Welcome to episode 49 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, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino discuss freedom, exploring a deeper meaning of what it is to be free through a focus on freedom as approached in Buddhism and the Plum Village tradition: something associated with responsibility and commitment. So, what are we trying to be free from?
They further delve into how one can become free within a monastery; liberating moments; working with energy levels; suffering and freedom; collective energy; redefining spaciousness; and letting go of busyness. And how did Thay express freedom in his life and in his practice?
The episode ends with a short meditation on freedom 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 Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism’
Rains Retreat 2023-24
Sister Chan Khong
Freedom Wherever We Go
‘The Four Dharma Seals of Plum Village’
“Coming back to the simple pleasures of life is freedom”
“Freedom is commitment. This idea that we’re free if we can do anything we want is not freedom. But when we really commit to something, give ourselves wholeheartedly to it, then actually that is freedom.”
“When we look at ourselves and we say, ‘I want to be me’, who is this ‘me’? This ‘me’ suddenly becomes an object. And if we look into our present moment, can we truly be just ourself?”
“In Buddhism and in our practice of mindfulness, whenever we speak about something such as freedom, it’s always ‘freedom of something’. What is it that we are trying to be free from?”
“We are speaking about freedom of our suffering, freedom of our negativity, freedom of how we want to walk and show up in this world. Our steps can be made of the energy of freedom and ease. Our breath can generate the sense of happiness, liberation in the present moment, which is freedom. And we understand that freedom is something that we can touch in the present moment, even if we are sitting in a prison.”
“We are doing whatever we want. But are we truly free from the past? Are we free from daydreaming about the present moment? Are we free from being worried about the future? Are we free in our thinking? So freedom is always freedom of something. And our practice is to learn to walk and step into freedom each day.”
“We can be in pain, but also be free from it by experiencing it, accepting it, and working through it. So freedom is not a destination very far away; it can be experienced through our practice of mindfulness. And freedom comes with responsibility: when we say something, it has consequences. When we act, it has consequences. So freedom can be cultivated, it can be experienced, but it can also be taken away.”
“Meditation is not a competition.”
“We will continue to be free in our doing.”
“Freedom is not singular; it is not just about my freedom or your freedom: if I give you your freedom, I give myself my freedom. That freedom is not separated into one person.”
“When we have fear, that is when we lose our freedom.”
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, a student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition.
Brother, today we are going to be talking about freedom. Now, often that word is associated with, Oh, how wonderful, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want without a care in the world. And of course in Buddhism and the Plum Village tradition, freedom is clearly associated with responsibility and commitment. They are inseparable. So we are going to explore maybe a deeper meaning and sense of what it is to be free.
The way out is in.
Hello dear listeners, I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
Brother Phap Huu, how wonderful to see you.
It’s been… I’ve been away for three weeks so we did one recording when I was away. But it’s lovely to be back in Thich Nhat Hanh’s hut, the Sitting Still hut and Upper Hamlet in France, sitting around his kitchen table with Cata, who’s recording this episode, and my wife Paz. And it feels very cozy to be back. So, Brother Phap Huu, why don’t we start off… I always start off with throwing you a question, opening question. Why are we talking about freedom today? What’s on your mind?
On my mind freedom has been a topic because one of my younger monastic brothers is giving a presentation to the bhiksu class about the topic of freedom, and he wanted to pick some brains within the monastic community. And so one day he came up to me and he just asked me, Brother, what is your understanding of freedom? And I looked at him, I said, Oh, that’s a loaded question. And the first thing I said was to ask back to him, Brother, but first of all, let me hear what is your take on freedom? And he said, very naturally, and I think this speaks for a lot of us. He said, Well, for me, the first thing when I think about freedom is I get to do whatever I want. And we both looked at each other and had a great laugh about it because we were all brought up with that kind of view. It’s like, I want to be successful, to be free, and to do whatever I want to do, to say whatever I want to say and eat whatever I want to eat. So in that it also carries some suffering because we can’t do what we want to do right now, therefore, we are seeking something in the further future. And then he asked, Well, but brother, please, please tell me. And I said, Well, you know, in Buddhism and in our practice of mindfulness, whenever we speak about something such as mindfulness or freedom, it’s always freedom of something. What is it that we are trying to be free from? And our practice is mindfulness, awareness of body, speech of mind and the three times the past, the present, and the future. And we may not be free from our emotions, feelings, which is generated by our daily consumption of what we see, what we hear, what we experience. And if we don’t have a practice, a foundation to take refuge in, we may be caught in our desires, in our views, in our thoughts, positive or negative or neutral, or in stories of what is happening around us. And are we able to be who we are? And when we say that, that also can be a trap, who we are, because in the deep teaching of Buddhism, we are made of non us elements. And our practice of Buddhism is to touch the non-self insight, which is interbeing, this word that our teacher has coined in the 21st century. And this insight is a very deep insight, it’s an insight not to just intellectually grasp, but it is an insight to experience within us. When we look at ourselves and we say, I want to be me. But who is this me? So this me suddenly also becomes an object. And if we look into our present moment, can we truly be exactly just us? And the answer is No, because we are made of non us elements. So when we talk about freedom, we are speaking about freedom of our