Silver Spring, Maryland, community online on Thursday evening
March 12, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all online on Friday evening
Dear Still Water Friends,
The Five Mindfulness Trainings offered by Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) contain an enormous challenge. They offer us a path toward individual and collective liberation. In the recitation ceremony, Thay writes:
They are a concrete expression of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path of right understanding and true love, leading to healing, transformation, and happiness for ourselves and for the world.
Thay also exhorts us in each of the trainings to become “Aware of the suffering caused by.” The second training asks us to fully explore and embrace “the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression.” This is a huge task, requiring factual information and emotional courage.
The suffering spans thousands of years of humans mistreating those they consider “other,” beginning with the warfare of many tribal societies. It is said that the Buddha himself was brought to tears when he learned that his home town of Kapilavastu was destroyed and most of the inhabitants were killed in an attack by a rival tribal confederacy.
During the 20th century hundreds of millions of lives were lost in wars, political oppression, and genocides. And it continues in the 21st century, including in Syria, Afghanistan,Yemen, and Somalia. And even those number leave out the billions of people, all over the world, who suffered (and continue to suffer) because of “exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression.”
Recently I’ve been reading Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. The 400 year period, beginning with African slaves entering the Jamestown colony, is broken into five year segments. Eighty Black contributors wrote short essays reflecting on a “a person, place, thing, idea, or event” related to the the five year period they were assigned. The clear message across the essays is that the exploitation and oppression of African Americans did not “just happen.” Rather, there were, time and again, policies and strategies consciously created by powerful white Europeans and Americans to benefit from the dehumanization and brutalization of African Americans.
For me, the core challenge Thay offers us is learning how to hold our growing awareness so that we move towards understanding and loving engagement, rather than toward shame, guilt, denial, and apathy. I am reminded of a conversation I had at Plum Village in the 1990s with a Japanese Soto Zen Roshi. Although he was the guiding teacher for a network of practice centers across Europe, he was participating like any other visitor in the spartan Plum Village community life. One day I asked him why he had come to Plum Village, what he hoped to learn. He replied that he just wanted to be in the same room as Thich Nhat Hanh. He explained that Thay was for him one of the few people who could at the same time totally embrace the suffering of the world and also enjoy eating a cookie.
In the Second Mindfulness Training itself, Thay offers concrete suggestions regarding how we also might move, step by step, from despair to engagement:
- I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting.
- I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
- I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair.
- I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy.
- I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and stop contributing to climate change.
The Buddhist psychologist John Welwood adds another dimension. In his book Love and Awakening, he explores the changes that must occur in our hearts if we are to become aware of the world’s suffering and not fall into despair.
If we are to remain open to life and capable of engaging with our world rather than succumbing to depression or cynicism, we must learn how to live with a broken heart.
It is only through letting our heart break that we discover something unexpected: The heart cannot actually break, it can only break open. What breaks when we are touched by life’s pain is the contraction around our heart that we have been carrying for so long. When we feel both our love for this world and the pain of this world — together, at the same time — the heart breaks out of this shell. Then the hearts true character is revealed — as an openness, an acute sensitivity where we feel the world inside us and are not separate from it. This is like removing a bandage and exposing our flesh to the air. There is no way to avoid this rawness, except by living in a state of contraction. To live with a broken-open heart is to experience life full strength.
This Thursday and Friday evenings we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on the Second Mindfulness Training, True Happiness. We will begin by exploring our experiences with Thay’s implicit challenge: How can we embrace the suffering around us in a way that allows us to move towards understanding and loving engagement, rather than toward shame, guilt, denial, and apathy?
You are invited to join us.
Additional excerpts by Thay and John Welwood are below.
Mindfulness Must Be Engaged
By Thich Nhat Hanh, from Peace is Every Step
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. Are you massaging our Mother Earth every time your foot touches her? Are you planting seeds of joy and peace? I try to do exactly that with every step, and I know that our Mother Earth is most appreciative. Peace is every step. Shall we continue our journey?
When Our Heart Breaks Open
From Love and Awakening by John Welwood
According to sacred tradition, the heart is not something emotional or sentimental; Hinduism and Buddhism regard it as the pith essence, while Sufism understands it as a divine subtlety that reveals the deepest truths. It is a doorway leading into the core of our being — the living presence of spirit and soul. When our heart breaks open, breaks through to this deeper core, we waken from paralysis into a greater depth of soul, and along with that, a deeper love for this world.
For if our heart gives rise to universal compassion, it is in our soul that we love particulars — this face, this grove of trees, this neighborhood, this world. And it is our soul that suffers when, for instance, we see a beautiful, wild piece of the earth fall prey to yet another condo development or shopping mall. Our heart might feel compassion for this injury, our spirit might recognize it as part of the larger life and death of the cosmos, but in our soul, which so loves the particulars, we grieve or rage for this assault on earth’s beauty. It is important to let ourselves feel this kind of passionate response. Otherwise, our soul too grows numb, just like the paved-over path of earth