Welcome to episode 37 of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
This time, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino, are joined in conversation by Tom Rivett-Carnac. Together, they discuss the power that deep spiritual grounding has to support change in the world, as well as how to bring presence and insight into our daily lives and the global challenges we face; how to cultivate inner peace; and taking steps to make mindfulness a tool for individual and collective awakening.
Tom Rivett-Carnac is a political strategist, author, and podcaster who has spent more than 20 years working to address the climate and ecological crises. He is also a Founding Partner of Global Optimism, co-presenter of the well-known climate podcast Outrage + Optimism, and co-author of bestselling book The Future We Choose.
Tom also talks about his early-life experience as a Buddhist monk; spiritual development; coming together without egoic attachment to find collective solutions; and integrating practice and activism.
Brother Phap Huu talks about practices for collective awakening and how to not lose track of mindfulness in society’s busyness; training for the hard times; communities as support for the practice; touching enlightenment in daily life; finding peace in silence; being the change we want to see; and how Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings can serve people in times of crises.
Jo delves into the power of presence; letting go of views; and why ‘showing up fully at work’ may not work.
The episode ends with a short meditation guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis
The Way Out Is In: ‘The Three Doors of Liberation’ (episode 18)
The Way Out Is In: ‘Free from Views in a Polarized World’ (episode 36)
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
“I’ve done things in the last two days that I haven’t done for 20 years. Like just sit on a log and watch the wind in the poplars for 15 minutes. And how deeply satisfying that present moment can be. I feel very grateful to find that again. And the strange thing, of course, is it was always there. I was allowing myself to develop this sense of melancholy and regret, like it was this difficult thing that I’d achieved and forgotten. And then, coming back here, it actually seemed simple.”
“Spirituality, for us, is the refuge within that needs to always be cultivated.”
“When we speak about coming back to oneself in Buddhism, it’s not about taking care of the ego but finding all of the beautiful conditions that we want to cultivate outside, inside of us. Then we will have the ingredients to offer to the world, to the workplace, to our families, to our loved ones.”
“The necessary step that we all need to take is moving mindfulness away from being something that happens in isolation from the world, to something that happens while we are in the world and that the world can become a tool for.”
“The only way in which we have a sense of collective purpose is in the unity of how we direct our attention towards the present moment, towards the world that we’re living in, that we’re all working to protect, but which the busyness of that activity is preventing us from seeing.”
“I feel like I’ve spent half my adult life focusing primarily on presence and spiritual development, and the other half on raising a family, the problems of the world, and climate change – and now I feel like the interesting work is at the intersection of those two. I don’t feel like we can really advance unless we’re able to bring those two different elements together in ourselves, in our work, because we’re not really doing it at the moment.”
“The systems and the institutions that we have relied upon to see us through this great crisis don’t look capable of delivering what we want. So where’s the edge that we need to dwell with in order to move forward? I believe it’s the integration of how we’re living our lives, how we’re bringing presence and insight to our moment, to the moments of our life and the great challenges of our generation.”
“What we need is a collective awakening. Our teacher has said, ‘One Buddha is not enough anymore for our times, for our suffering, for the situations that we are facing. We need multitudes of bodhisattvas, of those who are selfless, those who know how to see the benefit of others as their own benefits, the well-being of the planet as their well-being.’”
“Even though what is being shared is so painful, instead of drowning and being overwhelmed by the sorrow, my breathing becomes my foundation. I’m still present with the suffering, but I can guide the suffering. And this inner work, we believe [it] is so necessary for everyone today, because what we are facing will bring up a lot of emotions and feelings and even a sense of despair. And we all need a place of refuge and we need communities. I truly believe that community is the way forward; we cannot do it by ourselves. There’s no superman that can change the situation. We really need a collective movement, a collective awakening, a collective practice.”
“It would be very easy to say, ‘I’ve spent ten years following my spiritual pursuits and 15 years working in the climate movement. Now I want to integrate them, I need to go away and think up a plan and come up with an ideology and a view that is one of integration.’ But all we will have done is add to the number of ideologies and views out there. So it has to be about creating an intentionality and a presence and a space from which something can emerge. And that process can probably neither be hurried nor slowed down, but [it also] can’t be born unless it has space to breathe.”
“The first thing that I feel will be important for me in returning to my life is the acceptance that normal life is different, and that I can’t expect perfection from myself. That in itself creates a relaxation. The best that we can do is bring more presence and more intentionality, and move in a direction that has that infused in it, and be able to let go of the things that distract us, the ideas that trap us – but that’s going to be a process.”
Dear friends, welcome back to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In. I’m Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Plum Village under the guidance of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
And brother, we have a very good friend today, Tom Carnac. And Tom is the co-founder of Global Optimism, the presenter of the very well-known podcast series Outrage and Optimism, and also the chief political strategist working with Christiana Figueres to bring about the successful conclusion of the Paris Climate Agreement.
The way out is in.
Hello, dear friends, I’m Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And as I mentioned, we have today our friend Tom Carnac. Tom, welcome.
Thank you. It is absolutely delightful to be here. I’m thrilled to be seeing the inside of the machine. It’s not really a machine, it’s the organic creature that is The Way Out Is In podcast. I am delighted to be with both of you.
So you’re very welcome. So, Tom, today we’re going to be talking about the power of spiritual, of a spiritual grounding in supporting change in the world. And so I wanted to kick off by, first of all, getting a sense of your spiritual tradition, because many people may not know that you were a Buddhist monk early in your life. So tell us a little bit about that first.
Wonderful. Well, very happy to. So, first of all, thanks again for having me. We’ll get more into this. But it has been wonderful to be here for the first time ever in Plum Village, these last few days. We’re sitting, as you always do in Thay’s hut. I’m watching my 11-year-old daughter swing in Thay’s hammock just outside the window. So this is a wonderful moment for me, and thank you for having me. So, yes, I have this background in my life of having been a monk, and it feels like a long time ago now, but it still shapes my worldview and really a deep part of my sense of identity and who I am. So I grew up, as many people did, not really having a sense of the deeper elements of life. We traveled around the world. We lived in lots of countries. My father looks for oil and gas. So many of my earliest experiences were looking for oil and gas in places like Colombia, or in the Middle East. But then, towards the end of my teenage years, I began to have this sense that I didn’t have any insight into the sequence of my thoughts. And it really disturbed me. It made me question my sense of identity and who I was and where I began and this phenomenon that was my mind left off, which I didn’t seem to have any control over or connection to. So that led me in the first instance to the teaching of S.N. Goenka, the Vipassana meditation teacher. And I started doing ten day silent retreats, and the first one of which I did in Northern Ireland in a sort of old scout’s hut when I was like 19 years old. And I remember having an experience the first three days of those retreats, you just focus on your breath and you get as close as you can to the breath. And of course, most of the time my mind was somewhere else, and shouting and I’m unable to sit still. But I had a couple of experience of feeling like I was in the best place that I could be in the world. And this was the work that I wanted to do. And I realized that wasn’t an old scout site in Northern Ireland. That was somewhere in me where I could begin. So I head back into the world and carried on doing these ten day retreats which I found deeply satisfying. And then, when I completed my degree, I went to Rangoon in Burma, in Myanmar, with no particular idea as to why, but still with this nagging sense that if I was going to be of any use in the world, I first had to understand myself to a greater degree. And as can happen in life, with the serendipity of actions, Goenka himself was there, in Rangoon, and I developed a connection and a relationship with him. So we spent a few months living in Rangoon where I would talk with him and get to know him. And this was one of the deepest periods of mindfulness training and cultivation that I’ve ever experienced. And in the end, he traveled around the country and I went with him. And at the close we were at a monastery in Sagaing, in the north of the country, near to Mandalay, and he was on his way back to India. And I realized that our time together was coming to an end. He left and I stayed, and I stayed in that monastery for about six months. It was not very… the teachings were not that available to me because not many people could speak English. So I just sat in meditation and observe my breath and observe my sensations and allowed that process to deepen with those months of quiet. But in the end, it was a sort of lonely experience and I needed a sangha and others around me. So I ended up transferring to one of Ajahn Chah’s monasteries in the north east of Thailand, Wat Pah Nanachat, which is near Wat Nong Pah Pong where Ajahn Chah lived, and I spent the next two years there living in a forest kuti, meditating, listening to dharma talks. And I, again, I mean, many people may have done meditation retreats, that are listening to your podcast, of course, they have. And the first period in which you engage in something like that is, is kind of awful because your mind rebels at the absence of sensory input, whether it’s a taste or a smell or a feeling, and when all of that goes away, your mind kind of rebels against it. But then, over time, that eases, and I’m saying this to people who know this very well, that eases and you can suddenly look around and see where you are on this planet. And that, some of the most profound insights or some of the most profound experiences of just being alive come from those very quiet days sitting in my kuti, staring into the forest. So that was my life. And of course, issues come up and sometimes they pass through. And in the end, I realized that the life of a monk was very satisfying, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I felt even then, this is the late nineties, early 2000, that the climate crisis was a rapidly unfolding emergency. And I felt I wanted to leave and become more directly involved in trying to help. So I disrobed in 2002, went back to the UK, and tried to carry on my practice, and I’m sure we’ll pick this up in the story, but my sort of naive thoughts or the thoughts I had then that I would leave and manifest the practice in the world, of course, the reality of that didn’t happen in quite the way I thought. The world’s a complicated, distracting and noisy place, which is why coming here now is reminding me so much of those years.
