Thich Nhat Hanh Walk With Me

Thich Nhat Hanh is a very popular Buddhist teacher.  Like the Dalai Lama, he is practically a one man publishing industry, he has so many books out.  Fortunately, he is the real deal.  I’ve never felt peacefulness and quietude as I have when I’ve attended one of his dharma talks.  His words, though simple and spare, are the stuff of poetry, and the wisdom he shares ‘goes beyond.’  Every thing I’ve read or heard of his has provided me with a different perspective, often on the things in life I tend to take for granted.

For instance, I like the way he describes how to eat mindfully in “Peace is Every Step,”

[We] look down at the food in a way that allows the food to become real.  This food reveals our connection with the earth.  Each bite contains the life of the sun and the earth.  The extent to which our food reveals itself depends on us.  We can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread!  Contemplating our food for a few seconds before eating, and eating in mindfulness, can bring us much happiness.

In 2014, Thay, as he’s called by his students, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage, a stroke.  He was in a coma for seven weeks and lost the ability to speak.  Since then, his recovery has been slow.  I believe he remains speechless but he has traveled to Thailand and his home, Vietnam.  I assume he is currently at his residence at Plum Village in France.

I’m looking forward to seeing Walk With Me, the new documentary narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch (aka Sherlock Holmes).  The filmmakers describe Walk With Me as a “meditation on a Zen Buddhist monastic community, who have dedicated their lives to master the art of mindfulness with their world-famous teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.”  The film was released into cinemas worldwide during the fall but I don’t go to theaters any more so I’ll have to wait for it to show up on cable.

Here’s the official trailer:

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Thoughts and Prayers and the Violence Within

In the aftermath of tragedies like the Las Vegas massacre, we hear the familiar counsel to offer “thoughts and prayers.”  This week some voices have spoken up to suggest that this phrase is simply a by-word for inaction, that thoughts and prayers are simply not enough to overcome the spiral of gun violence in this country.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted, “Thoughts and prayers are NOT enough,” Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, during his show Monday night, lamented the lack of political action and said, “Your thoughts and prayers are insufficient.”

While I agree that more action needs to be taken to help curb gun violence, the interesting question to me is whether offering thoughts and prayers actually accomplish anything .  My feeling is they mainly help the person generating  the thoughts and/or offering the prayers.  They help us process our grief.  They make us feel that we are taking action, at least spiritually.

This begs another question: do thoughts and prayers transcend space and time?  I would say, yes.  Metaphorically speaking.  Do one’s prayers actually touch and help the person prayed for?  I’m doubtful.  In this context the kind of thoughts and prayers we’re talking about are externally directed, and as a Buddhist, I am skeptical about relying on external solutions.  If we really want to stop violence then we must look within ourselves, for that is where the causes for violence lie.

Thich Nhat Hanh from his book Creating Peace:

“Violence is never far.  It is possible to identify the seeds of violence in our everyday thoughts, speech and actions.  We can find these seeds within our own mind, in our attitudes, and in our fears and anxieties about ourselves and others.  Thinking itself can be violent, and violent thoughts can lead us to speak and act violently.  In this way, the violence in our minds manifest in the world.”

So, to find a real solution to violence, we must look within.  Like “thoughts and prayers,”  “looking within” has become a bit of a cliché, but what it represents, inner-directed reflection, is a universal truth.  Just as universal, I think, is the idea that real social change is only possible when each individual accomplishes a radical change within themselves.  It’s what the famous Gandhi quote means about becoming the change you wish to see in the world.  (There is no evidence he actually said that, but he did say this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”)

Changing the world through changing ourselves is not like sending out thoughts and prayers.  As Thich Nhat Hanh mentions, looking within, developing self-awareness, and actualizing positive inner change manifests in the world through our thoughts, speech, and actions just as our inner violence does.

