last year, the Sangha appointed 17 apprentice Dharma teachers. Out of this 17, the Sangha selected ten here in Plum Village and two in America to become this year's ordained Dharma teachers.

Each year we will be able to produce new Dharma teachers. The plum trees are beginning to yield fruit. The procedure used to select Dharma teachers is that, rather than being nominated by Thay, they are now selected by the Sangha. It is the Sangha who has decided who will be  a Dharma teacher this year. Every year, the Sangha will appoint new apprentice Dharma teachers, and each year we will give the Lamp Transmission to a number of new Dharma teachers. We do it by way of voting. We have applied democracy to the foundation of our Sangha. One week before the Transmission of the Lamp, no one knew who would be selected to be this year's new Dharma teachers. We prepared the ordination ceremony for the Transmission not knowing who would actually receive the Lamp and become Dharma teachers this year.

Each hamlet and each temple received instructions on how to select the Dharma teachers. I only suggested to the community how Dharma teachers should be selected using two criteria. The first is that future Dharma teachers must be people who can teach with their own life as an example and not just with words. The second criteria is that the Dharma teacher should demonstrate his or her ability to live in harmony with the Sangha and be able to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.

Everyone in the community considered these two criteria, and they were given time to meditate, to think about, and then to vote to select which apprentices met these qualifications and criteria. Thay did not have anything to do except to add up the votes and to announce the names to the community of the new Dharma teachers. All of these votes and records are in our files here. Anyone can consult them. This has been a wonderful experience, especially to see that a few Dharma teachers got a unanimous vote of the Sangha, to see that everyone thought that this person or that person is a good candidate to be a Dharma teacher. We are very happy, because of this new democratic development. We are very happy that we are now able to combine the principles of democracy and the principle of seniorship.

The training here at Plum Village and at the Green Mountain Dharma Center is very steady. It is training not just of retreats from time to time, but a training 24 hours a day for many, many years. Living together 24 hours a day, we understand and know each other very well. Therefore our judgment and our selection of Dharma teachers is based upon direct experience of each person. Living in the Sangha, we have the opportunity to try out things we have learned and to succeed or to fail. And everyone knows of and can see our success or failure.

The Transmission of the Lamp was not a big ceremony this time. We only had in attendance people who were here for our retreat. There are over 100 monastics living here and in the Green Mountain and Maple Forest Monasteries. We also have a number of laypeople who practice with us during the winter retreat.

The night of the vote and the selection of the Dharma teachers, I stayed up very late. Of course, I had my own ideas about who I thought should be the Dharma teachers and be selected this year. But I chose to practice taking refuge in the Sangha. We all have to rely on our Sangha, because we believe that the Sangha eyes are always brighter than the eyes of anyone individual, including the teacher. So I stayed up very late that night in order to count the votes. I told Sister Chan Khong that we were like being in the U.S. Congress or in the French Parliament-staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning in order to attend a meeting and make a historic vote.

You know we have three temples here, three hamlets here, and there were temples that replied very quickly and brought us their votes very quickly. But, there were also temples which took a long time to send me the results of the vote. In particular, Maple Forest Monastery took a long time. The first time, they did not understand the instructions properly. That is why they did not select according to the kind of criteria that I suggested, and we had to ask them to do it again. So it was 2:00 in the morning before I knew the names of the new Dharma teachers that had been selected. But even at that late hour, I immediately sent the names to the three temples here and the temple in Vermont at the Green Mountain Dharma Center, and I asked the abbots and abbesses to please release the results in the early morning. Of course, there were some people who were disappointed because they were not selected this year. They know that they have to begin to practice again with the Sangha in such a way that next year they will be accepted. So there will be great efforts on the part of these candidates.

I feel wonderful that this is the way we are now choosing our Dharma teachers, and this takes a lot of weight off of my shoulders. It is not Thay who decides, but the Sangha who decides. Thay of course has the right to veto, but I very rarely do. So, the community chooses, and they inform Thay of the names of the new novices and the names of the new Dharma teachers, and then Thay informs them of the date of ordination.

If the community of monks and nuns judges that a monk or nun is ripe, then they will decide and send the nomination to Thay. For the Dharma teachers, we will do it in the same way. Dharma teachers are selected and nominated by the Sangha.

Offering Guidance

I would like to talk about a very important practice here at Plum Village, the practice of offering guidance and in the principle of Sangha eyes. The Sangha eyes can see thoroughly. Many people think that the Sangha does not know, but the Sangha knows. It can see much better than you can. This practice comes directly from the tradition that on the last day of the winter retreat, the rainy season retreat, a monk should bow down in front of his brother and ask him, "Please with compassion shine light on me so that I can see my strength and my weakness during the past three months of this retreat." He must prostrate deeply in order to receive this guidance. Here at Plum Village, we have developed it into a practice that is not only used at the end of the winter season retreat, but also, from time to time, when any of us needs the guidance of the Sangha. We can come forward and make deep prostrations and ask for guidance. Even senior teachers, like Sister Annabel Laity, come from time to time to the Sangha and prostrate, and she asks her younger sisters to shine light on her practice. Most of the people who were there, whom she bows before, are her students.

Before anyone receives full ordination, they receive guidance so they can prepare themselves for ordination, and we have seen that in only a few days, a person can make a lot of progress and undergo considerable transformation. In the beginning many people are afraid of guidance because they do not like to see their weaknesses. But everyone, after having received their guidance, has realized that this is the voice of the Buddha telling him or her how to practice, how to advance.

In the newsletter that we recently published, we printed a few letters about guidance and the experience of those who received guidance and how they practiced in order to overcome their difficulties. In Plum Village, I think we have a laboratory to try out new methods. After we have succeeded in the methods of practice, we share it with the communities outside.

One of the things we have done is to deal with attachment. For instance, when someone in the community falls in love with someone else in the community, especially in the case of a monk or nun, in the past, if the teacher and the board of teachers realized that there was this attachment on the part of a monk or nun, then that person would be expelled. They would not be allowed to stay in the monastery any more. When I was a novice, one of my fellow monks wrote two lines of poetry and gave it to a young girl down the hill from the temple. When the faculty learned about it, he was expelled from the monastery, and he went back to his lay life. I thought this was much, much too strict. He was not given the chance to begin anew and to learn. I was only 18 years old, and I saw that as a kind of injustice.

So I have been thinking about it for many years, and at Plum Village we have found many methods to help people who have gotten themselves into situations of attachment. Because we think that falling in love is an accident, you should help this person who had this accident and not kill him. It is like when a friend is struck with malaria, you have to help the person to kill the bacteria in the blood and not to kill the person.

We have been successful in dealing with this in some circumstances, and we are confident that later on we can share the method with other communities. Without the support of the Sangha, you cannot solve these problems. If I did not have a loving Sangha, I would have been expelled also. You may have read my book Cultivating the Mind of Love. In it, I tell the story of when I was a young monk, and I fell in love with a nun. It is surprising that now the mainland Chinese have chosen to translate this very book. I will be very famous in China!

Autonomy

Here in Plum Village, we have three temples: the temple we are sitting in is called "Adornment with Loving Kindness." Each of the three temples has its autonomy. Each temple has an abbot or abbess. The office of an abbot is like being an accountant-handling accounting and bookkeeping-and each temple is free to make projects or building more dormitories, Buddha Halls, etc., and if they are short of funds and need help they can get the help from the other temples.

But, there are things that concern the whole Sangha, that need the whole Sangha to decide, and there are other things that can be resolved just in one's own temple. Like the temple of Thay Nguyen Hai; we call it the Dharma Cloud Temple or the Upper Hamlet. They select their own head of community, they select their own treasurer, they select their own registrar, they do everything. They can decide about all these activities within the temple. But when it comes to a major decision-one that has to do with and effects the other temples-the Upper Hamlet Abbot, of course, will consult with the other abbots and abbesses.

There is only an intervention by me or by the greater Sangha of monks and nuns only when things are not going in the right direction of practice. Otherwise, each of the temples has its own autonomy, and its own independence. The schedule of the Winter Retreat is very much the same in each Hamlet, because we need to have it so in order for the three temples to join together in activities that necessitate the presence of everyone. Therefore, these decisions are made collectively. As you know, twice a week there is a Dharma talk from Thay, and everyone from every temple has to arrange it so that everyone can be present at the same time. Even the cook has the opportunity to sit in the Dharma talk, and this is possible because we work together. Here at Plum Village we do not have a special cook because everyone has the opportunity to practice mindful cooking. We always arrange our cooking in such a way that everyone has an opportunity to participate in all the activities of the Sangha.

Transfer to UBC

I would like to tell you about a night recently I had at the Hermitage. I received a fax from our lawyer, he was working on my estate plan and the tax-exemption documents for our organization in the United States. He sent me a transfer document to sign that would transfer my copyrights to the UBC, the Unified Buddhist Church. In it, he was talking about my death. He was talking in the same way that the Sutra says that death comes without warning. So, he suggested that it was better for me to sign this right away, because legally, under French law, one of my nephews or one of my nieces or some other relative could come in and claim the copyrights to my books. Instead of my copyrights being owned by the Unified Buddhist Church, which is my intention, my relatives could claim the copyrights, and that would be a pity. I would not want one of my nieces or my nephews to come in and make such a claim.

So, at 11 :00 p.m., I stayed up and signed the document and faxed it back to my attorney. It's funny that the Dharma comes to me from lawyers, that lawyers can teach us about impermanence. Although the document was not perfect, and we have made some later revisions, the document could have been used in case that very night I passed away.

A Bell of Mindfulness

As you know, I am, in principle, a lazy monk. If you do not force me to look deeply into matters, I may not do it because there are many other things I would like to do. The day after I signed my Will, I received another document from my attorney to sign. This, as you know, was a contract that he proposed between Thay and Parallax Press so that Parallax would pay royalties to UBC for my books. I signed this document upon the urging of my estate attorney.

The following day, I received a letter from CML/Parallax Press's attorney, Mr. Bunnin, making a counterproposal to my attorney's contract. Reading the letter from Mr. Bunnin and reviewing the contract that I had signed, I could not sleep. Mr. Bunnin's letter was to me a bell of mindfulness. I could not believe the tone of Mr. Bunnin' s letter and that things could turn out this way-that I had to ask an attorney to help me, that Arnie and Therese of CML had to ask an attorney to help them; that I had to negotiate with Parallax Press and CML and Arnie, my student, and that Arnie would have to sign a contract with me.

I thought, This is so stupid. How had I allowed things to go this far. What if the younger generation looked back upon my time here and thought, What kind of teacher was Thay? He signs contracts with his disciples; he has a lawyer on his side; and his disciple has a lawyer on his side.

I could not accept this. So that night, I did not sleep. I said to myself, I must practice looking deeply into this matter. In the morning I knew what I was going to do. I realized that I was not going to sign any contract with Arnie because he and I are teacher and student; we are one. From my point of view, it is fine for me, in the name of the UBC, to sign a contract with an outside publishing house, such as Riverhead Press, Broadway Books, etc., but I knew that I could not sign a contract with Arnie or with Parallax Press.

I asked Sister Chan Khong to please withdraw the proposal that my lawyer had written up and that I had actually signed. I felt shameful to have signed that document. I realized this was the wrong thing to do. My practice is the practice of inclusiveness. When the left hand gets hurt, the right hand comes and takes care of the wound. The left hand does not say, "I am helping you, you are the person that is getting help from me. You have to be kind to me." No, there is no negotiation between the two hands.

If I sign a contract with my student, with my own Press and my own Community of Mindful Living, this is not in the spirit of Buddhism. We have to look in such a way to see that Arnie is Thay and Thay is Arnie and that whatever Thay does, Arnie does, and whatever Arnie does, Thay does. That is what today we beg you to understand and to help us to work with. We should do this in such a way that we can reflect a spirit of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination, so there is only continuation. This is our tradition.

We cannot say to Thay Nguyen Hai, the abbot of Upper Hamlet, we will sign a contract with you. He is the abbot, he has the right of an abbot, and he has daily work, but I do not have to sign anything with him. The Sangha does not have to sign anything with him, because the Vinaya is there, the precepts are there, the teaching is there, and there is no need of signing any contract.

As far as Thay Nguyen Hai is concerned, he practices well as a monk, as an abbot, and he does not violate any precepts. If he does not sleep with any of his female disciples, if he does not break any of the precepts, then no one can evict him from the position of the abbot. I believe we would never allow him to be evicted by anyone if he practices well as a monk and as an abbot and all other monks are helping him to do that and protecting him. So there is no need to fear anything in terms of expulsion.

