Brother Phap Huu sets the stage for the Winter Retreat 2017-18 by sharing his amazement the first time he met a Plum Village monastic (15:36). Winter retreat is an opportunity to rekindle this beginner’s mind. A homecoming, a time for resting and taking refuge.
When we know how to take refuge in the Sangha’s practice energy, we can ride it like a wave. To overcome our difficulties and fuel our aspiration.
Brother Phap Huu explains how we can realize our aspiration practically in our day to day life. We can make good use of the precious opportunity the Winter Retreat offers us to practise concertedly for the 90 days.
For those who cannot physically attend the Winter Retreat in Plum Village, you can still benefit from the collective practice energy by following the Dharma talks here on YouTube and by adopting some elements of the Plum Village winter schedule into your life.
[gong sounds] Good morning, dear respected Thay, dear noble Sangha, today is November the 16th in the year 2017 and today I have the great opportunity to offer the first Dharma talk of the winter retreat. Looking at the community, I see a very big family. For any of you who is here for the first time at our winter retreat, welcome to the Plum Village family, welcome to the spiritual family. I hope that during your time with us, you will arrive and feel at home at every moment. When you walk you'll see that you're not walking in a foreign place but you feel that this is your home too. In our tradition the winter retreat has a very important aspect for us monastics but also for all those who aspire to live and to put into practice the life of mindfulness. In this tradition that carries the spirit of calming, of being at home, learning to still oneself in mind and body and also to enrich and deepen our practice, our aspirations, and at the same time, learn to live in harmony with the community. Today I would like to break it down one by one with the practices that I have used throughout my years in these retreats. As a monk, I never knew that we would travel so much. The idea was, you go and shave your head, you wear a robe and you sit all day but actually it's quite opposite. The more you learn and the more you practice, you actually see that what you have, you don't want to be selfish about it you want to be able to share it with other people. So, in this tradition we have the culture of opening our doors to welcome the many people to come and learn and practice with us and at the same time as a monastic, we have the opportunity to travel to different places around the world to be in touch with different cultures, to be in touch with different environments and in order to share what we have invested our self into, to touch the wonderful seeds in other people. So actually, as a monk we also travel so much and travelling has its benefits, we get to expand our horizons we get to see and learn new things to enrich our life but at the same time, learning to be home and learning to be still is as important. Going home, what is important is to be in touch with ourselves with the real how, who we are how we are doing we have to always come back to that question because mindfulness is the ability to know what is going on inside of us and around us it's easier sometimes to take care of somebody else than to take care of oneself so here we need to learn and we need to really put our energy in caring for ourselves in order to fuel ourselves with the practice, with the energy of mindfulness so that we have something that we can offer throughout the year. I see that our roots are very important. All of us, we have roots that we have to be in touch with and have to connect to. And as a monastic, as a practitioner the roots of our spiritual family is something that we always have to be in touch with and as a lay member we can also be in touch with those spiritual roots they're coming from our ancestors coming from our culture it is deep down inside the feeling of wanting to be able to touch peace the ability to be in touch with happiness the ability to make one mindful in-breath those are all spiritual elements that are deep down inside of us. And we have this very special opportunity every day, to enrich it, every day to deepen it, every day to cultivate it. These roots are what connects all of us in this room we all have aspiration but how can we live in harmony and how can we be happy together? It's because deep down inside we all do have a same aspiration and when we are in touch with that, we can feel the connection, we can feel the interbeing of one another. Me and my brown brothers, my brown sisters, me, brown eyes in the robe, the brown family, we have to see that, we have to see those roots that connect all of us. There's always a void that comes from time to time the feeling of loneliness, a feeling of separation is there, but when you can make an in-breath, or you can connect to your brothers' or your sisters' energy of practice, then, somehow you feel embraced by their presence, you feel embraced by their practice. That connection is one of the values and one of the treasures of being in a community, and as a member of this community we also have the responsibility to offer that to our brothers and sisters, to offer that to our community. So, just like the practice of mindful breathing, the first exercise is to identify the in-breath and the out-breath. Very basic but very crucial. When