Yeah. So you haven’t been back in a monastery for 20 years. Give us a sense of what has it been like to come back? What is it reignited for you?
Well, what’s been interesting over the last years of my life is that because I had this very intense experience as a young adult of mindfulness cultivation, that then going back into the world with an intentionality to bring it with me and not really being successful in that because of the noise of the world, my relationship with that has become a memory of concentrated mindfulness and attention and living in the present moment. And now that I’m here, I’m aware, although I probably couldn’t put this into words at the time, that a sort of melancholy had settled on me, and the sense that I’d allowed myself to go back to sleep over those years. And coming here what’s been interesting, the sense of the place and what it invites you to do. The spirit of the people that I’ve met has meant that that’s just broken open for me again. And I’ve done things in the last… I’ve been here two days. I’ve done things in the last two days I haven’t done for 20 years. Like just sit on a log and watch the wind in the poplars for 15 minutes. And how deeply satisfying that present moment can be. I feel very grateful to find that again. And the strange thing, of course, is it was always there. I was allowing myself to develop this sense of melancholy and regret, like it was this difficult thing that I’d achieved and forgotten. And then coming back here, it actually seemed simple.
And Brother Phap Huu, when you hear Tom say that, because Thay often talks about, he said it’s in some ways much easier to be a monk or a nun because you are constantly surrounded by this sort of atmosphere of mindfulness, of relaxation, of peace, of intentionality. And that can be much easier than living in this very, very busy world, complex world, where we are constantly bombarded with things and leading very busy lives, trying to make change, having families, trying to pay the… do our taxes, do the shopping, all the stuff we have to do. Is that your sense that people often just lose track of mindfulness in all that busyness?
I think our language, we will say everything in needs conditions, and in a monastery such as Plum Village, the conditions are everywhere. Just like Tom has shared, it’s not just in the meditation hall, but it’s in even the energy. I know whenever I go out on a tour to give teachings in South America, in Asia, or in North America, and whenever I come back to Plum Village, especially Upper Hamlet, because that is my home, I do feel like I enter into a realm of presence, that it’s in the trees, it’s in the air, is in even the buildings. And we see that the investment that has been done in Plum Village is that the practice becomes a living organism, so it’s alive in the space. And this is a very supportive conditions for our spiritual practice. And this is why, for me, it’s so important that we need monastics in the world where there are people who will devote their whole life to continue to invest this energy of mindfulness, concentration, insight, compassion, presence. So to remind everyone that we have this already in us. So our understanding is everyone has awakened nature in them, Buddhahood in them. They do have the ability to deeply touch even enlightenment in their daily life. But they need the right conditions, they need the right environment to support them. It’s easier on the level for monastics is because this becomes our livelihood. But I just want to say that monastic life, especially in the Plum Village tradition, is not as simple as we may think, where we are not engaging to the world. If anything, the tradition of Plum Village, which Thay has founded it is deeply rooted in action. How we bring the teachings of the Buddha into daily life, which is how can we make every moment of life a moment of practice? But we need training. This is the truth is that we need training and we need support of conditions. And for us, a living community is a great support. But for us who don’t have these conditions, we can still make our life to have moments of mindfulness. I think sometimes one of the traps that can manifest when you start to practice is that you fall in love with it so much. And then you have the feeling like this is the key to happiness. And you get overambitious with trying to be super mindful in the world. But then when our own seed of mindfulness has not yet been so cultivated, we have only been able to recognize the breath, but we haven’t been able to recognize the breath when we’re angry yet. Because normally, in the retreat, we’re not triggered like that, because people who come to the retreat, their energy is very different. Their aspiration is… It’s clear that they want to cultivate inner peace for them. So we all support each other when we are in this retreat. And that’s where it creates your foundation. But what people forget is that the practice is a journey. And it’s not a one time thing. It’s not like you come to one retreat and you can have a check as one of the things you’ve done in life. And now you have spirituality. Actually, spirituality for us is the refuge within that needs to always be cultivated and to come into the world to have a spiritual practice is possible. I have met friends and people and I’m sure the two of you have also been able to select moments in daily life to make them a moment of practice. And don’t underestimate those moments, even if they’re just 10 minutes, but those 10 minutes of clarity, of peace, of stillness, will have an impact in our actions, which for us is everything. We want to be mindful of all of our actions, our thoughts, our speech, our activities, because they bear our signature. And so what we offer people in a Plum Village retreat is to experience not just sitting meditation, but even to experience the interaction and to see in this interaction what is being triggered in me and how do I still find my stability in a conversation I may be having in the retreat. Or like in the summer retreat, which is happening right here, right now. We have so many children, which is the opposite of a silent retreat. But how do you practice when you’re lining up to get food when there is a sign that says Noble Silence? Because when the kids are not here, we do serve in silence. And are you aware that you have irritation coming up? Is your anger manifesting? For me, that’s when you practice. That’s when you have to activate your spiritual practice. It’s very easy to sit on a cushion and be peaceful because nobody’s bothering you. And we need those moments in order to cultivate and to build this ability to be present and to be one with oneself. But we have to take it to the next level, which is daily life. In Plum Village, we do a lot of interactive work with one another. That’s how we get to know each other is not through the sitting is actually through the service. We cook together and, you know, the kitchen is the place where all habits come out. How you were taught to chop something from your grandmother or your mother. And suddenly now you have a brother who’s doing the total opposite. What? What comes up in you? Are you angry because they’re not chopping the carrot the way you want them to chop? And for me, that is when you have to come back to yourself and just embrace and smile to the anger, the irritation that is in you and find the peace in the difference.
Thank you, brother. So, Tom, bearing that in mind, you know, you talked about this sort of melancholy, of feeling that you had lost something. What’s it been like to refind it? So what has your experience been so far of being here? What does it brought up for you?
