Dear Still Water Friends,
This Thursday evening (and Sunday evening, December 17th, in Columbia), Dharma Teacher Michael Nguyen will join our weekly gathering. Michael was a monastic in the Plum Village tradition, and for fifteen years we called him Chan Phap Uyen or Brother Bear. Two years ago, Michael left the monastery and returned to lay life so he could dedicate more time to working with veterans and their families.
I talked with Michael earlier this week and asked what he wanted as our evening Dharma topic. He had just come back from a 21-day visit with his 109 year-old grandmother in Vietnam and his immediate response was “We are a continuation of our ancestors.”
In 2011 I learned that my step-father’s then 103 year-old mother had class three liver cancer and I went to be with her and to help provide home care and ease her transition. I had left Vietnam when I was two years old and hadn’t been back, except for brief visits with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community (in 2005, 2007, and 2008). This was a chance to get to know her and learn from her. Surrounded by her relatives, she rallied from that illness.
About a month ago I got a call from my step-father that his now 109 year-old mother was quite ill and that my sister and I should come to Vietnam to assist with her home care and help spiritually prepare her for her transition. I was with her again for three weeks. Again she rallied. She is still alive and aware.
Being with my grandmother got me thinking how I could be a good continuation of her and all my familial ancestors. And also, how can I be a good continuation of Thay (Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh) and all my spiritual teachers? Any of us could pass away today or tomorrow. How can we live our lives so we are a good continuation of our blood ancestors and spiritual ancestors?
The qualities that our ancestors manifested in their lives and passed on to us might be good or might not be good. Now that we have the practice of mindfulness, we have an opportunity to continue our ancestors in a better way. Rather than complaining, there are things we can do.
The veterans I work with suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I see clearly how the experiences they received as children affect the ability to heal from their PTSD. When they are able to embrace and transform the seeds they have received, they are able to not just to heal themselves, they are able to heal their ancestors and their blood and spiritual descendants.
The heart of Thay’s teaching on continuation is contained in the Five Awarenesses, which are part of the Plum Village marriage ceremony:
We are aware that all generations of our ancestors and all future generations are present in us.
We are aware of the expectation that our ancestors, our children, and their children have of us.
We are aware that our joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are the joy, peace, freedom, and harmony of our ancestors, our children, and their children.
We are aware that understanding is the very foundation of love.
We are aware that blaming and arguing can never help us and only creates a wider gap between us; that only understanding, trust, and love can help us change and grow.
You are invited to join us this Thursday or this Sunday for meditation and a Dharma sharing on continuation with Michael.
Michael will also be offering Cultivating Our Garden of Love: A Day of Mindfulness on Saturday, December 16th (at Blueberry Gardens), and Letting Go — Mindfulness and Trauma Relief Exercises on Sunday, December 17th (at the Yoga Center of Columbia). Space is limited, please register soon.
A commentary on the Five Awarenesses by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.
The Five Awarenesses
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through
In the first awareness, we see ourselves as one element in the continuation of our ancestors and as the link to future generations. When we see in this way, we know that by taking good care of our body and consciousness in the present moment, we are taking care of all generations past and future.
The second awareness reminds us that our ancestors have expectations of us and that our children and their children do too. Our happiness is their happiness; our suffering is their suffering. If we look deeply, we will know what our children and grandchildren expect of us.
The third awareness tells us that joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are not individual matters. We have to live in ways that allow our ancestors within to be liberated so as to liberate ourselves. If we do not liberate them, we ourselves will be bound all our lives, and we will transmit that to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to liberate our parents and ancestors within. We can offer them joy, peace, freedom, and harmony at the same time as we offer joy, peace, freedom, and harmony to ourselves, our children, and their children. This reflects the teaching of interbeing. As long as our ancestors within are still suffering, we cannot really be happy. If we take one step mindfully, freely and happily touching the earth, we do it for all our ancestors and all future generations.
The fourth awareness tells us that where there is understanding, there is love. When we understand someone’s suffering, we’re motivated to help, and the energies of love and compassion are released. Whatever we do in this spirit will be for the happiness and liberation of the person we love. We have to practice in such a way that whatever we do for others will make them happy. The willingness to love is not enough. When people do not understand each other, it is impossible for them to love each other.
Remember to practice in the context of a community. Do whatever you can to bring happiness to the air, the water, the rocks, the trees, the birds, and the humans. Live your daily life in such a way as to feel the presence of the community with you all the time, and you will receive the kind of energy you need each time you confront difficulties in your life and the life of the world. The world needs you to be mindful, to be aware of what is going on.
We have to live deeply each moment that is given us to live. If you are capable of living deeply one moment of your life, you can learn to live the same way all the other moments of your life. The French poet René Char said, “If you can dwell in one moment, you will discover eternity.” Make each moment an occasion to live deeply, happily, in peace. Each moment is a chance for us to make peace with the world, to make peace possible for the world, to make happiness possible for the world. The world needs our happiness. The practice of mindful living can be described as the practice of happiness, the practice of love. We must cultivate in our lives the capacity to be happy, the capacity to be loving. Understanding is the foundation of love. And looking deeply is the basic practice.
We practice the fifth awareness because even though we know that blaming and arguing never help, we forget. Conscious breathing helps us develop the ability to stop at that crucial moment, to keep ourselves from blaming and arguing.
All of us need to change for the better. It is our responsibility to take care of each other. We are the gardeners, the ones who help the flowers grow. If we understand, the flowers will grow beautifully. Goodwill is not enough; we need to learn the art of making others happy. Art is the essence of life, and the substance of art is mindfulness.