you have the capacity to recognize and to identify just the in-breath and the out-breath then that means you will have the capacity to identify your suffering and your happiness. The things that are going on happening inside. So if you cannot identify your in-breath and your out-breath at any moment that you need, then there's some training to do. If we cannot identify our in-breath and out-breath, then how can we recognize what is going on inside of us? That's why the basic, fundamental practice is very crucial. It lays our foundation, for us to go deeper into other elements in our practice. So at any moment in the day in the retreat you feel lost, you know there is a friend with you, and that is your breath. The breath is always with you, no matter what. As long as you are alive, that breath is with you. So identifying and being one with the breath, it's a discipline and it's an important practice because that is what is the beginning of the practice of awareness. The beginning of mindfulness, just one in-breath and one out-breath. And when we follow along with the second practice, if we follow our in-breath from the beginning to the end and we follow our out-breath from the beginning to the end, when we're able to practice in that way, we give rise, and there is a concentration that is born within us. And when you are concentrated like that, you give your mind a break, a break from running from thought to thought, from this to that, but concentrated with just one in-breath and one out-breath and that develops the concentration which helps still the mind. And at the same time, when the mind is still, then the body will also follow. Sometimes the mind is too active. Then we pay attention to the body, that's what comes at third practice. As you breathe in, you become aware of your body as your body is a physical presence. It's sometimes easier to be aware of the physical presence. Sometimes the mind is harder to grasp, it's harder to follow but the body is something you can feel. The tension, the pain or the relaxation. A relaxation you can offer to your body. Aware of your body as you breathe in, and relaxing the body as you breathe out. You can feel it in your shoulders, you can feel it in your neck your chest, your abdomen, your whole body. And when we learn to be in touch with the body, we are one with the body, then we're also welcoming the mind home to the body. And the more we are able to recognize, and be with the body and the mind then we are enhancing our presence in the here and the now. The practice is to be in the here and the now, and that is the aspiration. But I don't think we can always be in the here and the now, not many of us are there yet. If you are, you are the Buddha and we'll be bowing to you. But most of us, we are part time Buddha's, right? Like what Thay says, not full time, but we are part time. So the more we are in touch with the present moment, with our body and mind, the more we enhance our capacity of being in the present moment, and we are nourishing more our Dharma body. Each and every one of us has our physical body that we care for by exercising by sleeping, by resting and by food, but when you start to practice and you are in this community there is a second body you give rise to and that manifests as you practice and that is the Dharma body. The Dharma body also needs food, and the food comes from the practice. You know, every morning when we do sitting and we hear the morning chant, the Dharma body is bringing morning light. So each and every one of us has this fire within, this fire that glows. When you look... one of the reasons why I became a monk... ... was because I saw how beautiful the monastics were they had this glow, and many of you still do. They had this glow this glow that didn't need words to express but they carry it through just a way of being the way of walking, the way of approaching me, the way of sharing. I will never forget my first encounter with a monk, a Plum Village monk. it was in 1996, my first time to Plum Village. My father said, we were going to France so I thought, oh, Paris, Eiffel Tower, but the first stop was Village des Pruniers. I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and I remember the monk picking us up from Sainte-Foy-La-Grande. He was the first young monk that I've ever met in my life, and the way he greeted us, kind of blew me away. Just the way he bowed. He joined his palms and he bowed to us. And I was only nine and I somehow felt, oh my god! A monk is respecting me, wow! this is weird, this is rare... and I was really in awe by his presence. And then the way he took our luggage, the way he brought us to our room, he showed us where to serve our food. Just a very small detail I carried in my heart I carry in my consciousness, too, now, it's something that changed my perspective of Buddhism or of a monastic and that wasn't done by word, that wasn't done by a Dharma talk. That was done just by his presence, but that was done, and what I saw, was his Dharma body. His Dharma body that he has cultivated through many years of practice, and that has been translated into his daily life. So each and every one of us we have this Dharma body that we are cultivating and nourishing. And nourishing it is as important as nourishing our physical bodies and in this winter retreat, it really carries the essence of deepening the practice, of resting, of being at home. It's