In the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, we do not wish people “Happy Birthday” because at the ultimate level of insight, there is no birth and no death. To be born would be to imply that something (someone) arose from nothing, which is an impossibility. The First Law of Thermodynamics explains this truth just as well as Buddhism: energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.To say that I did not exist before I was born ignores the truth of interbeing – that I am composed entirely of “non-I” elements. If you try to remove from “me” the sun, the rain, my parents, the food I eat, the agricultural producers who grow that food – if you try to remove any part of the whole cosmos from “me”, “I” would not exist. I am in all and all is in me. Like a river, which can never be stepped in twice because the water is constantly flowing, I am a stream of consciousness and karma, impermanent and constantly subject to change. Continue reading
I have been so fortunate in this life to have encountered several genuine teachers of the Dharma. Today I am thinking about one of them, Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called “Thay” by his students. I have been practicing with a mindfulness practice center in Thay’s tradition for the past two years. I want to take a moment to thank Thay for his teachings.
There are three aspects of Thay’s teachings that have been particularly relevant for me. One is acceptance. Thay has tirelessly traveled, taught, and written to share the practice of mindfulness with the world. He does not distinguish between people based on their religion or lack of religion or any other factor. He truly believes that mindfulness can help anyone to relate more peacefully, joyfully, and deeply to the world. While he has written books on Buddhist philosophy, most of his books are written to be accessible by a very wide audience, including people with little or no experience with Buddhism. Nevertheless, the practices he teaches in those books, the path of being truly awake to the present moment, can be followed for a lifetime. Thay’s centers welcome all people, regardless of their root religious traditions or current affiliation. Thank you Thay for teaching me the importance of acceptance. Continue reading
After what felt like an interminable winter, spring arrived with an explosion of sunshine, blossoms, green grass, and birdsong. I’ve been delighting in the change, fully aware of how much better I feel inside when the world outside appears bountiful and generous. Nature seems now to have so much to go around – an explosion of light and loveliness – that I am inspired to openness as well. I feel more expansive when the natural world is positively tripping over itself to unfold.
This past weekend I attended a three-day mindfulness retreat by the Chesapeake Bay. The location was glorious and I was nourished by the supportive community of practitioners who joyfully sat, walked, cooked, and cleaned together in mostly silence. Settling into silence actually turned out to be much easier than coming out of it. After several days of eating and walking slowly, listening and watching mindfully, being aware of everything going on around and within me, the return to normal conversation and the speed of regular life has been exhausting. I am adjusting with earlier-than-usual bedtimes.
One of my favorite parts of the retreat experience was mindfully and silently walking with the rest of the retreatants along the shoreline at low tide. I was drawn to the trees that grew sideways out towards the water, their root systems almost entirely exposed as the cliff they’d originally been embedded into had largely eroded away. They were such improbable trees – their roots twisted among rocks, their trunks stretched long and low over the shore, somehow managing to survive with almost no soil and certainly too much water. If I had seen them a month earlier, I would certainly have thought they were dead. And yet spring has arrived and even these improbable trees are responding with bud and bloom. It was a remarkable affirmation of life despite desperate circumstances.
In The Mind of Clover: Essays in Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken (Robert Baker Aitken Roshi) has a fascinating footnote in the middle of a discussion of the Three Pure Precepts (Renounce all evil; Practice all good; Save the many beings.) He writes: Continue reading
I mentioned Thich Nhat Hanh’s Cultivating the Mind of Love in a previous post. I finished the book, which is now one of my favorites by Thay. The chapters are drawn from a retreat at which Thay interspersed his own story of falling in love with a nun when he was a young monk with discussions of the Diamond, Lotus, Avatamsaka, Ugradatta, Vimalakirti, and other sutras. The love story was very poignant but it was the sutra discussions that really excited me. Thay delves into the historical background as well as the meaning of these wonderful source Buddhist texts.
In particular, the commentary on the Avatamsaka or Flower Ornament Sutra stirred long-forgotten memories. It all sounded so familiar and beloved, though remote. I searched through the shelf on which I keep the books from the various Asian philosophy and religion courses I took in college. Sure enough, way back in Chinese Buddhist Philosophy I read Hua-Yen Buddhism: the Jewel Net of Indra, by Francis H. Cook, which is basically a commentary on a commentary on the Avatamsaka Sutra. This past two weeks I’ve reread that book. It’s marvelous!
I’m not sure how much I got out of the book fifteen years ago and I’m sure I’m only glimpsing its treasures now. Nevertheless, I am also certain that reading it then and rereading it now plants and waters seeds in me that ripen under favorable conditions and will eventually sprout into understanding. It’s a slender volume printed in a small typeface and the middle in particular is thick with ontology and epistemology (two terms I barely remembered and had to look up, along with many other words used throughout). It’s undeniably dense and yet so lovingly written. I have to believe there is something particularly wonderful about the Avatamsaka Sutra if those who comment on it are so joyful about their subject matter. Continue reading