Dear Still Water Friends.
One of the qualities of Thich Nhat Hanh’s (Thay’s) life and teachings that has always attracted me is how seamlessly he brought together responsibility and ease.
By responsibility I mean that he was like the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in that he was able to listen to the suffering of the world and able to respond with loving words and actions. In Peace is Every Step, Thay reflects on the quandary that faced him and other young monastics in the early 1960s as the war between North and South Vietnam became increasingly destructive:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
By ease I mean that Thay saw himself as a spiritual descendant of the 9th century Chinese Master Lin Chi who encouraged his students to be free from busyness. Rather, they were to have a sense of inner spaciousness and avoid being continually entangled in their desires, projects, and plans. In The Art of Living, Thay writes that ease is:
… a relaxed state of peacefulness and tranquillity, like the still water in a calm mountain lake. We cannot be happy, we cannot nourish and heal ourselves, unless we are at ease. The peace of feeling at ease is the most precious thing there is, more precious than any other pursuit.
It is possible to breathe in such a way that our in-breath and out-breath are pleasant and peaceful. When we feel joyful, happy, and peaceful as we breathe, we are able to stop running and arrive in the present moment. Healing naturally takes place. But if while breathing we’re still trying to attain something, even if that thing is good health or self-control, we haven’t yet stopped running. We can allow ourselves to have peace—to be at peace.
As I understand Thay, he is not suggesting that we devote a certain amount of time each day to responsibility and a certain amount to ease. Nor that we find a way of living that is a compromise between the two. Rather, he is saying that responsibility and ease inter-are. He is encouraging us to live in a way so that each moment is a manifestation of both responsibility and ease. We are at ease when we are acting responsibly, and responsible when we are at ease. They are like two facets of a jewel.
In a 2008 Dharma talk on “The History of Engaged Buddhism” Thay said:
… the first meaning of Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there — so that you know what to buy and what not to buy!
Also, Engaged Buddhism is the kind of wisdom that responds to anything that happens in the here and the now — global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ecosystem, the lack of communication, war, conflict, suicide, divorce. As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now.
As I wrote this I was smiling. I remembered Sr. Jina telling me decades ago that when she listens to Dharma talks by Thay, rather than asking herself “Do I know this?” she asks herself “Do I do this?”
It was the July 4th weekend. I was in rural Maine. The landscape and the weather was lovely — and I did not feel very spacious. I felt pressured to complete this announcement by Monday, write another announcement, construct a web page, and respond to 100 unanswered emails. While earlier in my life the pressure of my responsibilities would have undermined the whole holiday weekend, because of mindfulness practice I’m now better at blending responsibility and ease. I talked with my wife, Ann-Mari, about how to fit these tasks into a holiday weekend. We could go on some unhurried walks, run some errands, and share some quiet time, and I could have some windows to plow through the work I needed to do. I say “plow through” because I had not entirely “stopped running” when I wrote until 11 pm on Sunday evening to complete the other announcement.
I am very aware that I have lessons yet to learn about responsibility and ease.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation and program, we will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:
- What enables you to be more at ease when you are responsible, and more responsible when you are at ease?
- What makes it difficult?
- What do you need to learn?
You are invited to join us.
If you don’t already have the Thursday evening Zoom link, you can get it by registering online.