Dharma Talks / Discourse on Taking Refuge in Oneself

Br Pháp Dung

(Bell) (Bell) (Bell) (Bell)

Dear respected teacher, dear sangha, today is November the 29th in the year 2018, and we are in Upper Hamlet in the Still Water sitting meditation hall. And we are on our lay day. A lay day is all our lay friends are here, for long term, some are here for three months, some are here for a year, two years. So it is a very beautiful rains retreat tradition.

Today is also a monastic day. I think they are in Lower Hamlet. When I first came into Plum Village, we didn’t have monastic day or lay day. There are maybe 45 monks and nuns, we can all fit in Thay’s hut. On Thay’s deck. That has grown bigger and Plum Village became more, how you call it, more a place of refuge.

Somehow, the monastics, we were like very small. So during the year, we hardly get to see each other to practice together and look at some of the things within the monastic community. So slowly, there was that need. And the same thing with lay friends. More and more came, and they stay longer. And many of them became OI members and Dharma teachers. So we feel very grateful that the fourfold sangha grew together. And we wouldn’t be able to have a monastic day without solid, stable, happy, harmonious, peaceful, lay friends, our sisters and brothers who are – We are very grateful here in Plum Village, that you dedicate your life to come here, not just long-term, but some of you are thinking of moving here. Some already have moved here.

Before coming in here, I saw a baby. I think there is a family here that lives in Thénac, I think you know. There are two babies in Plum Village. I knew them when the mother was having the belly bulging, the first baby. So I always look at the couple and I say, ‘What have I produced in these last three years? They produced two babies!


So what do I do here? What kind of love. It’s from love that you – And your hope and your- You have a kind of love for your child, and so on. So this is a kind of mantra for me. I when I see the farmers too, when they work on the farm, like now, they are clipping the grape vines. I used to, as a novice I came here many years ago, in my second year I used to walk by them and I felt really you know, they are doing a lot of work. All I do is walk around, eat, and sit, and


maybe wash a few dishes. But what do I do? I mean, it’s cold, their hands in the – It’s very tough to be a farmer. And so sometimes I feel very like I live a very privileged life.

I left a lot of things, my bank account, my car, my blood family, my sisters, my nieces, my nephew. I live here. And once in a while, when I was a novice, it would come up. I felt kind of guilty. I remember feeling, Gosh! It is quite – So it may encourage me to really look into, what do we do here? What is it that we are producing, or offering to the world?

I remember my university friend came and visited me. She stayed for about five, or six days. And she was a kind of practitioner too. But I think we – She was not very happy with me, because we were architects together. And she felt that I was deserting our ‘save the world’ aspiration.

As a young college student graduating after working a while, you have very idealistic, you know, I’m going to save the climate! Save the polar bears! Or something. I wanted to save Los Angeles, make it a humane city, with trees, and nature, and everyone sharing, and – So you are very idealistic. And she said, she felt, she didn’t say it, but I could feel that she felt I was deserting our commitment. I think a few of us in college, we supported each other, we knew we wanted to help the world be a better place. And at a moment I said, ‘You know, I’m doing my part, I’m still working here, doing things’. And she said, ‘Yes! Sure! It’s easy for you to be in Plum Village!’ She felt like I was hiding here. I haven’t talked to here for a while. I think in a few years we will come back together and we will do inventory. How much have you helped the world? And how much have I done? It’s very – What do you call it? You know, gross national happiness kind of thing.

What have you produced? How have you been useful? This is a kind of a way of thinking that I was trained in in America. I just share with you how Plum Village has grown so much. And I think now I am a few more at peace and at ease with what Plum Village is and what is doing as I grew more into this community and into the practice, and looked more deeply at ways we can help better the world. Some of you who have been here at least one year, or two years, you see so many kinds of people go through here, and the kind of breakthroughs they have in their heart, in their mind. The kind of reconciliation they have with their loved ones. The happiness and peace they manage to generate. As well as we do see anger, and irritation, and frustration, these kind of daily things. Their eyebrows become a little bit more – That is already a great plus.

The monastics, we, sometimes after a retreat we come back to our room, and our residence, we say, ‘Did you see how his face changed?’ Just one week. After one retreat, from the day a person comes, and after seven days, the face – And I think some of you are feeling that. Maybe not in your face, but in the body, maybe the way you chew. So for me these little things, I began to look more deeply as a kind of a – I don’t want to say it’s what we do over here. It’s not what we produce, but it is a kind of what Plum Village is about. A place for healing, transformation, as well as for nourishment, and inspiration. You’ve been here for the Wake Up retreat, five hundred young people, wow! They come here and their battery is – Full capacity. And they go out there and save the world. Good luck!


But it is good. Young people need a place where they – Because it’s tough! We are living at a very tough period. Not tougher than in the Middle Ages, or like – Or the Barbaric times and so on. But it is a tough time, because of the media, and the amount of stimulation.

Every time I go back to the US and I visit my family, I see that it’s so hard to raise a family, to raise a child now. So I feel a lot of inspiration to create more conditions for families, supporting families, parents, brothers and sisters. So that is my reflection. The fourfold sangha growing and making Plum Village be meaningful, is Thay’s greatest wish, to create many Plum Villages around the world. Ways – How we call it, places that are not good for their economy. I have a list I’ll share with you just to make to laugh. I’m making a list, what Plum Village is not good for.