The same thing is true with Sister Jina. She is not afraid of losing her abbesship. She is abbess of the Dharma Nectar Temple in the Lower Hamlet. She is actually hoping that someone can replace her so that she can travel more. She knows the Vinaya, the Mindfulness Trainings, and the daily practice is formed and created for a nun like her. We do not feel that we have to sign any agreements with Sister Jina.

The same is true with Sister Trung Chinh here, the abbess of "Adornment with Loving Kindness" and also with Sister Annabel. You have met Sister Annabel Laity in the Green Mountain Dharma Center. She is a scholar. She knows Sanskrit and Pali, and she is a scholar on Buddhism. She has been director of practice and a teacher in Plum Village for many years. She was ordained on the holy Gridakuta Mountain at the same time as Sister Chan Khong.

Between Thay and Sister Chan Duc there is something that you cannot describe; it is a perfect trust. I do not think that Sister Chan Duc has to protect herself, has to sign any agreements or contracts with me, and I think that this is thanks to the Dharma, to the Vinaya.

We are together here as a river and not as a drop of water. As a drop of water, we cannot go far, we cannot arrive at the ocean. But, as a river, we will always arrive. So, our practice is to be a river and not a drop of water.

Here every monk, every nun, every layperson does the same and everyone contributes to the collective work to help our entire community. I cherish the presence of everyone here, even a very young novice. A novice, even if she is a novice only for three days, can already make many people happy by the way she walks, the way she sits, the way she smiles, the way she takes care of her sisters. I do not underestimate the value or contribution of even the newest person who comes to our Sangha. Our happiness comes from this, and not from any particular achievement or of such and such work.

I think that if we follow that same kind of practice and behavior, then we will be able to prevent misunderstanding and the kind of suffering that is completely useless. Then we will be able to take at least 90 percent of the burden of worrying from our shoulders.

Unification and Inclusiveness 

Who is the UBC? The UBC is all of us. The UBC is not monastics alone, because the UBC is also for the Order of Interbeing and laypeople. The UBC is for the entire Fourfold Sangha. The UBC is for every one of us.

That is why I propose that every organization, every institution that we and our friends have set up, that we all come together and adopt the same kind of attitude and procedure as are used in Maple Forest, Lotus Bud Village, Maple Village, Green Mountain Dharma Center, and the three hamlets and temples of Plum Village. That we come together as one organization, but within that organization, each one of us can keep our autonomy, just as we do here in Plum Village. We can go on as we have before, but now we can join together and gain the support of everyone in the Sangha.

Suppose this circle represents UBC (Figure 1). Before we set up the UBC in America last year, we had already set up the UBC here in France in 1969, during the war in Vietnam. Then we set up Sweet Potatoes in 1975 and then Plum Village in 1982 in France. Then, we added the  Dharma Cloud Temple and the Dharma Nectar Temple in 1988 and the Adornment with Loving Kindness Temple in 1995. And now, in 1998, we have added the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

Each endeavor has its own authority and autonomy, but each is linked intricately to the UBC. Within the Unified Buddhist Church, we have a monastery for monks and a monastery for nuns. I drew these monastic institutions inside to show that they are monasteries only for monastics. I would like to see the Community of Mindful Living become one of the institutions that is part of ourselves, and that Parallax Press also becomes one of these institutions within the UBC.

It is my hope to transform The Mindfulness Bell into a magazine, and we may ask Leslie Rawls to continue to be editor. We can then add the support of all of us so that we can make this into a real magazine. We can send articles for it; we can invest a lot of energy in this new magazine because it can play a very important role in North America; it can help many people. In Europe, we have lntersein magazine which serves the German-speaking world. It is a beautiful magazine and lci & Maintenant, a French-language magazine, very professionally designed by a good artist in Belgium who is also a member of the Order of Interbeing. With the help of every temple, we can make The Mindfulness Bell into a real magazine, and we can ask Leslie to continue to be editor. But, we also could create an advisory board to help her, to get more news, more articles, more input. That is something that is very easy to do.

The role of Parallax Press, as in the past, remains very important. We want Parallax Press to continue and to grow. In my mind, although Arnie may have to take care of the new Great Island Center, we would wish that he also continue to be the director of Parallax Press. As the director of Parallax Press within UBC, he will be able to sign contracts not only with the United States and the English-speaking world, but also with Germany, France, Italy, everywhere, because now he will be signing in the name of the Unified Buddhist Church.

Together with other friends and advisors in the Sangha who will collaborate with him, he will publish books by Parallax Press, and he also can work together with these friends to determine which books should be published by mainstream publishing houses, such as Riverhead, Ballentine, Doubleday, and Dell and which should be published by Parallax. In this task, Arnie will be supported financially, spiritually, and technically by laypeople and monastics.

I would like to repeat what I said at the beginning, that here we try to combine the principle of seniorship and democracy. I would like to see this principle implemented at all levels of the Sangha. Because in the lay Sangha, there are many people who are very experienced in practice and in Sangha building, they should be given special status in decision-making. Because there are people who just come to practice, and they know very little about Sangha building and about the Dharma, they will not be given the same vote as a very senior member of the Sangha.

In the spirit of seniorship, each level of our Sangha will have its own boards of advisors. We will have democracy, but we would like to respect seniorship. If we can incorporate the spirit of democracy that would be a plus to the Sangha. I would like to see the same kind of practice realized in the circle of the lay Sangha as is practiced by the monastic Sangha. In the monastic community, every monk or nun is supposed to attend the Rainy Season Retreat which lasts three months. Here in Plum Village, we make the Winter Retreat the equivalent to the Rainy Season Retreat. Without participating for three months in this retreat, we would not be able to count the particular monk's or nun's year in assessing seniority.

In the tradition, it is written like this: five Rainy Season Retreats allow you to be a teacher; your position is equivalent to the position of a teacher; you have the right to share the Dharma after five Rainy Season Retreats. After the tenth Rainy Season Retreat, your position will be equivalent to Upadhyaya. This term refers to someone who can transmit the precepts. It was written in the Vinaya like that. But, you cannot count any year alone. A year without a three month retreat is an empty year. If you are a monk, you should be able to tell us how many Rainy Season Retreats you have done and so what your position might be. Even if you are ordained before another monk, you cannot sit on the right because we count in terms of retreats. We do not count in terms of years.

I think that the same type of practice could be applied to laypeople. You may have someone who has been ordained as an Order of Interbeing member for ten years, but during those ten years she does not recite her precepts and she does not attend any of the mindfulness retreats, and so those ten years are considered as empty. She cannot count those years in terms of seniority. That principle is already there in the tradition. You only need to apply it to your daily life. In the time of the Buddha, decision-making was only done by fully ordained monks and nuns, by the procedure called Sanghakarma.

In Plum Village, the novices and those who have been accepted into the family of monastics but are not fully ordained are consulted for every decision. We allow them to speak out and to share their insight. Then the fully ordained monastics will meet in private to make the decision. Last month, when we decided who would be nominated to receive the Dharma Lamp Transmission, we allowed the novices to vote, but after the voting, only the fully ordained monastics met in private to review and qualify the votes, because they have the ultimate right to make such decisions.

Because monastics and laypeople have to be together in order to serve the Dharma, that is why it is called the Fourfold Sangha. Although the UBC has two monasteries here, which contain only monks and nuns, we still need laypeople as friends, advisors, and practitioners. So the Fourfold Sangha is present everywhere. If we organize our entire community like this, Thay, the UBC, does not have to sign anything with Thay Nguyen Hai, and with Sister Jina and with Sister Trung Chinh, or with Arnie. We are all together as one river.

PDF of this issue

Feeling Happy, Smiling

I feel happy todayBecause I am alive. I can smile and laugh. I can be kind, To myself too, With understanding.

The sun warms me. The moon and stars shine. The trees and flowers so beautiful, Like loving family and friends. All nurturing.

Only need to stop, To look, listen, feel The constant impermanent change That holds on to nothing.

Here today, Gone tomorrow. Life is very short.

Enjoy the wonder Of it all, Smiling.

mb25-Feeling

Bill Menza Fairfax, Virginia, USA

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Taking the Hand of Suffering

By Thich Nhat Hanh Some days the sky is completely clear, without a single cloud. When we look up, we see the blue sky – very peaceful, very powerful. The blue sky is always there for us. When it rains and storms, clouds cover the sky, but we are confident the blue sky is still there. And we are at peace, because we know that blue sky and fine weather will return after the rain.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes our mind is very clear like a blue sky. We have so much happiness. We practice walking meditation with our brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and feel so happy. Our hearts are at peace and open, with a lot of space and freedom like the blue sky. We feel light and free, and we smile. We are kind to everyone. We make ourselves happy and we make others happy. If we practice mindfulness on days like that, our happiness will increase, and so will the happiness of those around us. We know how to benefit from the times when our mind is as clear as the vault of the blue sky without any clouds. That is a very important practice.

But there are also times when our mind is not clear. It is not at peace, it is not free. We have worries, afflictions, and sadness in us, like the sky has clouds. We cannot see the blue sky of our minds anymore. We see only clouds in all directions.

Sometimes we are not angry or in despair, but our heart is full of clouds. This is a very common state of mind—the absence of happiness. Just a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of sadness, and we don't know whether it is real anxiety or real sadness. We know that it's not happiness, but we are not sure that it's suffering. We're bored. Everything is too ordinary; nothing is clear or bright. As the poet said, "Today the flowers rise high, and I am sad. I don't know why." When a day passes with that kind of sadness and boredom, it's a terrible waste. We want to get beyond that sadness and boredom, and touch the blue sky.

In the sutra, the Buddha taught us the way of changing the peg. When we have a mental formation that we don't like very much, we can change it with another mental formation, like a carpenter changing a peg that holds two planks of wood together. The carpenter hammers a new peg into the place where the rotten peg is; the rotten peg goes out. That is changing the peg. When we are bored, we can change the peg by bringing another kind of mind along, a mind that is fresher, happier. Boredom has arisen because this freshness has not yet manifested. Now, what can we do for this freshness to take the place of our sadness and boredom? An elder brother or sister can help us, or a younger brother or sister can help us. They can rescue us from our sadness. That person is as fresh and joyful as a morning bird. That person comes and takes our hand, and leads us out of our sadness, our darkness. Thanks to the presence of the Sangha, thanks to a fellow practitioner, we are able to get out of this darkness. Or maybe we can do it on our own. We have the sutras, poems, practices, and short stories that can help us develop positive mental formations. In this way, we "change the peg."

There is another aspect of the practice. Instead of changing the peg, we allow the feeling to stay, because our desire to change the peg immediately sometimes has a negative side to it. When we have some kind of sadness or anxiety, no happiness, we should embrace our sadness, our anxiety. Don't be in a hurry to get rid of it. We should ask, "My mental formation, are you suffering or not? Are you my enemy, my little mental formation?" Don't treat it like an enemy. Don't be in a hurry to find a way to oppress it. Embrace it and allow it to stay. "Dear mental formation, I know you are there. Now stay with me a little bit. Are you really suffering?"

Our mind is like the sky. Sometimes the sky just has blueness, sometimes it has clouds. Why do we have to be so anxious? The Earth has different climates and weather, and our mind does too. The sky is changeable and people are also changeable. There is morning rain, thunder, sunshine. There are times when the sky is cloudy, times when it is dull, times when it is blue and clear. Some people have boredom or sadness from time to time. It's quite normal. We say to our boredom or our sadness, "I know you are there." It's okay. And we have to be happy, although the feeling is sadness. We accept that this is real. This sadness is real, this anxiety is real. It couldn't be anything else. So our new attitude is to embrace it, to be its friend. And then, it becomes very easy to bear. It's just anxiety or sadness, and it's not so difficult to bear.

Don't think that happiness is the absence of all suffering. If we understand it like that, we have not understood happiness. We don't have to oppress or push all our suffering out of us in order to have happiness. We can have happiness if our suffering is still within us. It's like gardening. If we are good gardeners, if we garden organically, we know our garden will have flowers, and it will have garbage. If there are flowers, there is garbage. A good gardener will never burn the garbage or dump it somewhere else. They keep the garbage in order to make com­post. The garbage, the compost makes the flowers and fruits of the garden grow better. If we want to have the vegetables and the fruit, we must have the garbage.

As practitioners, we know that our minds are gardens. In our minds, there are positive, pleasant mental formations, and there are negative, unpleasant mental formations. To be good gardeners, we need to have a heart of great understanding. We have to accept both the flowers and the garbage in our garden. When we see garbage, we are not angry or sad, because we know the garbage can always be transformed into flowers.

