When Thich Nhat Hanh first joined the Tu Hieu monastery at age 16, he was not taught sitting or walking meditation nor was he taught about the philosophy behind Zen. Instead, he was given The Little Manual of Practice, which includes 50 gathas to memorize—sayings he was to repeat to himself silently while doing his daily activities. When he opened a door, washed the dishes, brushed his teeth, and upon awakening and going to sleep, he recited a few simple lines. When he washed his hands, he would contemplate: “Water flows over these hands. May I use them skillfully to preserve our precious planet.”
This practice helped young monastics calm and concentrate their minds by bringing them back to the present moment. It was meant as an antidote to the internal dialogues we have as we go about our lives. How many times have we swept a floor or washed a dish while repeating grievances about someone, resenting the task, or daydreaming of a love or a land far away?
What we think in these every day, mundane moments knits the fabric of our lives. If we practice complaining, we are more likely to see what’s wrong in the world in the next moment and that will be our world. If we practice gratitude, we are more likely to see what’s plentiful or wonderful and we get to live that thread of reality. It is not rocket science, yet we tend to ignore this most basic element of the practice by not asking ourselves each moment, “What am I practicing right now?”
Being aware of our habits and our tendencies helps us gain insight into why our world is the way it is. And making an effort to practice—to practice gratitude, forgiveness, humility, love, kindness, and letting go—is what our practice is all about. We don’t meditate to bliss out. We meditate to calm our minds, to see more clearly, and to wake up from our illusions about ourselves, about each other, and about the world. I know the way I am in the world after practicing gratitude or lovingkindness is much different than the way I am in the world after practicing one of my standard refrains, be it impatience, judgment, or craving.
We can also use the approach that Thay’s teachers used with him by asking ourselves, “What am I going to practice?” Starting each day or each task by setting an intention lets us be more active in shaping our lives. Deciding to practice seeing what’s good today can be a practice, or practicing a no-news day by leaving the TV and internet news channels off can be another. When I step outside each morning, I practice looking up to the sky to see what’s there and to physically open my chest and my heart to the new day. It’s a nice way to stop and recenter before heading off to the workaday world.
Thich Nhat Hanh originally thought The Little Manual of Practice was just written for beginners and young people, that the method it employed was simple preparation for more rigorous Zen training. But he writes that “more than 50 years later, I know that The Little Manual is the very essence of Zen Buddhism.”
I hope you can join us this Thursday to share what you practice and what your intentions are; what has worked for you and where you struggle in staying mindful; and what keeps you on the path of practice, repeatedly coming back to the present moment after so many different detours. A quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh’s compilation of gathas, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, is below.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living
One way to help us dwell in the present moment is to practice reciting gathas or mindfulness verses. When we focus our mind on a gatha, we return to ourselves and become more aware of each action. When the gatha ends, we continue our activity with heightened awareness. When we drive a car, signs can help us find our way. The sign and the road become one, and we see the sign all along the road until the next sign. When we practice with gathas, the gathas and the rest of our life become one, and we live our entire lives in awareness. This helps us very much, and it helps others as well. We find that we have more peace, calm, and joy, which we can share with others.