And one of the first ones is, Plum Village is not good for the economy.


Because people would come here, and over, and over again, after we see them, they quit their job.


That is the first thing. They stay and, ‘How come you’re here for two weeks?’ – ‘I quit my job.’


Before it was very hard for them to find one week. And I see them again and I say, ‘You are here for two weeks, really?’ ‘Yes, I quit my job.’ And it is classic. If you see somebody hanging around here a long time, it is probably not good for their economy.


I thought you would laugh. The other one is Plum Village is not good for your self-image. You know, that one is hard, uh? I came here and I was from L.A. and, you know, I was very gangster and – And people start to tell you a lot of things about yourself. And you kind like, mmm, – So your high identity and your, kind of your – You know, in a Dharma discussion that happens, you know? People start to break down their, what do we call it, their veil and they get to really be who they are. And it’s such a liberation to be who you are without fear of being judged. You have to put something up for your parents, for your mother, your father, your friends, society. You don’t have to do that here. Wow! So it is really bad for your self-image, that is what I mean. The other one, you are not going to like this one. Plum Village is not good for your relationships.


It is really – You thought you were doing well in your relationships and then you come here and you realize, ‘Oh my God! I’m -‘


Yeah? So you have to really look again at your relationship. You know, this may not apply to you, you may be fine in your relationship, so, don’t fix it if it is not broken. Okay? I only say it from a few observations. People really have to look at their relationships. You know, they are attached, they are projecting, so on. Or maybe their partner is projecting and attached. So these are kind of – And then, something happens. Some of the couples become monks and nuns, so –


It’s like, ‘I don’t like this double relationship. I want a monk type relationship.’ Anyway, I just share a little few things. Anyway, let get serious, because I was asked to share with you about a sutra. So let be a little Buddhist about it. So I was asked to share about the Discourse on Taking Refuge in Oneself. And I think some of you have been around.

I won’t go through this sutra, but this is the topic today. How to take refuge in oneself. And what that means. And that is very – For me, it is one of the essence of Buddhist practice. It is a – You know, the Buddha at that time, when he was forming, there was a lot of, I guess, religions? A lot of devotional practices, a lot of rituals, a lot of things. There must have been a lot of suffering. People looking outward, looking for magicians, and ritual people that can help relieve their suffering. So this is the time that he was formulating most of his teachings. So people like looked for things that may help them connect to a God or something, a Savior, something would help them bring peace.

And also to, also to look for teachers. Even the Buddha did that himself. He went around looking for teachers to help him find a way so he can liberate himself. So you need to know the context. How the Buddha formulated the practice. In that way, you can copy him, in a way. Maybe understand deeply his life. This is a young man, 29 years old, looking for, like you are looking for when you come to Plum Village, or you find Thay’s books. We are on a search, spiritual search, a search for relieving our anger, our frustration, our suffering. And finding peace. We all have this kind of innate search to look for peace, happiness. As well as to relieve, and even sometimes to avoid suffering, or get rid of suffering. So we look for a teacher. So people did that. And the Buddha did that. And many disciples did that. Many of the teachers of other students found the Buddha and so on. And their students also turned to the Buddha. So there is this tradition throughout the ages, I think, for us to learn from our teachers, to learn from those who went before us. And I think, in this sutra the Buddha is very strong.

In this sutra, two other monks, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, the two eldest monks in the community. This is already the sangha has grown full, and many monks already following the Buddha. And these two monks have been teaching and are very well loved by the other young monks. And they have passed away. So this is –

And the Buddha saw that a few of the monks were affected. His attendant, Thay Ananda, was affected. I think he even fainted, Thay shared. He lost balance, as ,’Now what will I do? They are gone! Oh!’ So this is the context of the teaching of why the Buddha gave this teaching. Because there is a kind of attachment to the teacher. So in the sutra Taking Refuge in Oneself, the Buddha is pointing at you letting – You know that there is only one place that is the true security, that you will have refuge and safety, solidity and so on. And that is the island within, the island within oneself.

This is beautiful! When I first learned of this teaching, it just blew my mind. The island of self. You know, I mean self is a loaded word in our education growing up. Selfie, and so on. But the island of self here is a kind of quality that we – All the qualities that we think we don’t have, and we are looking for, out there, or in a book, in a self-help books. When you are suffering, the self-help books keep going. One reference, and then you go to the next one, and the next author. So we have this tendency to look outward for the answer.

This for me was a revolution. Thay and the Buddha told me, the way out is in. So the island of self here is to look inward. And more specifically, in the sutra is recommended that you look inward and to meditate. There is a phrase that says, “Meditate on the body in the body, nourishing Right Understanding and mindfulness to master and transform your cravings and anxieties.” That is the best instruction that you will get in terms of what the Buddhist path is. It is go back, look inside your body. And here the body is not, is just one word ‘body’, but it means the five skandhas. It means also the four foundations of your practice of meditation. The four foundations, the body, the feelings, the mind and the objects of mind, or the world. So those are the four foundations the Buddha has taught. So that when you say, ‘Look in the body’, the body means also the feelings, the perceptions, the mental formations and our mind. So the body here is also the body and how the mind works. So to be a good meditator you need to know about that, you need to know how this body works, you need to know how the mind, and how you perceive and work in the world.