We may want to push away unpleasant mental formations, to transform them as quickly as possible. But I suggest that when the sky of your mind is cloudy, you practice to give rise to a kind of caring. Return to that mental formation, make its acquain­tance. "Mental formation, are you my suffering? Are you my enemy? I know you are my friend. You have been my friend in the past, you are my friend in the present, and you will be my friend in the future. So we should learn how to live together with peace and joy, and with a non-dualistic attitude." It is not possible to have flowers without compost, without garbage. It is not possible to have happiness without sadness. Because of our suffering, we really know how to maintain our happiness. Some days, our cloudiness lasts a long time, and then, when the sun comes out, we see how wonderful it is. To accept the rainy days is very important.

When it rains, we are not afflicted, we are not suffering. We accept the rain. We cannot go outside. We close the door to keep warm. We have our lunch and our tea inside. Our mind is the same. When our mind is clear, we do different things than we do when our mind is cloudy. We should not be afraid. If our mind is dull, we know how to practice. If it is clear, we know how to practice. We do not oppose any kind of mind. When we sit down with our dull mental formation with all our caring and love, we will begin to understand it, and we will say, "Cloudy mental formation, I really need you. Because of you, I have the capacity to see my beautiful mental formations. And I don't want to oppress you. You are not my enemy. I know you are necessary for the manifesta­tion and growth of positive mental formations." When we know how to take hold of our cloudy mental formations and do walking meditation with them, then quite naturally, the situation becomes easier to bear. We no longer have a desire to push it away. We just want to take its hand and look deeply at it. Then the situation will become more bearable and we can accept a day that is rainy and windy very easily. That is my practice.

This practice is based on the non-dualistic way of looking at things. I asked a very young sister, "Is your mind sometimes cloudy like the sky today?" She replied, "Yes." She is still very young, but she still has cloudy days in her mind. I asked, "What do you do when you have those cloudy days in your mind? Tell me." She said she was not worried, because although she was still very young, she had the experience of those moments in the past, and they always give way to clear moments later. So they do not disturb her. She did not have to push them away, and she was not anxious about her cloudy mind. She also has the seeds of happiness. And her elder brothers and sisters have seeds of happiness and they can water her seeds. When seeds of happiness manifest, the cloudiness disappears.

A famous nun in the eleventh century wrote a gatha. She said, "Birth, sickness, old age, and death are just everyday things. Why do we always pray to be liberated from them? If we spend our whole time trying to get away from birth, sickness, old age, and death, we will just be more caught in them." If we can take the hand of birth, sickness, old age, and death, it's no problem. But if we want to run away, we want to push away, we will be caught even more, because in that attitude is struggling. That is the dualistic view, and we get caught.

Our method is not to have that dualistic attitude in our practice, but to find a way to look at our mental formation with the eyes of non-dualism, with love, as a friend. We must know how to invite that suffering to sit down with us, and ask, "My dear suffering, what is your nature? Are you my enemy?" We will take the hand of our suffering and do walking meditation, sitting meditation. And we know that the suffering will help us see and experience peace and joy, liberation and happiness. We have to be grateful to our suffering, because without suffering, we cannot grow up and have the capacity to accept the great joy of liberation. Therefore, the attitude of running away from, destroying, or oppressing our suffering is not an intelligent attitude.

One day in waking meditation, I embraced my state of mind, and I asked, "Are you really suffer­ing?" It wasn't really suffering. It was just kind of a normal thing, like a cloud in the sky. After the rain, there will be sunshine, and after the sunshine, there will be rain. And I could see there was no need to get rid of this mental formation. "I accept you as you are. I can be happy with you." And therefore, it didn't make me suffer anymore. I could live with it very naturally, as something wonderful. "Your presence is natural. I accept you as you are." I invite you to practice this way, and you will see it is a wonderful practice.

mb27-dharma2b

I would like to offer you an exercise. It may take weeks to do; it may take days. It's up to you. It's not the kind of homework you do with a pencil and a sheet of paper. You will have to do it with a lot of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and mindful breathing. You may like to ask for help from another brother or sister, so you can do the work in a deeper way. The focus of the exercise is a period of time you considered hard for you. This difficult time belongs to the past, but you are grounded in the present moment. You bring the past into the present moment, and consider that moment as the object of your inquiry, the object of your meditation. Practice looking deeply into it. This lesson is not the work of the intellect. The intellect can play a certain role in this exercise, but you need your heart. You need your mindfulness, concentration, and insight—body and mind united—in order to practice looking deeply and to recognize every aspect of the crisis.

First, look at the event in space and time, and describe it. When did it start? How long did it last? Where did it happen? How did it happen? What triggered that difficult period? Look at the elements within you that helped trigger that difficult moment, and the elements without—around you—that helped trigger it. Did it come out of the blue? What ground served as its base for manifestation? Look deeply to recognize the roots of that affliction, of that difficult period of time. Some elements are close, and you can easily recognize them. Some elements are far away, rooted in the past, maybe in the time of your parents or ancestors.

You can always ask another person to help you to identify the elements that came together and brought you to that difficult period of time. When you feel you have finished, you may tell yourself that there must be more. If you practice looking more deeply, you can identify other elements as the roots of the affliction. And you can always rely on the Sangha eyes, on your brothers and sisters in the Dharma to help you to see more clearly. How did you feel? How did you behave in terms of thought, words, action? How did you react? You acted and reacted. You need a lot of concentration. Remember how you behaved in terms of thinking, speech, and action. And again, you can ask your friend who was there, "Dear friend, how did I look at that period of time?" You have to bow to him, "Please, please, help." And he will help you see yourself. Your eyes alone may not be enough. You need the Sangha eyes to see the situation better. In Plum Village, we know that any exercise could be initiated by ourselves, but the work of looking deeply, of having deeper insight, deeper understanding, can be supported by our brothers and sisters in the Dharma. When you do this exercise, please go to the brothers and sisters who were with you during the difficult time, and ask them to help you look and reveal all aspects of the crisis, both inside and outside.

mb27-dharma3

You were suffering. How did you feel in your heart, in your body? Did you apply the teaching you have received in order to calm down, to get relief? Or did you just allow the suffering to overwhelm you? Did you ask for help from your brothers, from your sisters, from your teacher? Or did you just allow yourself to be seized by your suffering, and become a victim of your suffering? You have to be honest with yourself.

What if, in the difficult moment, you tried walking meditation or sitting meditation, but it didn't help at all? Why didn't it help? Did you ask for help? Did you tell your big brother that you tried hard with the walking, the sitting, but did not feel relief? Did you lose your faith in the practice? Because in difficult moments, you would rely on your practice to get better, and if you did not succeed, you may tell yourself that the practice is not effective, and you lose some trust in the practice. You have to look at all these things with courage.

Did you blame the other person, the person who you believe triggered Hell for you? Or did you blame the situation? You lost your confidence in the Dharma; you lost your confidence in the Sangha. Your faith in the Dharma and the Sangha became very weak, and you lost the confidence in your practice, because you did not get quick relief after some time trying. It did not happen. Did you blame the other person? Did you blame the situation? Did you blame the Sangha?

And in your suffering, did you have the tendency to punish the other person, or punish the Sangha? Did you have the idea of punishing, even if you did not do anything to punish? If you believe that the other person made you suffer, it's natural that you want to make him or her suffer a little bit, so you can get relief. You may believe that punishing him or her, or the Sangha will give you a little relief. That's a natural tendency of humans.

Did you have the idea of shutting off from everyone? You no longer wanted to have communication with other people. Did you have the idea of boycotting the Sangha as a form of punishment? "I don't want to talk to them anymore. I hate everyone. They are not really my brothers or sisters. They didn't know how to be compassionate and understanding." Did you want to punish by shutting yourself off from the Sangha? "I don't want to see them. I don't want to talk to them. I don't want to listen to them. I have suffered so much." Did you have the idea of running away? Just quitting? Running away is a form of punishment. "Because the Sangha is not nice to me, I run away. I don't appreci­ate you." If not the Sangha, but your partner or your family, your society or your church, it's the same.

In your suffering, you might have felt that you are completely, absolutely alone. Cut off. No one in the Sangha was able to understand you. No sharing of suffering was possible. Did you intend to look for someone who can share your anger, your suffering, your fear? Because the tendency is that when you get angry with someone, you have the tendency to blame that someone for having made you suffer, and you want someone else to support your view that that person is bad, that he or she always makes us suffer. So, did you seek for an ally? Did you find someone who supported you that way, who agreed with you that the other person is impossible, the other person is always making other people suffer? Did you get relief when you found someone like that? Or were you lucky to find someone who did not support your view, but helped you practice looking more deeply, in order to understand the problem more deeply?

Did anyone sit close to you and say, "Dear friend, I know that you suffer. I am here for you. I support you in the practice." And did anyone tell you that the best way to handle the situation is with compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are the instruments of the bodhisattva. If you apply your compassion and your understanding to the situation, you will get relief very quickly. Anything you do will come from understanding or compassion. The act of blaming isn't motivated by understanding and compassion. The act of punishing isn't motivated by understanding and compassion. Shutting off from others, running away, all these things do not seem to be motivated by understanding and compassion.

What will you do if you are plunged into that situation again? Would you do the same things? Or would you behave differently? Have you learned anything from that time when you suffered so much? How did you come out of it? Did you do anything to get out, or did it just die out slowly, the difficult moment, that difficult period? Did something happen or did someone intervene so that the period of Hell ended? How did it stop—abruptly or slowly? You have to remember, because everything is imperma­nent, even your suffering.

Did anyone remind you during that period of time that the suffering is going to end? It will not last forever. Did anyone remind you of that? Suffering, like any other thing, is impermanent. And we know that suffering will end some day. You have to remember that. Because during the time of suffering, we may think that it will last forever and you will not be able to survive the suffering. It's like a strong emotion, a storm. The storm always stays for some time, and any storm will stop after some time. Your suffering is the same. Did anyone remind you of that?

Every time you suffer, you have to remember that suffering is impermanent. Suffering will not be there forever. Seeing this, you get relief already. "I wish that it would not stay too long. I know it will die, but I wish it would die quickly." But wishing is not the only thing you can do. You can do something in order to speed up the ending of the suffering. How did you get out of your difficult moment? Did it end by itself? Did someone help you? Did something happen to rescue you? Or did you get out of it because you had already hit the bottom? And when you hit the bottom, you begin to emerge again.

This is a very important exercise. We have to do it totally, as deeply as possible, because we can learn a lot. Through the practice of looking deeply, transformation will take place. After you finish the exercise, you know that the next time you suffer will be different. You know how to go through it in a much lighter way, smiling. And you are no longer afraid. Difficult moments may come, but you know how to handle them.

Bodhisattvas are not afraid, because they know how to deal with the storms, the difficulties. They know how to handle these difficulties. Bodhisattvas are not people who don't have difficulties. Bodhisattvas are those who know how to handle the difficult times. You are a student of the bodhisattvas, or you want to become a bodhisattva yourself. Therefore, you have to learn to hear with your eye, to look with your ear, to listen with your tongue, to speak with your body, to take care, because bodhisattvas are always using their eyes, their ears, their tongues, their bodies, and their minds to get through the difficult moments.

When you have understanding and compassion, you only think in a way that can bring you space and relief. You will only say things that can bring more harmony and relief, and you will only do things that can bring about relief and reconciliation. And the most important thing to do is to generate more understanding and compassion. If you know how to apply them in the three levels of action—thinking, speaking, and acting—then the relief can come very quickly. Reconciliation can take place very quickly.

In the future, you are likely to be plunged into a period of time like that again. If you are not prepared, you will suffer just like the last time. So look deeply at this difficult time, and prepare so that when an event like that happens again, you'll be more ready to handle it. And you have a brother or a sister who will be able to step in and help you go in the direction of understanding and compassion. When you begin to think and act and speak in terms of compassion, peace begins to settle in you and relief comes very quickly. These are the experiences of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And those of us who have practiced know that in these moments, understanding and compassion should be generated by you and by the people who practice with you. The energy of under­standing and compassion can bring relief right away. It can shorten the period of crisis, so you begin to experience joy again.

