Memories from the Root Temple: Poetry for Heroes

Dear Friends, in celebration of our teacher’s return to Tu Hieu Temple, Vietnam, where he practiced as a novice monk, we would like to offer you a series of stories Thay has told of his time there. This is the fourth in that series, an edited excerpt from Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966“.


Poetry for Heroes

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Before the knights of old descended their mountain training grounds to rescue those in need, they trained a long time with revered masters in the martial arts. My training as a Buddhist novice consisted of one small book, Gathas for Daily Life. I learned to cook, sweep, carry water, and chop wood.

Some of us did not have enough time to learn the arts of cooking, sweeping, carrying water, and chopping wood before being forced to descend the mountain. Others descended of their own will before they were ready.

Thay, (back, right) and his fellow “heroes” at Bao Quoc Buddhist Institute, a short distance from Tu Hieu Temple.

Life waits patiently for true heroes. It is dangerous when those aspiring to be heroes cannot wait until they find themselves. When aspiring heroes have not found themselves, they are tempted to borrow the world’s weapons — money, fame, and power — to fight their battles. These weapons cannot protect the inner life of the hero.

To cope with his fears and insecurities, the premature hero has to stay busy all the time. The destructive capacity of nonstop busyness rivals nuclear weapons and is as addictive as opium. It empties the life of the spirit.

False heroes find it easier to make war than deal with the emptiness in their own souls. They may complain about never having time to rest, but the truth is, if they were given time to rest, they would not know what to do.

People today do not know how to rest. They fill their free time with countless diversions. People cannot tolerate even a few minutes of unoccupied time.

They have to turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, reading anything at all, even the advertisements. They constantly need something to look at, listen to, or talk about, all to keep the emptiness inside from rearing its terrifying head.

Present-day heroes think they are real heroes because they are so busy, but if we could see their inner lives, we would see desolation. Present-day heroes descend the mountain intending to transform life, but are instead overcome by life. Without fierce resolve and a mature spiritual life, private demons cannot be controlled.

Gathas for Daily Life was a warrior’s manual on strategy.

As novices, we were handed it when we entered the monastery and instructed to keep it close at hand at all times, even to use it as a pillow at night. The verses in it taught us how to stay present with our own minds in order to observe ourselves throughout the ordinary actions of daily life: eating, drinking, walking, standing, lying down, and working.

It was as difficult as trying to find a stray water buffalo by following its zigzagging tracks. It is not easy to follow the path of return to your own mind.

The mind is like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. It is not easy to catch a monkey. You have to be quick and smart, able to guess which branch the monkey will swing to next. It would be easy to shoot it, but the object here is not to kill, threaten, or coerce the monkey. The object is to know where it will go next in order to be with it.

That thin book of daily verses provided us with strategies. The verses were simple, yet remarkably effective. They taught us how to observe and master all the actions of body, speech, and mind. For instance, when we washed our hands, we said to ourselves:

Washing my hands in clear water,
I pray that all people have pure hands
to receive and care for the truth.

The use of such gathas encourages clarity and mindfulness, making even the most ordinary tasks sacred. Going to the bathroom, taking out the garbage, and chopping wood become acts infused with poetry and art. 

Even if you have the perseverance to sit for nine years facing a wall, sitting is only one part of Zen. While cooking, washing dishes, sweeping, carrying water, or chopping wood, you dwell deeply in the present moment.

We don’t cook in order to have food to eat. We don’t wash dishes to have clean dishes. We cook to cook, and we wash dishes to wash dishes. 

The purpose is not to get these chores out of the way in order to do something more meaningful. Washing the dishes and cooking are themselves the path to Buddhahood. Buddhahood does not come from long hours of sitting.

“Pushing wheelbarrows to push wheelbarrows” – mindful gardening on the Happy Farm, in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, France

The practice of Zen is to eat, breathe, cook, carry water, and scrub the toilet — to infuse every act of body, speech, and mind — with mindfulness, to illuminate every leaf and pebble, every heap of garbage, every path that leads to our mind’s return home.

Only a person who has grasped the art of cooking, washing dishes, sweeping, and chopping wood, someone who is able to laugh at the world’s weapons of money, fame, and power, can hope to descend the mountain as a hero. A hero like that will traverse the waves of success and failure without rising or sinking. In fact, few people will recognize him as a hero at all.”

 

Memories from the Root Temple:

Poetry for Heroes

Just a simple monk!

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
13 comments on “Memories from the Root Temple: Poetry for Heroes
  1. Josephssonoftheuniverse says:

    Greed hunger greed hunger.
    Prepare the way for …..
    Song…in a single day .
    Subject famine.singer.
    Christy mooor..
    Mission .compassion for all beings for all nature

  2. Many thanks for all your teachings. 🦋🙏🏻

  3. Kate says:

    Deep and heartfelt thanks.

  4. Anne Marie Wright says:

    This came just when I needed it. With immense gratitude to the Bodhisattva Thay.

  5. Hikari MacMillan says:

    thank you for these messages thay and again for opening as a semblance of a bridge or sanctuary when I passed by Plum Village. As a garden together, it was a beautiful message when my health was slightly compromised.

    it’s quite telling you are being able to enjoy some time at your root temple after these moments in history and conflicts and peace.

  6. Healing Ocean says:

    Master Du Ti 讀體 was a Chinese monk in the Qing dynasty. His work is called 毗尼日用切要. The Chinese version is found in http://buddhism.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/sutra/10thousand/X60n1115.pdf. And the english version in https://archive.org/details/presentmomentwon00nhat . This gathas were partially based on the gathas from Chapter 11 Purifying Practice 淨行品 in Avatamsaka Sutra.

  7. Robert says:

    This arrived for me at the perfect moment, on the night of the full moon when I couldn’t sleep with too many thoughts in my head. I have just become involved in Extinction Rebellion, an inspiring global direct action movement for the Earth, and this message from Thay is the perfect antidote for the dangers of too much activism and too little sitting. I bow in gratitude.

  8. Joe Reilly says:

    Grateful to have seen and read this today

  9. Farhad Nadjm says:

    Thank you so much

  10. Mary Latela says:

    Thank you for this meaningful essay.
    I agree that the everyday chores are part of our mindful connection with all others – from the tiniest speak to the cosmos. Repeat activities can stop being a reminder about drudgery and become an encouragement to see the value in small things. I am more awake – little by little. This is a shift in my thinking and ptactice, and I hope to receive encouragment and more help in avoiding MEASURING – like an accountant. This life is not a bookeeping lesson.

  11. k kelly says:

    how beautiful. it is not the normal life where ive & I would need constant supervision to remember to practice your mindful way of life. wish I could build it into my “must be occupied” life & after must lie dowm with exhaustion. however there is another way. soothing to read though! katherine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.