Well, so thank you for that, brother, what you just said, that’s wonderful. And I think what you pointed to there was about the necessary step that we all need to take, which is moving mindfulness away from being something that happens in isolation of the world to something that happens while we are in the world and that the world can become a tool for. And you gave a very beautiful Dharma Talk two days ago where you talked about many things, but one of the things you talked about was how Thay responded to the loss of some of his bodily function after he had his stroke. And you told many stories that affected me, but one of them was about how when he lost control of one side of his body, right side, and then, in the moments after that, he showed such love and compassion to his damaged body. And that really affected me, because that is something that, from the perspective of the world, is one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, that you experience some kind of catastrophic physical breakdown that leads to a loss of your bodily function. And for most people, that would create enormous mental anguish. And at that moment, he was able to demonstrate you that that was then a deepening of his practice, is remarkable. So I tell that story, Jo, because you ask what it’s like to come back here. And what it has reminded me is that the practice is not something that’s separate from life. So what I think the melancholy had been about, had been about some assumptions that had been brought up in my life, that I’d had a period in which I had the conditions in which practice was possible and through lots of choices, none of which I regret, I was now in a phase of life in which practice was no longer possible. But through the stories that Brother Phap Huu has told, as well as the experience of exactly as you said, waiting in the queue while the kids are shouting and chatting to my daughter Zoe, and making sure that her time here was good, and finding the moments of practice there has reminded me that this is not about an isolated period of your life in which you try to decondition your mind and then kind of come back out. When we’re younger, we sort of think, if I look back at my younger self, I think I sort of thought, Well, I’ll go away to a monastery and sort myself out, then I’ll come back into the world and everything will be all right. And what I think these days have really demonstrated for me and have really brought up as I think what will be the theme of the next phase of my life is around integration. So I feel like I’ve spent roughly half my adult life focusing primarily on presence and spiritual development, and the other half focusing on raising a family, the problems of the world, climate change, and I feel now like the interesting work is at the intersection of those two. I don’t feel like we can really advance unless we’re able to bring those two different elements together in ourselves, in our work because we’re not really doing it at the moment. I mean, we’re sitting in Europe now where we have just suffered completely unprecedented extreme heat events. We’re looking at a situation where the political scenario in the United States, in the UK, and the EU looks like it’s breaking down. The systems and the institutions that we have relied upon to see us through this great crisis don’t look like they’re going to be capable of delivering what we want. So where’s the edge that we need to dwell with in order to move forward? I believe it’s the integration of how we’re living our lives, how we’re bringing presence and insight to our moment, to the moments of our life and the great challenges of our generation.
So, Tom, given that, there’s very few people actually who’ve had the chance to really experience a deep spiritual grounding. So we see, like in the world of politics and the world of business, there’s very, very little of that people are able to express. Even if people have a personal practice, they are not able in any shape or form to be able to express that in their work. So in other words, we, you know, we are trying to deal with problems through science, through pretty much using our mind and cleverness to get out of it. And there’s very little opportunity to express our deep wisdom, our deep knowing. So I’m just wondering, what’s, how big a gap that really is? You know, what impact, when you’ve worked in this field for so many years, what impact does that have that this is not present?
So that’s a very good question, and I don’t think we really know what that change would be if people were bringing a different degree of presence. But I think its absence is manifest everywhere and I think that it’s also getting worse. So the impacts that we described earlier of a heating climate with increased extreme weather, of course, are having direct impacts on the individuals that they affect, but they’re also really messing with our minds and who we are and what the future looks like and how we show up as a generation. And what I observe inside the climate movement is that there’s this like breathless urgency which is appearing in people, and it’s completely understandable. Right? They’re right to feel that. And if you look at the statistics of young people, more than 50% of people between the ages of 16 and 23 in OECD countries worry about climate change for multiple hours on a daily basis. That is a stunning statistic about the degree of anxiety that that’s inducing in our kids. So, at the moment, without the tools to really handle that reality, everybody is concluding because they don’t know what else to do, that the solution is to do more of whatever they were doing in the past. So activists are getting more angry and corporations are getting more focused on green growth and politicians are getting more in the weed of policy or the nuance of that. And as a result of that, everyone’s moving away from each other. And the camps are becoming more distant because people are deciding that the urgency means that they need to take the gloves off and really go big on whatever they were doing before. So what we’re describing here is that we’re not going to get through this unless we can find a way to come together. And that coming together requires a degree of self-reflection, presence and awareness to identify what is working, what isn’t working. Without that sense of egoic attachment to something that I’ve been doing before, it’s my solution, it’s my thing. We’re going to have to be a bit more grown up in letting go of some of those things to come together and find the solutions that collectively carry us forward. And there’s no shame in that. And it’s something that I try to practice. And it’s difficult. I’m sure I don’t have everything right myself. So the reason I’m so sure that in that practice lies some of the keys to us moving forward is because I sort of see where this is going if we don’t do it. And if we were able to do it, that I’m interested in hearing from both of you.
Yeah. So, Brother Phap Huu, what’s your sense of how a spiritual grounding, a sense of the collective rather than the individual, how can, for instance, Thay’s teachings serve people in this time?
I think, first of all, our practice is to face the suffering and call it by his true name. And I think what Tom was referring to is if we don’t change, a collapse is coming. And this is where all of the anxiety, fear and uncertainty manifest from and is driving people to quite extremes. We have those who are living in just panic and fear and then those who are living like, Well, if we’re going to die, let’s just indulge ourselves and not care about anything. But the Buddhist teaching and the teachings of our teacher is telling us that we are so interrelated to the suffering that is happening, but it’s because we are ignoring the suffering that is why we’re not able to change our views and to have a deeper understanding. And so the first practice that we all have to cultivate is just learning to accept and embrace the present moment and taking care of our self in the here and now. It’s not as simple as it sounds. It’s a very deep, profound depths of being in the present moment is when you are in the here and now. It’s not about spiritual bypassing. It’s not just like, I’m going to feel good. I’m going to feel my breath, I’m going to have this sense of well-being. And then life continues. It’s actually, if you’re so present, you’re so aware and you’re so connected to everything you have to change. You start to see yourself is so interrelated with everything. Your way of action has an impact in daily life, impact to your child, your loved ones, your family, your community, your nation, the whole world. And then suddenly you have wisdom, mindfulness in the here and now will offer you wisdom which can lead to action, which is then what can I do to be a part of the change? And I think a lot of us, even myself, sometimes I forget I am part of the change, even though sometimes I may not see the reality that I want, I don’t underestimate my own impact that I can offer. And this is where the individual becomes the collective, and the collective is made of all of the individuals. What we need is a collective awakening. In our times, our teacher has said One Buddha is not enough anymore for our times, for our suffering, for the situations that we are facing. We need multitudes of bodhisattvas, of those who are selfless, those who know how to see the benefit of others as their own benefits, the well-being of the planet as their well-being, the well-being of those who are all the way in Africa, my well-being, even though I am not affected right now. Because there is a deep sense of interbeing when we’re in the present moment. It’s like when you hear the news of what is happening and you’re really present, it’s impossible not to suffer. If you don’t suffer, it just means you’re ignoring it and you’re running away from reality. And so our core practice is recognizing suffering, but recognizing it and being with it not to drown into the suffering, not to be a victim of the suffering, but to embrace, accept and see what to do and what not to do. And this is meditation. This is how we will integrate the spiritual dimension into the daily life is recognizing, embracing, and then see the changes that need to happen and then be the change. A lot of the times we have the tendency to want others to do it and not us to do it. So the practice of mindfulness, it brings it back to oneself. It’s like this bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos. You, a human being, is also the body of the cosmos. So how you be has a big impact on the world. And this is where the individual practice is also very important. We have to learn to listen, if we want to see the indifference, we have to listen to one another, because we don’t want to listen and we don’t know how to share compassionately and use a language instead of dividing, use a language to build bridges, build harmony, see the common purpose, but also still respect the different paths that we’re taking. And sometimes we become so one pointed view and we think this is the only way. And we’re very dogmatic about it. And this is where a lot of the suffering and separation continues to happen and where we cannot work together. So what we’ve experienced is this retreat for climate leaders. And the first three days we told them, please trust us and just invest the time to be with you. You may even feel a little bit guilty about it that I have the space and time, but it is so crucial because the actions that we want to create is based on love, based on care and healing. But if we can’t find that even inside of us, how can we offer it? How can we generate it? And that is why it’s so important to come back to oneself when we speak about coming back to one’s self in Buddhism, it’s not about taking care of the ego, but it is finding all of the beautiful conditions that we want to cultivate outside, inside of us. Then we will have the ingredients to offer to the world, to the workplace, to our families, to our loved ones. And I would say we’ve got to start with the ones we are with, start with our family, listen to our self, listen to our child, listen to our loved ones, and hear what do they need? And it’s as simple as that. Once you start to see my brother, my sister and my child, they just need my presence. Change starts to happen. Healing starts to happen. And then from that experience, you have faith because it has worked in a scale, a small scale. And then from there, you can continue to develop and continue to invest in this practice. I’ve learned to listen deeply through my twenty years of being a monk, and I’m sure at the earlier stage my capacity was very limited of how much suffering I can listen to without overreacting and without being so tense in my body. But now, my maturity of presence as well as being open has grown so much, and I can always take refuge in my breath. Even though what is being shared is so painful, and instead of drowning and being overwhelmed by the sorrow, my breathing becomes my foundation. I’m still present with the suffering, but I can guide the suffering. And this kind of inner work we believe is so necessary for everyone of today, because what we are facing will bring up a lot of emotions and feelings and even sense of despair. And we all need a place of refuge and we need communities. I truly believe that community is the way forward. We cannot do it by ourself. There’s no superman that can change the situation. We really need a collective movement, a collective awakening, a collective practice.