When you were in school writing a thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation, you spent one year or even two years to write on this project. But what you get is only a diploma. This exercise is very important. If you do it totally and deeply, you get liberation, you get happiness. So invest yourself into the practice. Out of our success and our insight, we can help many people around us. This is not a dissertation to be submitted to a teacher; this is a real practice. This is a gift you make to yourself, to society, and to the world. Whether you can help people, society, living beings in the future depends on the success you get in this kind of practice. So invest yourself entirely into the exercise, and if you want to share it with Thay, please don't hesitate to do so. If you want to share it with another brother or sister, please do so. This is not for a degree or a diploma, this is for your libera­tion. your happiness, and the liberation and happiness of many, many people.

Photos by Nicholaes Roosevelt.

PDF of this article

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

Accidental Insights

By Joanne Friday The Five Remembrances I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to have ill health. I am of the nature to die. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. My actions are my only true belongings.

Eight years ago, I was seriously injured in a car accident. I lost my short-term memory, and I hurt. For two years, I tried to be the person I had been, but my brain and my body did not work the way they had. I was attached to my idea of who I was, and to the incorrect view that the way I was before the accident was the best I could be. I was attached to my view of how I was supposed to function. I experienced a lot of pain and suffering because of fear, lack of acceptance of impermanence, and attachment to wrong views. I developed a stress disorder, and my immunity dropped to almost nothing. I am of the nature to have ill health.

I had to give up a job I was good at, and as a result, faced financial problems. This created more fear. To add insult to injury, my insurance company refused to pay my medical bills, and instead, hired an attorney to avoid paying. The lawyer dealt with insurance fraud and  believed everyone was trying to defraud insurance companies. To see him interpret everything through that belief was a deep teaching for me on how our beliefs color our perceptions. I could see how much pain and suffering he was causing—to himself, as well as to me. He was paid by the hour, and dragged the process out as long as possible. Eight years later, with a settlement just big enough to pay the lawyers, the legal wrangling is over. It was of no financial value to me—merely an exercise and an opportunity to practice. Everything that is dear to me is of the nature to change.

mb27-Accidental1

I am still in constant pain, so I have lots of opportunities to be angry, frustrated, sad, doubting, and fearful. Initially, I was almost immobilized by fear. Fortunately, about a year into this process, I went to my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The practice of mindfulness has helped me look honestly at my feelings, and with time, transform them. It has helped me be aware of my reactions and my habit energy. I have learned to take good care of my feelings, and to look at the part of me that needs love and compassion, but reacts with fear or anger. Frequently, an old hurt makes me vulnerable, so the practice has taken me on a journey of healing the past in the present moment.

Mindfulness has helped me look at setbacks as opportunities to learn, instead of as negative events. It has helped me see how much pain and suffering is caused by attachment to my views of "the way things should be." I spend more time being aware that I don't know. I am still trying to develop loving kindness for myself when I am not able to perform at my previous level. I have learned about the small deaths that come with every loss. I am of the nature to die.

With the help of the practice throughout this difficult period, I have been able to come into the present moment and experience pure joy, even when I am in pain. This is a true gift. Last year, I received the transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and joined the Order of Interbeing. I was given the Dharma name True Gift of Joy. Because of the miracle of mindfulness, I am of the nature to experience true joy.

Joanne Friday, True Gift of Joy, practices with the the Clear Heart Sangha in Rhode Island.

PDF of this article

Letters to the Mindfulness Bell

I received The Mindfulness Bell today and immediately read Leslie Rawls's beautiful tribute to her dad and the 11-year-old girl inside her. Thank you for sharing it. Stories like this help all of us to deepen our understanding of the Dharma. The story was a reminder to me that wisdom is not about escape, but rather about being present to what is —all of it. I found these teachings most helpful when my wife and dad died within a six month period in 1998. I drew strength from the teachings of non-control, nonattachment, impermanence, and awareness of the moment. When my wife was dying of breast cancer, I could be fully present without feeling the need to try to control the outcome. I also was able to look deeply at my feelings in the weeks and months afterward and to accept and embrace all of my feelings, both the negative and positive ones. I could feel loss and sadness, and at the same time feel grateful for the time we had together and the life she lived. As a Catholic, I drew strength from the teachings of both Jesus and the Buddha. That was a blessing for which I am deeply grateful. Bill Williams West Hartford, Connecticut, USA

The Mindfulness Bell has become a nourishing addition to my practice. When I read it, I feel like I am sitting in the presence of the Sangha and feel happy. I am trying to stop my recent practice of reading it while eating, but isn't this a happier practice than reading the newspaper? Lennis Lyon El Cerrito, California, USA

mb27Letters

My heart was so touched by the clarity, depth, openness, and courage of The Mindfulness Bell #26. After reading it, I wanted to renew my subscription, and send a gift subscription to a dear friend. It was a little hard to write on the back cover, but impossible to actually cut the page off to use it as a subscription form. So, I had to put it down, and find another piece of paper to renew my subscription.

I am reminded of Sister Jina's talk about learning to practice meditation so that any arrows coming towards her would be repelled. My feeling is that you have created a Mindfulness Bell that manifests that Buddha shield, that round, strong fullness of quiet energy that will not permit assault. Katharine Cook San Rafael, California, USA

I appreciated the recent Mindfulness Bell articles on healing. ["Fresh Air," Issue #25 and"Surrender and a Lotus," Issue #26.] It is good to share experiences on how to handle chronic disease. Especially with CFIDS, you can get isolated because you don't look sick to others and there is difficulty understanding the illness. It is nice to come back to your breath and be truly in touch with all the wonderful and loving beings around us—families and friends, Sangha, the breeze, the beautiful tree next door, our wonderful animal friends—and to know you aren't isolated at all. Sometimes you can see that you are more than this body, this illness, and you know even in this situation, with true understanding, you can be of benefit and loving to yourself and others. Bronson Rozier Louisville, Kentucky, USA

PDF of this article

Poem: Plum Blossom Poem

As bees
attendant to blossom, we come

wedded to spring rain
and white petals;

soft step
among the orchard

the green clover
and thick, green grass.

The finger that sows the seed is the root our bodies,
taut trunks bear down in earth as seed and fruit

then reach upwards again as branches as blossoms unfold;
Open up thy hands to receive the gift of this, our Sun and Father.

Slipping into the white blossom the long tongue of the bee reaches to the very roots

touches the seed of rainwater, suckles the petaled sun
and gathers nectar on its honeyed tongue to feed.
itself, its hive and its young.

Yet the gift is wish less;
it is without purpose.

The honey bee pollinates what it does not mean to plant:
Apple seeds, bloom in trees, in raindrops, And yes sometimes bees.

Just so do we by our constant care and effort, nurture ourselves
The finger that sows the seed is the root and impregnate joys

in others' nest unknowing.

At our table As our hands lift food from our plates
they fill wooden crates full of apples.

We are the harvest hands who this morning rise to pick
the fruit of loving kindness and giving in living generosity,

singing at once the self
same harvest song;

In feeding ourselves we feed others

In feeding others we feed ourselves.

Chan Phap Tue (inspired by the plum blossom festival, spring 2000)

PDF of this issue

Poem: You Set Out This Morning

You set out this morningto give the silver space a future. The phoenix spreads her wings and takes to the immense sky. The water clings to the feet of the bridge, while the sunrise calls for young birds. The very place that served as a refuge for you years ago is now witness to your departure for the rivers and oceans of your homeland.

Thich Nhat Hanh Paris, 1966

PDF of this article

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!

mb33-Knowing1

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.

mb33-Knowing2

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.

mb33-Knowing3

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.

mb33-Knowing4

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.”

mb33-Knowing5

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.

mb33-Knowing6

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.

mb33-Knowing7

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.”

PDF of this article

Plover Mind

By Michael Petracca mb35-Plover1

I unlock the plover shed, a cinder block storeroom atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific.  Through the shed’s salt filmy window, the sea looks glassy under a thick batting of overcast. Rust-colored kelp undulates slowly at low tide. Pelicans glide parallel to shore, pull up abruptly, plunge, splash. No surf to speak of today. The shoreline appears empty, save two black turkey buzzards pecking at a dead thing far up the beach.

over the kelp beds ragged line of pelicans like smoke in still air

The faded, once-blue canvas daypack is heavy. It holds: birding binoculars; brown data clipboard and research data entry sheets; spare dog leashes; cell phone; economy tube of sunscreen; several ocean-rounded rocks for scaring crows, who enjoy plucking eggs from plover nests like bonbons from a box; docent procedure manual in white three-ring binder; stack of Coal Oil Point Reserve flyers.

The flyers explain that the Snowy Plover Docent Program started in 2001, to help save the plovers from extinction, and “to raise awareness in the local community of the importance of the preservation of this species and its habitat.” They say that the Reserve is the only area where plover breeding has been recovered through management efforts and a strong volunteer docent program. I heft the pack over one shoulder, pick up the sighting scope and its tripod, and make my way down the crumbling shale bluff that overlooks Coal Oil Point Reserve.

foggy fall dunescape: seaweed, sodden driftwood, tern tracks in wet sand

Heading west, down the dunes and toward the roped-off Reserve. Workboots sink deep, thighs burn, breath comes deep and slow. Suddenly, a trick of the eye. The sandscape appears to move, as though the beach ahead were its own small geologic plate in earthquake time. A whole sheet of sand shifting away from me. It can’t be the wind; there is none. I look again. Snowies! What appeared at first glance as empty beach is actually a flock of our puffball charges, each hunkered down in a human heel print, perfectly hidden from view. My approach caused the flock to move en masse, from one heel print to the next, and as I approach slowly so as not to scare the birds into flight, the flock gradually moves from heel print to heel print, finally taking up temporary residence on the other side of the ropes, inside the Reserve perimeter.

cold autumn windstorm— each small shorebird takes refuge in a heel print hole

Plovers don’t know that they’re on a list of creatures whose existence on this planet hangs by a fraying thread. They don’t know that we docents are on the beach to protect them, or that the ropes mark a safe zone for them. Consequently, they rarely thank us (although their peet-peet cries, as they veer and wheel overhead, come as a blessing), and they pay no heed to the ropes.

In fact, plovers will occupy any territory that seems friendly at the moment. For short-term shelter, plovers will sometimes choose the bunker-like protection of uneven terrain over the more exposed flat of the Reserve. But if there were no roped area, there would be no plovers ... or a lot fewer of them. For more than a decade before the Docent Program was implemented, breeding had completely stopped here, due to foot traffic—mainly students and their dogs—and the encroachment of non-native ground cover, which reduced the amount of camouflage-protective sand. Last year, after habitat restoration and the implementation of the docent program, we had fourteen nests, and nine plover chicks hatched and fledged.

blue sky, cirrus cloud, small crew of westering gulls, warm sun on dark cloth

The fog is burning off, and the foghorn has ceased its reedy moan. Reaching the eastern boundary of the Reserve, I open the tripod, set up the scope, and sight through it. At 32X magnification the far end of the Reserve looks like the moon’s surface. Hummocky terrain littered with small boulders. I pan the scope until some shorebirds come into sight. At first, a few non-endangered whimbrels and gulls loitering ... then, finally, a small assembly of plovers, some motionless on sand, others darting quickly, pecking, and beach-running. I fix the scope on a still one, turn the fine-focus wheel until the plover comes into clarity. Around five inches long, stocky, whitish-tannish upper body and darker patches on the upper breast, short black legs. Eyes closed, dreaming of ... what? Plover mind: Zen-empty?

mb35-Plover2

I look around, take a deep, slow breath. Happy to be here, cleansed momentarily of thought. Plover mind. The air at Coal Oil Point smells like the air nowhere else. Salt mixes with a pungent smell of tar, due to natural offshore seepage that lends Coal Oil Point its name.

one seagull feather— sandy, matted with dried tar, tangled in seagrass

In the very old days, the Chumash used to make good use of the seepage. They used tar to caulk their thirty-foot redwood tomols, which they paddled up and down the coast and out to the Channel Islands for fish, abalone, and pleasure cruises. They wove grasses into twine bottles and coated them on the inside with beach tar to make them watertight.