suffering, freedom of our negativity, freedom of how we want to walk and show up in this world. Our steps can be made of the energy of freedom and ease. Our breath can generate the sense of happiness, liberation in the present moment, which is freedom. And we understand that freedom is something that we can touch in the present moment, even if we are sitting in a prison. We, all of us who are listening, we may be sitting at home, we may be sitting in a bus, we may be sitting in a car, going for a walk. We have quote unquote, freedom. We are doing whatever we want. But are we truly free from the past? Are we free from the daydreaming of the present moment? Are we free from being worried about the future? Are we free in our thinking? So freedom is always freedom of something. And our practice as a practitioner is to learn to walk and step into freedom each day. Freedom is an energy that can organically grow and it can penetrate into our way we speak, our way of being with each other, the way we love. Does our love embody freedom or is our love a trap? Expecting the other person to be exactly how we want. Is that true freedom? Or is our freedom allowing us to also embrace our suffering, our present moment. We can still be in pain, but we can be free from it also by experiencing it, accepting it, and working through it. So freedom is not a destination very far away, it can be experienced by our practice of mindfulness. And freedom comes with responsibility. When we say something, it has consequences. When we act, it has consequences. So freedom can be cultivated, it can be experienced, but freedom can also be taken away.
And brother, how would you describe Thay and his way he lived his life in freedom, and how he sort of expressed that in his life and in his practice?
I think living with Thay, I can definitely say Thay was a free person because the way he showed up, he was never caught by the past or caught into the fear of the future. I give one example, because very recently I had a beautiful journey back to Vietnam where I was able to touch my roots. And a lot of the times when I was walking in Vietnam, I was walking with the insight that this is the nation that where Thay was born, where Thay was born into, and where my parents, my ancestors… and because of the situation that Vietnam had to go through, through the war and everything, and Thay was also exiled from Vietnam and was banned from coming home. And if anyone has a right to be angry, Thay has that right to be angry. But throughout all my years that I was his attendant, there was not a moment where Thay had any hatred or any anger or any ill will toward Vietnam, because he has touched his true home, which is the present moment. And Vietnam is not just a country, but Vietnam is what he is continuing, which is to enrich his practice through the heritage that has been transmitted to him through Buddhism, culture, language, art, calligraphy, and also expanding the arts of Vietnam through his poetry, through his music, and through his teaching, which carries a special fragrance of deep love that Vietnam speaks a lot about filial piety and the love to a mother. And Thay was the person that created a rosary, a pocket ceremony, which is like the equivalent of Mother’s Day in the West. And just by recognizing that he has transformed his experience, whatever he went through, and so when I was with him, he was never triggered by any conversation that involved Vietnam or involved the Buddhist organizations, etc. But there was always this genuine love that this is just one example. I felt, Wow, Thay, how did you practice that? What did you have to go through to transform all of this? You know? And of course, for me, I understand it is the daily practice, it is the transformation at the base, which is to understand the suffering and have compassion. And on another level is, you know, Thay was a very active monk, an active teacher. He had a very large community that he has created. He had a lot of things to do in his heart he has deep aspiration and profound determination to renew Buddhism, to help Buddhism take root internationally, not just in Vietnam, not just in France, but for it to be a foundation. So he was coming up with projects like left and right, like every year we had a new project for all of us to invest into. But Thay was so free in the action, Thay was so free in the work. So this idea that sometimes even I have, I think freedom is when we retire, when we are not going to have to show up anymore and we just get to put a hammock up and enjoy life, enjoy sunbathing, etc.. And Thay showed me that you can still be so alive, still be so young, so full of energy and so free when your work, your daily action, you see it has a great impact to the loved ones around you, for Thay is his students and then his larger community. And then to be able to produce and to articulate teachings into books, into Dharma talks so that it can be shared around the world, was his source of nourishment. So he had total sense of liberation by doing this. And I remember one time we were preparing for a 30-year anniversary in Plum Village and, you know, it takes a lot of work to establish any community. It’s not easy. You know, people think, Yay, let’s just create a community and we’re all joyful. And we forget about the the sweat, the tears, the difficulties that we all have to go through because living together is an art. And so I was very naive that particular year. And I was very young. So I said, Thay, next year, 30 years of Plum Village, let’s just stay home. Thay, don’t go on tours. Let’s be a little bit selfish, let’s enjoy Plum Village for each other. And I think that it was a little bit tempting because Thay did have a pause, but then, you know, he turned around and he said, But that gives me joy, my students. And he said, you know, When Thay is able to go and teach, Thay feels that he gets to interbe with everyone. It’s kind of like he gets to experience life at the deepest level when he’s teaching, when he is allowed to have access to people’s well-being by giving them practices and showing them through his own way of being, through his own way of walking, which embodies freedom, through his own way of being, which is the embodiment of stability, peace, inner peace and compassion, which it’s embraced by freedom, that has an impact that can ripple very deeply into the future for each individual. And Thay said, it’s like a teacher or like a doctor who has some antidote, some vitamins that can be a support for someone. And Thay said, it’s too selfish to just keep it for us. We need to learn to practice non-self. And, you know, I just like joined my palms, and I bowed so deeply, and I was like, I understand, Thay. We will continue to be free in our doing.
