Studying Thay’s teachings on Ethics
The quality of our actions really matters. If we want a world of care then love and compassion has to be the fabric of our every moment.Brother Phap Huu at the Ceremony of Refuge
Dear friends on the path,
The Plum Village community in France began our 2023-24 Rains Retreat on October 19.
The community of 57 monks, 84 nuns, and 84 lay friends is committing to dwell peacefully together for 90 days. We are taking hold of this precious opportunity to deeply learn, apply, and continue to evolve Thầy’s (Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh) teachings on Ethics. We’ll be studying his teachings from Winter 2008-09 and June 2009, which laid the foundation for the Plum Village approach to global ethics.
The Rains Retreat began with a “Ceremony of Refuge” at the Dharma Cloud Temple (Upper Hamlet). Elders from each hamlet represented the sangha to take refuge in Thay and the ancestral teachers.
Brother Pháp Hữu, as abbot of the Upper Hamlet, shared his emotions of sadness, suffering, injustice, grief, and a sense of powerlessness with the wars that are happening.
The seeds of violence and past fear have been touched. I know these feelings are not mine alone, but shared by many around the world at this moment. But nevertheless I will practice to transform the war and conflict that is still present in me.
I will practice to transform the sadness into energy of inner-peace, joy, love, so a smile can still be born on my lips, and may this energy travel far and wide until it reaches the pain and tears of those who are suffering.
Brother Pháp Ứng, as the most senior monk in Plum Village France responded with:
Together we are practicing to cultivate peace in our steps and our breaths. By creating harmony and acceptance in our community, we offer a refuge for ourselves, our families, and our society.
It is possible to plant seeds of peace and healing. There is hope for the younger generations. We know we have our stream of ancestors and descendants there, supporting us.
We have the right to be happy. Our happiness and peace is so crucial for embracing the pain and suffering in the world.
Sister Chân Đức (Sister “True Virtue”), representing the community of nuns, shared that,
What the world needs right now is for each of us to create spaces of non-fear. What I transform in myself, from where I live, will penetrate outside of Plum Village.
Sister Chân Không, the most senior monastic of the Plum Village international community shared during the Ceremony,
I am taking refuge in every element of the sangha, in each one of you.
Spirit of the Rains Retreat
Please continue to enjoy this excerpt from Thay’s 2004 September 12th teaching on the “Spirit of the Rains Retreat”.
It is not a means. It is an end in itself
The retreat is not a means to achieve anything, but an end in itself. The retreat has to be the happiness, it is not a means to gain happiness, but it is happiness itself. And so our practice during sitting is happiness. We do not sit just because others are sitting. While walking, we walk in such a way to be happy. While listening to a Dharma talk, listen in such a way to have happiness. While eating, eat in such a way to have happiness. While washing our bowls, mopping the floor, we need to do these things in such a way that happiness is possible. Everyone needs to make sure that they know how to do this.
Other people who sit together with us can provide us with supportive energy so that we can succeed in our sitting. And so sitting for 45 minutes is not a duty, not a scheduled activity, but an enjoyment. In our world, everyone is very busy, and being able to sit without doing anything, sit with a clear mind, sit comfortably, sit in order to be ourselves is an opportunity that not many people in society have.
Time while sitting is nourishing and happy. Everyone needs to find their own way to be able to do that. We can consult our elder or younger brothers or sisters, to see how they have succeeded, how they have happiness while nourishing themselves by sitting meditation. It is not a means, it is also an end.
Just sit. Just walk. Just eat.
In Soto Zen, they say: “Chỉ quán đả toạ”. It means “Just sit”, we don’t think about the outcome of the sitting. Sit in such a way that we can be awakened like the Buddha while we are sitting. This can also be applied for other moments of the retreat. For example, walking is just walking. Walking in such a way that we become a free person. Happiness is there in each step we make. “Chỉ quán đả hành” means “Just walk“.
And when we eat, just eat! We don’t eat to become anything. We just eat and are happy while eating.