More recently the oil companies arrived to tap the offshore petroleum reservoirs. Oil gets produced at the 7,500 ton Platform Holly, two miles offshore but very visible from the beach: by day, a stumpy, stilted erector-set box that intrudes on the gentle arc of the horizon; by night, an Orc-castle of twinkling lights and occasional gas-jet flares. At another site a mile east of the platform, natural methane is caught by two “seep tents,” massive steel pyramids installed by ARCO a couple of decades ago. A three-mile-long plexus of pipes and buoys connects Platform Holly and its neighboring seep tents with the Ellwood Oil & Gas Processing Facility just up the coast. Harbor seals have taken up permanent residence on every single buoy, and when wind is blowing just right, Coal Oil Point Reserve sounds like an overcrowded kennel at feeding time.

broken pismo shell half-covered with sand, seagrass, crawling with sand flies

Coal tar is everywhere at Coal Oil Point, and if you walk the beach for fifteen minutes your feet will be covered. I take a seat on the fold-out nylon/aluminum chair and as I start entering data on the record sheet, a sixty-something human beach-runner with beat-up straw hat, cut-off jeans and sturdy calves rounds Devereux Point. He heads up the beach, sees me and stops to look through the scope. “Nice birds,” he says when the plovers come into focus. He looks up. “But what’s the point? I mean, if it’s their time to go, then why fight it? That’s evolution.”

His voice carries no tone of challenge. He really wants to know.

Reasonable question. No one would dispute that human presence has a devastating impact on the world and its passengers. However, species were dying off long before we arrived on the scene. Volcanoes belched sulfurous fog, ice blanketed the continents, hurricanes raged, oceans rose, lakes dried, colliding asteroids ushered in eons of sunless cold ... all with attendant extinctions. A millennial winter here, a grossly overpopulating and morbidly polluting human species here and now: all engines of evolution. Natural selection is nothing if not natural. If plovers are destined to go the way of the pterodactyl, why fight it?

unpeopled sand dunes right out of prehistory— jet fighter rises

For replies to the beach-runner’s question, you can dab at a broad palette of viewpoints. The utilitarian: plovers don’t provide fuel oil or good eatin’—no big loss if we lose some insignificant white puffballs. The ecological: nature exists in a delicate balance, and losing seemingly insignificant species may have dire effects that we can’t foresee. The eco-philosophical: all non-human and human life have inherent value, and we humans—as stewards of the planet—have a responsibility to protect this richness and diversity. The deep-deep ecological: keep the plovers, lose the people. The fatalist: our humble nearby star, the sun, will go red giant in a few billion years, rendering this whole planetary experiment moot ... so why bother saving anything? The words of my beloved: save the plovers because they’re cute!

white heron standing stockstill in wind-ruffed salt marsh dips its head sharply

What I tell the beach-runner comes from docent training: “Plovers have been here much longer than people. They stopped breeding because of people and their dogs, and coastal development. I just want to give them a chance to come back.”

“Well, I’m glad somebody’s doing this,” the beach-runner says.

“Me, too!” I’m cheerful. The Plover Manual also recommends that docents “make an effort to be helpful and friendly at all times.” Sound advice, and not just on a bird reserve.

“Have a good one,” the beach-runner calls over his shoulder as he resumes jogging.

On my own again, I take out the Norton Haiku Anthology I often bring to my plover shift to read after I finish my research duties. Like breathing meditation or Vietnamese kinh hanh (slow-walking meditation) practice, haiku puts me in a state of mind in which the senses are fully awake, the mind engaged in the instant. Today I read Issa, the eighteenth century Japanese hermit-wanderer.

mb35-Plover3

The toad! It looks like it could belch a cloud.

That wren— looking here, looking there. You lose something?

What good luck! Bitten by This year’s mosquitoes, too.

I close the book and walk down the beach, along the length of the plover exclosure. Reading haiku on the beach sometimes has the effect of turning the mind into a random verse generator. It primes the literary pump, seventeen-syllable shortforms springing to mind and page unbidden and fully formed. Today words come:

sodden redwood burl smooth and dark-stained by ocean looks like a cow skull

green fuzzy spongeform rolls along the low tide line— what the heck are you?

Haiku has everything to do with process, not with award-winning outcome. The joyful surprise in a momentary sense impression, a serene reflection on the inseparability of writer and world, the bittersweet awareness that this blissful and/or painful and/or utterly mundane moment will pass, along with this life, this planet, this warm sun, this material plane ... these are the currency of haiku.

The Zen potter spends a lifetime perfecting her craft. After decades of kneading, pounding, wetting, turning, and glazing with the warrior’s impeccable single-minded focus, she produces an admirably proportioned, phyllo-thin and delicately glazed bowl. She fires it, admires it, then throws it lovingly against the wall, breaking it into a thousand tinkling shards. Perfect and nothing special; throw another. The process.

Therein lies the deeper answer to the beach-runner’s question. The goal of helping threatened animals may be a worthwhile one. Likewise, the outcome of volunteer work may be immensely gratifying, as when birds return to breed where they had stopped nesting. But the mitzvah lies in the simple act of being present. Every Tuesday I make it my priority to sit with birds. Through fog, rain, sickness, surgery, tight work schedules, and final exams, each docent comes because it’s good to be here.

a broth of dolphins feeding just outside the kelp gulls screech overhead

My shift is up, and I make my way back toward civilization.

walking up the beach up the soft, crumbling shale bluff only my footprints

Michael Petracca, True Attainment of Realization, sits with the Stillwater Sangha in Santa Barbara, California, and teaches in the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

PDF of this article

The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic

By Lynette Monteiro mb35-TheOttawa1

Understanding the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana evaded me despite thee tomes I read and the lectures I attended. Then in 1998, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and in the subsequent years struggled with fatigue, pain, and frustration. Refusing to be defeated by this illness, I intensified my meditation practice, changed my eating habits, and took on a regimented exercise program. Despite the positive physical changes, emotionally I remained exhausted and I felt no closer to knowing how to apply the practice of Buddhism to my situation.

The way out began over a coffee at Starbucks. A physician friend cornered me with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living (2) and asked if I would start a clinic to treat our mutual patients using mindfulness skills. I laughed. With barely enough energy to get from one day to the next, attempting this was out of the question. However, I knew that my meditative and doctrinal practice in Buddhism was the stabilizing force in coping with my disorder. Studying the sutras and having a disciplined meditation schedule gave me continual insights to the nature of my mind and its role in managing my illness. I could see the potential benefits and that it would be a way of reaching so many who were suffering. But start a clinic, especially when I seemed to struggle with core concepts? I thought it impossible until I attended a retreat with Chan Huy. He watered the seeds of comprehension for me with his presentation of the thirteenth step of the Anapanasati Sutra: On the Full Awareness of Breathing bringing to my attention three primary tenets of practice: Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.

Suddenly the clinic seemed possible. I became aware that what had been effective in managing my illness was not the physical schedules, the intellectual calisthenics, or the chase after experiences. What had helped me gain ease and composure in my suffering was living as best I could the concepts of impermanence, non-self, and nirvana. I held no assumptions that any one moment would be the same as another. I was not my illness, I found joy and happiness where I could. Symptoms ebbed and flowed as did mind and its mental formations but I somehow stayed steady.

In May 2003, my partner and I began the Mindfulness Based Symptom Management program, an eight-week course in skilfull living modeled along the lines of the Canadian mindfulness-based program (3) at the Center for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada. The patients who registered were suffering from depression, anxiety, pain from severe physical traumas, and work-related stress. Some were afraid of relapse into depression when they returned to work. Over eight weeks, we planned to teach these patient-practitioners sitting and walking meditation, an understanding of the four foundations of mindfulness, the techniques in the awareness of breathing, and the use of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a guide to symptom management. They would be trained to examine their instincts to wrestle for control over their symptoms. This approach of no-action has been referred to as a paradigm shift from the medical model interventions that emphasize aggressive and often invasive interventions. The course aspirations and curriculum were daunting and ambitious, even more so because the canons of Buddhism had to be rendered into an acceptable secular form. However, we believed that anything less would not be powerful enough to transform their suffering.

We embarked on the program with an understanding that the facilitators and patients were equally practitioners. The tenets of the Five Mindfulness Trainings were listed and became a beacon when the work seemed tedious or not immediately relevant. The core of the course examined the body, emotions, sensations (mind), and thoughts (the most easily accessed and intellectually grasped object of mind) (4). In each class, we practiced the appropriate technique from the Anapanasati sutra (5). In the class dealing with emotions, we used the Theranamo and Bhadekkaratta sutras (Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone/An Auspicious Day (6)), as parables to encourage beneficial engagement with self, other, and the world. The glue that held the whole works together however was the primary tenets of practice– Practicing Continuously, Being in the Moment, Living in Joy.

mb35-TheOttawa2

Practicing continuously

Without mindfulness skills, we become stuck in the illusion that symptoms are static and permanent, and therefore doom us to eternal suffering. Viewing the situation as singularly determined also results in thinking there is one magical intervention if we could “just do it.” When mindfulness is practiced continuously, we can look deeply into our symptoms and observe as they change in frequency, intensity, and duration. This is the gift of impermanence. It makes us available for many more possibilities and therefore many more opportunities to intervene in a suitable manner. Observing our level of fatigue we can recognize, for example, when jogging is less suitable than walking.

Practicing continuously means bringing awareness to all aspects of the system. We notice not just the segments of behaviors but the dynamic ebb and flow of all behaviors. It permits adjustment of our strategies as we attune ourselves to the impermanent nature of our experiences. When we are engaged fully in this practice, there is no way to “just do it” because there is no “it.” Continuous attention reveals nuances of change that alert us so we can adjust our actions, speech, and thoughts appropriately. It informs us when an intervention is suitable and beneficial; it informs us accurately of the specific signs in our body, which then allows selection of the beneficial and suitable level.

In the Clinic, patient-practitioners learn to adjust their body, speech, and mind to the ebb and flow of the breath. Using the body scan meditation technique, we set up an internal model of “observation, not indoctrination.” (7) That is, we learn to bring our attention to a part of our body, suspending the need to engage in action. We start with the toes, which always gets a smattering of giggles! The giggles turn to awe when we observe how hard it is to bring attention to the toes without twitching them automatically in response. We observe automatic behaviors and notice when we tune out, turn off, drop out of our daily lives. In the first two classes, we befriend our breathing and allow it to teach us the inevitability of change and the simplicity of adjusting to it. Because we breathe continuously, practicing continuously is no longer as imposing or tedious a task as it might have seemed initially.

Being in the present moment

The gift of non-self is the ability to discern the true nature of our suffering. Symptoms inter-are. They arise, endure, and dissolve from a complex interaction of the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. Arising in any single platform, they are empty containing neither intrinsic meaning nor power. However, when we apply our assumptions about an independent self, separation from others and the world, energy is imparted to our symptoms powering them up to debilitating levels. Muscle pain now becomes a harbinger of days in discomfort, even loss of income from lost wages. A limitation in physical activity now means loss of connection with family and friends.

mb35-TheOttawa3

Grounding ourselves in the moment, we develop the skills to discern the origins of our pain with clarity and confidence. We develop an awareness of the arising conditions that result in our pain, our depression, and our fears. We can locate physical pain in the body, observe the thinking that escalates the meaning of the pain. Like teasing out the threads of a knotted ball of twine, we begin to separate the true nature of the symptom from the pain generated by the story-telling about the symptom. In the next four classes, we become firmly established in the foundation of mindfulness that is appropriate: in the body if the pain is physical, in the emotions if the pain is psychological, etc.  Discernment among the foundations allows the interconnections with the other foundations to generate information, not escalation. As we learn to identify the energy that causes the pain, we can then take steps to find alternative sources of energy.

As patient-practitioners grasp these concepts, the defensive stance to illness changes. The belief that things have to be different from what they are in this moment dissolves. Each moment is just what it is, an occasion. The ghosts of the past lose their potency to enslave us and render us dysfunctional. The ghosts of the future cannot hold us hostage with anxiety, fear, and the threat of failed dreams. The power in our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world can only be realized in the present. At this point, a critical flaw in the organization of current psychotherapeutic interventions comes to the fore. Relapse is not something that we practice at some future date when our symptoms disappear. Every moment is an occasion to prevent relapse into previously unbeneficial behaviors, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and thoughts.

mb35-TheOttawa4

Living in joy

Joy is the realization that suffering is impermanent. Sometimes joy is retroactive, arising only when the craving and clinging to what is not has abated. While experiencing an attack of vertigo, I tried desperately to convince myself that the spinning room was only a mental formation. I recited: Not real, not real, not real. My mind remained resolutely unimpressed with my rhetoric (an object of mind) and joy was not present until my inner ear (body) calmed itself. Like a symphony, timing is everything. To expect joy in the middle of a flare of symptoms is to lose sight of the moment as it is. It throws us back to the illusions and delusions we created to avoid the reality of our suffering.