like a big reunion, a big family reunion for many of our brothers and sisters from afar, coming home, and many of our lay friends, having the courage to come for 90 days, to let go of the outside to let go of the noise outside and cut ourselves off and to come and to rest. So it's something that is very, very valuable, these moments, that we have to recognize, just like the in-breath and out-breath, every day, we have to recognize. One of my younger brothers said, wow, today is day 89 of the winter retreat! I don't know if he's counting it down as in, I have to value 89 more days, or as, oh man, I got 89 more days. well I leave it for that brother to see, but every day is an opportunity. Just like our gatha, Waking up this morning, 24 brand-new hours and we can say, waking up this morning another day with the community how lucky we are! And being in the winter retreat is also the practice of not going out and not going out here, our teacher expanded it not to just physically go out of the boundaries that's why we have boundaries in the winter retreat. It's to help our habits of running, of wanting to go out. So to rest means to be still, and to heal, we also have to learn to be still. So we can learn from the animals. The animals, when they are hurt they know how to rest. They don't have medication like we do, but they know how to rest. We have medication, but sometimes we don't know how to be still. So going out and having the boundary, is a practice, it's something to help us, it's a helping hand so that we don't have the urge. Sometimes our habit is the urge to always go out, never feeling still, stillness. And to go deeper into this practice, going out here, is also in here. So for many of the winter retreats, our teacher always encouraged us to take a break from social media. That's also very important and maybe a bit difficult practice. Being online is a necessity, but there should be a limit and there should be a practice to it. So going out here is not just physically, but also mentally. So that is also the practice of the winter retreat, and the spirit of the winter retreat. Learning to be with oneself, learning to be with this community. To rest is such an important practice and it sounds so simple, resting. I think we all need this, but at the same time it's so hard because there is so much to do there's so much we want to learn, there's so much we want to achieve. But the question always comes, how much are we sacrificing in order to reach those achievements? Even as a monastic, there's so much to do. I'm the abbot of Upper Hamlet and I see, the more I'm a monk, it seems like the more I'm busy. and it's my koan this winter retreat, how do I rest? How to rest? How to rest more and how to be more present for the community, it's my ongoing koan, my ongoing practice because there is a restlessness that I have. I feel that moments where I'm not doing something, it's a moment that I should be doing something, right? I think I'm not the only one that had this feeling. So learning to rest is a necessity because I always ask myself to do that, to finish something do I feel more achieved, or do I feel more connected? Sometimes I feel I achieve a lot of things for the community but I am distancing myself more from the community. So there's one side, I'm achieving for the Sangha but at another side, I'm distancing myself from the community. So I have to revisit this and I have to see what are my relationships with work, with service? Service is a very important aspect of a monastic or as a person we all want to feel that we are offering something back to society, but to what expense and how much of stability and of value, of peace and happiness that we have that is actually the real thing that I want to offer to my brothers and sisters and to the community. That was my beginner's mind, but somehow, slowly it became more projects, and projects, and projects. so for those of us who are in the community today I feel I have this opportunity to speak more to the internal family, because we're all here for the three months and we're all of the monastics that are here at another residence, because all of us, we go through the same thing we all go through the sense and the feeling of doing too much, not having enough time to rest, not having enough time to be in touch with our real aspiration. Yes, my real aspiration was, I think it was to be enlightened, and I shouldn't forget that, right? And I think each and every one of us has to come back to it, and not be carried away by the projects. The projects are there, it's always gonna be there, but at the same time we have to revisit our beginner's mind, our bodhicitta from the beginning. And when we are not in touch with that then it's very easy to take a detour. And this detour, how long it goes depends on us. It depends on our capacity to be with the in-breath and out-breath, recognizing again, what is our aspiration? What was it that brought us here? So I know that to be restful and to heal, and to be there, means, I have to be true and I have to honor my aspiration, I have to honor my goals. And that means, having to retrain oneself re-disciplining oneself. The monastic culture in the tradition in the monastery, there is a discipline, and this discipline is not to... the discipline here is not, if you do something wrong, you get a stick or you're gonna get scolded, but the discipline here is a discipline