Welcome to episode 46 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 talk about healthy boundaries. In this busy and complex world is it possible to remain open and vulnerable whilst also ensuring our safety and protection? This question is answered via stories from the Buddha’s time and Thich Nhat Hanh’s life and teachings, as well as from the presenters’ own life experiences.
Brother Phap Huu further shares about practicing awareness; the two protectors: the warrior and the bodhisattva; teaching and the importance of understanding those you teach; deep listening and loving speech; friendships that end and being OK with someone not loving us; setting boundaries with people who have passed away; and creating a bodhisattva heart. Also, if there’s no self, why are we protecting it?
Jo shares about courage and communication; speaking the truth; protecting ourselves from abusive behavior; loving people from a distance; change and shifting boundaries; and the power of presence.
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
Classes: ‘Right Diligence’
Old Path, White Clouds
The Five Mindfulness Trainings
Deer Park Monastery
“Being mindful, having love for oneself, is also learning to be true to oneself. And sometimes that means learning to say no to certain situations because we’re not yet capable. The practice here is not to feel despair or to lose faith in oneself because one cannot yet embrace such a situation; that can become an ingredient for aspiration and determination, so that we can cultivate our capacity to be there, to embrace, and to transform.”
“Am I watering the seeds of mindfulness, the seeds of concentration, the seeds of understanding, the seeds of kindness? Or am I being watered by the seeds of violence, anger, fear, despair, jealousy? As a practitioner, mindfulness becomes a light to identify what is coming into our senses via our eyes, our ears, our nose, our tongue, our mind, and our body. And we have to learn to be mindful of what is coming in, because that will be the energy for us to give out.”
“A good teacher, a good leader, a good parent, a good mentor is someone who is attentive to the kind of training that the one that they’re training needs. Our teacher, Thay was very mindful in understanding his students. In a way, Thay was studying us and he had to have the sensitivity – his mindfulness and his openness – to see each student differently and recognize what kind of ‘medicine’ they needed.”
“In hostile moments, if it’s not safe, you are allowed to protect yourself. Don’t think that being compassionate is to withstand everything; we also have to love ourselves. We have to know our capacity, we have to protect ourselves for everyone else. Thay would sometimes tell us, ‘You are more than just you: you also have to protect your teacher, which is me, you have to protect your parents, who are your ancestors, and your colleagues. So don’t allow yourself to burn out, because when you do, we all burn out with you.’ And at first I thought he was just referring to work, but there is also burning out in our spirit. We have to continue to nourish our heart and compassion. We have to know our limits.”
“Please, do not wait until you are angry, until you are violent, to practice. At that moment, it is too late. We have to already have invested our capacity to embrace and call our emotion by its name in the present moment.”
“If you want revenge, dig two graves.”
“With distance, there’s understanding. With time, the heat of the moment dissipates.”
“A good teacher is someone who takes time to have a relationship. I truly believe that before trying to help someone, I have to also have time to be human with that person: having a cup of tea, seeing them as a friend, not just as a student or as younger, or a mentee.”
“In Buddhism we always say don’t be too intense with everything but also not too loose, knowing what is enough.”
“Sometimes true love is just learning to let go.”
“Thay talks about how, if you say something negative to someone or you’ve acted in anger, you can send a kind thought afterwards to neutralize it.”
Welcome back, dear listeners, to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In. My name is Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Buddhist Zen monk in the tradition of Plum Village, student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
And brother, today we’re going to be talking about healthy boundaries. How is it possible in this busy and complex world to stay open and vulnerable whilst also making sure that we’re safe and protected?
The way out is in.
Hello everyone, I’m Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
Brother, welcome back. How nice to see you.
Nice to see you too, Jo.
So today we’re going to be talking about healthy boundaries. And the trigger for this actually was a question from one of our listeners who was talking about, you know, the difficulty of wanting to be kind and compassionate and at the same time needing to be… not harsh, but to be direct and to sort of… And he was talking, he’s a teacher, and he was talking about how he works with young people, that he wants to be supportive and kind, but also sometimes he has to be tough. And I know that’s something I struggle with, and I know many people I coach struggle with this as well. So, as usual, we come for the answers to the doorstep of Brother Phap Huu. Brother, what is the answer?
The answer is mindfulness.
Oh, that old one.