So one of the things you talk about, brother, is that we find freedom through our suffering. So much of the time people feel freedom is the absence of suffering or the avoidance of suffering. So to feel free is to say, actually, I have no responsibilities, I have nothing to worry about. But a lot of what you’re talking about in the Plum Village tradition is that we touch freedom by going the way out is in. And I think if we had a longer title for this podcast, would be the way out is in and through. Because actually the truth is that when we touch deeply our suffering and find a way through it that we feel free, because when we are avoiding our suffering or stuck in our suffering, we are changing our life accordingly. So we’re not free because we’re always trying to cope with our suffering or trying to avoid it. So I’m just wondering whether you could share where you are on that journey of sort of suffering and freedom and any experiences you’ve had that might shed light for our listeners.
Yes, I had to first understand what it means for me, freedom, and not to think of it as like something very far away, because freedom sometimes it sounds like enlightenment, you know, is something that is quite ultimate, it’s like the final destination. But what I have learned is that all of these big words, such as freedom, enlightenment, happiness, liberation is not the final destination, it is actually in each moment, in the path where you are mindful and you can see it in different realms, different elements, in different moments. And I experienced a little freedom first, and I learned to enjoy those little freedoms, such as knowing to sit and do nothing. That is freedom. And I remember Thay teaching us, like, a lot of times we enter into sitting meditation with a goal to achieve enlightenment or to be one step closer to enlightenment. And Thay said that we’re not free from that thought. But for Thay, sit just to sit, first of all. Sit just to be alive. Sit just to enjoy your breath. Sit just to know that you can enter into an inner peace, that you can allow yourself to just be with whatever is. That is freedom. And normally, in sitting meditation, nobody speaks, nobody is allowed to interrupt each other. So Thay one time told us, and you know, that 30 minutes or 45 minutes of sitting is the moment when nobody gets to come up and interrupt you. And he said, Isn’t that true? And we all looked and were like, that is true. And for us, in our times, it is also the moment when none of us is allowed to pull out our smartphone or none of us is allowed to run towards our desire because there is a collective energy that is inviting us to be still and to sit. Of course, if you are having pain or if you’re going through something very difficult and that stillness interrupts you and it’s scary, you can walk out. None of us will run after you and say, What are you doing? Get back on the cushion. You know? We don’t have that spirit in our tradition. So it’s recognizing that freedom, those moments of freedom. So that was something that I was learning to touch the richness of the simple freedom that I had. So in order to touch and to experience and not take for granted such moments, I can then grow my inner freedom and let that inner freedom play its part and leak into my own suffering, my own state of being. And very recently, I had a very liberating moment with my loneliness. I am normally very energetic, I love being in crowds, I love being with people, I like to start parties. I like to start conversations. I like to be, you know, the energy ball of the group, and so on. But there comes a time when we all need to also take a step back and just learn to take care of our energies of mind, body and of speech, our breath. And after our annual Rains Retreat, we normally have ten… we’re gifted ten lazy days, ten days so that all of us can create our own schedule. And you have suddenly a blank piece of paper and you can draw whatever schedule you want. And I was determined to use three days just for myself, and I asked Cata for access to his tiny house that is in the property of Plum Village, and I was very determined to just stay in there and rest and learn to be by myself. And, you know, the first day, after lunch, the energy of loneliness was so powerful and it manifested and I felt shame. I felt even guilty because I’m 21 years as a monastic now, and I asked myself, how can I still have such feelings and emotions? And this void that was present almost like I was judging myself, and I was also disappointed with myself. And I wanted to run away from myself at that moment. And very close by Cata’s tiny house is the green house, and there’s this little shed where a lot of the brothers would gather. And we sometimes have bonfires there and we would have picnic meals there. And I can hear the brothers enjoying tea together. The lonely Phap Huu in me wanted to run and escape and dive deep into that energy, that collective energy in order to embrace or to maybe at that time, probably better to say, to run away from this void. But I was so determined, I said, at this moment, this is an opportunity. I allow this sensation of loneliness to be a bell of mindfulness for me. And I said, Okay, I’m going to stay with you. I am going to befriend you. And I started to talk to it. You know? And I said, My dear loneliness, I know you are there. Where do you come from? What condition is it that have allowed you to be present now? And why do I feel so little in this moment? And by staying with it and looking deeply at it, this is mindfulness, this is deep looking, this is Vipassana, allowing myself to also be still like a lake so that things can become