Everything needs to be nurtured in order to survive. If we do not nurture something, it will not survive. Our suffering survives because we spend so much of our energy feeding it. We feed it with our attention and our anxiety and our depression, and then we try to distract ourselves so we won’t think about our suffering. Either way, we are caught up in something other than living our lives.
This scenario is very common. The mind races or becomes overwhelmed. We look for a way out, invariably choosing the least healthy path, when the healthiest path is as easy as taking a deep breath or stopping to notice our surroundings. As we inhale and exhale consciously, we find ourselves in the present, where the past and the future don’t reside. We unite the mind and the body, and when this happens, it is finally possible to take a break from the relentless, largely unproductive chatter that we so often feel lost in.
To take a deep breath is to allow freshness and vitality into the moment, and in that moment we can access clarity and presence.
Thích Nhất Hạnh.
Monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist, he is known as Thay by the millions of people who love him. Thay is the author of over one hundred books, and is perhaps the most influential living figure in Zen Buddhism today. From a job as editor-in-chief of Vietnamese Buddhism in the 1950s, he went on to found a press, then a university and later, a corps of peaceworkers called the School of Youth for Social Service, who went into rural areas to establish schools, build healthcare clinics and help rebuild villages. He has founded Zen centers all over the world. He was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.
There is ever so much more to the story of this man, including, as it happens, the severe brain hemorrhage he experienced a few years ago, at the age of 89. After being in a coma for months, he spent a long period at a rehabilitation clinic in France. He has since undergone, at his request, aggressive rehab work to regain strength and ability, flying back and forth to San Francisco, always in the company of a small cadre of loving and gentle attendants.
Lately, the day-to-day stories that come from Thay’s home at the Plum Village Monastery in France are beautiful – of witnessing this global spiritual leader’s delight in taking a simple cup of tea or in watching a flower bloom. Although unable to speak, he nevertheless communicates in other ways, especially, it is said, with his eyes.
One of the most remarkable abilities Thay has recovered is that of singing. Just a few days ago, he asked to spend some time with the children of the monastery. Sipping his tea in a common room, Thay invited all the monastic children to sit around him, communicating with his eyes a message of love to each child, as well as his own happiness at being with them. The storyteller in this case, clearly moved by the beauty of the moment, recalled that Thay had asserted in various Dharma talks that he is still very young, a notion that gave clarity to the attendant’s experience of that night.
The brothers and sisters, he says, began to sing a favorite song in Vietnamese, and were touched to hear Thay’s voice among their own, and to see on his face a gentle smile. Over and over, they sang the song, each person in the room more enthralled than the next by the treasure of witnessing their beloved teacher’s joy at singing with them.
Today, as of this writing, Thay has now traveled to Thailand, where he has been treated to a visit from one of his most beloved and venerable disciples. The two of them sat side by side, clasping hands like kindred spirits, as Thay’s 91 year-old eyes filled with love and joy.
There is something so restorative, so abiding and so powerful in the way this man has lived – and continues to live – his life. The example he sets, of being truly alive in every moment, touches my heart deeply, and knowing these small stories brings me great joy. By sharing them here with you, I hope that you can feel it too. Namaste.
Those who practice on the Buddhist path learn about and follow the example of Avalokita, the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world. We train in how to respond to suffering, both for ourselves and for all beings. It is a fundamental aspect of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘Engaged Buddhism.’
This has never been more needed than it is right now. As the very fabric of our world seems more and more in danger of unraveling, there is much that Buddhist practitioners can do. By bringing courageous hearts and calm minds to bear, we carry tremendous strength. These are the most powerful weapons on earth, and I feel deeply that they are the best hope for our future.
Standing together with our neighbors, we can use the tools of non-violence and loving kindness to protect the vulnerable, to counter oppression and marginalization, and to work for a more just and caring society. We can train for a new leadership paradigm, one that does not discriminate, but considers the interests of all beings.
Practitioners are called to remember that we are all one. We are the earth and we are the poor. The voices that cry out in suffering are our own voices. They are the voices of our loved ones. To turn away from the plight of our nation, our planet and its vulnerable inhabitants is to turn away from ourselves, to turn away from our children. We are our own great-great grandchildren.
To take action, we can work on our own personal suffering. This is a very healthy way to contribute to the resistance. You can listen deeply and understand the cause of your own pain. You can train in true compassion and non-discrimination, and you can search for peace within yourself – a lifetime’s practice. And when we can use our mindfulness to find balance in the present moment, when we are indiscriminately compassionate, when we meet hatred head on with courage and love, each of us is a tower of strength. Each of us is a beacon of light.
The fact that Avalokita is often represented as having so many arms is a reminder that there are so many ways to respond. There are so many ways to stand up for love. Whether you march, write a check, meditate, run for office or show more kindness as you walk through your day, these are all ways to address the suffering in the world.
The universe is always there for you. How wonderful! Just as you create your own life through your actions, you can make a conscious decision to make your own connection to the cosmos. You can listen deeply for messages being sent your way, and you can call on strength when you need it.
