Even a Buddha Has Negative Seeds

Thich Nhat Hanh at Blue Cliff Monastery, August 29, 2013

Even a Buddha Has Negative Seeds

Discussion date: Thu, Sep 21, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

I was moved by Jo-ann Rosen’s presentation last Thursday on “Seeing Our Practice Through a Trauma Informed Lens,” especially her explanation of what trauma is and how traumatic reaction patterns can be passed down through families and cultures. In her talk Jo-ann explained:

 A trauma is when we find ourselves automatically responding to some threatening stimuli or when there is no stimuli that we are aware of that is a threat, and yet we are still responding with that habit. The classic example is the Vietnam vet who hears a lawn mower outside and finds himself in the closet. …

Not all traumas are so obvious. Some traumas are spread out over a long time and are seemingly small, …but those things add up to habits of keeping ourselves safe. …

And then there are ancestors, or the people who raised us, who were in traumatic circumstances, and they raised us to be afraid of those same circumstances, when actually there is no longer the same kind of threat. … So we may have a culture that of customs that developed during times when there were traumatic circumstances in the culture, such as famine, war, or oppression. If you think about it, there is probably no one alive who hasn’t been the recipient of some kind of inheritance of trauma. Whether we are aware of it or not. … We can tell when we react “inappropriately,” meaning we find ourselves doing things that are not beneficial.

 Her words aligned with my experience. For much of my life I struggled with anxiety, sadness, focusing, and calming myself. No one, including several psychologists I worked with, provided me with either an understanding of where those difficult traits came from or effective methods for reducing their hold on me. (The only person who ever suggested ancestral trauma might be at play was a medical intuitive — a psychic — who was the wife of my primary care physician.)

Everything changed for me, however, in 1989, when, on a work assignment, unexpectedly, I had the opportunity to learn sitting and walking meditation during a week’s stay at Suan Mokkh, a small Buddhist monastery in rural Thailand. Within days, as I practiced being aware of my body, feelings, mind, and surroundings, my distressing symptoms dramatically lessened. I didn’t understanding the why, all I knew then was that a week of mindfulness had opened me to a radically different and more satisfying way of living. I have since learned that I was fortunate in that I was receptive to the traditional ways of teaching mindfulness.

Although Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) often wrote about the joys he experienced as a young monk in the 1940s and 50s, he also encountered many challenges. Some concerned his family, studies, and projects, and others were collective, relating to colonialism, wars, famines, floods, and population dislocations in Vietnam. In her talk, Jo-ann commented on Thay’s predicament:

 As a young monk he had a faith that Buddhism could heal his country and yet it was miserably failing. … The monastery was not speaking to the people who were suffering. Thay was living a life that was right on the edge. He was running around doing everything he could to bring a sense of relief to people and he was, himself, also suffering from trauma and depression. He reinvented Buddhism, renewed it in a way that met his needs as a human who was suffering trauma, and for those who he was working with. Our lineage was reinvented, not from scratch, but taking the traditions and making them alive, with him being a laboratory or one, and then a laboratory of a Sangha, to see what was going to work to make them functional.

 This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will watch a short video in which Thay answers a question from a practitioner about a family history of depression and anxiety that has been transmitted to her and her daughter. In his answer Thay talks about his own experiences of depression, the practices that have worked for him, and his understanding that the seeds of depression and other difficult traits are always in us:

A buddha is not a person who does not have negative seeds; a buddha is someone who knows how to protect himself so that the negative seeds in him will not be watered by himself or by others. And a buddha is someone who knows how to allow his good seeds to be watered everyday so happiness and compassion can grow everyday.

In our Dharma sharing we will explore our experiences with trauma, depression, and mindfulness practice.

You are invited to join us.

A related excerpt by Thay on being a healing presence is below, after the Still Water announcements.

Jo-ann’s presentation for Still Water on September 14 is now available online.

Sending warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

All Still Water events coming up soon:

A Healing Presence, from The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh

When you know how to handle and embrace your own suffering with compassion, you will also know how to help someone else who is experiencing pain, either physically or emotionally. If you have the energies of calm and compassion yourself, then you can be a source of those energies for someone else. When you sit next to them, they can feel the energy of your presence. They can feel your compassion and care. You don’t need to do or say anything.

The quality of our presence already changes the situation.

You are just like a tree. You may think that a tree is not doing anything at all, but when you touch a tree or sit at the foot of a tree, you can feel the energy of the tree pervading you. The tree has an energy. It simply stands there, being itself, and that is so refreshing, nourishing, and healing.

Sometimes someone else’s suffering can make you feel powerless. It may seem like there is nothing you can do to help them. But in fact, if you can generate and sustain an energy of calm and embrace your own feeling of powerlessness—by following your breathing and relaxing your body—you are taking care of the energy of your tree. Offering a high quality of presence for someone who is suffering can already be very supportive and healing for the other person.

Many of us want to do something to help the world suffer less. We see so much violence, poverty, and environmental destruction all around us. But if we’re not peaceful, if we don’t have enough compassion, then we can’t do much to help. We ourselves are the center. We have to make peace and reduce the suffering in ourselves first, because we represent the world. Peace, compassion, and well-being begin with ourselves. When we can reconcile with ourselves and embrace and transform our suffering, we are also taking care of the world. Don’t think that you and the world are two separate things. Anything you do for yourself, you are also doing for the world.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Sep 21, 2023


This week
Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Sun, April 14 Mon, April 15

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Friends in Different Places

Tue, April 16

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Tuesday Evening Gaithersburg Group

Wed, April 17

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Spanish-Speaking Online Practice

Still Water Kent Island

Thu, April 18

Takoma Park Morning Meditation

Fri, April 19

Silver Spring Morning Meditation

Sat, April 20