clear and reflect. And it started to give me some insight because one insight was when we were growing up, me and my sister, my family, my parents were both refugees. So entering into Canada, the first years, they both had two jobs. And whenever we would come home from school, nobody was home. And there were days when, you know, I experienced like being made fun of, I experienced being bullied, I experienced feeling so small. And as an Asian kid, also trying to fit into this culture, and trying to overcome my own complexes, you can feel so lonely, and your dream and your hope is just to come home and someone there to embrace you, someone there to just say you’re enough, you know, and just to tell you that you’re beautiful, you’re wonderful, just be who you are. But that wasn’t there. And so in that moment, I touched something very profound and I said, Oh, this undercurrent of this void and this emptiness is still so present. And I said, But now I am Brother Phap Huu, 21 years in the community, with so much love from my root teacher Thay, from my community, from my parents, from my blood sister, and then from everyone who has connected through, connected to me through Plum Village, become part of the Sangha. And so the reality is actually very different. And I said, My dear young Phap Huu, let me allow you to experience the here and now. Let’s be free from the past. That experience is real, but this experience is also very real. And suddenly, at that moment, there was freedom there. There was freedom in being in loneliness, in allowing loneliness to have this moment to be present, but allowing loneliness to bathe in the freedom of mindfulness, the freedom of who I am today. Yes, that experience was very real, but this experience right now is also very real. And a deeper layer of transformation happened at that moment, which was, I think that somewhat I did want it to… There has always been a like we never had enough time as a family together growing up. Even on weekends, I would watch these movies, these Hollywood movies, and see families eat together and so on. And I craved that, you know? And so there was also this underground of resentment that I had towards my parents. But in that moment, gratitude was so present also because every time I came home though there was a pot of rice, there was a pot of soup, and there was a pot of salty food, salty dish to eat with the rice. And that was the love of my mom. That was the love of my dad. They couldn’t show up physically, but they never forgot us. And they made sure that when we came home there was warm food, there was hot food. And that moment I started to transform and I started to pay gratitude to my parents and to their hardship, which I didn’t have to experience. And they did it out of love for me and my sister. So in that moment, I also felt very free from resentment and from that childhood feeling that there was a missing bond. But now I can definitely share that, you know, the bond between me and my family is very, very profound and a lot of gratitude towards the practice. Yeah.
What I’m hearing, and thank you for sharing so deeply, brother. What I think I’m hearing is that it’s very much one of the sort of signatures of Plum Village, I have arrived, I am home. It sounds like, you know, there’s a… And in the one of the previous episodes, which was an interview I did with Thich Nhat Hanh, he talks about there’s this endless journey about he said, I have arrived, I’m home, goes on endlessly… We ever find that deepening and ripening of that. And so what I hear in what you’re saying is that in one sense you’re more deeply coming home to yourself, and that means coming home to yourself in the present moment, which allows you to heal the past. And that’s sort of resonating for me as well. And because I think for a lot of my life, I felt imprisoned by my own self, because actually what I did, I didn’t think I was enough, and therefore I was very dependent on other people. So I saw myself in the mirror reflected by other people. So actually I was not free because I didn’t feel I could be myself. I feel I always had to fit in. And I think I’ve learned through my own suffering and pain that freedom is about feeling at home with myself and loving myself and appreciating myself and letting go of my need of other people. So that actually creates community is because I needed it. And I don’t remember, brother, you know, my first marriage, it was going through a lot of difficulties and I was trying to hang on to this relationship. I thought there was always a way through. I thought this was going to work and it became increasingly difficult. And I had read this book previously and it talked about actually letting go. And it was a story of a man and a woman on a rowing boat who… they were shipwrecked, and they managed to escape on a rowing boat and they ended up being blown onto this beach of this island. And they got out of the rowing boat and the man looked up to the top of the mountain and there was a sort of shrine at the top of the mountain. And he told this woman he was deeply in love with, you know, you wait here, I’ll go and have a look. And he went up to the top of the mountain and the shrine was literally vibrating with energy. And he just knelt down and he had this deep wish. He said, you know, I love this woman so much that I would do anything to make her happy. And he sits there in meditation, and then he gets up and he looks down and he sees this woman in the rowing boat, going back out to sea, being taken back out to sea. And there was that sense of, you know, when you truly love someone, it’s important to let them go because that’s their freedom and that’s