At Psychology Today, Allen R McConnell Ph.D. writes,

“A variety of theories on self-regulation (i.e., how people direct their behavior in the pursuit of their goals) emphasize that change requires two things: a goal, and an awareness of where one currently is in order to assess the discrepancy between the two.  In short, we cannot reach our destinations without knowledge of our current location on the map.”

If our goal is stop gun violence, then we must to look within ourselves and develop an awareness of our own inner violence.  Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

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You got to go back to Mother Earth

One person I greatly admire is David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist.  He is perhaps the most iconic environmental activist in North America, and in the last ten years or so, he and his foundation has worked to raise awareness and promote dialogue about the critical issue of global warming.

I ran across something on his blog the other day that I want to share with you.  In a post from January, he says,

We can’t just look at the world as a source of resources to exploit with little or no regard for the consequences.  When many indigenous people refer to the planet as “Mother Earth”, they are not speaking romantically, poetically or metaphorically.  They mean it literally.  We are of the Earth, every cell in our bodies formed by molecules derived from plants and animals, inflated by water, energized by sunlight captured through photosynthesis and ignited by atmospheric oxygen.”

feuerbach_gaea2Modern archaeological findings suggest that ancient peoples may have worshipped the earth as a living, female being.  She was part of the mythology in a number of cultures.  In Greek mythology, Mother Earth was a goddess called Gaia (“earth” or “land”) who represented the earth and was the mother of all life (Gaia, by Anselm Feuerbach, 1875 at right).  The Romans called her Terra.  The Hindus knew her as Parvati.  And Damp Mother Earth is the most ancient deity in Slavic mythology . . . As far as I am aware, Buddhism did not have a specific  “Mother Earth” deity, except for some cultural figures in various Asia countries that were independently incorporated into Buddha-dharma.

Nonetheless, Suzuki’s remarks are in line with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) that maintains we are all inter-connected.  And when we talk about that we don’t mean just people, we are interconnected with the earth, the ocean, the sky, even the most distant stars – everything.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

You carry Mother Earth within you.  She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment . . . Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth . . . When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born . . . We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one.”

I imagine most of you are already on board with this thinking, but it is good to be reminded from time to time that we’ve got to go back to Mother Earth.

In 1951, blues singer Memphis Slim wrote a song called Mother Earth:

You may own a half a city even diamonds and pearls
You may buy that plane baby and fly all over this world
Don’t care how great you are, don’t care what you worth
When it all ends up you got to go back to mother earth

Now you know where Bob Dylan got the idea for his song, Gotta Serve Somebody.

In 1968, a band called Mother Earth recorded Slim’s song.  Here it is, featuring the vocals of the great but still to this day relatively unknown Tracy Nelson.

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The Silence of the Undisturbed Mind

You might have read that about fourteen days ago Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh spoke for the first time since suffering a stroke in November 2014. According to Plum Village, his community of practitioners in France, among his very first words were, “In, out; happy; thank you.”

As difficult as this time certainly must have been for Thay, as his followers call him, I am confident that he viewed his suffering as an opportunity to deepen his practice and further refine the art of ‘deep listening.’ When you cannot speak, what else is there but to listen?

In Buddhist terms, being silent has a deeper level of meaning than merely the absence of sound or a state where one does not talk. In his recent book, Silence, Thay writes,

TNH0921b2When we release our ideas, thoughts, and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions, and is so much vaster than limited mental constructs. Only when the ocean is calm and quiet can we see the moon reflected in it.

Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us. Living from a place of silence doesn’t mean never talking, never engaging or doing things; it simply means that we are not disturbed inside; there isn’t constant internal chatter. If we’re truly silent, then no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can enjoy the sweet spaciousness of silence.”

It is the action of thought that moves us from silence to disturbance. Another word we could use for silence is quiescence, which indicates tranquility, being at rest. According to Buddhist teachings, when our mind is quiescent, our thoughts are not disturbed and our actions will not disturb others.

This means to look within ourselves and harmonize with the essence of life. When our mind constantly looks outward, this can cause it to be distracted and unsettled.

