I enjoy watching Shields & Brooks, a segment on the PBS Newshour on Friday nights where two pundits discuss the past week’s political developments. Each week for the past year, it seems, the moderator has started with some permutation of “Wow, there’s so much going on right now, I’m not sure where to start.” Living in a society that is deeply divided politically with a president who enjoys stirring things up and is seeking sweeping changes in our institutions has left many of us feeling deeply off kilter. The challenge that many of us face today is how we find stability, peace, and joy with everything that is going on around us. And leaving the political situation aside, our own internal life—our thoughts, machinations, worries—can itself create a sense of “Wow, there’s so much going on right not, I’m not sure where to start.”
This topic was discussed during this summer’s U.S. tour by the Plum Village monastics. In his Blue Cliff dharma talk, Brother Phap Vu began by noting that he had been traveling for most of 2017 and that up to that point, he hadn’t given a dharma talk to a U.S. audience. Reflecting on all that had happened in America in the first eight months of 2017—a new president, the killing of a protestor in Charlottesville—he asked the audience: “How are you doing?” He asked how people were navigating both the political world and their own internal worlds as practitioners.
On Thursday night, we will watch a 10-minute segment of Brother Phap Vu’s talk (roughly minutes 47 to 58) that focuses on how we understand the world and our place in it; how we divide our experience into us and other, and then proceed to trip over ourselves; and how we find stability and peace through the practice. We will hear him ask whether we can respond to life with what in Buddhism is described with the enigmatic term citta, which is usually translated as “heart/mind,” but which he translates as “our innermost being.”
What I took away from the teaching is that we need to practice in order to touch and grow our bodhicitta, our awakened innermost being. Touching our most hurt, resentful, angry self is not a helpful reference in deciding how to navigate today’s world or our inner experience. Touching what lies underneath the emotions, what forms the basis of our consciousness and reflecting that back to the world seems a much better approach. When we practice, we quiet, and we have a greater chance of touching the unedited essence of being, what we can call our presence or suchness. We can sense that we are big enough to hold both the suffering and the joy of the world, instead of concretizing our experience into one or the other. We can see that our insistence that the world be a certain way in order for us to be happy is a mere construct, but one that trips us up every time. We can see the hurt child behind the screaming adult face and know there is more in front of us than that person themselves knows at the present moment. To quote a calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh, we can know that “You Are Life Without Boundaries.” Below is a quotation that Brother Phap Vu used to frame his talk that touches on this sense of suchness.
This Thursday we’ll discuss how we relate to our inner experience and our outer world based on our practice and, perhaps, on our understanding of our suchness. How are you finding yourself responding to life each moment? Are you responding with your awakened innermost being, or is something stopping you? How do you find stability, peace, and joy with everything that is going on in and around you?
I hope you can join us in exploring together how we respond to life through the practice of mindfulness.
From Phap Vu’s dharma talk, attributed to The Awakening of Faith in the Absolute, an early text of Mahayana Buddhism
All things come from suchness and return to suchness. And why is this? It is because it is suchness.
From the beginningless beginning, suchness in its nature is fully provided with all excellent qualities. Namely, it is endowed with the light of great wisdom, illuminating the entire universe; of true cognition and mind pure in its self-nature; of eternity, bliss, self, and purity; of refreshing coolness and freedom. It is endowed with these excellent qualities, which outnumber the sands of the Ganges, which are not independent of nor different from the essence of suchness. Oneness and the many are like the water and waves, there is no division. The absolute and the relative are in unity and in harmony. Do you understand?