your own freedom. And there was a day when I just let go of my need to be with my first wife. I just released myself and released, but actually was more about releasing her from my need for her. And it’s been such an important moment, I think, for me about what it is to give someone else their freedom, because then you give yourself freedom, too. And Paz, my current life, hopefully forever, is sitting in the room here. And, you know, we got married in Plum Village and Sister Chan Khong asked us to make vows, our personal vows to each other. And my main vow to Paz was not to ever try and put her in a gilded cage, because I know that for Paz, the most important thing for her is to feel free. When she’s free, she’s happy. When she feels free, she’s creative. When she feels free, she fills the space around her. And I recognized that my pattern is neediness and that if I were to ever move towards needing her and limiting her freedom, that I would actually kill off the very beauty that I see in her. And that if I ever tried to put her in a cage, however beautiful the cage is, that it would destroy her life force. Freedom is not singular, is not just about my freedom or your freedom, it’s that actually, if I give you your freedom, I give myself my freedom. That freedom is not just separate into one person. And I see that very much in terms of this community that it’s all about saying, you know, and I think it’s one of the great gifts of Thay, is that he gives people his freedom in Plum Village, you’re not this tight order where everyone has to do the same thing, and actually you get rid of art and you get rid of music. Actually, Thay has, I think, recognized that if you’re going to commit to being monastic, you need freedom within that. It’s not about an imprisonment or a constriction, it’s about a deepening. And so, you know, one of the things I’ve noticed in Plum Village is just, let’s say the music. You know, there’s amazing musicians here and they’re still composing and they’re still playing together, and people with artistic sort of ideas are able to create art. People who love to garden are allowed to do gardening, that actually everyone is given freedom to express themselves because it comes out of their center. So I’m wondering, brother, if you want to talk a bit about how one can become free within a monastery where you’re all following a very tight schedule, where you have many precepts, you have to follow that some people might look at it and say, Oh, you know, that is the very opposite of freedom, is it?
Yeah, I think a lot of the times people think about monastic vows, they think of it as such entrapment that you are putting yourself into, like all of this rules and regulations. Funny enough, the word Pratimoksha, which is our precept book, it means freedom wherever we go. And as monastics what we practice is to enter into freedom deeper every day. And that means freedom of our desires, the desire for more power, more money, more fame, more sex, more acknowledgment, more ego. And the antidote for that is interbeing and non-self. And it doesn’t mean that as a monastic we don’t contribute, we’re not doing things that have our names and have our existence, but there is a way to take care of our pride. For example, when we do something and somebody offers us flowers and gratitude, the way to practice in that moment is to practice interbeing and sharing this merit right away. It’s not you, it’s what you represent. So you channel that right away to gratitude, and that will free us from this me, this I am the best to Oh my God, today I owned it. You know, like today, the way I showed up was awesome. And we all can fall into this moment. And I’ve seen brothers and sisters who became a victim of their own success and forgetting about the true meaning of a monastic which is to be free. And we, in our tradition, our second Dharma Seal of Plum Village, is to go as a river, to… And what does that mean? It means that our success, my success is the community success. Your talent, your skill I was celebrated because I also see that as mine, even though you are the one that is performing that song. But somehow I see because we are so interconnected as a community, I am practicing to see your joy as my joy. So there’s freedom there, there’s a freedom in sharing the happiness. There’s freedom in sharing the success and in the growth also. When I see a monastic brother or sister, or even a lay friend who is long term with us, I see the transformation. It brings me such joy. It brings me such freedom. There’s this willow tree close to the big meditation hall, and there’s this little bridge under it. And in the spring, so many flowers are blooming and you can listen to all of these birds that are singing 24 seven around the monastery. Every time I come back from the dining hall and I see someone sitting on that bridge without doing anything, just enjoying nature, somehow I feel so joyful and I don’t know if that person is suffering or happy, but it does represent freedom. And I just feel so at one with this person, you know? And in our precept, it has responsibility. The reason why you come to me, Jo, is because I’m a monk. And I have to also have to step up to that responsibility. What I represent is the trainings, is the precept. I do make a vow not to kill and not to let others kill. I am vegetarian. I do make a vow to not steal. I do make a vow to live a celibate life, etc., etc. And all of these rules, quote unquote, rules, for us, they are not rules, but they are our path, it is our path that keeps our freedom. Because when I live 100% with these trainings, I don’t have fear and suddenly I am free. When we have fear, that