And this is very important. If we don’t understand how your mind works, you will just keep entangling yourself. And there is a method to slowly begin to see the subtle ways and the more gross ways that our mind works. The gross way is, you know, when you sit and meditate, it is hard to tell, right? It is very subtle. Whether that person, how they are feeling or if they are really meditating. If they are doing the work. It’s hard to tell. They look very peaceful, but as soon as they stand up, and go to the door, and open the door and close it, you can see their mind. You see? That is very – That is the gross level. Do you understand? When you see someone rushing to the tea house, it’s very obvious. So the body can reveal the mind. When you see someone take hot water, he pulls the lever down, and how they take the hot water tells you something. It’s energetic. It is more subtle. So, slowly, with meditation, you can see, you train in gross, and slowly in more subtle. And how the body works as well as the mind. So we do separate it, but actually it’s one thing. Body and mind go together. But it is helpful to train, so the body sometimes can help the mind. Like opening the door.

If you train to open the door in a certain way, and you do it every time you open this door, then, what is the mind doing? So you are not just training your body, you are training your mind. That is why as novices, for three years we are very – The brothers look at how we move. How we flip our robe, how we find ways to put on our robe quickly, you know? Because we are not used to it. So as novice, for three years we have to train to master our steps, how we cook, how we sit, how we make tea, how we get out of bed. How our bed looks. The area where we put our things. How the room looks. We call them mindful manners. The first three years is very, very – So the training in the body is quite helpful at the beginning. Because the mind part, tougher. It is more subtle, because we are quite cerebral animals, we are very proud, we are Homo sapiens, Homo conscious. We are very smart. So as meditators, sometimes we are too smarts for ourselves. So the body helps us.

So here, when we say, “Look at the body in the body”, is to come back and use this vehicle, this body as a meditation. In another sutra, The Sixteen Exercises on Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha gave very clear instructions. And he uses the breath to observe the mind.

Here in Plum Village, you have experienced some of the guided meditations. They all go with the breath. In-breath, like this we managed before the Dharma talk, we heard a guided meditation. Breathing in, I see myself as space. Breathing out, I feel free. Imagine your body as space. And you feel free.

So with the breath we can actually learn a lot about our body. So the following the breath, don’t underestimate that. Maybe you’ve done it a couple of times, maybe follow your breath a few meditations and you, ‘Huh! This is like beginners!’ But be careful. Following the breath is a whole life’s work. So every time you sit, establish yourself right away to the breath. You breathe in, you recognize it is an in-breath, and find out where is it that spot that is most helpful for you. Sometimes it’s near the nose. Sometimes it’s the back of your head. Sometimes it’s around here. So, it changes. So we take the breath and we recognize it is an in-breath. You can out-breath. You recognize the out-breath. It sound like, ‘Why it has to do anything?’ But it is the secret. Sometimes – There is a poem in Zen. You take the silk of the lotus stem, you know, when you break the lotus stem and you pull the stem. And there is a very thin silk. Have you ever seen it? It’s very thin. It’s very light. And there is a poem where you say, “You can take one of those silks and you can tame an angry tiger.” It’s beautiful.

You don’t need a whip, you don’t need a chain, you just need a thin silk from the lotus leaf. And you can hold the tiger. Wow! I loved that image when Thay first taught it. So you don’t need – And what that silk thread is, is your breath. Don’t underestimate your breath. If you train your breathing, it can actually, it can really hold and bring back your mind. So with each breath, even a small little breath, you can bring your mind back. It is drifting somewhere. So these exercises it is what we do. We don’t clip vine, you know. The grape vines. We don’t build walls with bricks. Monastics here, what we do, what practitioners do here, is you train to have more concentration, more mindfulness, and more insight, more understanding. So with each breath, our mindfulness energy is generated, right? This is all we do! And the more we become consistent, the more strength it has. Even though it is still very subtle, this little silk thread can really hold you. And some of you maybe have already experienced it. You may have this wrong idea about something and it makes you very angry.

Just one breath, wow! Second breath, you are like, oh! I’m so glad I didn’t open my mouth! You already felt that? By the second breath you are already feeling gratitude. ‘Oh! I’m so glad I didn’t react to that one!’


That is the tiger, you see? The tiger now turns around and smiles. Ah! You know? Wow! I got out of that one! Those of you who have been angry, like I have been in the past, I can destroy many things. All the kitchen cupboards, all the doors, the table, all the knives. So you know what that tiger can do, right? But to master the tiger, wow! Now, that is the greatest gift. You know, you to be the CEO, and have a good company, and you got 500 employees, that’s great! But it’s incomparable to the CEO of your anger, eh? That is a great happiness.

When I was first able to do that, I knew this is something very, very precious. And I dedicate my life to finding out more. So this is what the power of the breathing, the exercise. The Buddha didn’t just give a whole teaching on the breath. Because, it’s what he does and what he sees can help. So don’t underestimate the conscious breathing exercise training, Okay? This is how you train to look at the body within the body. You sit, find the time, sit down. And be with your body. Most of the time in our society we are not taught that. Our body sometimes is in the way. It gets hungry? Why it has to get hungry! You just fill it up and then continue to work.

So we’ve never, in the society we don’t really value the miracle of having a body, that your parents gave birth to you. So there is a whole miracle, a cosmos in our body that we can actually come back to.