When symptoms recur despite our greatest efforts, we are given the opportunity to practice looking deeply into our assumptions. The arising of a symptom we thought was well-managed can touch on feelings of being a failure, activate models of helplessness, or even cause us to give up our practice. Looking deeply, we often find we have derived predictive equations relating our efforts to improvement in some linear fashion. Feeling energetic today becomes a promise that tomorrow will offer the same joy. Thrown into the future, we lose the moment of joy in the here and now.

Observing the breath, staying grounded in the body, emotions, sensations, and thoughts, patient-practitioners begin to experience the cessation of the craving to make things okay immediately. We recognize that symptoms dissolve and realize that awareness of impermanence enforces letting go. Symptoms become waves greeted, if not with ease, at least with composure and steadiness. With tools of mindfulness, we do know what to do. We acquire the secure knowledge that the symptoms are generated from the essence of who we are in the moment and dissipate as we alter our stance to them. In a single round of breathing in and out, we become evolving beings, intricately tied to self, others, and the world, and know comfort in that unity.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

Throughout the course, the Five Mindfulness Trainings are used to give the skills a firm grounding in ethics and to provide deeper purpose for the practice. Viewing ourselves as worthy of respect, examining ways in which we generate delusions, setting psychological and physical boundaries, addressing ourselves with gentleness, and nourishing ourselves in a healthy manner become the modus operandi of creating skillful lives. As we become confident and stable in our practice, we find ourselves applying these skills in our interactions with others and our environment. In fact, interaction with all aspects of our environment is where the rubber meets the road. However, because suffering renders us somewhat narcissistic, we begin with applying the five trainings to ourselves.

Each foundational lesson is framed in the context of the five trainings. Behaving with respect to our body allows physical self-abusive cycles to be examined and broken. For the patient-practitioners suffering physical trauma this becomes a key to enter the realm of joy and acceptance. Rather than pushing past limits, they begin to accept and respect the body as it is.

Being generous to our body results in resting when needed, treating ourselves to days of silence and enjoyment of treasured activities. Depression and physical degenerative disorders respond well to this training. Rejuvenation becomes the form of continuous practice and symptoms no longer need to flare for attention.

Not exploiting our bodies psychologically or physically permits the building of safety in interactions with others. The target of this training is the anxiety generated from abusive relationships or lack of trust because of abuse. Recognizing and reducing exposure to toxic situations or relationships increases a sense that we are reliable in our assessments and consistent in our responses.

Speaking with kindness when referring to our body changes the sometimes hate-filled inner dialogue that in turn maintains our suffering. Lack of confidence, feelings of helplessness or low self-worth can be transformed through this training.

mb35-TheOttawa5

Altering the language alters the meaning we give to ourselves of who we are. As self-talk becomes supportive and honestly reflective of our situation, we develop trust and confidence that we can adjust to change.

Nourishing our bodies with beneficial foods and activities allows a sense of well-being. Being with persons who generate joy, feeling encouraged by others practicing healthy lifestyles, and exposing ourselves to a variety of perspectives break up the fixed patterns that signify most physical and psychological suffering. As we limit the input of common myths about being human, we begin to develop a stronger understanding of the reality of being just who we are.

The suffering arising from weak practice of mindfulness in the foundations of emotions, sensations, and objects of mind (in this case, thinking) respond equally well to this application. In fact, the remaining foundations are deeply contained in the foundation of the body and are interconnected profoundly with the body.

At the end of the eight weeks, we have all been irrevocably changed by our contact with each other. At the beginning of the course, the patient-practitioners were asked to list the things they wanted to change in themselves. Usually, the expectations revolved around “cure” or total cessation of physical and emotional symptoms. They want their suffering taken away when they enter7 treatment. Their perceptions of themselves as ones who suffer imply that the suffering means they are flawed and damaged by and because of their symptoms. So, at the start of the course, the craving is to be “normal” by which they mean “without suffering”. When asked if they have changed in ways they had listed eight weeks before, most patient-practitioners say it doesn’t matter anymore. Those expectations written fifty-six days ago are examined and deemed unrealistic, irrelevant, or—best of all—where there was no change, acceptable just as they are. Expectations transform into aspirations. Symptoms are now moments of education in developing skillful means. Self is now a product of an interaction of the four platforms with the moving moment and mindfulness is the mechanism to steady the interaction.

Continuity

Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana reveal themselves in each moment. By practicing continuously, we are able to stay grounded in each moment. Observing the breath, we move through the four foundations of body, emotions, mind, and objects of mind. Skillful means grow as we develop clear comprehension of what is beneficial and suitable action. Understanding the true nature of our illness grows further as we experience being firmly in our physical and psychological domain, cutting through the illusions of what it is not. All symptoms are nothing more than the waves in our ocean of being. In the moments that our practice is strong and stable, we can allow the symptoms of our illnesses to penetrate us as great teachers do and ultimately let them dissipate as waves in the ocean.

Lynette Monteiro, True Wonderful Fulfillment, practices with Sanghas in Ottawa and Montreal, Canada. She is a psychologist in private practice, and Director of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. She bows to teachers Chan Huy and True Body of Wisdom for inspiring the Clinic and assisting in the preparation of this article. Photography by Lynette Monteiro.

1 Impermanence, non-self, and nirvana are called the “Three Dharma Seals.” A teaching offered by the Buddha is considered to be authentic if it has these three characteristics. The awareness of impermanence helps us to see that all things are subject to change. Nothing in the universe is a fixed, unchanging entity. Secondly, the awareness of non-self shows us that all things are without a separate self; everything inter-is with everything else. Thirdly, all things have their ultimate nature, their nature of nirvana, meaning the extinction of all notions, ideas, and concepts concerning reality. For a more thorough explanation of the Three Dharma Seals see Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998).

2 Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living (Dell Publishing, 1990)

3 Segal, Z., M. Williams, & J. Teasdale, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Guilford Press, 2002)

4 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Berkeley: Parallax Press 1990) and the following texts were used by the facilitators to organize the course content

5 Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You are Alive: the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)

6 Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: The Buddha’s Teaching on Living in the Present (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990)

7 Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing, p 134

PDF of this article

The Practice of Subtracting

Learning to Let Go of Material Possessions By David Percival

mb39-ThePractice1

My mail today brought another pile of catalogs including the latest shiny, slick catalog of expensive Buddhist items. Everything I need is here: huge Buddhist statues, including one for my garden for only $998, the tea sets, the bells and wind chimes, jewelry, lamps, and furniture. I lose myself in the catalog briefly, then breathe and sit silently for a few minutes, and then move on. How easy it is to get caught up in the endless and relentless schemes to consume and acquire things of “value,” being persuaded that some purchases can enhance your practice, make your life better, or take you closer to enlightenment. We are regularly assaulted by an incredible array of catalogs, ads, ploys, and attempts to get us to spend and consume. There is nothing in today’s catalogs I want or need.

mb39-ThePractice2

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the freedom of monastic life, that you don’t own anything, that you don’t need anything. In Stepping Into Freedom, he says, “If you are caught in the net of attachments, you will not have time or energy to practice or to serve others.”

What a contrast to our consumer-oriented acquisitive life where we seem to want and need everything. Our capitalist system is fueled by out-of-control consumerism. Much of our economy is built on greed and on advertising designed to persuade us to buy things and services we don’t need. Entire sectors of our economy provide products or services that are useless, irrelevant, and some­times dangerous: from tobacco, liquor, and fast food, to tanning salons, cosmetics, and gaming. And, of course, all items related to the war industry have great potential for harming.

It seems to me that capitalism as I experience it and Buddhism as I understand it can barely co-exist. The Thai Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa states that, “capitalism depends on greed, delusion, and hatred in order to become entrenched in society and in the individual and is thus, [an] anathema to the goals of Buddhism.” It is obvious to me that the benefits of capitalism are not passed down to the growing millions of the poor, so the poor get poorer and more oppressed. How, as engaged Buddhists, can we help to reverse this tide?

Contemplating Value

What do we value in our life and practice? For me the thing of greatest value is the practice itself, made possible by the Sangha and the four-fold Buddhist community; the Dharma; and the peace and available time that come with leading a simple life. Standing in front of my altar I see many things of inestimable value. I see the

four pebbles that Thay asked us to gather for pebble meditation, which I found on a beach walk in Santa Barbara, California. I see two tiny Buddhas that were given to me when I lived in Laos. I see the photograph of my son in the orange robes of a monk from when he spent some time in the Lao Buddhist Monastery in San Diego. I see the little Buddha figure, made from mud in India, given to me as a new member of the Order of Interbeing. I see my bronze bell. I see my small collection of Buddhist books. I see pictures of my family and my granddaughters. I see a leaf from a bodhi tree in India. I look out the window and see my quiet garden and the resting plants blowing gently in a winter wind. These priceless things define value for me.

While we may not be able to realize the monastic freedom of just having three robes and one bowl, we can, as lay Buddhists, encounter true freedom by reducing attachments and desires. Subtraction is not loss. As we subtract, vistas open up, our minds expand and freedom grows.

As Sulak Sivaraksa says, “…one learns from the Buddha to constantly reduce one’s attachments and to envision the good life as the successful overcoming of attachment to personal gains and possessions. Free from these attachments, one is endowed with sufficient time and energy to nurture the seeds of peace within.” To reduce our attachments is to reduce our suffering. How do we do this in our daily lives? What does it mean to practice subtracting? Following are some ways I have explored this practice.

Impermanence and Mindful Consuming

I try to meditate constantly on the impermanent nature of everything. I do this throughout the day as I am assaulted by the media, the signs, the catalogs in the mail, the shops in the malls. I attempt to live in awareness of the festering in the back of my mind to consume, which shoves me around, creating desires for worldly things I have absolutely no need for. I stop and breathe, and become aware of the impermanent nature of all these things. Through meditation and mindfulness practice, I am developing an immunity to consumerism.

I meditate regularly on Exercise Fourteen, “Looking Deeply, Letting Go,” in The Blooming of a Lotus, which helps me deal with my attachment to sensual pleasure and material objects by reveal­ing their impermanent nature. I follow with Exercise Fifteen, on the Five Remembrances, and Exercise Sixteen, on looking deeply into our feelings. I try to walk through the world, observing material objects as if I were in an art museum, passing by many pleasing objects. I acknowledge them and appreciate their beauty and the skill of the artist who created them, without any desire to acquire them. Sulak Sivaraksa states, “Freedom entails the unfettering of the consciousness from its attachments, values, judgments, etc.— of all its contents.” I practice learning to be satisfied, knowing I lack nothing, that it is all here, now, in this moment.

I occasionally do “mall meditation,” where I slowly and mind­fully walk the length of a huge mall and practice smiling while acknowledging everything I see and letting it all fall away behind me. In my travels, I love to walk mindfully in city neighborhoods, smiling at everything I see and letting it all pass by.

Each day I meditate on The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, which reminds me of the impermanence of all things, and that consuming, desiring, and attaching lead to more consuming, desiring, and attaching. The only result is more suffering. Desires can become insatiable and our descent into grief and suffering an endless experience.

Subtracting Every Day

I try to subtract something every day. Over the years I have stopped eating meat and fast food, put the TV in the trash, and have eliminated controlling and dominating tendencies from my life. I regularly recycle our excess books, clean out the garage and dispose of the endless clutter in the house. I practice letting go of attachment to ownership, put alcoholic beverages out of my life, and no longer have a second car. I forgot to buy a cell phone and have no interest in jewelry.

I have found that this practice of subtraction has led to free­dom and joy, an openness and clarity of mind. Thay says, “As you continue practicing, the flower of insight will blossom in you, along with the flowers of compassion, tolerance, happiness, and letting go. You can let go, because you do not need to keep anything for yourself.”

Thay tells us that living a simple life in peace, free from desire and craving, leads to freedom and the time to help others find their freedom. As we move away from material accumulation, we also move away from our infatuation with ourselves, our goals, our success, our views, our individual prosperity. We become more available to help others, from our family and our communities to the world. When we let go of our attachments and our grasping, we enjoy renewed energy, and our world expands. We are strong enough to become one with oppressed people everywhere. And we will know what to do.

1 From chapter forty-eight of Arthur Waley’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. 2 For information on books by Thich Nhat Hanh, see Parallax Press, www.parallax. org/ 3 For more information on Sulak Sivaraksa, see www.sulak-sivaraksa.org

mb39-ThePractice3David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the subscription manager of the Mindfulness Bell.

PDF of this article

Three Full Moons

by Jerry Braza mb37-Three1 mb37-Three2

Last winter, for the first time in my life, I had an opportunity to stop long enough to witness three full moons come over the mountain at Deer Park Monastery. Taking a sabbatical from my university teaching position, and with the support of my wife, Kathleen, I attended the Winter Retreat to experience the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh with several hundred monastics and lay practitioners.