is when we lose our freedom. When we do something that we shouldn’t have done, we lose our freedom. And this is why we have mindfulness trainings in our tradition, in our lineage, as a practice for also lay practitioners, those who want to fully embark on the life of mindfulness. We said, Well, if you can apply these ethics, these particular mindfulness trainings into your daily life, you can experience real freedom because all of these trainings is to keep your heart at a level of nourishing and cultivating understanding and love and aware of the suffering that can be created. If you say things that are unkind, if that anger overtakes your life and your action becomes violent, it becomes hatred, then we start to lose our freedom because people start to disconnect from us. We lose freedom. And we know that love is a mark of freedom. But in love, there has to be understanding, like what you just shared Jo. And when we hear somebody share what brings them joy and we have an idea and we truly see this is what brings them joy, we let go. We learn to let go of our view of what happiness is. You know, this example with Thay, you know, like when Thay told me, but his choice to give retreat, I could have come back and give an argument and I could have said, But Thay, but how about us? Stay with us. We are your children. You know, but then this is my view of just what happiness is, and I’m truly not understanding that person. And so what you said hits the mark of freedom is also letting go, letting go of our projection of what happiness is, what freedom is. The more we can be open, have space, the more freedom we allow. And our way of presence, you know, I think we’ve all have experienced when we’re in a space with three people, five people, ten people, somebody who has a lot of ideas, who is very egotistic, they take up a lot of space because they’re not ready to listen. They just want to talk. They just want to hear themself. And if that person has good friends and someone to tell them, I think you should listen more, be more spacious, allow other people to talk. Be more mindful of how much you are sharing. Sometimes less is more. And so freedom offers us… It’s a bell of mindfulness. Like, how much are we taking up space in our relationships, family, loved ones, colleagues, etc..? So our training is to give us more freedom each day, and we all have to know what path we’re walking. Like if you are a husband, you know that your commitment to your wife, your love to your wife, the way you behave, the way you are, that is the freedom. But the moment you start to break that trust through actions, through flirting with other people, through cheating, you start to live with fear. And that is not freedom. And that is also not offering freedom to other people. So that’s why we say freedom has responsibility.
So, brother, I just want to pick up on that, less is more, because I think that’s so fundamental because in Western consumerist society, more is considered to equal freedom. That actually all the advertising saying happiness and freedom comes from buying more things, that more things will bring us happiness, whether in fact we know, with all the evidence, that actually the more we own, the more we feel losing. And also the more choice, the more actually, the more stress there is. So I’ll give you an example. I really like small supermarkets, such a pathetic example. But when I go into one of these hypermarkets, I find it so stressful, there’s so much choice and I just don’t know what to buy. And I get confused and I just… When I go into a small supermarket that has everything I need, I know exactly, I just go round, I just pick up what I need. And it feels so freeing. And I think so much in life is actually the sense that actually the more we clear out our minds, the more we clear out our physical… you know, all the things we own. Actually, that creates freedom because actually then we come back to the core of what’s most important to us. And as you were speaking earlier, I was reminded about Thay often told the story of this French novel where there’s someone who’s facing execution and he’s about to lose his life and he’s sitting there in his cell and there’s just one small skylight above him, and he looks up at the blue sky and he suddenly comes to this place of feeling totally free, totally at home, that he’s able to touch the essence of life just through that one small portal to the sky. And then along comes a priest to read him his last rites. And he takes one look at the priest and he shoos him away because he sees that this man is more dead almost than he’s about to be. And there’s that sense of in that moment, why is he free? Because you think, well, he’s about to lose his life. That’s not freedom, that’s death. But actually knowing that his life is about to end clears everything out the way and he’s able to see life clearly. And I think often, unfortunately for a lot of people, they only feel free when they come to their deathbed and realize actually all the things they should have done. And the release, and if they’re able to release it at that moment and go to their passing in a peaceful way. But it feels so important to shed things as we go. You just shed perceptions, shed our judgments, shed our beliefs, shed so much around us, because actually, the more we come back to the simple pleasures of life is freedom. And in a sense what you were saying earlier, brother, about freedom is commitment. This idea that if we’re free to do anything we want is not freedom. It’s actually confusing to ourselves. But when we really commit to something, give ourselves wholeheartedly to it, then actually that is freedom.