And just to add one element that you mentioned, brothers, the power of presence, because actually what you said is refuge, we all need a safe harbor in difficult times. And we say, well, who do people trust? Because there’s so much mistrust, so much misinformation, so much complexity that people are increasingly looking for individuals or communities where people can rest and be at peace and not have to question everything, but say, what is it to be in a safe place? And to be with a safe person is someone who has been able to look at their own suffering, someone has been able to work at themselves to the point where they are able to have stability, where they’re able to deeply listen, where they’re able to give compassionate speech, where they’re able to, as you say, listen to the cries for help without being overwhelmed by them. And it’s very interesting because, Tom, when we arrived here, so we are recording this episode in Thay’s Sitting Still hut in Upper Hamlet, and we’re sitting around his kitchen table. But before we started, we went into Thay’s very modest, small living room/bedroom. And Thay has not been in that room for six years, brother?
So six years. So, Tom, what was your experience of walking into that space? Because in a sense, even though Thay has not been here for six years, there was a presence in that room. And I’m just really interested in you… What was it feeling like? Because it’s not a presence, it’s not just someone in their life, but actually presence is the emanation, is the… is what keeps going, the ripples that continue after someone has passed.
I mean, I think that goes back to what you were saying earlier, brother, about the way that the practice becomes infused in the place, in the trees and in the landscape. And the role of monastics that you thought, spoke about that I thought was so beautiful in our collective human family to play the role of demonstrating that it is possible to live this life in which you focus primarily on what you so beautifully just described, which is placing faith and confidence in presence and the qualities that it develops, and finding connection. And walking through that door, the huge privilege to walk into Thay’s room where he lived, it’s immediately apparent. You can feel it in the atmosphere. And it’s overwhelming. Right? If you go somewhere like that where you experience what presence has done to a location, particularly, I think for the first time for me coming here, remembering that. You know, my daughter was there and she fell silent and then looked at me, there’s something about this place, even though she can’t put her words to it. But to just come back to what you just said, brother, something struck me as you were speaking, which is that we have allowed ourselves in today’s opinionated and noisy world to believe that a close and safe community is one that shares our views on something, that has the same intellectual thoughts about a particular thing. And that’s true of us, writ large, as a culture, and also as we’re talking about the climate movement, it’s safe if you’re an activist. There’s a lot of purity testing amongst these different subgroups of do you really think that the fossil fuel companies are evil or do you really think… And everybody does that to each other all the time to work out the safety and the purity of a particular movement as to become close to that ideology. And we think of that as safe because it’s constructed a wall around us that has excluded others. But what you just described as a coming home, a safety and presence is a safety in how you live, in a manner of acceptance and a way of experiencing the present moment that is invitational to others, which, to me, feels obviously and evidently fundamentally different. And that was sort of an insight to me in where we came at the beginning, that these groups are moving away from each other at the moment. We’re not going to get them all to agree on the content. You know, if we say they all have to agree on every little step and we negotiate the document and it just won’t work, it will end up either becoming partizan and fractional or everybody will become unhappy. The way, the only way in which we have a sense of collective purpose is unity of how we direct our attention towards the present moment, towards the world that we’re living in, that we’re all working to protect, but the busyness of that activity is preventing us from seeing.
So, Tom, thank you for that. And you know, Phap Huu mentioned this climate leaders retreat we had a few weeks ago, and that was exactly the purpose of the retreat. We had 30 leaders from across the spectrum, from oil and gas companies to youth activists. And the first, as brother said, the first three and a half days, there was no agenda sent out, there was no one knew who else was coming. The first three and a half days were pure Plum Village practices, people coming back to themselves, people sort of deeply listening to each other. And then only at the end were people given the opportunity to share their perspectives, because by that time, people had recognized that they needed to let go of This is my idea, and this idea is better than any other idea. And what was so interesting was everyone who came here felt misunderstood. That people said, as soon as I open my mouth with what I’m doing, people already got a view on it, people already got a response to it. And actually, what I think the biggest change people got from being here was just saying, actually, I’m just going to listen and I’m going to be open because actually we all have a common purpose and we don’t all have to be doing the same thing or agreeing with each other because actually it’s in the diversity of change that we are most likely to create the change we need. So we have really a strong sort of experience of that here and that people went away recognizing that actually there was another way of seeing the world. And I think we all get locked in a particular way of seeing the world and then we end up defending it, justifying it, and we feel that’s us. And so this is, as we’re talking here, the letting go of this individual need to show up. This is me, this is my idea, this is the best idea. And it’s actually we find the best answers in the collective. And Brother Phap Huu, we just did the last episode we recorded was on right view, that everyone sort of thinks their idea is the best, but actually it’s only by letting go of our views that we are open to new ideas, to new ways of seeing the world.
And just one thought on that, because I think and I sadly couldn’t come to climat retreat for other reasons, but I’ve met enough people to know it was a truly transformative experience. So I think it was an amazing thing to offer to the world. The point that you just made there, Jo, I think is the critical thing that we need to now come back to because this isn’t going to get any easier. Right? The thing about climate change is it’s possible to be too late and we almost are. And now what we’re finding is that people are thinking and feeling, you know, now it’s getting this bad, now the gloves are off. Now I’m really going big on my previous views and thoughts about what is needed in the world, and now I’m going to really insist on them. And we should have a lot of compassion for that perspective because that’s done out of love for the world and out of the realization of the difficult place we’re in. But viewed out from the perspective of this conversation, the net effect of everybody doing that is not going to bring us together in the way that we need to. So, I mean, I love Thay’s very famous saying of ‘Don’t just do something, sit there.’ And there’s some element of that in this, which is as the crisis accelerates away from us, we need to do something different. And that requires a lot of courage to not be so fixated, all of us, with our views and opinions, to meet the present moment with as much presence as we can, and find our collective way forward with compassion for each other because we know where it’s leading otherwise.