That old one. But let me elaborate. When we practice awareness, we have to, first of all, come back to ourselves, and we also get to understand ourselves more, to recognize that we have different characteristics that we can develop inside of us. We have different elements, different seeds in us, such as compassion, such as love, but there is also a seed of like clarity, of firmness, stability. And compassion embraces both sides, a side that we can allow ourselves to have more understanding so that our heart can expand. And sometimes it is like allowing us to be more tender to see the other person, the other person’s suffering more than what they’re saying, what they’re doing at that moment. So it opens our view towards that person that they are more than what the words they’re saying. They have a backstory, why they suffer and why they are saying something like this. So that allows us to be more compassionate, to accept each other more because all of us, we suffer and all of us, we have hardship that we encounter in life. And on the other side, we also have a warrior, we have a side that allows us to be very clear, very direct, and our understanding can also be a sword that helps cut through illusion. If we go to a traditional temple in southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, many temples have gates, and when you enter into a gate, you will see two protectors, one protector, they are created like warriors, wearing armors, and one bodhisattva, a protector looks very kind, very compassionate heart, has a smile on his face, even with a sword. And on the other side, there’s another protector that is created like a demon, in a way, very fierce, very to the point, and can generate maybe fear towards others. And so these two elements in Mahayana Buddhism, the artists and the monks, they create these bodhisattvas as different elements that we can cultivate in us. So we have to, first of all, practice knowing where we are at, where we are at right now. We have to come home to ourselves, see what is our capacity, how much can I remain calm and peaceful when I am interacting with someone who is very difficult to interact with? How much freshness, how much stability do I have to offer? Also, my kindness, my generosity. And we are a living organism, so our love, our compassion, our capacity is also very organic, it’s a living energy. So we have to be very true to ourselves. Being mindful, having love to oneself is also learning to be true to ourselves. And sometimes that means we have to learn to say no to certain situation because we’re not yet capable. And the practice here is not to feel in despair or to lose faith in oneself, because I cannot yet embrace such a situation, but that can become an ingredient for aspiration, for determination, so that we can cultivate our capacity to be there, to embrace and to transform. And in our Zen practice, sometimes saying no is a mantra, because that is us learning to identify our habits and what it is bringing our mind, our state of mind. So we know that we are made of many seeds, and one of the eight noble path is right diligence. And the diligence here is being mindful of what we are watering in our daily life. Am I watering the seeds of mindfulness, the seeds of concentration, the seeds of understanding, the seeds of kindness? Or am I being watered by the seeds of violence, anger, fear, despair, jealousy? So as a practitioner, our mindfulness becomes a light to identify what is coming into our senses, our eyes, our ears, our nose, our tongue, our mind, and our body. And we have to learn to be mindful of what is coming in, because that will be the energy for us to give out. So first of all, is learning to come back to ourself, to recognize what capacity do I have and what capacity don’t I have yet?
Thank you, brother. I want to get to the nub of this from my perspective, because in the question from our listener, you know, there is that whole sense of, especially if you’re a Buddhist or if you’re following a spiritual path, there’s this sense of wanting to always be kind and always be compassionate, and that conflict can become very painful. So I know that in my particular case that because I have a certain sensitivity and know what it’s like to be hurt or to be ignored or to be sidelined or to be attacked, that is the last thing I want to do to somebody else, because why would I want to treat someone else or create the conditions of someone else that I find most difficult? And at the same time, there are situations in life where we have to be firm, we have to actually put our boundaries very much in place, because otherwise we can get abused, we can get, we can actually, yeah, we can be abused even.
A good teacher, a good leader, a good parent, a good mentor is someone who is attentive to the kind of training that the one that they’re training needs. Our teacher, Thay, when he was still active and alive with us, he was very mindful in understanding his students. In a way, Thay was studying us and he had to have the sensitivity, which is his mindfulness and his openness, to see each student differently and recognize what kind of medicine do they need. Some students, sweetness was very good for them. Some students, if you give them sweetness, they don’t learn from that, they can even take advantage of that. And Thay had to give them the Zen stick, like a very harsh teaching, a very direct teaching. And sometimes from the outside it can look quite harsh and you can even say, Oh, Thay doesn’t have compassion. But as one of his attendants, I was able to, I was really able to be a part of some of his direct teachings to brothers and sisters and even to myself. And what I always recognize is that whenever Thay is teaching us, his foundation is always love, first and foremost, that there is true understanding and Thay recognized the suffering and from the place of love, his transmission of teaching, whatever form it will take it still embodies the care and the hope that his students will grow, the one that he is helping will be able to have a breakthrough. This comes from his own experience through life that he has learned so much in his experience from the war, from meeting people in the West and being a part of many communities. And what was always safe, where Thay comes from is love, so when we receive it, even though it can be a little bit tough in a way, but the intention is helping us to see that we do have some shortcoming. And in Vietnam, there’s a saying that if I love you, I have to give you like bitter soup from time to time because it’s good for you. So not all love is sweet and lovely, but that we have to be very skillful because we don’t want to abuse that too. Right? So that’s why the foundation of it has to come from