to enhance our beginner's mind, our aspiration, because we have habits. All of us have habits and if we don't have a discipline if we don't have a training then it's too easy to fall back into our habits. Just like when you exercise, right? the exercising to build the body doesn't mean just a physical activity but it also means our diets, what we eat, what we intake. So, in the community, in the schedule in this sangha it's the same, we have that. So our guideline, the spine of the community is the schedule, the community schedule. And the community schedule is what unites all of us, and what collects the energy of the community, collects every individual presence, and when everybody is there, you just are embraced by this powerful collective energy of mindfulness, energy of presence. Just like yesterday, I don't know how you felt, but in the ceremony, when the community chanted together, I ride the wave of the Sangha at that moment, I said wow, this is awesome! You have to be able to recognize those moments, to ride the wave of the Sangha because the energy of the Sangha are waves that come, and if you have a surfboard, you can go very far. and sometimes you may drown a little bit, right? Suffering comes from time to time, that's okay, but there are other safeguards, there are other surfboards that are always riding these waves and having the capacity, having the realization to take refuge into our brothers and sisters, our friends or practitioners, it's at the same time as essential as practicing for oneself. So the wave of the Sangha is there, the surfboards of the sanghas are there, and we sometimes have to learn to open our hearts. Open ourselves a little bit. It doesn't mean you have to show us everything at the beginning, you know, you can take it step by step. Sometimes we have to see also what is inside of us, what is going inside and how much to bring out, because everything has to come with moderation Plum Village is not a transformation box. Some people have the idea, you come to Plum Village and you go out as a flower. You come in one end and then you come out as a different form. That means that you don't have the capacity to see the mud that's also there, and then we set our goals too high, and we set our own expectation or we set the expectation of the community too high. I love the way Thay shared, that the community is an organism, it's a living body, and each and every one of us is a member, is a cell in this body. And when the cells are in harmony, then the body is healthy and it works, it's strong. But sometimes there are some parts of the body that aren't working so well, but it doesn't mean the body dies. But the other parts would take care, take care of the place that is injured, the place that needs healing. So we have to also see ourselves as a cell in this body. So the moments when we serve and we support the community, like the cooking, the washing up, the raking of the leaves, all of that is caring for this body and then when we come to the sitting meditation, we come to the walking meditation, we come to the meals, those are also caring for the body. When there is unison, the Harmony brings about the strength of the collectiveness, and the collectiveness here, in the body of the community. So let us all breathe together as we listen to a sound of the bell, to harmonize the collective energy of everyone that is here in this hall. [gong sounds] Sometimes it's good to have a refresh button in ourselves, in what is going on inside of our life with our life, and sometimes there needs to be a new opportunity, a new condition in order for us to feel that we have the opportunity to refresh. Just like a computer has the button to reboot, sometimes we also need that. So the winter retreat is an opportunity to press that reboot button, whether you are a monastic or you're a lay, it's all the same, we have this opportunity to refresh and to reboot ourselves. It's like the changing of the season, it's a new season, a new beginning, and in a new beginning, you feel like everything is possible, right? A lot of us come here, I think, we have goals, we have an aspiration I think for ourselves, too, the monks and the nuns in the community we should also have the goals and aspiration, even though this is home, but it's a new season and every season we want to feel and see that we can enrich our life more, and we can enrich our Dharma body more. So we need certain moments in our life that contain momentum to push ourselves. For myself, every winter retreat is a time to revisit my aspiration. just like I shared, just to come back to my bodhichitta, my beginner's mind. Come back, ask yourself, what is it again that made me a monk? What is it again that made me a nun? and for our lay friends, what is it that made me come to Plum Village to practice? And when you are in touch with that, and you can answer that, then you can see, ah, first of all I want to be here, and when you want to be here, that's a source of energy. I hope nobody forced you to be here because when you see that you want to be here, then your attitude also changes. Your attitude towards living in the community, your attitude towards the activities, your attitude to the practice. I've been a monk for 15 years now, and yes, sometimes it gets boring. And sometimes I take it for granted. I'm like, oh man, I gotta go and sit again! you know, oh man, I got to line up and eat, have