So, Tom, with that in mind, because it’s very easy to talk about the world and harder sometimes to talk about our own transformation. So, I know you and I have been talking quite a lot about integration, and you mentioned this at the beginning, that you have a very strong spiritual practice and tradition we can maybe say. And you also are working in the very busy world, trying to work with all sorts of groups, organizations, movements, projects, trying to create this change we so badly need. And you talked about the fact that, in a sense, they’ve been separate.
And I think that’s been very true for most people in the world. And it’s that old thing, isn’t it? You leave your self at the door when you go to work because you don’t take yourself to work. And I think that’s very much true in terms of a spiritual tradition, that it hasn’t been welcomed in the corridors of power, it hasn’t been welcomed in the parliaments of the world, hasn’t been welcome in the boardrooms, hasn’t been welcomed anywhere, in a sense that that this enriches life, it creates better decisions, allows more cohesion, more understanding, it allows better decisions to be made. So you said yourself that you are now recognizing that what our first half of your life very much about the spiritual tradition, second half about the busyness and the living in the world and the cognitive work that needs to be done. So how are you thinking about or not thinking, feeling and thinking about how this integration can happen? Because, of course, what we want in the world, we have to do ourselves first. So I’m just wondering where you are at with that? And now that you’re here and you’re re-energized to being able to sort of experience that deep sense, that deep well of wisdom, well-being, peace, understanding, quiet. How can you connect that to the work?
Well, first of all, I thought the deal of coming on this podcast was you were going to answer that for me. So I don’t like that you’ve asked me that question. So I will give you a very short answer, and then I would like to invite you to respond to that question.
And then we will ask you again. This is our podcast.
I’m going to ask if you’re outraged or optimistic, if you’re not careful. So I seriously would like to hear your answer in particular to that, Phap Huu, but the only response that I could give off-the-cuff is that it is so difficult not to reapproach that with the same kind of thinking that created the problem. Right? Because it would be very easy to say, you know, I’ve spent ten years following my spiritual pursuits and 15 years working in the climate movement. Now I want to integrate them, I need to go away and think up a plan and come up with an ideology and a view that is one of integration. You know, and all we will have done is add to the number of ideologies and views out there. So a part of that has to be about creating an intentionality and a presence and a space from which something can emerge. And that process can probably neither be hurried nor slowed down, but can’t be born unless it has space to breathe.
And before we go to Phap Huu for the answer, while we drown in the sea, while he looks at us with compassion. I’m wondering, Tom, if you were, let’s say, from tomorrow, to turn up to all your meetings and all the work you do in your full self, you know, showing up your full presence and to really just do it, just that there would be no separation between your spiritual nature and your work nature.
What’s the fear of what would happen?
So I don’t actually have a fear of that. And I’ve got enough experience of people who do that to a deep and impressive degree to know that probably what would happen is relationships would improve, outcomes would become clearer, and the work would become more integral and more intentional. The problem is I don’t seem to be capable of doing it because the world is complicated and I will leave here on Friday with an intentionality to do that. And I mean, never say never, but history suggests that, you know, and I’m sure many of your listeners have had this experience that two, three, four weeks later, you know, kids, bills, work, whatever else it might be, travel, it will be hard to maintain that same sense of presence that I ultimately know is the quality that allows all the other relationships to improve and move forward. So it’s not a fear. It’s more of a practical problem.
Okay. So, Brother Phap Huu, let’s come to you now for the answer. So what I hear Tom saying…
… is that even if you have a deep knowing
… that you trust, that is a bedrock of understanding, that is a deep truth by which it can guide, so, like, it’s your path, it’s a guidance, it’s a path through life. That in all the busyness and all the complexity, it’s just so hard to maintain that and it’s so hard to show up fully because actually it could be exhausting because it’s difficult. People are trying to cope and if everyone’s trying to cope, then where’s the space in which we can stand back and create space? So what’s the answer?
The answer is the practice.
I knew you’d say that. We’ve got to dig deeper than that, brother.
We’re going to go deep, we’re going to go deep, but, fundamentally, it is the practice. And the word practice it means we have to do it every day. We have to find snippets here and there to cultivate a sense of oneness, a sense of feeling. Let’s talk about our times, because I think during the Buddhist time was very different. Their suffering, their complexity is much… How is this simpler than ours? We are now in a space where the energy is identifying which energy that makes us lose ourself. That’s a practice. We have to recognize which activities bring out the habit energy that makes us not who we want to be. Recognizing our habit energy is mindfulness. Seeing how can we help transform these habits or how can we tune these habits to make it into a supportive activity? We, in Plum Village, we always say that mindfulness is an art, is an art of living. Our daily activities that we do can all become practice. Even for myself, as a monk, I have to be very selective in where I want to invest my energy, to maintain my presence, maintain my energy of mindfulness. The Northern Star that I want to reach is that every moment is mindfulness, but reality is I’m not there. And I have no shame in saying that because I’m very human. I have a lot of emotions and feelings that manifest during my interactions. But now the difference is I can recognize them and I can guide them through a practice. I’m going to present a few practices, but what we always have to understand is that each and every one of us have this ability to cultivate, but we have to find the one practice that really works for us and not to feel Oh, because I can’t enjoy sitting meditation, I’m not a practitioner, because meditation is more than sitting meditation. We have the practice of mindful breathing, and mindful breathing is an art to bring the mind home to the body. Every morning when I wake up, and a lot of us novice, we are trained in this, is that waking up this morning I see 24 brand new hours. And we have gathas in our tradition, poems that we would recite to remind us. Waking up this morning, I smile. 24 brand new hours are before me. I vow to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion. So already with that gatha, right there, that poem, you set your intention of the day. And our teacher even recommends breathe in, you say one line, breathe out, you say another. So it’s not just a theory now, it’s not a thought, but it becomes an aspiration, it becomes a living dream and a living insight that we’re going to do. And the art is not to look for perfection. A lot of us, we will be discouraged when we are not mindful. And we’re like, Oh, my God, those are for the monks and the nuns, for those quote unquote, more spiritual. I’m not there yet. I’m going to wait into 50, 60, 70 when I have less to do. And that is a wrong perception. It’s, actually, if you can’t do it now, don’t think in 50, 60 years you’re going to be able to do it. So that is one example. Mindful breathing, finding reminders in daily life, you know, every time I brush my teeth is a practice. Thay says, you have 2 minutes to brush your teeth. Are you grateful that you have teeth to brush? Are you grateful that these teeth allow you to enjoy the most delicious food that nourishes you? And so even the action of brushing your teeth can become a refuge. Personally walking meditation, walking the steps have really become my anchor. Before meetings, before Dharma talks in front of 700 people or even 30 people, I know that there is moments where I’m going to feel not stable. And so I want to invest in a few steps to find my center. And even if it’s just 20 steps, that’s 5 minutes. And that moment becomes my meditation where I learn to identify my anxiety, my fear, and just guiding the fear and the anxiety to the here and now. And then trusting oneself. I know I have something to offer. And then channel the solidity in you. And when you enter into the room, enter into the space to offer your sharing. You come in with this energy, you will be present. Your interactions will be different, your sharing will become one with you, not just your fear. I shared this to Jo, and I think I showed this to the 700 friends who are here. I made tea for Thay in my first attempt to become his attendant, and I was very eager to make him the best cup of tea. And as I poured the hot water into the new tea leaves, I wanted to pour a cup right away to invite to Thay. And Thay said, Stop, let the tea sit, because everything that does sitting meditation is better. And he said, allowed the tea to sit for at least 2 minutes so that the fragrance, the essence of the tea to manifest, to be there, its true essence. And Thay said, Everything that has time, takes time, it will offer its best. That, for me, is my goal. And we think that meditation needs to be 10 hours looking at the wall, or 5 hours, 2 hours. But just 3 minutes of deep sitting and being one with yourself, allowing yourself to be