Dear Still Water Friends,
In the ninth century the monk Linji reinvigorated Chinese Buddhism by grounding practice in daily life, rather than in worship and philosophical study. The Vietnamese Lieu Quan tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Soto and Rinzai Zen schools of Japan, all descend from Linji. Linji’s teaching was simple and direct:
“My friends, in the practice of the Buddhadharma [the way of the Buddha] there is no need for hard work. The principle is: not to try to be anyone special; and to have nothing to do. If you put on your robe, eat your meal, urinate, defecate, rest when you are tired, the foolish ones will laugh, but the wise ones will understand. The teachers of old say, ‘If you direct your practice to the outer form, you are just a group of foolish people.’ You should be sovereign according to to where you find yourself; be the true person wherever you are, not allowing the conditions around you to pull you away.”
(from Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go)
This week, while reading a commentary on Linji by Thich Nhat Hanh, I was struck by a repeated contrast: one can live mindfully or one can live as a victim. The word "victim" especially caught my attention. I wasn’t sure what it really means, which sent me to the dictionary. I found that the English word "victim" is derived from victima, the Latin word for the sacrificial animal used in Roman cult worship. For me, it is an evocative image.
When we reflect on our lives, we may slip into a victim mentality, saying: The direction of my life has been shaped not by what I have done, but by what others have done. (I am just the sacrificial lamb.)
Linji and Thich Nhat Hanh teach that there are also more subtle ways to become a victim. We can be harmed, separated from who we truly are, by mental states such as dispersion and distraction; by strong emotions, such as anger and sadness; and by our ideas of who we are or should be.
When we are living mindfully we are not reliving our own, our parents, or anyone else’s past struggles. We are not easily caught by societal expectations and conditioning. Rather, we are present to our lives. We are aware of our breath, our steps, the spring rain, and the gentleness (or hardness) of the people around us. We are, to paraphrase Linji, sovereign wherever we are, not allowing the conditions around us to pull us away.
This Thursday evening, after our sitting, we will explore mindfulness and victimhood. The questions we will begin with are: Has mindfulness practice made me feel less like a victim, more like a "true person"? How did that come about?
An excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Linji commentary is below.
Peace and joy to you,
Taking Rufuge in The Present Moment
Thich Nhat Hanh, from “Taking Refuge in Your In-Breath: Commentary on the Teachings of Master Linji,” Mindfulness Bell, Summer 2004
We feel that we don’t have solidity, stability. We are not ourselves. We are pulled away by so many things, so many ideas, so many projects, so much fear, and so many afflictions. We don’t have peace. That is why we need to take refuge. To take refuge is to be yourself again. It is possible. Taking refuge in your in-breath, you suddenly become yourself right away. You are safe, you are solid. You are fully present right here and now. You are aware that you are a wonder of life and you can get in touch with many wonders of life surrounding you. Oh wonderful in-breath, it makes me feel at home. It makes me feel that I have arrived. It helps me not to run. That is why taking refuge in your in-breath is a very wonderful practice. We breathe in and out anyway, so we don’t have to invent the in-breath before taking refuge in it. It is already there. Bring your mind back to the present moment and enjoy. You suddenly become alive. You suddenly become yourself and you cultivate your solidity and your freedom. You are no longer a victim. You have your sovereignty. Mindful breathing is very important, and it is a nonpractice because you breathe in and out anyway. You are sitting there enjoying your in-breath. You don’t seem like you are a practitioner, but you are a true practitioner. You are not trying hard, you are just enjoying your in-breath. That is what our ancestral teacher Linji wants us to do. Not to do anything, just be yourself. Sitting there enjoying your in-breath you become everything, you become immortal. . . .
You are always walking, going from your room to the restroom, to the office, to the kitchen. So why don’t you enjoy walking? Why don’t you go home to the present moment and enjoy taking refuge in your steps? Why do you allow yourself to be pulled in many directions? When you are distracted, you are not yourself, you are a victim. But you can change this by taking refuge in your steps right now, right here. It is wonderful to combine your in-breath with one, two, or three steps. In that moment you are truly yourself. You have your sovereignty; you are no longer a victim. You are no longer pulled away by the waves of birth and death. You are no longer drowning in the ocean of afflictions.