I remember the first total relaxation, Sister Chan Khong, in a retreat in Santa Barbara, I laid down, she asked to put our hand on our heart. My first time! Valuing my heart. Do you believe that? 29 years old. And the first time going, ‘Oh! Thank you, heart’ I never forget it. I was a very emotional moment of actually, ‘Gosh! I know what have I done to my body!’ So with mindfulness we come to cherish, and to value, and to protect our body and its energy. So we waste a lot of energy, and we hold in a lot of stress and anxiety in our body. So we learn to release, to relax. That is fundamental. First gross step. But it is nothing less than taking care of the mind as well. Because, you see it, it is the same.

When you feel sad, your body feels heavy, and your breath tight, find some place in the forest, find a quite place. And be with that. So, learning to feel your body in the heavy state, and not to go look for you know, a friend to listen to me. Those are needed too, but learn to be with your sadness. Take care of your sadness. There is a bamboo forest out here, a grove here. You can sit in the middle of the bamboos. It is very tight, you let it wrap you. And the bamboo grove here it is like it has mother energy. Find a place down there, in the oak grove. Be with whatever that is discomfort. This is coming back to oneself. We don’t go looking for, ‘Oh! -‘ Not all the time. Sometimes we do need a friend. But we need to become our best friend. So that is the feelings, eh? The body, the feelings. And feelings is both in the 4 foundations as in the 5 skandhas, feeling is separated out. It is also the mind. It is also consciousness, but the Buddha takes it out. And I always wondered why he takes perception and feeling out, and makes 5. Because you look at the way we work as human beings, feelings is huge, right? Everything is emotional, everything is either you like, you don’t like, it’s pleasant, not pleasant.

At lunch today, you see your feelings. You know, you feel you are not making contact with people, or you know, another feeling comes up. Then somebody comes and says Hi! to you, and you, ‘Oh!’ And then another feeling comes up. So we are feeling animals, we are emotional animals, right? If you don’t know how that works – It is like the weather, you know? The people, actually, some of my brothers, they follow the weather a lot! They say, ‘Oh! Tomorrow is going to be a great day!’ Or, ‘The next day is going to be sunny, it’s going to be rain, it’s going -‘ But you really never know, you know? When the day comes, it is like half rain, and then it is half sunny. But there is so much energy! It is like, whatever! Okay! It’s going to rain, Okay, it’s going to rain!


Your feelings, sorry to say, it’s kind of like that. So don’t get attached to it. You are feeling, Oh! Everybody is going so well! But then, tomorrow, ummm. Right?


I don’t mean – If you are going through a bad time right now, please, you know – It’s cool. But it is not the only place we need to be, eh? Just don’t always base yourself on the thermometer of your feelings. That is terrible! There is more things going on! So feeling is just one, Okay? The food is not good, but like, it’s wonderful to be hanging out here, and the sun is coming out. So there are other things going on besides. So feelings – But know how they work, know how they work.

Sometimes I read the newspaper, and I look at what kind of emotions, I look for emotions in the newspaper. I don’t read it for the news, because it’s all fake anyway. (Laughter) No, no fake. But like, you know, perspective, opinions. So I don’t get caught at their facts or what really happened, because next week you have another article that says something else, right? So something you look at the newspaper, as looking for feelings! That one is greed, and that one is anger, that one is jealousy, that one is – It is a very good exercise. You see the human drama. And that helps you, it helps me become a little bit, I don’t want to say a little bit more even, I don’t want to say detached, but like just careful. Not to let it be overwhelming. I’m having a good day? I’m having a good day. I’m not, ‘I’m having a good day!’ I’m having a good day. It’s a great day. It is a good day. It’s a nice day to be alive. So I had to train that.

I came from a culture where everything is superlative. ‘Wow! It’s so nice to see you!!!’ You know?


Sorry, I’m making fun of myself. Everything is super, you know, is superb! Everything is grand! Nothing can just be like, ‘Yes! It’s a beautiful day. It is.’ It truly is. So these feelings, you explore and find that place where the feeling doesn’t move you. That is taking refuge in oneself. You know how to take care of your feelings.

If I ask you, ‘Do you know how to take care of our emotions?’ You have to say, ‘Yes.’ If you are a practitioner, you cannot be beat up by your feelings. You have to know. It is not to say, don’t have feelings. Yes, be sad, be angry, be irritated, be judgmental, be whatever. There is many, many. And you know how to take care of it. Wow! That is the island of self. Taking care of oneself. So the body in the body, the feeling in the feeling. So don’t deny yourself, just don’t deny yourself from feeling the unpleasant feeling. Eat something that you don’t normally would like to eat. Right?

Why is it you just go after feelings that make you feel pleasant and you like, and why you just choose things that you like? Why don’t choose something that you wouldn’t normally like, and feel how that feels? Anyway, I’m sharing with you my kind of weird way of training, eh? Only do this if it works with you, Okay? I am a very, how we call it, I’m a very tricky person. So I have to trick myself. So if you are that kind of person, then this probably makes sense. So you know, I do this so I become more resilient. I have choices. It means that. When you only choose things that make you feel good, you don’t have so much choices. Because sometime they are not going to be there. And we are going to have nothing! So, explore pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, neutral feelings.

