The Greatest Gift: A Mind like Still Water

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Dear Still Water Friends,

For many of us the winter holidays are a time to be with family and friends. There are many joyous and comfortable moments, and also, probably, some akward moments, and sometimes, even very difficult moments. An ancient Buddhist teaching called "the three ways of giving" has given me some helpful guidance:

  • Amisa-dana is the giving of material things, such as robes or food to monks, or necessities to those in need. In our modern context, it could also be presents for those who are close to us.

  • Dhamma-dana is the giving of advice, information, and guidance. Traditionally, the monastics offer the teachings and practices of the Buddha to lay people. It is a gift the monks can offer back to those who have offered amisa-dana. However, dhamma-dana in a general sense can also be the advice, information, and guidance we offer to our friends, to those we teach, and to those we help.

  • Abhaya-dana is the gift of non-fear. It is considered to be the greatest gift.

Abhaya, non-fear, means having confidence and courage in life. It is not that we become foolhardy or reckless. There are things that are dangerous, such as icy roads, and it is prudent to take precautions. The gift of non-fear, in contrast, releases us from our tendency to create fear when there is nothing to fear.

In the Abhaya Sutta, the Discourse on Fearlessness, a Brahmin asks the Buddha whether there was anyone becoming gravely ill, “who fears not, who does not fall trembling before death.” The Buddha explained that there are those who crave sensual pleasures, who are attached to their bodies, who have done only cruel things, or have doubts and misgivings about the true teachings. When these people are touched by a great illness, they have fear and “fall trembling before death.”

However, the Buddha explained, there are also those who do not crave sensual pleasures, who are not attached to their bodies, who have done wholesome things and made a refuge for themselves, and who have no doubts or misgivings about the true teachings. These are people, the Buddha said, who “have no fear, who do not fall trembling before death.” (Quotes from the translation by Piya Tan.)

In this context, non-fear means letting go of our unnecessary fears, letting go of the concepts and habits of mind that constrict our thinking and tie us to suffering. For Thich Nhat Hanh, non-fear arises when we are able to look deeply into ourselves and into life:

In Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisatva Avalokitesvara is described as the one who has transcended all fear. He offers all beings the gift of non-fear (abhaya), which comes from the mindful observation of the no-birth, no-death, no-increase, and no-decrease nature of all that is. (From Transformation and Healing.)

When we offer the gift of non-fear, like Avalokitesvara, we project a presence that encourages others to feel safe. Energetically they know that we will cause them no harm. Trust, openness, and clarity naturally arise. The Irish poet writer William Butler Yeats captures this sense of offering non-fear in his essay, “Earth, Fire, and Water.”

We can make our minds so like still water

that beings gather about us to see their own images,

and so live for a moment with a clearer,

perhaps even with a fiercer life

because of our silence.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will talk about concrete strategies for offering the gift of non-fear to those around us during our holiday gatherings. In what ways can we prepare? In what ways can we use skillful means to maintain a calm and loving presence regardless of what others do? Do we have fears or hesitations about offering the gift of non-fear?

You are invited to join with us.

There is below an excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh on the practice of non-fear.

Also, please note that on Saturday, January 7, 2012, the Still Water community will join with other mindfulness communities in the Washington area for a Five Mindfulness Training Transmission Ceremony. If you are, or might be, interested in taking one or more of the trainings through the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center, please send an email to or let me (Mitchell) know in person. Even if you are not receiving the trainings this year, we invite you to attend the ceremony to nourish your seeds of spiritual commitment and to offer support to those who will be receiving the trainings. Details about the transmission ceremony, and the full text of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, are available on our web site,

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Senior Teacher

Still Water Special Events in 2012. You Are Invited to Join Us

Register now or mark your calendar.

Celebrating the New Year, New Year’s Day Brunch, Saturday, January 1, in Silver Spring, Maryland

Transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Saturday, January 7, in Oakton, Virginia.

Still Water Arts of Buddhism Tour at the Freer Gallery, January 14, at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery, Washington, DC.

A Calm Mind and a Joyful Heart: Introduction to Mindfulness Practice, February 6, at Crossings in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Smiling like a Buddha: A Ten-Session Mindfulness Meditation Class, February 13 – May 7, at Crossings in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Settling into Silence: Still Water Practice Retreat, February 17-19, at the Charter Hall Retreat Center, Perryville, Maryland.

The Practice of Non-Fear,

by Thich Nhat Hanh, from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

When a cloud is about to become rain, she is not afraid. She may even be excited. Being a cloud floating in the blue sky is wonderful, but being rain falling on the fields, the ocean, or the mountains is also wonderful. As she falls down as rain, the cloud will sing. Looking deeply, we see that birth is just a notion. Nothing is born from nothing. When we touch the cloud deeply, when we touch our grandmother deeply, we touch the nature of no birth and no death, and we are free from sorrow.

Nirvana means extinction, above all the extinction of ideas—the ideas of birth and death, existence and nonexistence, coming and going, self and other, one and many. All these ideas cause us to suffer. We are afraid of death because ignorance gives us an illusory idea about what death is.

We don’t have to attain nirvana, because we ourselves are always dwelling in nirvana. The wave does not have to look for water. It already is water. We are one with the ground of our being, once we touch God or nirvana, we also receive the gift of non-fear. Non-fear is the basis of true happiness. The greatest gift we can offer others is our non-fear. Living deeply every moment of our life, touching the deepest level of our being, this is the practice of non-fear.

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