In the Hsin Hsin Ming (“Trust in Mind Inscription”) Seng-ts’an wrote,

When the mind abides undisturbed in the Way,
there is nothing that can offend,
and when  things no longer offend,
they ceases to exist in the old way.   

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The Mind-Field

Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh republished an earlier book under the title of Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology. He interprets and comments on verses Vasubandhu composed on the nature of consciousness. Together with his brother, Asanga, Vasubandhu (fl. 4th century) was one of the principle founders of the Yogacara school, and is considered one the great Buddhist philosophers, revered in a number of Buddhist traditions.

Yogacara (“Yoga-practice”), along with the Madhyamaka, was one of the two major schools in early Mahayana Buddhism. This tradition, which emphasized philosophy and psychology, was also known as Consciousness Only (Vijnanavada) or Mind Only. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to it as Manifestation Only.

IMG_3820d4He states that “According to the teachings of Manifestation Only Buddhism, our mind has eight aspects, or we can say, ‘eight consciousnesses.’ The first five are based in the physical senses . . . the sixth arises when our mind contacts an object of perception . . . [the seventh] gives rise to and is the support of the mind consciousness . . . The eighth, store consciousness (alayavijnana), is the ground, or base, of the other seven consciousnesses. “

The first fifteen verses in the book are about the store consciousness. which functions “to store or preserve all the ‘seeds’ (bija) of our experiences . . . Everything we have ever done, experienced, or perceived . . . The seeds planted by these actions, experiences, and perceptions are the ‘subject’ of consciousness.” The store consciousness also preserves the seeds themselves.

The first verse Thich Nhat Hanh presents is as follows:

Mind is a field
in which every kind of seed is sown.
The “mind-field” can also be called
“all the seeds.”

Thich Nhat Hanh comments:

Our mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sown seeds of compassion, joy, and hope, seeds of sorrow, fear, and difficulties. Every day our thoughts, words, and deeds plant new seeds in the field of our consciousness, and what these seeds generate becomes the substance of our life . . . There are wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our mind-field.”

The Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) sect viewed the mind in more metaphysical terms than the Mind Only school.  They saw it as a substance that permeates all individual minds, as well as the entire universe. They went beyond the Mind Only teachings to propose a 9th aspect, or layer, of mind – the amala consciousness. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This layer of mind lies beyond the level of the store consciousness and is said to be free from any influences from past experiences, and, as it is a pure consciousness, it is also far beyond any sense of self, any notion of ‘I’.

Chih-i, the de facto founder of T’ien-t’ai, equated the amala consciousness with “true nature,” or what call Buddha-nature. Tibetan Buddhism describes this same quality of mind as luminous or clear light.

The Mind Only school maintained that only mind was real, everything else was illusion. T’ien-t’ai accepted this but they were not so interested in the workings of the mind, or trying to explain what consciousness is, as they were in how to contemplate the mind. Since all reality is a product of mind, or at least identical to it, then mind, which is easily accessible, should be the primary object of contemplation.

Chih-i taught contemplating the mind as a two-pronged process where the practitioner calms and empties the mind while also realizing the quiescence and emptiness of all phenomena (chih; stopping), and through observing the mind ((kuan; insight or seeing) realizes its luminous expanse.

So, when Vasubandhu says “The mind is a field,” we can see that as pointing to the expansiveness of mind, the sweep or range of consciousness.

It is important to note that we have been looking at the mind from the standpoint of ultimate truth, but we live in the realm of relative truth, where the things we have said are mere illusions have a worldly function.  The purpose of the all this, then, is to guide us to an understanding of mind. Again, it is not so much to understand what it is, but rather to learn how we can become the master of our mind, instead of a slave to our normal state of consciousness which is always preoccupied with conflicting thoughts and sensory perceptions, constantly in pursuit of subjective experiences and external objects.

These concepts can serve as a foundation for the critical work of disengaging our thoughts from their object oriented focus and placing them squarely in the present, without thinking about the past or anticipating the future. In this way, we can realize emptiness and get a glimpse into the luminous nature of consciousness.

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