Neutral feelings, Thay has an interesting thing about neutral feelings. We can look at something neutral, like brushing our teeth. What is so pleasant about brushing our teeth? I remember first coming across Thay teaching us about this. And it was really hard to – I had to really do it! I mean, you never think brushing your teeth is something that you can enjoy, right? Who ever had that? Some of you, I’m sure. But most people, brushing your teeth is hygiene, you know? You just – Or even going to urinate. Strange, eh? I never thought of it as something to enjoy, until Thay told me one time, he walked into the forest, toilet has this tendency to get away. And Thay looked into the maples outside the Omega practice center, in the US. And Thay enjoyed urinating. And I remember the first time I heard that from Thay at a retreat, and I, ‘Wow!’ You see? It used to be neutral for me. It was like, you know, Who ever thinks about enjoying peeing? But you see the difference? We think, ‘Oh! Only when we eat or we drink our favorite drink it is pleasant.’ But actually, the releasing we think is unpleasant. ‘Oh, we have to go pee! Oh, we have to go defecate! Or we -‘ It’s just something – But it’s amazing what Thay is revealing to us. For me, it was mind-boggling, it was like, wow! And I remember the first trying. It was quite amazing, you know? The birds – It’s not something you have to get rid of and do it quickly, and you have to hide. So this is taking something neutral, what you think is neutral, and turning it a little bit. You see? So whatever you think – I used to think folding clothes is neutral. I get it done.

So I began to apply it to all aspects of my life where I can of like – you know, it’s just gray. You just do it, you fold your clothes. But then I remember, ‘OK, I’m going to enjoy folding my clothes.’ Because we don’t have irons, I don’t use an iron. So I make it – If you fold it correctly, and you pack in, and you stack it tight, it irons itself. (Laughter) I know, it is – It’s not good for the electricity, you know? The company, the electricity company. But you – Now, when I do my clothing, I fold my clothing, at least 30 minutes, maybe. I don’t count, but it takes a while. Because I get everything lined up, the seams, and – It’s a little bit – What is it? Obsessive? OCD, or something?


Something like that. It’s borderline, kind of. But I’m smiling and I’m really enjoying it. And my brother, my room-mate, he knows not to bother me. So it is also the time for meditation. You breathe – And I’ve found ways to fold it where I can get it pretty, pretty smooth. So that is a kind of another one, eh?

Folding clothes. It used to be neutral, it’s not neutral anymore. It’s actually – But it’s not like, ‘Oh! It’s the time to fold clothes!’


It’s more like, ‘Ah! I have clothes!’ So I use that time to be grateful. You know, I have a rip in my pants, and I see, ‘Oh!’. And I try to value it, and keep using it as long as I can. So it’s a gratitude too to my clothes. It’s not just – Anyway. You see, I have a few more like, cutting my nails. I share this with you. It used to be neutral. Cutting your nails. And your toenail. Now, when it’s time to cut my nails – Enjoy it! Specially your last toe.


We really underestimate our last toe. ‘You are good for nothing! What are you doing down there?’


There is little excuse for a toe, right? Did you ever look at the nail of your small toe? Ah! It’s so cute!


Anyway, it’s really enjoyable. Because I had my toe infected. And you know when you have infection on your toe. So when I cut my toe, I am very careful and I appreciate and I am so grateful, to every toe. So it sounds funny, but for me, it is these little things, right? Of how you take care of yourself. Don’t underestimate those little things. Something that you love to do, don’t deprive yourself of it. Right now, when I am in big trouble, when I start to, ‘I don’t have time for it right now.’ Do you know that one? ‘OK. Maybe not this week. No, no no.’ It’s kind of like I don’t deserve it, or I don’t have time for it, or this is more important. So be careful with that. You do it this week, you do it more next week, and so on. This is a way of slowly not taking care of yourself. So these are feelings. And we move into the area of mind. Mental formations and objects of mind. So it is the way we think, the way we perceive, and what we have ideas about the world. So remember this, Okay? So, the mind is also mental formations, the mind is what happens, the ideas, the thinking, everything in your mind. And the way you perceive the world, the dharmas, how you see things. And this is the fun stuff.

You have a lot of ideas about yourself. You have a lot of ideas about the world, about the people, and your place in it. Those are ideas, notions. And you need to know that those are notions. They are not truth, they are not real, they are not – You made them up. Sorry. That’s the part for me that was like, wow! I did make it up! And if you are on the path, this is a very cool thing to watch, how your mind works, and how the world works. And this is how we are in the world, right? So a person who knows and becomes aware of how her mind works, is a little closer to being free. So here the objective is to be free. So this is, you have to ask yourself, what are some notions, some ideas that keep us tied. So in the five skandhas, we have feelings, and we have perceptions, right? And then mental formations, and then consciousness. The area of perceptions that Thay the Buddha also takes out. It is also part of mental formations, or of mind, right?

So why did the Buddha take out perceptions? That was always a question of mine that helped me begin to see more, and understand more. When we talk about perceptions, we usually think that there is something out there. But in the Buddhist teachings, and what he found, is that actually the one who is perceiving and what is out there come together. They cannot be separated. This for me was a good exercise, a good way of contemplating how we perceive things and we think it’s real, it’s out there. But it is actually – The famous example is someone sees a snake, right? And runs away. And then, when there is light or a flashlight, he comes back, and looks, and he sees it is not a snake. It is just a stick on the ground. So there is a lot of that happening, but there is a strong tendency in us as humans to think that’s really how reality is. And one way of observing this is sometime you feel sad, and the way you will look at the world is a little bit different, the way you look at the day, Plum Village is still Plum Village, bit if you are handling some kind of strong feeling, a resentment, or sadness, or anger, how you experience Plum Village is very different from someone else. So it is the same environment, but everyone in this room is perceiving it differently. This is a good thing to be aware of. Because the calligraphy that Thay wrote, ‘Are you sure?’ that is what it is referring to, referring to your perceptions.