Before I left for Deer Park, as the first moon of 2004 was waxing, my mother celebrated her 100th birthday, and moved from her apartment to a nursing home. In a Dharma talk Thay said, “Some people live to be 100 and never really deeply touch the present moment.” My mother has lived for more than 1,200 full moons. The moon was always there for her. Was she ever there for the moon? How many of her moons reminded her of the preciousness and impermanence of each fleeting moment?

Living in the rural environment of Deer Park, I became much more aware of the moon and its phases. I walked mindfully each evening to the outdoor pay phone to call Kathleen, and would check in with my friend, the moon. Where are you, dear moon? Are you waxing or waning? When will you be full again? The moon became a gentle reminder of the cyclical nature of my being and the temporary nature of all phenomena.

During the first full moon at Deer Park, my son Mark announced his engagement to Preety, a lovely woman from India. Later, my daughter Andrea and her husband Eric shared news of the upcoming birth of another grandson. New moon, new loved ones to cherish. Oh, moon, teach me about change so that I may model your gifts for those I love.

During these three full moons, a friend of thirty years was incarcerated for spousal abuse. I wonder how and when the first blow was struck. Was it in words? Was it a lack of awareness of the other’s suffering? Can my friend see the moon in his “grey wall monastery”? How many moons will offer him comfort during long bleak nights filled with doubt and self-recrimination? Will this time of rehabilitation offer him the light needed to illuminate the sacredness of life?

One night, as I viewed a waning moon, Kathleen shared the news that two good friends were getting a divorce. What caused the light to go out of their relationship? How many moons did they celebrate in happiness? in darkness? Could awareness of the nature of the moon have guided them in more healing directions?

As the new moon emerged in February, we celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. We prepared for Tet through a process of inner and outer spring cleaning, attempting to let go of unfinished business and open more deeply to the present moment. How can we celebrate the New Year, new beginnings, if we are still hanging on to the legacies of the past?

During these three moons, Rick, a longtime colleague, died of a heart attack at his desk after teaching a class. When did he see the moon for the last time? Did he, by chance, ever stop and look deeply at the moon one day with the awareness that this may be his last time seeing it? The moon can be a reminder of the cycle of birth and death and the importance of dwelling deeply in the present moment since it could very well be our last moment.

During these three moons, the Deer Park Sangha took several moonlight walks with our teacher. As the moon guided each footstep through the hills, thoughts of weddings, births, and life events were replaced by gentle reminders that happiness is found in the present moment. Enjoy the moon tonight in its brightness and realize its impermanence. Let the moon become your teacher of change, of mindfulness, of impermanence, and the preciousness of life.

Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a Dharma teacher living in Salem, Oregon. He affiliates with the River Sangha and the Oregon Sangha. He is a Professor of Health Education at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: True Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

Training Yourself to Be Happy 

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Immune to Happiness 

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

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

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

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

The Buddha’s Teaching on Happiness 

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

Refrain from doing bad thingsTry to do good thingsAnd learn to subdue, purify your mindThat is the teaching of all Buddhas. (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Special Thing in Buddhism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happiness Is Impermanent 

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

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

The Insight of Interbeing

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

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

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

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

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

Purify Your Mind 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDF of this issue

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

How Can You Stand Being a Nurse?

By Cheryl Barnes-Neff, RN

Fourth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing:
Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.

During my mentorship to join the Order of Interbeing, Ian Prattis asked my fellow aspirants and me to rewrite and discuss our personal experiences with the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings to make them more personal and to encourage us to look at them more deeply. This is my assignment for the Fourth Mindfulness Training:

Aware that it can sometimes be easier to make excuses for or to turn my head from suffering, I vow to look deeply at the suffering in the world, even when it is painful. To look deeply into others’ suffering is to support them in a profound way by acknowledging and touching them with compassion. I vow to remember that when I look into my patients’ eyes, I am looking into the eyes of the Buddha and myself. Giving them my undivided attention will nourish us both.

I have worked in the health care fi for many years as a nurse. There have been times when I felt overwhelmed by the suffering I saw, and sometimes I distanced myself emotionally from my patients and their families. I have seen colleagues in the medical field become cold and indifferent to their patients’ suffering because they felt overwhelmed, frightened, and helpless. We see our own mortality when we face how fragile life really is.

When I first became a nurse, I worked in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and was helping with my first severely burned patient. It was a powerful night. I was at heightened attention as I learned new procedures and cared for a seriously injured child. There were a few moments when I was able to look into this little boy’s eyes, trying my best to comfort him, talking and singing softly to him. His big brown eyes looking out from all the white gauze touched my heart and I’ll never forget him.

After I got off work, I met my sister and we went to a meeting with a Christian group that I had promised to attend with her. I was exhausted and drained, but listened quietly. A young man told us that no one has ever suffered as much as Jesus did on the cross, and that suffering is a beautiful thing that purifies our souls.

I was horrified! In unskillful language I told them all about my night, challenging them to tell that little boy that there was some kind of suffering competition, and that what he is going through is beautiful. My sister was upset with me and my speech was not skillful or appropriate.

The incident has helped me see how sincere people avoid looking at suffering deeply by working hard to bring a positive meaning to the things that happen that are so hard to understand. We build a wall between us and another to shield ourselves from their suffering when we seek to find reasons for the suffering or positive meanings from the results instead of being with them in total presence alone. In the back of our minds, we hope that if we figure out why bad things happen we’ll know how to prevent those bad things from happening to us; if we can figure out the good that comes from the suffering, then when the bad does befall us, we’ll be okay with it. We can’t be truly mindful when in the back of our minds we’re working to figure out all the ramifications of the situation, or when we’re actually busy hoping that things will become better.

A few years ago, I helped organize a staff education session about domestic violence. I invited one of the domestic violence detectives from the local sheriff ’s office to talk with the staff about her experiences and give us another perspective on this difficult topic. She played a recording of a 911 call from a little boy, trying to get help for his mother as she was being battered by her boyfriend. Listening to the boy’s cry for help took me by surprise —as a lump gathered in my throat and tears sprang to my eyes, I realized that there were still some walls between me and this tragic human experience. By softening my heart to this little boy, and holding my pain for him quietly and looking deeply at it, I could see aspects of my own childhood that I had tried to cover over and hide from myself. My challenge was to hold the little boy, the mother, and the boyfriend in this fresh light of compassion, to see that all three of them were suffering terribly. By looking deeply at their suffering, I could touch suffering within myself, and break down one more barrier between me and others.

Thay teaches us that when we feel anger, we should hold our anger like a baby—to neither express our anger nor suppress it, but to look deeply at our feelings so that we can understand the roots of our anger. This practice has worked for me in being with patients and their families as well. When I can hold their pain and look deeply at it, I neither become consumed and overwhelmed by their pain nor do I distance myself from them. If I can be deeply present with my patients, there are no walls of judgment or separation. I can help them so much more by listening to what they need and how they feel.

Learning to be present to my patients has been a wonderful practice for me. As a nurse, I was taught to fix things, to find a symptom and do something to change it for the better. But I’ve learned that when I deeply observe and listen to them, they can tell me far more about what is wrong and what they need. Helping to ease the burden of a patient’s suffering needs to be on his or her own terms for the help to be meaningful.

It has been a privilege to be with my patients through the triumphs, tragedies, births, and deaths. Looking at suffering deeply in my patients and myself has taught me about myself, the nature of suffering, and about impermanence. While life can be so resilient, when sitting with someone as they die, the flicker of a moment between life and death feels so tender and fragile.

We can understand impermanence with our heads, but it is in looking at suffering deeply that impermanence fills our hearts.

mb40-How2

mb40-How2

Cheryl Barnes-Neff, True Happiness in Peace, is a hospice nurse, living in central Florida and practicing with the Laurel Oak Sangha. She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in August.

PDF of this issue

Dharma Talk: Karma, Continuation, and the Noble Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh Good morning, dear friends. Today is August 5, 2005. We’re in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village on the last day of our summer session.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Today I would like to speak about reincarnation, rebirth, and continuation. If we look at an orange tree we can see that it makes an effort every day to have a long continuation. Every day the orange tree makes leaves, and in the spring it makes orange flowers, which become tiny oranges. In those oranges are seeds, and that is how the orange tree assures its continuation. The orange tree has to continue.

And we do, too. We are humans and it is a natural tendency to prepare ourselves to continue. So continuation, rebirth, reincarnation is normal. How do we continue ourselves? This question begins our meditation together. Every time you produce a thought, that thought is a continuation. That thought will have effects on us, on our body, our mind, and on the world. The effect of that thought is our continuation. Producing a thought is the cause; the effect is how that thought impacts us and the world.

mb41-dharma2

To think is an action. Because the thought may be very strong, it may be painful, it can modify our body, it can change our mind, it can change the world. So thought is a form of action.

In Buddhism we use the word karma. Karma is action, action as cause and action as fruit. When action is a cause, we call it karmahetu. The Chinese word for karmahetu contains the character for karma and a character that means “seed.” When we produce a thought, the production of the thought is a karmahetu, karma-cause. That thought will have an effect on our mental and physical health and on the health of the world. And that health, good or bad, is the fruit of the karma, the fruit of the thought. Karmaphala is the karma-fruit. So karma is action, action in the cause and action in the fruit.

Right Thinking

When we produce a thought, we have to ensure that the thought is a good thought, a right thought, because if it is, it will bring us physical and mental health, and it will help the world to heal itself. Our practice is to try to live in such a way that every day we produce only good thoughts, thoughts in the direction of right thinking. We have to train ourselves to do that. A bad thought can destroy the physical and moral health of ourselves and of the world. So we have to be careful to produce only good thoughts.

Right thinking is recommended to all of us by the Buddha. It’s action in the form of thought. Each time we produce a thought, that thought carries our signature. You cannot say, “No, I didn’t produce that thought.” That is karma. Karma-cause, karma-fruit. If it is a cause, it will lead to a fruit—the fruit will be bitter or the fruit will be sweet, depending on the nature of the karma.

Right Speech

First, we have to understand that thinking is action. When we say some thing, that speech will have an effect on our body, on our mind, and on the world. Good speech will give us joy and health — physical and moral health — and it will change the world in the direction of goodness. We should produce right speech, which inspires understanding, joy, hope, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Your speech is the seed, it is the cause. And what it produces in you and in the world is the karmaphala, the karma-fruit. Action as cause and action as fruit.

mb41-dharma3

Sometimes action-fruit manifests immediately after the action-cause. Sometimes it takes months or years before it leads to a result, but sooner or later the cause must become the effect.

Right Action

The third kind of action is the physical act, the act carried out by the body. With the body you can do things. You can kill a person, you can kill an animal, you can kill a tree. You can save a person, you can save an animal, you can save a tree. The Buddha recommends right action because the action will have an effect on your physical and moral health as well as the world’s. We have to ensure that our actions are in the direction of right action.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher in the existential tradition. He said that man is the sum of his actions. When a child is born, he hasn’t acted yet, so he cannot be defined. But as the man begins to act, we can look at his actions and see the man. Man is defined by his acts. What Jean-Paul Sartre said is very close to Buddhism.

But Sartre’s declaration was not detailed enough, because we need to include thoughts. Our speech comes from what we are thinking; thinking is at the base of all speech and of all action. We may say that man is the sum of his thoughts, his words, and his acts. I think that Jean-Paul Sartre would agree, because in using the word “acts” he meant to include thinking and speech. Thinking as action, speech as action.

Thoughts, speech, and action create karma, and we produce this energy every moment of our daily life. You continue to say things, you continue to do things, and every thought, every word, every act of yours carries your signature. And that is your continuation. It is never lost.

The scientist Lavoisier, said, “Nothing is lost.” He’s a Buddhist, essentially. Nothing is created, nothing is lost. What you have produced as thoughts, as speech, as acts, continues to influence the world, and that is your continuation. Your continuation is your rebirth and your reincarnation. Nothing is lost. So you have to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

We want to continue in beauty. And we know that in order to continue in beauty we have to ensure that our thoughts are right thoughts, our speech is right speech, and our acts are right action. These are three branches of the Noble Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.