cold food... and then sometimes you're in line, you hear the scraping sounds, oh man, the cooking team didn't cook enough food again... you know? so there are moments like that you know we all go through, and there are moments sometimes that if we are not careful, then it carries us away, that carries us very far away. So the winter retreat for me is always this rebutton this button to click, to restart, refresh. And we all know, for the monastics, at the end of the winter retreat, we all get this report card, right? we all get this shining light letter, that tells us the things that we have enriched ourselves in, and things that we need to put more energy into transforming, or put more energy into training. But for me it's like, why do I have to wait until the end of the retreat? Why do I have to wait until the closing ceremony to receive that letter? Why don't I see that right now, right here? This is a new opportunity. This is a new start to refresh oneself. And it's funny, like, as a monk, I live in this community, and I would say, I have all the best conditions to enrich my life in the practice of mindfulness, in the practice of sitting, of walking or studying. But sometimes, when I go on a home visit and I say, okay, I'm gonna make the best out of this, I'm gonna... every day I'm gonna wake up at five o'clock, drink tea, there's no schedule, I can do whatever I like I can sit as long as I want, I want to read as much as I want, so but then I ask myself, but why can't I do that in this community? Why can't I do this in this environment, where this is home? This is my field! This is my field where I have planted all these seeds that I want to harvest. and I just see, it's just a state of mind. The mind is a painter, right? So sometimes we have to mentally tell ourselves, this is a new beginning. We have to refresh that button. We have to refresh our aspiration, we have to refresh our practice. And each and every one of us has now 89 days to do that, and when you look at it, that's a lot. That's a lot of days, a lot of opportunities. and what I've learned to do is, I have to learn to break down. I break down my aspiration, I got to break down my goals. So like I said, we may sometimes carry a very high expectation for oneself, and then there's a moment you say, oh I'm not I'm not giving myself 100%. Then you start to lose motivation and then you lose your energy of wanting to arrive at the goals that you set. So as a practitioner, you have to learn to break it down, we have to learn to break our aspiration down, break our goals down. Don't just try to be a fully enlightened Buddha. See and value the part time Buddha that we can become. So we have to take the baby steps. For example, Thay gave us many homeworks throughout the years. I remember one year, Thay printed out for each and every one of us it's like a business card and it said, 100% . and anything we do, we have to see, I want to do it 100%. So you got to break down your day. Today, our aspiration is to be mindful throughout the day. That's the aspiration. Reality? Not so much. So we have to be real and we have to choose. All right, today, every time I open the door, I'm gonna close the door mindfully. Make that a practice. And the next week, choose something else. The moment I see the brother, the sister I don't like, I will smile. I don't need them to smile back but I will smile to them. That's a very difficult practice, but that's our aspiration right? To grow compassion, and to grow understanding. Another aspiration, every moment I come into the hall I don't wait until I sit in the hall to practice sitting, but the moment I'm in the hall, the first step I take, that should be a step of mindfulness. so, be skillful, be creative, and make these small aspirations into reality. Make these small goals into reality. and when you can taste the fruit of those practices, and you can see those achievements, then you see, ah, I have the capacity to do this. Not only Thay can do this, not only my elder brothers and sisters can do it, but I can do it, too, and when you can taste and you can feel and you can recognize those fruits of practice, that gives you so much more motivation. It gives you more aspiration, like when you help somebody, you get back so much, that's the same. When you can see the goals that you set and you can do it, it gives back to you so much. And at the same time, it gives to the community just the same, to the collective practice and collective energy of the Sangha. [gong sounds] So take this opportunity to rekindle our fire. We all have a very strong fire at the beginning, and for some of us, the fire has dimmed down quite a bit and we need to rekindle, we need to relight that fire, we need to enhance it again. Because with that, it gives warmth within, and it gives warmth to our aspiration and our goals, and it gives purpose. A feeling that we have a purpose. It's so important because the purpose brings connection, and connection is something that is very important in community life. For some of you who are here for three months, this may be the first time you're living in a room with eight people together. You're sharing the space and this practice is very deep, it's a practice of no self. You see, their well-being is your well-being. And your well-being is their well-being. Their happiness is your happiness. Your happiness is their happiness. And you get to learn, you