Yeah, and we know what to do and what not to do to care for ourself. I have this very funny story. When Thay was on tour, whenever we would go to the U.S. or we would go to Asia or big Europe trips, we always scheduled our time so that we have some outing days for the community to explore a new country that we are in. And Thay was very mindful of how much energy he has to give in retreats, in public talks, and in the moments of rest days Thay really likes to take a step back and just enjoy time in the hut with his attendants. He would like to write calligraphy. He would like to just enjoy a cup of tea or to hear some feedback of how the retreat was. And Thay was very open. He always asked us like, Was my teaching okay? Is there anything else I should say or something that maybe didn’t land it for people? You know, this was how free he was as a teacher to his young disciples who are just learning to walk on their two feet and being aware of their breath. And there was one retreat, we were at in the Rocky Mountains at the YMCA, Estes Park, and the monastics love hiking because, you know, this is… part of becoming a monastic you do have to have some relationship to nature or else you just want to live in the city. And all the monastic wanted to go on this big hike and everyone wanted to invite Thay. And it was group after group coming and, you know, having tea with Thay and saying, Thay, would you like to go on this hiking trip with us? And I think at one point, like Thay got a little bit fed up. And Thay said, Thay said to this group of brothers and sisters, with a lot of kindness, and Thay said, you know, I bet you that Thay sitting at this hut and looking at that mountain, Thay can enjoy that mountain more than you who are climbing it, who want to arrive at the peak, quote unquote. And Thay just had this laugh when he was saying like it was such a human moment for Thay, you know, like he was just being so real with his students. Like, just stop, stop. Just Thay was like, Please go and enjoy the mountains, leave Thay alone. Thay knows how to enjoy his present moment. So even in, for me, like reflecting on how I need to take care of my energy now, there’s so much temptation even going for a hike, going to enjoying nature, or even going for a cup of tea or something that is very wholesome, but you have to be very mindful of where you’re putting your energy, where is your intention, and that is real freedom when you know how to care for yourself. I always come back to that because sometimes we are being being carried away by the collective energy, even if it’s something that is very, very wholesome, very good. But if in that moment, you know, actually what I need is to just sit back and not go anywhere and enjoy and not think that today is a free day, I need to spend it, I need to use it so that I don’t waste my time here. But in that moment, no, I can actually just be here, be in the present moment, enjoy nature where I am and live deeply that moment. That’s also real freedom. So in real freedom, in that particular moment I had with Thay at Estes Park, Colorado, YMCA, I got to experience a moment where Thay was so free, not caught by the collective energy, because he knew how to take care of himself. And Thay always told me, you know, when we’re on tour, we have to be very responsible because our responsibility is not just giving a talk, but is to remain healthy so that the tour, all of us are healthy, are showing up, are present. None of us is twisting our ankle, none of us is getting sick, because that is also freedom to show up, freedom to be one with this river. If your health is weaker and you’re not mindful, you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re just flowing with excitement and losing yourself, then you also are not being true to what your responsibility is at that moment. So to be who you are is also to know how you have to show up. As a teacher, you have to do things that is of the virtue of a teacher. Right? When you’re young, be young, so that when later on you’re a little bit older, more with different grows, you can still be young but in a different way. And I’m still dancing with this, you know, I’m still sometimes like, Phap Huu, can I still do that? But it’s not such a, you know, I’m not trying to create more problems for myself, but also be free in our growth. Be free in the present moment of who we are is what I am learning to arrive at more deeper every day. And also allowing yourself to be free in exploring our suffering. Like I said, even after 20 something years, 30 years of practicing, we are still going to have moments of doubt, moments of questions, of loneliness, of suffering, of voids. It’s okay, but we can be free with it. Our practice is not a competition. We’re not going to look back and try competing with ourself or compete with others. Or like, you know, come to after my tenth trip to Plum Village, I need to be, you know, like this or like that. It’s not… Meditation is not a competition.
So just relate to that, brother, because what I hear you talking about is creating space as well. So Paz and I have just returned from the three weeks in New York, and I realize from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed, I was busy and I didn’t… I had a good time, but I don’t remember having any insight or any reflection. I was enjoying myself, but actually coming back to Plum Village a couple of days ago and suddenly finding spaciousness. And in the spaciousness I find my wisdom. And because I’ve let go of my busyness and I see so much I mean, in a sense, as a coach, what I tell clients is I’m offering you my spaciousness, because everyone I speak to is so busy that there’s no time to think about freedom, to think, to try and experience freedom because everyone’s rushing from one thing to the next. And I feel in Plum Village, what has brought me most insight and wisdom and depth of understanding is exactly what it is, just stopping. I haven’t read a book, I haven’t watched or done any studying particularly, but I’m present and that has, you know, that brings up some suffering as well, because actually when I’ve got nothing to do, I face myself. And when you face yourself, you face both insight… but you’ll face suffering as well, that I’ve been probably running away from most of my life. And I love the way you’ve described about the way we work with our energy levels, because a lot of people think that time and energy are the same, but actually you can have a ten-minute conversation with someone that can sap all your energy. And when you lose your energy, actually you lose your freedom because actually… and you lose other people’s freedom because you get frustrated or ratty and then you take it out and project it onto other people. So I do feel that actually just creating space in which life can show up, space in which an insight can emerge, space in which you can really spend time with understanding someone else. I mean, that is all freedom. And busyness actually, striving doesn’t actually create any freedom at all. It just creates busyness and striving.