Don’t be too sure that that is all that is happening. This is something that helped me in my practice to observe, and to begin to see, it depends on my attitude, my way of perceiving. And when we, when we are very sure about something, it’s usually, there is a lot of suffering involved with that. Did you notice that? Sometimes it’s very easy, you notice when two people are having difficulties with each other. If you share room with 4 or 5 people, sometimes there is two people, in that room maybe there is ten people, there is two people having a lot of difficulties with each other. And it is related to how they are perceiving something. But you are the lucky one, you are the tenth person in the room, and you are like, ‘Wow! That is an interesting way of looking at it.’ And then you go to the other person, and it is like, ‘Oh! Yeah? I can see your point too.’ And then you are the other point, the tenth perspective, and you are not suffering. You are not angry, and you are not angry at them. But why are they angry at each other? Have that ever happened? In families is kind of like that. If you have siblings, it’s very interesting. One of the ways that I began to see more of this, is when I’m not involved in it. It’s like, ‘Gosh! Why they just drop that idea, and drop that idea, and everything will be Okay.

No. No.

You see? Are you sure? ‘I am sure. This is what happened.’ I say, ‘Okay.’ ‘No, I’m sure this is what happened.’ And you begin to, wow! This is the gist of it. And you can see it happening when you are not involved. And the more you see that, the more you are very unsure when you are sure. So when you are really sure, you better be careful, because there is probably going to be some suffering involved. So this is in the area of ideas, right? You may have a lot of notions, and usually, ‘There’s a way of doing this, how come are you not doing it like this?’ I like it to be done like this. Usually it doesn’t go outside of that. Humans are so habitual animals. So anything outside of your usual, and you suffer.

The perceptions also are created by the way we were raised, another aspect, Okay? So the more we begin to understand ourselves, our parents, our society, then we can begin to recognize that this is how we perceive things and it is only one way of perceiving it. It doesn’t mean you go around don’t perceiving, like, ‘Um, I’d better not look at that. Not judgment there.’ No, go ahead, but be aware that this is not the only way of looking at it. Like, you know, the food. You like this kind of food, it’s good! Enjoy it, you know? Don’t say, ‘Oh! I don’t have an opinion. Um, it’s Okay.’ It means, do it but not be caught by it, by, ‘That is the only way of perceiving it.’ So I see sometimes people misunderstand this, and they are very afraid of perceiving. They are very protective, you know? But it’s Okay. But the world of perceptions, the world of perceiving is also wonderful. So we also have to train how to look. How to have the right view. So when you perceive something, and you want to hold on to it, but it is impermanent, then you suffer.

So this is the area of mind, eh? That is in the exercises, the sixteen exercises, the Buddha also recommends us to look at it. To look at things, to perceive things, as impermanent. The hardest part is seeing your loved ones and seeing your friends as impermanent. That is the toughest one. Thay one time shared that his practice is to wake up for the new day and look at his students as if it is the first time. And he shared that it is difficult. But it is a practice. You know, maybe in five years I will believe that, but like moment to moment, yesterday, I look at you and, mmm, yes you are different, but – And so on. Ourselves as well. We might have been something yesterday, then we don’t allow ourselves to be impermanent today. That is the hard one. Because, we all know, I’m like this. I’m only like this. I come from this culture. I’m like that. I am PhD, OCD, ADD, I, what? all those – It is about the D’s around, disorders, right? You know, you go to a therapist and they tell a certain thing. You’re A, you’re type A, you’re type B, you’re – There is so many categories! You are Scorpio, you’re Cancer, or something. So these things, if we are not careful, we box ourselves. So maybe we have some of that, but that is not all of us.

We are a continuation of our parents, but we are also a living, organic, growing, evolving being, right? That for me is what impermanence helps me to see that we are part of a process. Human beings are not just – You know, like a figure that you move. And reflecting on ourselves when we were 18 years old is very helpful. Reflect on oneself when we were 35 years old. And some of us can reflect on when we were 50 years old. When we were 5 years old.

So this meditation builds in us a way of looking at the world. This is a way of taking refuge in oneself. You train yourself so that you have a way of looking at the world. You see, that is the refuge. The refuge is not this body, or this world, or this teacher. That is what it means when you take refuge in the island of the Dharma. Some people say that Dharma here is the truth, the law, but here it is the practice. Or more specifically here is a way of looking. The Dharma is also a practice of looking at things in a certain way. You see, the refuge? That is strange as a refuge, you think like an island is a refuge, or a person is a refuge, or – Like a figure, you know. The president is a refuge, sometimes, yeah.


Oh! I get in trouble. Your parents is a refuge. We have these ideas, right? But they are changing, impermanent, and so on. They are not very so reliable. What is reliable? That is a good question. If you are here, you should be asking that question, what can I rely on? Thay? The monks and nuns? My Dharma friends? Plum Village? It will be here forever. The sun will shine. You have these notions, you know? But what is it when they say, ‘Rely on the Dharma’? What is it? It is a way of looking at the world. It is a way of viewing the world, the Right View. This is what you are training to take refuge in. That way, whatever situation you’re put into, the way you look at it, you will suffer or not suffer. You will be at peace, or you will be disturb. That is what it means to have craving and anxiety alleviated. There are things we crave for, and we want to hang on to, that disturb us. Because we don’t know how to look at it.