get to see somebody else's transformation, and somebody else's practice. And this is something that is very meaningful. It's something you will remember, because it will also touch you. Touch the roots that you have planted in this community, and for monastics we also have the opportunity, every winter retreat we get new roommates. We change rooms and we get new roommates. And this is also an opportunity for us to learn, to really learn to be open to our new brothers, our new sisters in a room, and also the practice of no self, seeing them in you and you in them, and the support that you can offer, it's not just for them, but it's for you too. and one of the things that I have learned when living with somebody is that their transformation sometimes is your transformation. Sometimes they transform something and it moves inside of you, too. and you kind of thank them, thank you for practicing now I don't have to do that. But at the same time, the things that you are practicing and that you are transforming, enhancing, also affects them. And in our practice, that's called the interbeing, interconnectedness. In the community, taking refuge is a practice. Refuge here is not just a shelter, but also, sometimes we have to learn to surrender ourselves to the community, and sometimes we have to learn to borrow the energy of the Sangha. Sometimes, our teacher would say, when you're feeling down, and you feel like you want to be alone, that's actually a time when you need to be with the Sangha, to borrow and to take the collective energy of the community. Sometimes when you're feeling down, if you're feeling weak, oh yeah, maybe I'll skip sitting meditation today, the community will understand, I'm feeling down, I'm feeling weak. They'll say I need space, but actually, if you go, and you sit, and then you take in the collective energy of the community, that may be actually what you really need, that energy of the community, this collectiveness. So the community is there, and we all will be challenged at times, like, do I go with the community or do I not? Do I go, do I not? and sometimes this yoyo, this back and forth, back and forth, sometimes you just gotta learn to let go, I just go, I just flow. That's part of our training in the monastic community and the Zen tradition so sometimes we have to see not just our own needs, we'll have to see the collectiveness. that sometimes are our own thinking is what's distancing ourselves more and more, but when you learn to be embraced and to surrender that can enrich yourself much more. So that is something I think each and every one of us will be challenged with throughout this winter retreat from time to time. and just remember, sometimes learning to let go is what is needed. Let go, just go for it, why not? Give it a try. Just like the courage why not? I'm here for three months, you know? So all of these moments that we have here together, will later become a past. and so every moment is a precious moment and there's a moment for you to draw and to paint. The practice, the Sangha, are the paint, they are the brushes that we give to you and each and every one of us will paint our own picture, and we'll paint our own foundation in this winter retreat. I hope we make use of the paint and of the brush and of the paper that the community is offering for us, so that in the future when we look back, like, wow, those three months were really rich, those three months really enhanced my life. And as for a monk or a nun, wow, those three months being with the community, the collectiveness, really helped me develop, really helped me grow. So every moment that we have, eighty nine more days, they're all opportunities . So you become the painter now and you have to paint this picture that for the future can become a foundation, and that can become a beautiful past. A few days ago, I received a letter from a friend in England who I don't know, but wrote to Thay and the community, and our friends shared that a few years ago, he was training to do the marathon, but he fell into an accident which fractured his spine, and through the healing, there was some obstacle, where now he cannot move a lot and cannot go very far. And through that pain and through that suffering, he found Plum Village. And guess what? Through YouTube. And from YouTube he expanded to books, and then following Thay's Facebook page and following Plum Village Facebook page, and I didn't know this, but apparently there are people who do also follow our winter retreat through Facebook. So they also apply the same principle of the schedule in their daily life, and they follow the Dharma talks that are offered throughout the winter retreat, and our friend shared that he has done two winter retreats with the community via Facebook... I was like... wow! and here we are physically in Plum Village here we are physically with a community, monks, nuns, lay men, lay women how rich and how lucky we are! So after reading that letter I said okay, you know, I can't take this for granted. This is such a rich and such an important moment for me. So I wish everyone a very happy and successful winter retreat. So let us be there for each other, let us enjoy the practice and let us enrich our lives, so that we can also enrich society that very much needs the collective energy that we cultivate here. Thank you, brothers and sisters
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