We have 90 days to do this. We do it every day: sitting, walking, washing our clothes, eating, washing dishes. We do it as a free person because our happiness is based on freedom and not on the desire to consume or to shop. We need to prepare for this retreat as we prepare for the lunar new year (Tết). When we see the 90-day retreat as a long Tết celebration, we will be happy and feel as if we are fulfilling a duty.
In the last few weeks, the sangha has already started preparing for the retreat. We have had sangha meetings, changed rooms, have new mentors, set a new schedule, selected sutras and chants, and prepared other things. But these are just preparation in terms of organization. We also need to prepare our mind. Preparing our mind, first of all, is to realize that having 90 days to live and practice being happy together is a great opportunity that most people do not have.
Having 90 days to live and practice being happy together is a great opportunity that most people do not have.
We need to prepare ourselves in such a way that every day is a happiness, every day is nourishing, every day is transforming, every day is there for us to touch the wonders of life, and every day is an opportunity to build brotherhood and sisterhood.
Before we commence the 3-month retreat with the Face to Face ceremony, we need to untie any unresolved internal knots that we might have between us and our siblings. We need to untie those knots so that on the day of the ceremony, we are totally free and clear. We need to begin anew with each other. Otherwise, the three-month retreat will not be as whole, pure, and perfect as we wish.
Our daily necessities should be less than sufficient
In the monastic tradition, we hear about living according to the principle of “tam thường bất túc”. It means that the three daily necessities: food, clothing, and dwelling should be less than sufficient.
“Bất túc” means inadequate. For example, on a scale of 10, we should have 9 out of 10. Don’t ever allow it to reach 10. It should be a little bit short. That is “tam thường bất túc”. The wonderful thing about this is that when we live according to this principle, we are happier than when we have things sufficiently or excessively. This is the truth.
When Thay was a novice, Thay had never eaten 100% full. It was the same when Thay was sent to the Buddhist Institute. Always a little bit less from being full. Yet Thay was very healthy and had a good appetite, although the food was very simple. In Báo Quốc Buddhist Institute, the novices grew sweet potatoes, not to eat the roots but only the leaves. In a dish of boiled sweet potatoes leaves, there were yellow and old leaves, yet we still enjoyed eating them so much. We rarely had stir-fry, we only had boiled green veggies, dipped in soy sauce. That was the most common food in temples. And there was just rice, not much else to go with it. Some pickles or boiled veggies helped us to eat the rice more easily.
If we look at Plum Village now, we can see that we eat a bit too much. We are not practicing “tam thường bất túc”. That is why we don’t have as good an appetite and we are not as healthy. We serve our plate to the fullest, then when we read the 5 contemplations. “May we transform unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed…”, but we have already taken a lot of food, it’s a little late to contemplate! So we need to contemplate first, before serving the food.
That is why the Buddha invented the “ứng lượng khí”(a bowl of appropriate measure), which is our alms bowl, so we know how much food we should take. And if we chew really well we don’t need to eat a lot.
About our rooms, no one had a room on their own. Not even a room for two. All rooms were shared by everyone.
During the day we put the straw mats for sleeping away, and the room was for common use. We didn’t have anything called “personal space”. What we call “personal space” only lies inside of us, not outside, and our life was truly communal. We shared everything together, even time. Time is everyone’s time. There was nothing that was called “personal time”.
Thay’s time as a novice was very happy. If you are happy during your novice time, then your bodhicitta is nourished, and you will be happy for your whole life. That happiness is definitely not made of material conditions because we lived our novice life according to the principle of “tam thường bất túc”.
We are living in a different era now and we consume in a different way. But we can still live a simple life that is never with too much material comfort.
For example, we know that we can eat one more bowl, but it is not good for us, it makes us less happy. So we refrain from eating that extra bowl. Those of you who have ever fasted with very simple food know that if you chew well, the food is incredibly yummy. It is more delicious than any kind of gourmet food.
Eating a little less, possessing fewer clothes, and not look for too much comfort in dwelling. If laypeople can also live like that, they will be happier. Our society thinks that the more we consume the happier we are. It is a very mistaken perception.
Consume with moderation, live simply, everything should be a little lacking, we will be much happier.
Moments from the “Ceremony of Refuge”