So Right View is an ongoing process. Our views can always improve. And the best, like the person, the tenth person in the room, you don’t have a point of view. That is amazing! You don’t have a view. That is the greatest view. And you know that. And with the example I gave you, the ten roommates, two, three or more arguing, and you are the tenth roommate, and you are like, ‘I don’t have a point of view. Sorry guys!’ Who is the – Of course you are suffering, because your roommates are suffering. But you see what having no view is? That is just a gross example.

But in politics, you are left, you are right. Both sides have a point. So you try – Anyway, I don’t want to get into views here, get in trouble. So, we will – So the area of mind. Know how the mind works. There are ways to study I won’t go through here, but Thay has taught in detail about the mind. You can look at it in the book Understanding Our Mind, or The Teaching on Manifestation Only. So there is a whole teaching on Buddhist psychology that you can go through. Thay has spent a lot of his years clarifying for us the teaching on how our mind works. And we need to know how our mind works if we are wanting to alleviate and to be helpful. Because this is what we use to – If we look at a certain – It is the instrument which we are working with when we work in the world, right? When we work with other people. So you need to know how your mind works, and the mind outside the mind.

So the second phrase is the, “To look at the elements outside the body, and in -“ “To meditate on the elements outside the the body in the elements outside the body” That is your world, and how the society works. You need to know how that works. And the more you know, the more you have a choice not to participate. So this is something – A very clear example of – Recently they had a Thanks Giving, after Thanks Giving a Black Friday shopping, yeah? I heard a few thing about it. It’s hilarious. So that is how society works, you know? They want you to buy things, right? And there is – this month? December? It’s going to be very hard to resist, spending, uh! I recently shared with my brother, ‘If I receive a gift that is handmade from the recycle department, I open it, and it’s wrapped in like, you know, recycled wrapping paper, and it’s made by hand from bottles and cups, and glued together, and I pull it and it moves. I appreciate it, but there is a part of me that says, ‘Man! Why didn’t you buy me something?’


Yeah, something that is like, you know, it has a tag, and is wrapped, and it ‘s like, you know, it’s like produced! Mass-produced. Plastic wrapping. The tendency that we have, the way we view things, you know? This is really ingrained in me, from childhood all the way up growing up in America, you know? You get a present, it is not bought, it is like, ‘Ah, that is cheap!’


But look at the state of the world now. It changes the way you look. To appreciate something that is found in the trash, glued together and made out of love. So you have to move, pull it around, and – Wow! He spent time on this! It just took a lot of time! It is easy to go buy something on Amazon, and order it. All the packaging involved with it, it comes to your door, and then so on. That is so convenient! Gosh! Anyway, I’m just sharing with you how to look at things. It is a little bit brainwashing, you know. But it is my liberation, and it is my happiness. And it is a North Star. We cannot be perfect on it. So don’t be judgmental of others who do buy things. But I share with you is a clear example of how long it took me to resist and to change my way of looking and valuing things that are in the recycled area, or lost-and-found, or it is a leftover from my brothers, or I go to a storage and find a sweater. I had to resist getting something new. It’s a tough practice. But it is a – Anyway, something if you’ve been here around, the urge to buy something is so easy. Get online, click! And it comes in a box in front of the office. So that is a kind of changing a view of how we relate to the world. And it is very important. I share that kind of humorously, but it is huge in terms of how it is affecting other countries that make these products, as well as the plastics, and the wrapping, and things going back to the environment.

So nothing is, you know, how we call it – There is a cost to it. And so I think that is something in our generation, in our time now, we need to really, really look again. And so we have been taking refuge in that, the consumers – That was in the last hundred years, it has been our main refuge, right? To buy, and to gain, and to accumulate material things. I think it is time now to find a different way. We kind of look down at societies, or even certain drives now, like they are kind of backwards, they don’t have electricity, they don’t know – We thought that they don’t know how to () the land. But actually they are very humble about it. So we are finding new ways. It’s beautiful! We are slowly changing our viewpoints about past societies, we thought they were backwards, buy actually they produce less harm to the environment than, you know? So it’s another way of looking. So this is a training. That relates to cravings, anxieties. Anxiety about the future, the way we look at the future.

And there is something also I found liberating here is, the future is not something there that is going to come. The future is what I make of it right now. That is very liberating. So other causes, and other aspirations stuff we think we are going to go somewhere or that it is something that is going to come to us. But what I learned from Thay and the Buddhist teachings is, ‘I will make the future.’ What I do and choose to do today, and how I look at it. So your mind will affect the future. Because you don’t let it, you don’t let it get in. You don’t let the way they describe the world and the future be your only reality. Do you understand? It is all a stuff made-up anyway. Let’s make up a different story. It is very liberating. This is what we need. So our anxiety comes because we believe what they are telling us. So we need to recorrect and choose a course for ourselves. And that includes our having less impact on the environment, on our society, on other people, other animals and plants and so on. We have to look and see what, how we are impacting and reduce that. So I just end here. I’ll talk about a beautiful image that Thay shared with me as part of his teaching. He talked about a hut. After the wind, the storm, a window blew open, and the storm went in, and disturbs all the papers and everything is a mess. The person will come back to the hut, and slowly close the window, close the door. It is still windy and everything outside. And once he has closed the window and the doors, the papers start to settle. And this person begins to light a fire, in the fireplace in the hut. And outside it is still stormy. Slowly the fire warms the hut, and this person begins to pick up the papers, put up the table again, put the chair back, stack the paper, wipe the water that got through. It’s a beautiful image, eh?