There may be times when you don’t feel that connection, because things aren’t going well or you are out of sorts. You are cut off somehow, maybe overly distracted or ‘up inside your head.’ The truth is, however, that the universe will always be there, just as the air is always there for you to breathe. You don’t even have to think about it. You just breathe, and there it is.
You can also make the conscious decision to take a slow, deep breath, and feel the air coming powerfully in and going easily out. After even a few breaths, you feel refreshed and calmed. And the more that you invest yourself in breathing mindfully, the more benefit you find. Is the air somehow different? No, it is your choice that has made the difference. The air is the same, always there.
Reconnecting with the universe is as easy as taking a deep breath. Inhaling, you fill your body with life-giving oxygen, and when you exhale, you release the used air. Feel your cells react to each new in-breath, and relax each time you breathe out. Whether you spend a longer time in meditation, or simply take a moment to close your eyes and practice mindful breathing, you are moving in the direction of that deep stillness within you. This is the place you can feel your oneness with all beings, the source from which great love and compassion arise. This is the place where you can touch the truth.
May it be a comfort to you, when you feel at odds with life, to take a simple breath and find your way back home.
It is there, always, for you.
Well. The fun part of naming a blog post in such a manner is that it is everything and at the same time nothing. Just like everything else about Zen, it is everything and nothing. The search for enlightenment is a life’s practice for some, while for others it is virtually meaningless. It is, however, tied to meditation.
And meditation, well. It is simply a training of one’s mental attention, isn’t it? Interesting that you can train your mental attention — your very concentration. And yet meditation can awaken us beyond our conditioned mind and habitual energies, revealing to us the true nature of reality through presence.
The classic image is that of a learned yogi sitting for hours on end, chanting his mantra as incense burns nearby. While this is a very beautiful way to experience the wonder of meditation, and may in fact reveal more than any other method, it is not the only way. And let’s face it: this method is not going to fly off the shelves for most Westerners. We like multi-tasking. We like to check things off the list. Sitting quietly, not doing anything for great lengths of time is not something we are going to put at the center of our daily routine. We have meetings to go to and things to check off. We are very busy!
Here is the good news: there are ways to receive the benefit of meditation that take only a few minutes out of your day. You don’t even have to sit down. Best of all, for us modern consumers, the benefit takes effect instantly.
I’m referring to mindfulness, a clear recognition of what is happening here and now. It refers to being present, being fully where you are at any given moment. It is being at the beach when you are at the beach – not thinking about tomorrow or yesterday or anything at all except what is right in the present moment. You can do it anywhere and everywhere. Taking the time each day to sit in meditation is more powerful than I can explain, but if you start with simple mindfulness, you might be convinced to try a little more once you are farther down the road.
So, you can eat an orange mindfully – how hard is it to concentrate on an orange for a few moments? The bright color, the juice hidden in each section, the oil in the peel, and the fresh flavor in your mouth. Every time you find your mind wandering away, come back to concentrating on the orange. If you like, you can imagine the tree it grew on, and the seed deep in the earth from which the tree grew. Notice the way the peel may come away in a curlicue or in great chunks. And, by the time the orange has been consumed, you have taken a mindfulness break, and you may well feel a certain refreshment. Next time, perhaps you will wash the dishes mindfully or focus your awareness on your breathing for three breaths.
The greatest thing about mindfulness for me is that the past and the future are not there. There is only the here and the now. Eventually, you can train your concentration to meditate even when something big is weighing heavily on your mind. During times of great anxiety or deep sadness, it is a miracle to be able to take a breather. To stop, put down the heavy load, and just be.
We who are always doing need to learn the art of being. We can benefit from learning how to stop, to calm ourselves, to rest and to heal. And when we practice being — whether or not we achieve enlightenment — we can go to places hitherto only dreamed of.
The statue pictured above is Avalokita. This bodhisattva has several names – Chenrèzik, Lokésvara, Guanyin – and is sometime portrayed as a man and sometimes as a woman, but always represents a being who gazes down upon the world. Avalokita is the one who hears the cries of the suffering. She is the bodhisattva of compassion. The sun, moon, earth, wind and several Hindu deities are said to have been born of Avalokita – from her feet, her heart and her tears – and she is endowed with many arms because there are so many sufferers to reach out to. Associated with Avalokita is the seminal mantra om mani padme hum, the meaning of which, while interpreted many different ways, is a meditation on the practice of a path on which you can transform your body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.
Known for her capacity to listen deeply, Avalokita is said to have practiced by listening tenderly to her own suffering, from which understanding and compassion arose. With the transformation and healing this brought, she was able to understand the suffering of others and help them to transform also.
We don’t like to connect with our suffering – we usually run in the opposite direction – but listening deeply to your own suffering paves the way to touch the suffering of another in communion. Eventually, one can touch the suffering of the world.
The best way to achieve this is by relaxing into a sangha or meditation group. The sangha will embrace you if you hold it dearly, and the collective energy of mindfulness and peace will penetrate you and spread through your body, releasing your pain.
I am aware of my suffering.
I embrace my suffering.
I am aware of the suffering of a loved one.
I embrace her pain.
I am aware of the violence, despair and fear in the world.
I embrace the world.
By touching my own pain, I can use my healing energy to transform
myself, my loved ones and the world.