Sovereign not Controlling

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Dear Still Water Friends,

As you may have heard, Thich Nhat Hanh recently receive a 14-day treatment in Boston for a persistent lung infection. While in the hospital, Thay wrote an endearing letter to the participants at the Colorado retreat, which is posted on the Plum Village web site. The treatment appears to have been successful and this Tuesday Thay flew from Boston to San Diego, to prepare for the Deer Park retreat.

Earlier this week I talked with a friend who had visited Thay in Boston. He told me that while Thay was a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital he was very active, continuing his writing and doing calligraphy. Rather than wearing a hospital gown, he chose to remain in monastic robes. Rather than being transported on a gurney to receive an MRI, he insisted on walking there. Each day he went outside for walking meditation along the Charles River, rather than staying in his hospital bed.

These glimpses of Thay’s life in the hospital remind me of a teaching I’ve heard him give on personal sovereignty. The heart of mindfulness practice is to maintain our inner equilibrium, to be fully present and and not overwhelmed by external events or by our emotions and desires. In his book on walking meditation, The Long Road Turns to Joy, Thay writes:

The Buddha is sometimes called, “One who has Sovereignty over Himself or Herself.” Events carry us away, and we lose ourselves. Walking meditation helps us regain our sovereignty, our liberty as a human being. We walk with grace and dignity, like an emperor, like a lion.

Thay encourages us to be masters of ourselves under all circumstances. In Nowhere to Go, Nothing to Do, Thay explains and affirms the teachings of the 9th century Chinese monk Linji:

Master Linji exhorted us to be the masters of our own situation, but that doesn’t mean we need to fight and suppress others, but rather to be the masters of ourselves. Suppose we have a friend who is quick to anger. We can think there is something wrong with him, and try and suppress his anger. We can think that because he is raising his voice we have to raise ours. Or we can be the master of ourselves in that situation, feeling real compassion for the other person’s difficulties.

Sometimes it’s not a person in the moment but a person in the past who we think is the master of our situation. We say that we are behaving a certain way because of something our parents or someone else did to us as a child. But each person has their own karma and each person is the master of their own situation in the moment, not a slave to others past or present.

The true person doesn’t go looking for an outside master. We are in charge of our own destiny and we have to be responsible for each of our words, thoughts, and actions. Mindfulness will help. Then we realize, “I’m thinking like this, I’m responsible for these thoughts. I’ve spoken like that, I’m responsible for my words. I’m doing this, and I’m responsible for this action.” We have to know that each word, each thought, each of our actions carries our signature. We are responsible for it and that is called being in charge of ourselves.

Wherever we stand, wherever we sit, we are the true person. We are masters of ourselves and wherever we are, we are ourselves. We only need to live these eight words, and it’s enough to make us Master Linji’s student, worthy to be his continuation: “Wherever we are we are our true person.” Write these words and hang them somewhere to remind yourself.

I believe Thay is encouraging us to be very resolute. A strong practitioners is able to maintain an inner equilibrium and, when necessary, is able to clearly ask for what he or she needs to maintain or regain inner sovereignty. Being masters of ourselves, however, is a very different orientation than wishing, or needing, to control the actions or inner life of someone else.

This Thursday, after our meditation period, we will talk about the difference between being sovereign and being controlling and focus especially on the ways we have used (or might use) the practice of mindfulness to maintain and regain our equilibrium.

I hope you can be with us in body or spirit this Thursday, and I invite you hold in your heart a prayer or wish for Thay’s continuing health.

Below you will find announcements about upcoming Still Water events as well as a quote from the Dalai Lama on external events and inner peace.

Peace and joy to you,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

From Ethics for the New Millennium by the Dalai Lama

Our basic attitude–how we relate to external circumstances–is thus the first consideration in any discussion on developing inner peace. In this context, the great Indian scholar-practitioner Shantideva once observed that while we have no hope of finding enough leather to cover the earth so that we never prick our feet on a thorn, actually we do not need to. As he went on to observe, enough to cover the soles of our feet will suffice. In other words, while we cannot always change our external situation to suit us, we can change our attitude.