Right View

What is right view? Right view is our way of understanding the world; it brings insight into the ultimate reality. We are so often the victims of wrong views, and based on wrong views we create suffering for ourselves and others. So we have to avoid wrong views, wrong perceptions. If we continue to suffer because of violence and terrorism, it is because we need right view. The terrorists have a wrong view of themselves and of others, and the anti-terrorists also have wrong views about themselves and about the terrorists. Based on wrong views, we keep killing each other, so we have to look more deeply to obtain right view. With right view we will be able to stop the violence and terrorism. Right view is the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action, and that is why the Buddha began with right view.

The Buddha describes right view in a precise, deep, and clear way. A right view reflects wisdom, the nature of existence.

Impermanence

For example, the Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, of phenomena, and other wise men have also spoken of this. For example, Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly changing. It is a fact that everything changes. Right view goes in tandem with the insight of impermanence. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have right view we don’t suffer, and we can create happiness.

mb41-dharma4

This is not just philosophy, it is life. For example, when you have difficulties with your partner, and you are about to argue with each other, the Buddha would say to you, “Dear friends, close your eyes. Imagine your beloved in three hundred years. What will she become?” When you can see what happens three hundred years from now, you see that it’s not wise to argue, because life is impermanent. If you can touch impermanence, when you open your eyes you will no longer be angry. You’re saved, because of the insight of impermanence.

Intellectually, maybe you agree that things are impermanent, but in your practical life, you act as if things are permanent. The Buddha does not speak of impermanence as a philosophy, but as a practice. We should practice concentration on impermanence. For example, all day, when you look, when you listen to something, you should get in touch with the insight on impermanence.

Looking at a flower, you see that it is impermanent. Looking at a person, you see that he or she is impermanent. So the insight on impermanence stays with us all the time, and that is why it is not a theory, but a concentration. It is the concentration on impermanence that will save you, and not the idea of impermanence.

With mindfulness we can keep the insight on impermanence alive and that will protect us from producing wrong thinking or wrong speech. So right view is the view that contains the nature of impermanence.

Non-self

We imagine that every person has a separate soul that remains the same forever, even as the body ages and decomposes. This is a wrong view, because it goes against the truth of impermanence. Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. So if we accept the reality of impermanence, we have to also accept the truth of non-self.

Impermanence is seen from the perspective of time. The same thing viewed from the perspective of space is non-self. Non-self and impermanence are the same thing.

When the son sees the father as a different person, as someone who has caused a lot of suffering and difficulty for him, he wants to punish his father with his words and actions. He doesn’t know that to make his dad suffer is to make himself suffer at the same time. You need to understand that you and your dad share the same reality. You are the continuation of your dad. If your dad suffers, you will also suffer, and if you can help your dad not to suffer, then your happiness will be possible. With the insight of non-self we can avoid many mistakes, because non-self translates into right view.

Terrorists and anti-terrorists think of themselves as two different entities. The anti-terrorist says, “We must punish the terrorist, we have to eliminate him.” And the terrorist also thinks that the other person is the cause of the suffering in the world, and in order to survive, he has to be eliminated. They don’t know that they are the same.

All the parties in a conflict have to understand the insight of non-self. If the other side continues to suffer, if there’s no safety, peace, or understanding on the other side, there won’t be safety, peace, or understanding on our side. When both sides realize that they inter-are, when they touch the nature of non-self, then there will be right view. With right view we will think, speak, and act in the right way, and then safety can become a reality. Right view is a view of reality that translates into impermanence, non-self, and interbeing.

Interbeing

When we look deeply into a flower we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds, manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. So when I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud, touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. With the eye of the Buddha, we see the clouds and the rain in the flower. And we can touch the sun, without burning our fingers. Without the sun nothing can grow, so we cannot take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be separate; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.

The same is true for me, for you, and for the Buddha. The Buddha has to inter-be with everything. Interbeing and non-self are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily life we can touch the truth of interbeing, of non-self in every moment. You are in touch with the clouds, with the rain, with the children, with the trees, with the rivers, and that contact reveals the true nature of reality, the nature of impermanence, the nature of interbeing, of non-self, of interdependence. If you can touch reality like that, you will have right view. And when you have right view, all your thoughts will be right, all your words will be right, and all your actions will be right.

This is why cultivating right view is the basis of the practice of Buddhism. And we can practice as an individual, as a community, as a city, as a nation. If we are shut in the prison of permanence, of self, we cannot obtain right view. In order to cultivate right view, we have to have concentration. We have plenty of intelligence to understand the notions of impermanence and non-self but the notions do not help us. That’s why we have to train ourselves to see things in their true nature. We have to keep this insight alive in every moment. That is why concentration is very important.

Right Concentration

The Sanskrit word for right concentration is samadhi. The notions of impermanence and non-self are useful, but they are not powerful enough to liberate you, to give you a right view. So you have to have concentration. Samadhi prajna is right view, insight, which is at the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action. But to cultivate prajna we have to practice concentration. We have to live in concentration, to touch deeply into things in every moment. We live deeply when we can see the nature of impermanence, of non-self, and of interbeing in the flower, and we can do this thanks to the practice of concentration. Without samadhi there is no prajna, there is no insight. So concentration is a door that opens onto the ultimate reality. It gives us right view.

Right Mindfulness

But before we can have concentration, we have to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is smrti.

Mindfulness is the energy that can help us bring the mind back to the body so that we can establish ourselves in the present moment. In that way we can look at the blue sky. We can look at the clouds. We can look at the child who is sitting in front of us. And we touch deeply the wonders of life. That’s mindfulness.

mb41-dharma5

Mindfulness is the capacity of recognizing what is happening in the present moment. When pain manifests, we will be able to embrace that pain, in order to transform it. With strong mindfulness, we can realize the Kingdom of God is available, and the joy of living is possible.

Andre Gide said that God is happiness. I like that. And he said, “God is available twenty-four hours a day.” I also agree with him on that. If God is available twenty-four hours a day, then His kingdom is also available. The only question is whether we are available for the Kingdom of God, available for happiness. Mindfulness makes us available to the Kingdom of God, to the wonders of life that are here, in the present moment. I know there are many Buddhists in France, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Andre Gide, and the scientist Lavoisier.

Mindfulness is what we practice in Plum Village. We walk in such a way that every step produces mindfulness. When we breathe, when we wash our hands, when we cook, we do all that in mindfulness. Generating the energy of mindfulness is the basic practice because mindfulness is the carrier, the bringer of concentration.

When you are mindful of something, you are concentrated. The energy of concentration is in the mindfulness. As you continue, that concentration will become stronger and stronger. With vigorous concentration you can make a breakthrough into reality, and then you can touch impermanence as a reality. You can touch interbeing, non-self.

The Buddha began with right view, but I would like to begin with mindfulness.

Right Livelihood

Then we have right livelihood, our work, our job. The Five Mindfulness Trainings instruct us to choose a livelihood that will help us produce right thoughts, right words, and right actions. Unfortunately, there are kinds of work that harm us, that harm the environment, that bring violence. We have to look with mindfulness, to see what kind of work to have, so that we will be able to practice right thinking, right speech, and right action in our work.

Schoolteachers can practice in such a way that their thoughts, their words, and their actions nourish their students every moment of the day. The children in their class may have a lot of suffering. Perhaps their parents have not offered them enough of the appropriate kinds of food. They have not had the chance to receive right thinking, right speech, and right actions, and they’ve been wounded.

As a teacher, you look at the child and you see the suffering. And you know with right thinking, right speech, and right action you will be able to heal the child’s wounds. You have the ability to give that child a second chance by playing the role of the dad, the mom, for the child. The class can become a family. If you’re a doctor or a therapist, you can do the same thing. If you have understanding and compassion, you have a lot of power because when people come to you, your right thoughts will help heal people. You can help them because you have healed yourself by developing the energy of understanding and compassion.

The Buddha spoke of right livelihood, not only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Right livelihood helps you produce right thinking and right speech. We need to take the time to look at our work, to see whether it supports us in producing right thinking and right speech every day.

Good thoughts always go with understanding and love. An occupation that causes you to produce thoughts of anger and of discrimination is not good for your health or for the health of the world. You may have to accept another form of work with a lower salary that will give you the chance to generate good thoughts and good speech. It’s possible to live in a healthier, happier way. If you have right view, you will have enough courage to stop the course of violence and of attachment. So right livelihood is very important, and we can define this in terms of right thinking, right speech, and right action.

Right Effort

The eighth is right diligence, right effort. The Buddha taught how to cultivate and take care of our energy, and he also taught how to practice conserving energy. In Buddhist psychology, we see our consciousness as having two layers. The lower layer is called the store. It’s always operating, even in our sleep. The store receives information and classifies it, and it makes a lot of decisions without the intervention of the mind consciousness, which is the upper layer.

When you drive a car you think it’s the mind consciousness that is driving, but actually a large part of the work is done by the store, without our conscious thinking. When you do your everyday work, the store plays an important role.

When the store operates, it takes less metabolic energy than the mind does. The mind consciousness takes a lot more sugar, glycogen, and protein to work. At the level of the store things are done very quickly and inexpensively, so most things are handled by the store and the mind consciousness does just the final part. In the store many seeds are buried, good seeds and bad seeds. The seed of anger is there. The seed of despair is there. The seed of meanness, the seed of compassion, are there. The seed of joy is there. So to cultivate right effort the Buddha proposed four practices.

Four Practices for Cultivating Right Effort

The first practice is, don’t water the bad seeds. You know that there are negative seeds in you, and if they manifest, you will suffer. So let them sleep peacefully. When you watch a film, when you read a newspaper, when you listen to music, there is a chance that a seed will be watered and will manifest. We have to consume in mindfulness so that the bad seeds are not watered. When we love each other we have to sign a peace treaty. “Darling, I promise never to water the bad seeds in you or in me, and you have to do the same. You have those seeds. You must not water them in you, and don’t water them in me.”

The second practice is that every time a bad mental formation manifests, we have to make it go back to sleep, because if we keep it here too long, then it strengthens down in the base. If we leave it up in the mind for an hour, then that seed has an hour of strengthening. It’s dangerous.

The third practice is to allow the good seeds to be watered so they have a chance to manifest in the mind. For example, a Dharma talk is a kind of rain that can water the good seeds in you. When they manifest in the mind consciousness, the landscape will be much more beautiful.

The fourth practice is when the good seed has already manifested, we help it to stay in the mind consciousness as long as possible. Like when you have a friend who comes to visit bringing good news, you try to keep that friend with you as long as possible.

That is the teaching of the Buddha on right effort, diligence, and conserving energy. It’s very concrete and practical and is done in a natural, relaxed way. We don’t need to fight or struggle; we don’t have to make exhausting efforts. Naturally and with a lot of pleasure, we can enjoy the practice.

These are the eight right practices representing the Noble Eightfold Path proposed by the Buddha to all of us. If a teaching can reveal the Noble Path, it is an authentic teaching of the Buddha.

The Right View of Reincarnation

Continuation is happening now, because every day you continue to produce thoughts, words, and actions that carry your signature. We don’t have to wait until this body decomposes to continue.

Most people think of reincarnation in terms of a permanent soul. This is popular Buddhism. But we have to rise to the level of right view. Continuation is a necessity, it is a truth. But this continuation must be seen in the light of non-self, of impermanence.

If, for example, you want to recognize my continuation, do not look in this direction. [Thay points to himself.] There is a part of my continuation in this direction, but when you look all around you, you will see other forms of the continuation. So don’t wait for the body to decompose. We’ve already begun our continuation. You know that you have the power to change. You can ensure a beautiful continuation. Let’s suppose that yesterday you produced a thought that was not worthy of you, and today you’re sorry. You think, “I don’t want to be continued in that way.” You can correct it, you can transform that continuation.

If you have touched right view, you will be able to produce a different thought, a thought that is worthy of you today, a thought that carries within it understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. The moment you produce this wonderful thought, it will go out and catch the other thought that you produced yesterday. And in the space of half a second it will be able to transform that thought.

So you have the chance to correct the past; this is wonderful. We say that the past is already gone, but the past is always returning with its new manifestations, and with those manifestations we can correct it.

If you have said something that’s not worthy of you, say something else today, and that will transform everything. Do something different today based on right view and transform the whole situation. That is possible.

If you have a Sangha that supports you, if you are supported by the collective right view, then it’s very easy to produce such thoughts, such words, such actions, to transform everything right now, today, to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

The teaching of the Buddha is very deep, and at the same time very practical. This teaching has the capacity to heal us, to transform our pain, our fear. It’s good to have enough time to learn more about these teachings and put them into practice in our daily life.

Translated from the French by Sr. Pine Tree. Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Barbara Casey and Janelle Combelic.

PDF of this article

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