This never left me, and still, I can still conjure it up. And it is an exercise, a visual exercise that I go through when I have a difficult moment, or I’m feeling kind of bluesy, feeling a little bit irritated, feeling a little bit lonely. How come no brothers are visiting me? Or why do I feel like I should go visit somebody, you know It’s just one of those days. And I go back, and I sit and watch the sun go down over there. And I do this exercise. It is a visual exercise, and I offer it to you for those who have not heard it. And it is something you do visually, I’m a visual person. And when I’m lying down or I’m sitting on a chair, and I see the hut, the rain, the wind. And I see myself going in the hut. And I do exactly as Thay had shared with me. Thay didn’t share it as an exercise. He told the story about a monk, I think it might be him. But I turned it into an exercise. And it has helped me a lot in getting out of strong emotions. Or kind of depress emotions. Or any kind of you know, something you don’t even know what it is, you know? It just feels – But it makes you restless. Whatever. Or you feel disconnected to your blood family in America, or something. It is just unpleasant. So I go through the whole exercise. I go in, and I make myself look mindful while I’m doing all that.


I’m probably rushing. But I’m very mindful in my mind, you know? I close the door gently, I’m not running, around trying to get everything tidy, but I’m doing it very slowly. It’s very pleasant, if you ever get a chance to do it. Kind of something that you can always, you can always turn on and do. So this is the island of self. You make a place inside yourself where you can rely on. And this is very important. Because there are many, many other journeys that you cross, right? Life is impermanent, and we will learn more. Wherever state you are in now, is not permanent. You will have challenges, you will have new things. It’s beautiful!

And some of that might be testing. But your are Okay, now you have a practice. And you have to train, and to build this hut. There is a poem here written by a poet (), a beautiful poem. And one of my brothers made it into music. It is in Vietnamese, yeah? But is says, (Vietnamese) It is like, ‘Please, make yourself some clouds and some sunshine. January, make it! And don’t just borrow from the Earth and the Heavens. Because one day, when the Moon is blocked, and it is far away, that in front of you the light of the Moon is still shining.’ It’s beautiful. And it reflects the Buddhist teaching that we need to learn how to create the sunshine, and the white clouds, and the moonlight in ourselves.

So anytime, when you do walking meditation, when you walk outside, when you eat, you can create this island that has the flowers, the water, the clear lake, the mountain solid. These elements are not out there. This is a way of practicing so that we become a more solid practitioner for ourselves, we become our refuge as well as we can provide refuge for others.

Unfortunately, the world needs more how we call it, solid refuge. And don’t make them attach to you though. You got to teach them also to make their own island. That is the task. So don’t get them, ‘Always come to me! Call me anytime!’ Because you will be burnout as well, you know? So our task, as we learn this, is to transmit it, to share to other people how to do it. The breathing, the body, the feelings, you see? It’s not complicated. You don’t need to read anymore self-help books. It’s in those steps. But you need to do it, that’s all. You need to train to – And when something unpleasant happens, it is an opportunity. That is one thing you always need to remember. I was lucky, my mother grew me up like that, always to see challenges as opportunities. She had to escape Vietnam because of the war, so it’s kind of easy, you know? To do that.

To see everything. You are out in the Pacific Ocean, on a boat with 200 people. Keep going! Don’t give up! I also have that contemplation. I am a refugee, and the only place now I can take refuge, not in America, not in France, not in any country, not in any president or CEO. So remember, we are all refugees. And the island is within here. That would be a very strong gift, a great gift that we will have for the holidays that are coming up. Holidays is a very trying time for a lot of people, because they don’t have a place of refuge. And the marketing, and the companies, and the – Amazon, they know this. They know you are unstable, most unstable in December. Marketing, simple!

The music makes you feel good, and you – So please be a refuge for the loved ones. And they need a different kind of present. And this is what you can offer to you loved ones. ‘Mum, dad, I have something so precious I want to give you. It’s my presence. I cannot wrap it up. But I want to let you know before it’s too late.’ That is what you can give them. Just a phone call! And it will change everything. Your siblings, your brothers and sisters, apologize, ‘Sorry. I was not there for you. But I don’t want to hold this resentment.’ So this coming month, December, please, give yourself a present, and allow yourself to be a refuge for those who might need it. This is a gift that we can offer to the world.

Thank you for being here, and for, you know, not giving – Going, staying on the boat, eh?

Another talk I think you all know you here is the island, I think Thay developed that, the island of the sangha, right? the island of the Dharma, and then the island of Sangha. And Thay has spent his whole life, and this is here. So you don’t need to have a teaching on that. So today, you can take refuge in the sangha. Just be with your friends here. Everyone here we have the same aspiration. We want to help better the world, we want to bring more peace, less anger and hate, less prejudice, less – So please, take refuge in your sangha, in your friends here. It’s also beautiful. But don’t get attached. Yeah? We are all flowing together. Thank you.





(Small bell)

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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