there, trust in yourself, and offer the best you can in that moment, and that’s the best you can in the here and now. But tomorrow you can do better because that experience will be invested. So your cultivation will grow. And so know that each moment of daily life can be an art. I have the tendency to love neatness. And sometimes that can be an obstacle because you become too rigid in your way of life. But I have made folding clothes a practice. I love to fold the clothes, to make the robes nice and straight in the corners, matching. And instead of making this into, like, a perfectionists activity, but I make this as a practice. I enjoy it. And when I do it, I am really one with the clothes and seeing that the clothes is not just a thing. The clothes support me. When I wear this robe, I am reminded what it represents. So even folding the clothes can be a meditation. How does it support you in your daily life? And it will have impact on your view when you see Wow, I have clothes to wear, that’s more than enough. I’m nourishing my moderation, which is an aspiration. And every time that I have the desire to shop, to buy more, I just am reminded I have more than enough. And so your daily activities becomes insights. For us, the meditation hall is a wonderful condition, but the cup of tea in front of you is a condition and how you turn the moment of drinking a cup of tea, is it spiritual or not? That is up to you. Even in presence, when we are together, we can all be looking at our phones, which a large percentage of the world now is so attached to, or we can really be there and just sit and enjoy the breeze without feeling we need to cover up this emptiness of space. So what I am recognizing is this culture of fast pace of our society it is because we are always trying to run away from the suffering. And so we want to cover it up with conversations, with information, with news, or with even stories that we know doesn’t support anything, but we’re going to retell it again and again and again. But here what we, if we are one with nature, you see, if the tree is just a tree is offering the best. It doesn’t need to be a flower because the tree is offering the best it can to support the environment, support itself, as well as support us. And us, if we can be the best version of ourself, which has the the seeds of compassion, of love, of presence, of healing, even our pains, our suffering can be ingredients of transformation. Instead of pushing that away and running away from that and looking for an out of form, what we really, truly want to offer is love, because that’s what made us who we are today. And if we can truly touch the true nature of love, our way of life will change. Our interactions will change, our capacity of wanting to understand more will grow. And you all have the capacity to listen even more deeply. That’s why, for us, suffering is a noble truth. We’re not trying to run away from suffering, but we’re trying to know how to suffer, to suffer less so that happiness and well-being can be more alive, more present for everyone, and not just a selective group. So I’m sorry to say, but it comes back down to the practice, the day-to-day practice. And there’s not a magic pill that I can offer to everyone. I wish I can, but the magic is already there. Your breath is there, your steps are there, your deep wish of a compassionate society is there. And coming to a retreat is important. We have to cultivate these these practices so that we can have confidence in ourself to bring it home. And just like going to the gym or eating a healthy diet, it’s not a one time thing, we have to continue to invest into it. So we also have spiritual muscles that we need to nourish in us. But, for me, meditation is also a joy. There is a joy in meditation, and when we can taste the joy of meditation, it will be easier to bring into daily life. And this is what I really appreciate in the teachings of Thay, and this is what drew me. You know, I came here as a child when I was nine years old, was my first retreat. I didn’t understand anything that Thay was teaching, although I felt his presence. But what I took away was, Wow, there are people who are very kind. There is a community that is investing into the well-being of many. And the happiness that I was able to taste was so profound is what I carried away. And that’s why I wanted to become a monk, because I wanted to be a part of this, I wanted to be a part of this happiness that I was able to taste. I was able to feel in me and make it alive. And what I see is that we still have a duality, that spirituality is something separate than daily life. But for us, Buddhism, Thay has said, it’s a way of life. And if we can start to see that there are activities in our daily life that can be a practice, start from there and slowly develop more and more into your daily activities.
So, brother, that that’s so beautifully put. And what it makes me realize is sort of, you know, I came to live next door to Plum Village two years ago and I haven’t really read anything or I haven’t really done anything, but I’ve just been here and I’ve been soaking it up, because it’s, as you say, we live in a society which seems to value sophistication, in the Western society. And what you’ve described so beautifully is that actually the answers are not about waiting to have this great spiritual epiphany where the sort of sky opens and the the gods look down on us and we suddenly are given the sort of answer. But it’s actually in the most simple things, and the sacredness of the most simple things can be the most profound. So it’s beautiful just to be reminded of that. So, thank you. And, Tom, how does that sit with you? I mean, what is by listening to that… Because you described, you know, the first thing you described was being able to come here and to sit on a log and listen to the breeze, go through the poplars. It’s the most simple thing, but the way you described it, it sounded profound. It was like, Oh, my gosh. So it would be lovely… How does that sit with you? Let’s sits with you, let’s sit for 2 minutes. That’s immature, but how does that sit with you? You know, what comes to your mind when you hear this?
First of all, thank you. That was wonderful. And you connected so many things for me in what you said. And I think you did express an integration that I’ve sort of been aware of, but I haven’t really put words to that hopefully can be helpful for listeners as well, because it’s very easy, as you said, to think of our mind is used to thinking of tasks as things to do. And we keep adding things to the list. And the trouble with spiritual practice and insight is if we add it to that list, then it actually just becomes another thing to do that ends up achieving the opposite of what we intended to do. But what you just described so skillfully is the manner in which mindfulness integrated into daily tasks makes those tasks more enjoyable and more successful. All of us might be struggling with a relationship. You might have young children, for example, and the relentlessness of that. But if the five steps before we go into the room with the child are very mindful steps, then we go through that door as a different person compared to if we hadn’t taken those steps. Or if we’re going into a meeting that we might have anxiety about or giving a talk, to talk to people. So that’s incredibly practical and that contains within the practice the reward of the practice in a practical way. So therefore it creates an intrinsic motivation to do it that is different from adding another thing to do. That is a real level of integration. That sounds simple when expressed like that, but actually is a profound insight because of the use of it in our daily lives. And as we develop that then that can keep us going in a different direction. So you said many things, but that one I think will really make a difference to my day-to-day life as I go home.
And it’s interesting, Tom, because when I asked you a question, I said, do you fear showing up fully? And you said, no, it’s a practical thing. But I think a lot of people do fear showing up fully at work. I remember I was working in New York for the HuffPost, but it was then owned by Verizon Media and they produced this sort of internal comms campaign. And one of them is, you know, Show up fully at work. And everyone had laughed, if I had showed up fully at work, I’d be fired.
You know, the last thing they really want is me to show up fuly at work. They want me to show up as a cog in the machine and do what I’m told and not question and not answer things. But I think what… So I think people do feel fearful of showing up, but I think what I love about what you said, brother, is there’s no fear in this showing up.
I think there’s a sense of if I show up with my spiritual grounding, I have to use different language.
I would have to say, you know, how are you feeling today? And what’s going on in your… You know? But what you’re saying is that you don’t have to say anything at all. There doesn’t have to be a single word spoken. And this is presence, isn’t it? And I think this is almost the core of what we’re talking about. It’s saying, actually, if I show up fully in myself, I don’t have to say anything about how I’m showing. I’m don’t have to say, Hi, everyone, I’m showing up fully as myself and I took four steps and I feel more at peace because of that, and I thought about how wonderful it is to have teeth and how wonderful it is to have hair and two legs. And, you know, that’s doesn’t have to be spoken. But if we recognize that, because actually there’s a lot of gratitude in that, there’s a lot of deep appreciation, and there’s love, as you say, and love is… we’re showing up differently. And that doesn’t have to be spoken. But people do feel it. Just like Tom, when you walked into…
Because we didn’t actually need to say anything because we all felt it.
And, of course, we sometimes feel the need to say something, but it was there.
And if it’s there, we know it. And what it resonates in us is that place in us.
