caring for the world

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Being grateful — so the latest research says — is good for us. It makes us more optimistic, energetic, resilient, peaceful and productive. We feel better about ourselves and our lives when we are grounded in gratitude.

One of the best ways to explore this path is by focusing on your own bounty. Be grateful for your eyes and your ears! Your teeth! Be grateful for the music that is in your very heart. If it is available to you, you can summon gratitude even for the parts of your body where you experience pain or discomfort. It has sometimes been through physical challenges that people have been able to recognize how much there is to be grateful for.

Also, by respecting and caring for ourselves, we are caring for the whole world. Remember: peace on earth begins with me. It is the same with harmony on earth, and health on earth. By nurturing the seeds of compassion and kindness in yourself, you are helping the universe become kinder. And by caring for ourselves unconditionally, as tenderly as a mother cares for her newborn, we are creating more love in the world.

Using mindfulness to connect to the present moment allows you to tap into the wonder of being a part of the cosmos, which invites gratitude and awe. I love this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.”

To me, gratitude is simply awareness of that which we value and cherish. When we access gratitude, the positive in our lives is highlighted, and seeds of hope, kindness and love are thus planted.

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bravery in the name of love

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Engaged Buddhism is the taking of one’s practice from the meditation cushion and out into the world. It was a path first taken 50 years ago by a small group of monks — including Thich Nhat Hanh —  who decided to leave their Vietnamese monastery and try to help bring about peace during a terrible time of war. It was an act of bravery made in the name of love.

At its core, this path is about how we are all connected — we inter-are — and how being aware of this connectedness as we live our lives can bring about greater well-being for all.

I have referred before to Thay’s illustration proving the interconnectedness of the universe by considering a piece of paper. Without rain or the sun to nurture the tree, he says, there would be no piece of paper. Without the lumberer, there would be no paper. Without bread to feed the lumberer, there would be no paper. For a piece of paper to exist, there must be clouds and time and energy and soil and the mother and father of the lumberer. In fact, to look at a piece of paper, as thin and small as it is, we can see the entire universe as part of its existence. When you understand this, you know that you are never just you, separate from everything else.

Think of this in terms of people, and it is the same thing. In order for one person to be ahead, another will be behind. It is the nature of things; there can’t be an above without a below. In order for some to be affluent, some must live in poverty. No one among us can claim a lack of responsibility. But it is not a punishment! Just like the piece of paper, we are all made of everything else. We inter-are, with sunshine and water and even those with whom we may not feel any connection.

What to do with this information? Once you absorb it, once you really take it into your heart, you know what the answer is. You can share the pain of those who are suffering and wish them well through your thoughts and deeds. You can be deeply careful with the earth. You can see the homeless person in the street and the corporate executive alike as beautiful souls, connected to you and everyone else, and each just as worthy. You can bow to him or her. Then, once you have opened your heart in this manner, you can begin to make change in a thousand small ways.

To do this, it is important to be cognizant of the problems that exist and persist in the world. Then think about your own actions, and how those actions create ripples. Everything we do has a reaction, and we can strive to create positive ripples; ripples that intentionally create peace and true kindness, benefiting the earth, other people and all living things.

This is Engaged Buddhism. This is courage in the name of love.

an apostle of peace

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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.

there are so many ways to stand up for love.

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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.

there for you

There for you

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.

the story of avalokita

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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.

shenpa

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How is it that we are so often unhappy, when happiness is an almost universal goal in our culture? We seem to be just terrible at this. With the best of intentions – to get where we want to be and find relief from our suffering – we are inclined to go about seeking happiness in ways that are doomed from the start, and will make us feel even worse down the road.

It all stems from what Buddhists call shenpa. Shenpa is about those habits we always fall back on that never work. Many of us have some habit, whether it is eating or drinking or spending money, as a way to cope with anxiety, depression, boredom or loneliness. We know we will feel lousy the next day, but we always do it. Or we tangle ourselves up in self-righteous road rage, only to be left full of empty anger when the driver stops doing the annoying thing or drives off. Or maybe we get defensive or lash out when we get triggered by something that makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we close down; maybe we try to smooth everything over. That’s shenpa.

Every time we participate in our habitual patterns, we reinforce their power. And the attachment to these habits is very strong. Something happens, and we immediately withdraw, tighten up, lash out or otherwise go into the pattern that leads us away from the basic openness and goodness of our being. We may be able to feel it as it is happening, but we feel powerless to do anything about it. Because we empower shenpa with the notion that it will bring us comfort, that it will remove our unease, we get hooked.

To rise above shenpa – to free ourselves from the unhealthy cycle of getting attached to or hooked by triggers – we must be willing to renounce the urge to fall into the comfortable pattern. This is a very challenging proposition unless one has something with which to replace the urge. In the Buddhist tradition, the urge is replaced by mindfulness, by catching oneself in the act of closing down and replacing it with loving kindness and compassion for self. I know I don’t like this shenpa path, we say to ourselves, so if I can stay with the discomfort as a big brother would stay with a little brother, I am being there for myself.

Having a meditation practice is most useful for renouncing shenpa. Meditation teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises, without picking or choosing. We can begin to see our reaction to the trigger with clarity and without judgment. We can use our innate intelligence as a force stronger than shenpa.

Every time you can catch yourself before becoming attached to your habit energy, the shenpa pathway becomes weaker. You now have the opportunity to observe yourself and begin to understand the root cause of your attachment. In the freshness of realization and gentle compassion, you can see how the hook grabs you.

This is a lifetime practice. It does not happen quickly, and it may never be fully behind you. It is important not to get attached to overcoming shenpa – this is just more shenpa! One needs to remember to be compassionate with self. Treat yourself with loving kindness, be willing to practice, and develop an enthusiasm for breaking the chain reaction. Now is the perfect time to begin!

warriorship

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What is a warrior? What are the conditions under which a warrior can be said to be victorious? If we define victory as arriving at a state in which we no longer have an enemy, then we can see more than one way to be a warrior.

In Buddhist thought, a true warrior is never armed with tools of aggression or violence. That person would be seen as a coward. The definition of warriorship is fearlessness and gentleness, a quiet positive state of individual dignity, but also a kind of joy. This joy blossoms from the practice of loving kindness, and as the practitioner becomes more skilled, his or her joy increases and she is able to share her joy with those who would benefit from it.

The joy of the warrior is always needed to one degree or another, and warriors are devoted to the human spirit, and armed with compassion and insight. They train diligently to see clearly into the nature of reality, reflecting a presence that can help others recognize their own basic goodness.

A warrior has the same emotions as everyone else, but she practices transforming the energy of emotion into a positive force through mindfulness. To be mindful of your emotion is to act as a steward of the energy so that it can be used without harming anyone. Thich Nhat Hanh often speaks of such stewardship in the context of a gentle and loving older sister looking out for her little sister.

People can be supremely kind, gentle and wise despite the messages we so often receive. And while the path to becoming a warrior is a lengthy and intensive practice, there is no one who cannot begin to open themselves to warriorship today. The qualities of compassion and goodness are always available to everyone, and in these difficult times, warriors will appear wherever people commit to working together as good human beings.