Exactly. The more we’re striving, it just creates more work for us. So learning to have enough is freedom. Learning to see that is enough, I don’t need to chase the next project. And also entrusting it into the future generation, your colleagues, your teammates. I think that is a hard practice. It’s easier said than done because our pride is very powerful, is very strong. We feel like we have to have our name on everything, but our freedom is to see that when we entrust, we are there without the label, and that can be a profound support for others. I remember in the climate retreat, you know, one of the climate leaders shared that she would like to give her time for any woman under 35 years old to help mentor them. That is very selfless and for her practicing freedom to see the next continuation, the next generation also stepping up. And that is a mark of understanding that there needs to be a transmission. And I think in our times, like with, you know, social media and everything like verified, like everyone is getting a check mark and getting their name known, etc.. And we get caught in that, we get caught in that self. We get caught in our ego and we forget that we’re also here to transmit. That is actually part of our nature, one of the reasons why we also want to have children, our animal nature is also to make sure that our lineage continues, our human species continues. But for us spiritually, we don’t continue through just physical bodies, but we continue through legacy of actions, through aspiration that we hand down to the work of peace, the work of reconciliation, the work of mindfulness is lifetime, and it needs to be lifetime, because even today we still have so much suffering, we still have so much war and so much discrimination even in our most advanced time, we can say. But it feels like we have less freedom.
Brother, thank you so much. Maybe we should stop here to give people the freedom to relax through your meditation. So you give us normally a guided meditation. So, dear listeners, this is a chance to practice being free, being in this present moment. And, brother, do you want to bring us back to this present moment?
Dear friends, wherever you may be, if you’re going for a walk, going for a jog, if you’re on a bus, sitting in a train or on an airplane, if you’re cleaning your house, whatever you may be doing, if you can just allow yourself to take a moment to stop and relax. You can sit down or you can even lay down, or just stand still feeling your two feet firmly on the ground, rooted to the earth. Become aware of your whole body from the tip of your head to your face, your neck, your shoulders, your arms, your hands, your back, your chest, your abdomen, your lower body, your two feet. If there’s any tension, let us just relax in this moment. Let us sink into our body. Offer yourself a smile. As I breathe in, I’m aware this is my inbreath. As I breathe out, I am aware this is my outbreath. Inbreath. Outbreath. You don’t have to think about your breathing, just feel your inbreath, feel your outbreath. If it is long, let it be long. If it is short, let it be short. Breathe freely. As I breathe in, I’m aware of my body. As I breathe out, I relax my body. If there’s any tension, breathing in, aware of that body part. And breathing out, I release that tension in that body part. In, aware of body. Out, I relax. As I breathe in, I smile to the thought that comes up in my mind. I’m breathing out. I’m grounded to myself in this moment, in this present moment. Not pushing it away. Not criticizing myself. Just smile whatever thought comes up, and just ground it in the present moment with your breathing. Breathing in, I am present for myself. I may have neglected myself for a long time, running towards the future or in fear of the past. In this moment, I smile to myself, allow myself to just be here. Breathing in, I have freedom in my inbreath. As I breathe out, I have freedom in my outbreath. In, recognizing freedom. Out, cultivating freedom. As I breathe in, aware that I am present. I am a continuation of my parents, of my ancestors. But I am also at the present moment of who I am. I am not caught by their past, but I can smile to the experience. I’m breathing out, I want to continue and transform the past experience and to create and cultivate new moments where there is healing, transformation, reconciliation. I am free to embrace the past and to create the future in this moment. Breathing in, I know I’m not perfect. Breathing out, I am enough. In, I am not perfect. But out, I smile because I am enough. I am here, breathing in a deep breath. Breathing out a slow outbreath with freedom. Because we are alive, anything is possible. In, and out.
Thank you, dear friends, for practicing and listening to the podcast.
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And also grateful to Cata and also Brother Niem Thung and Maarten, who also helps us record and is our sound technician, as well as our teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community.
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