Yeah. Yes. Showing up. I agree with you. It doesn’t look different in a practical way. You know, you suddenly you’ll start wearing purple or something like that. Right? There’s no visible manifestation of that necessarily. Can be quite a sort of, I mean, for some people depending on… There’s a lot of anxiety in the world. Right? That could just be seen as a coping mechanism apart from anything else, just to remain in your body, in your breath, in your feet as you’re walking. And then you arrive with spaciousness. But it’s amazing how different it feels when someone walks into a room like that. You can immediately tell.
If someone walks in full of whatever they were carrying, you can tell instantly as kids. If you walk in like that, they immediately respond to you differently. It’s a remarkable barometer. And it’s difficult to remember to do it because of some imagined future benefit, but actually it’s quite easy to remember to do it because you know that your kids will respond to you differently. You won’t have that nightmare of them screaming at you in some way because you’re showing up with more spaciousness. There’s an immediate benefit to everybody by doing it. So that’s the profundity and the simplicity of what you said that I think hopefully is very useful for me. Hopefully it will be useful for people.
So, you know, if things are so simple, why do we find it so difficult? So, to wake up in the morning, you know, sometimes I’m grumpy. I’m very rarely when I brush my teeth, my mind’s going somewhere else. You know, so I have got in many ways developed an appreciation and a deeper compassion and a love, but actually it keeps on evading me. My mind keeps on… It’s so hard to, you know, sometimes the most simple and profound things are also the most difficult things to grasp because you think, well, if it’s so simple, we should all be doing it, and then the world would suddenly change. But most of us aren’t doing it. And even those, when we’re reminded, we often forget. So Brother Phap Huu, what do you think makes it so difficult, even when it’s so simple? Because if you said, well, you have to sit for 3 hours a day for 20 years, and then you’ll get the fruits of that practice, you know, say, well, yeah, okay, got it. But actually Thay’s teaching says you can do it now, you can do it in the next 5 minutes. You can change that. So, Tom, what’s your sense of why it’s difficult? And then we’ll ask Phap Huu for the real asnwer.
The actual answer.
We’ll just humiliate ourselves first and then we’ll flap around for a bit and then showcase how incredibly wonderful he is.
I appreciate that, thank you.
You’re the foil for him.
Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to go after Phap Huu? I mean, I think that obviously, I don’t know, but I think that to a certain degree the answer is in your question. It’s sort of difficult because it’s simple. There can’t really just be that. And when you have, and, you know, I’m a baby in this, really, but when you have the experiences of the deep satisfaction of presence, and then you realize that, of course, that goes further. But that really is, at the end of the day, how life can and should be lived and in contains such satisfaction that the other things we get chasing after that always contain the seed of suffering look very different to you. And then you cast your mind to the long sweep of history and the wars and the suffering and the fighting and the arguing over different things. It just looks mad that we’ve done all of that. And I don’t know who said that… In Avon, it’s been John Lennon, I think, that most of the problems of the world are caused by the fact that we can’t sit quietly in rooms and be comfortable with that fact. And there’s a lot to that, actually. But let’s go to the answer.
The mind is the base of how we create our world. And this is not the ultimate answer, but this is the understanding that I have right now. Like what Tom has shared is we do live in a culture where we like to make things more sophisticated than it should be. And there is an ego to that. If it sounds too simple, nobody wants to do it, because that can’t be the answer to world peace. That can’t be the answer to solving the climate situation. But the reality is this is where the quote of Thay comes in, Don’t just do something, sit there. But sitting there, it doesn’t mean doing nothing. Sitting there is to look deeply at the causes of our suffering. And in the simplicity, we get to untangle the sophistication of our situation. But because we’re not able to sit still, we continue to add layers of complexity on it. And this is why the first wing of meditation is just learning to pause, learning to slow down. And when we look at the animals, they have this insight, we have this insight. The animal, when it is wounded, it knows how to stop, heal and rest. But we have this idea that by sitting still and doing nothing, we’re not contributing anything. And we think that by doing it’s contribution. Sometime it is correct, doing is contribution. But sometimes our action is based not on the insight of healing and transformation, but we are doing just to cover up something. And this has become a habit and a culture. And this is where sometimes it is so difficult to practice meditation because it makes you so simple. It asks you to just be still and to identify the knots in you. And to now have the time to untie the knots, and we think that, Oh, that’s too selfish, that’s not offering anything to the world, that’s just me. But when we have the insight of interbeing, which is we are also a part of the world, so if you can be someone who is solid, someone who is present, someone who has peace and the ability to listen without judging, that contribution is so valuable. That becomes a virtue. So for us, simplicity is also a virtue because simplicity allows for so many things to manifest. But when we’re all so busy and sophisticated, actually, no one is listening to each other. We’re just showing off our sophisticated mind, our complex that we have created, which we believe to lead to the answer. And it becomes a battle of ego. And so the ego, the mind that we have is what creates the complexity. And what is the ego feeding off? It is the feeling of being wanted to be seen, wanting to be heard. And where does that base come from? Wanting to be loved. Wanting to be a contribution. And sometimes we don’t have that chance to feel needed, to feel loved, to feel like we are part of something. That is why we make things more sophisticated, more loud, to be seen, to be heard. And so if we come to the Buddhist teaching, three doors of liberation, emptiness, you are everything. And everything is you. You cannot be by yourself. You are signless because every action that you offer has your signature. So you are more than just you. Your action is also you. You are already what you want to become. Every action you have is an impact. Stop running after an image that is not you. Come back to yourself and embrace the you. And, you know, when you do that, how simple that is, you heal your whole ancestral lineage. And this tendency to make things complicated is also a mechanism of running. And that comes from our ancestors, from their suffering and from the suffering of society, because we’re so interrelated that when we are a part of the world, we are influenced by all of these different past experience as well as present fear. And so by just coming home to oneself, that is the journey of healing already. It’s simple like that. And people feel like I have to meditate even longer, but meditate in the moment. That is the process of deeper transformation. Our teacher has never told us that enlightenment comes out of nowhere. It comes from the daily practice, the daily insight of simple actions. You know his name, Nhat Hanh, it means one action. One action will lead to multitudes of action. But in one action that you do it with your full presence, you have the best capacity that you can in this moment. It is the best offering. And every action that we are offering, which is multitude of action, 24 hours a day of action, if we can just be mindful of ten actions a day, that has an impact already. And the third one is aimlessness. This is quite an interesting one of our times. Aimless here it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a goal, but the goal is not the happiness. This is what is teaching us. As a monk, I have an aspiration. That is my fuel that allows me to continue to offer retreats, to invest myself in the trainings and deepen my practice, deepen my understanding. But I don’t wait until I’m enlightened to be happy. That is a wrong view. That’s a view that makes us carried away from the present moment. But signlessness is teaching us that we should learn to enjoy the process, the goal that we are walking towards. Don’t let that become a wasted moment. Enjoy the team building that needs to be done. For me, my greatest community building is when we work together, is when we’re all together preparing for a retreat. When we’re cooking together, we come to this community work days where everybody’s hands on deck, we’re all cleaning the toilets. I don’t see that as not a deep moment. That moment is a moment of togetherness. And I don’t wait until the end of the retreat to say this is happiness, because already we are present, we are mindful, the offering has already been there. And this is in the climate retreat, Sister True Dedication shared this and it has really stuck with me, she shared that what we are building is a culture of continuous healing and transformation and care. But it’s not a one time action. It’s not a one time thing. And the simplicity of it is that every action that we do now has an impact. And if we just start to untangle our own mind, it’s actually our fear might be very simple. The fear of just existing, that is a fear of death. We talked about this. And if we can just recognize that that is the fear that we have, it becomes more simple, less sophisticated than we thought. We get to start to remove that he peels of the onion that we feel so overwhelmed with. And so this is part of meditation, just to have time to identify our own fears and seeing that, wow, that doesn’t even have to do with us. That’s actually a fear of my parents. And I’m very different. Okay, one thing less worried about. And so in the simplicity, it also embraces the complexity. But the complexity, it drives us further away than the foundation where we need to arrive at, which is stillness. And this is our fear, because we sometimes are just afraid to see our own fear.
Thank you, brother, beautifully spoken. And, Tom, I’m just wondering, sort of, you know, you’ll be next couple of days, you’ll be going home and.
Oh, my God. And you know, and as you said earlier, you know, one of the challenges is, isn’t it? That when we take time out and we refresh ourselves and we come back to ourselves and we can quite quickly, when we already have a certain awareness, come recognize the power of that, the importance of that, recognize the freedom in it, recognize how it can sort of enhance our lives, how it can refresh us. And I’m just wondering, sort of listening to this conversation, being here in a monastery for the first time in 20 years, as well as recognizing, as you’ve spoken about the urgency and scale of the issues we’re facing, I just wonder what now, as we come to the end of this sort of recording, what is resonating in you about how you may be able to take this with you in a way that is meaningful and can be maintained in some form, as opposed to this by next Tuesday, that you sort of you’re fully in the business and you’re trapped again?
Yeah. So I think the first thing that I feel will be important for me in returning to my life is actually that acceptance that normal life is different and that I can’t expect perfection from myself. And that in itself creates a relaxation, you know. The best that we can do is we can bring more presence and more intentionality and move in a direction that has that infused in it and that we’re able to let go of the things that distract us, the ideas that trap us, but that that’s going to be a process. I think that I’m leaving with some practical tools, actually, a sense of, and I feel like and actually I didn’t really identify this until this conversation, but one of the things you just described about the coming back to the breath, coming back to the steps just at moments in daily life, as you were talking, I was realizing that I sort of do that intrinsically, and that’s probably the leftover of my practice from years ago. That tends to happen in moments of great stress that I sort of take refuge in those places. And I think I’ve done that somewhat unconsciously. But actually now identifying those moments gives me an opportunity to expand them and make them a larger part and a more intentional part of my day to day life. I feel like there is a real importance in not losing touch with those who are on a similar journey to you. And I think that’s one of the if I have a regret of the years ago when I left the monastery, I think it would be that I just sort of moved away and fairly quickly lost touch with the people who’d been on that path with me. And I think in retrospect now, that was probably a fairly significant part of why it became something I used to do rather than remained a present part of my life. But the other thing I would take away that I think will stay with me because it feels now like it’s been very profound, is these seemingly simple moments of real presence that I’ve had the opportunity to experience here the last few days, and I’ve shared some of them. But one more, I mean, in a moment of unbelievable generosity on your part, Phap Huu, you allowed the 700 of us here to take part in a ceremony of spreading Thay’s ashes in New Hamlet, yesterday. And that you allowed people who have probably didn’t know him or may not have had a relationship to him to participate in something so intimate. First of all, really touched me. And then I queued up with as much mindfulness and presence as I could muster and took my hand full of ashes. And I was walking around New Hamlet looking for a tree to place them on. And of course, as we all do, that was an interplay of presence in my body and my breath and my mind came into that. What do I do now? I don’t want to choose the wrong tree, I don’t want to make a mistake. And, you know, this feels really important, I don’t want to mess it up. And, in the end, what I did was I just held it in my hand and looked at it and was completely absorbed in the way that the wind was catching the edges of this ash and watched it for maybe 20 minutes as it just disappeared into the wind. And that now feels like it was sort of on one level profound, on one level simple, but it feels like it was a point of departure in my life to watch, first of all, on the basis of this incredible act of generosity on your part and the monastics here to participate in that. Somebody who is so identified with this sense of interbeing that when he died, he wanted to become a cloud. And to have the opportunity to stand there, in my body, watching the wind take part of his remains up into the sky feels like it was a point of real departure in my life. And so there are moments of transformation. And I will take that with me with great gratitude.
Thank you, Tom. And it’s very similar to the, it reminds me of the story when I interviewed Thay once and he said that he had recently received a letter from someone in Saigon who wanted to build a stupa for him. And that he had written back saying, Well, actually, I don’t want a stupa, but if you are to build one, then I’d like you to put a sign outside saying ‘I am not in here.’ And he said, And if people don’t get it, put another sign out saying ‘I’m not out there either.’ And if they still don’t get up, I’ll ask them to put a third sign on saying, ‘But you may feel me in your steps or in the breeze.’ So…
Yes, you felt Thay in the breeze and you experienced Thay in the breeze. And so how beautiful that is. So, Tom, thank you for joining us today. And also while we’re here to thank you for your generosity, because we’re talking about generosity here. And it’s in part because of you that this podcast series exists, because when I mentioned it to you that we wanted, Phap Huu and I wanted to create a podcast, you said, Well, I can help because our amazing producer Clay may have a bit of spare time and he may be able to support this. And actually that happened. Your thought turned into an action and actually created this podcast because actually at that time, without Clay, I don’t think this podcast would have existed. And even if it existed, it would have sounded so amateurish, that I’m not sure if anyone would have wanted to listen, but he’s so brilliant that he was able to immediately from the first episode, it felt… Even I was impressed, I think, Wow, Phap Huu, that sounds good. So just to thank you for that and also to thank you for your friendship and for the work you do. And I watched you in my life and feel, you know, thankfully, we have people like you who are able to show up, who have that deep understanding, that compassion, that love, and who bring that to your work. And, you know, that’s what will create the change. And you are one aspect of that change and grudgingly having to appreciate Phap Huu again for really knocking the ball out the park that making us look like complete idiots in comparison. And thank… Thanks…
It’s a low bar with you… although you did it well.
So dear listeners, we hope you have enjoyed this episode and have gained some inspiration or some practical tools from this discussion. And Phap Huu, I’m wondering whether in now time honored tradition, you would like to offer us a short meditation. We’ve done a lot of talking, we’ve done a lot of feeling, but actually now we can let all that go.
And come back to this present moment.
Yes. Dear listeners, dear friends, wherever you may be, if you are going for a jog, going for a walk, working, or sitting on a bus, at home, cleaning your house, if you just allow yourself to be still, you can just stand with your two feet on the ground, or sit on a chair, on a couch, or even lay down and just gently come back to your breathing. Just identify, this is my inbreath, this is my outbreath. Breathing in, I feel the air coming inside, nourishing all of my cells in my body. Breathing out, allowing the breath to take care of my body. In. Out. Breathing in, I’m in touch with Mother Earth as a living, breathing organism. Breathing out, I smile to the wonder of the Earth. In, Earth, living and breathing with me. Out, I smile to the wonders of life. Breathing in, I’m in touch with the stability of the Earth. Breathing out, I admire the perseverance of the Earth. Just smile. Breathing in, I’m in touch with the creativity of the Earth, all the wonders, the forests, the ocean, the mountains, the flowers. Breathing out, I admire the infinite wonders of sounds, color, vegetation and life form. In, creativity of Earth. Out, infinite wonders. Breathing in, I’m in touch with the nondiscrimination of the Earth. Breathing out, I admire the capacity of the Earth to welcome back and bring to life again all forms of life. In, nondiscrimination. Out, welcoming back and bringing to life again and again. Breathing in, I see myself a child of the Earth. Breathing out, I feel deep love for the Earth. Child of the Earth I am. Deep love in me and all around me.
Thank you, friends, for joining us. And we’ll see you again next time.
Yes. And if you’ve enjoyed this episode and then you can find many more and including one, brother, on the Three Doors of Liberation, emptiness, signlessness and aimlessness. And you can find us on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on other platforms that carry podcasts and also on our own Plum Village App.
And this podcast was brought to you by the generous donors of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If you would like to support future episodes of the podcast and the work of the international Plum Village community, please visit www.TNHF.org/donate. Thank you and see you next time.
The way out is in.
Join the conversation