understanding and love. And I have witness, like whenever Thay would instruct someone, I see Thay prepare himself, doing the right research, understanding the situation, and coming from a space of deep listening first and then loving speech. There is a way to share about shortcoming, but it can be enlightening the way that we allow them to see their weakness, their mud, instead of criticizing, that’s a very easy habit to fall into. Oh, you’re so bad. Why did you behave in that way? You unmindful child, you ungrateful child. And if I hear that, I will just drown in despair. And so, as a teacher, as a father, as a mentor, as a leader, we have to be very mindful of our actions, what we represent. So we have to train in the practice of loving speech. Loving speech doesn’t mean, you know, just like saying, Oh, you’re so beautiful, you’re so fresh. Oh, oh, what a wonderful person. But my dear friend, when you open the door in that way, you disturb all of us. Can you be more mindful, more gentle? Please be aware that many of us are already in sitting meditation. And so there’s always a tender way to say something very directly and allow the person to receive with this kindness. I think kindness can be very, very straightforward. When somebody once sees a weakness in me and they don’t tell me directly and they go around the bushes and they try to make me guess what they’re trying to say, I feel like that’s not kindness. That’s more like I see something that not good in you, but I don’t yet have the clarity or the courage to say it. So as someone who is offering, you know, to reflect on how we offer our guidance, and, on us, who are receiving, or those of us who meet a particular situation, how do we practice? There are many ways, and the first place to always come back to is what is manifesting in me right now? And to identify your emotion that is manifesting and calling that emotion by its name. And knowing our capacity, can I use my mindfulness to hold this fear or this anger? And if we cannot, can we be skillful to say Thank you for sharing, but I need to take care of my emotion right now, and I’ll come back to you later. I believe in communication is very key to difficult situation. Most of the time we rely more on just our emotions and feelings and we become trapped in them. So our practice is, first of all, to listen with mindfulness, to be aware of how much we can hear and then if it is watering such negative seeds in us, is there a skillful way to stop this conversation for more reflection? Because the more we listen, the more toxic we can become. And so we have to be very mindful of that. And if we cannot, can we just return to our island of practice and just breathe, just focus on our mindful breathing the whole time as we have to listen to this situation. And very interesting, I’ve heard a very dear sister of mine share her experience in this. She used to work in a business and one of her colleagues was very toxic. It became his habit every day coming into the office, because he was a senior and the first thing he does is just complain. And one day after her trip from Plum Village, because she was his junior, so it was so natural for him to just bully, just to meet the ones who have not yet have a voice in this team and just talk about things that he’s not happy with. And some of it is not even about the work. And most of the time everybody just ignores him and they allow this habit to continue. And after the trip of Plum Village, she decided, I’m just going to look at him and listen to him. And as he was sharing, she just turned her chair and looked at him and he was stunned. He stopped and he said, Why are you looking at me like that? And she said, Well, I want to hear what you have to say. And he just stopped. And she realized from that moment, from her practice of mindful awareness, is that he’s just a lonely person. Nobody has listened to him, and therefore this pain and this emptiness in him has become these emotions and has been translated into these harsh words. And suddenly, when somebody becomes a mirror, a mirror of mindfulness, it reflects back to that person and they recognize that they are toxic. And if we can be that mindful mirror, we may allow that person an opportunity to really look at themself. And that sister shared with me that it was a very difficult practice, but when she did it, she saw the power of presence and the courage that you can develop. And it was… She had to develop into that moment where she said, All right, today I’m just going to look at him. And she knew what she had to do before that moment when she had that courage to look and face her colleague. And that started to change. And a new relationship was built. And that was through a communication of just presence. And you open a channel in that person of a kind of dialog, and so therefore, the first place to always return to is the one… the oneness in us. What is my energy right now? And can I develop to have a deep presence, to listen? And in hostile moments, if it’s not safe, you are allowed to protect yourself. Don’t think that being compassionate is to withstand everything. We also have to love ourselves. We have to know our capacity, we have to protect ourselves for everyone else. Thay sometimes tells us, You are more than just you, you have to protect also your teacher, which is me, you have to protect your parents, which are your ancestors, your colleagues. So don’t burn out, don’t allow yourself to burn out, because when you burn out, we all burn out with you. And at first I thought it was just at a level of just work. But here is burning out in also our spirit. We have to continue to nourish our heart and compassion. We have to know our limits.
Thank you, brother. There’s a lot in that, so I just want to sort of just come back to a few things. I thought was really important to talk about was courage and communication. And I also want to give an example of that, because I think it speaks to that very clearly. When I was at The Guardian, I was running the business and finance section, and there was somebody who, one of the older journalists, who was the editor of a specialty, I’m not going to say what it was because it might give his details away. And the people in the main editorial team didn’t think he was very good. And so every time a big story came up in that person’s area, they would give it to somebody else to write. And for this journalist, you know, the way The Guardian is, if you were the specialist, you would get the story. And so, over time, he became actually mentally ill, because no one ever had the courage to communicate with him what they felt he was not doing well, what they felt he could do better, and just basically ignored him and isolated him. And that changed my life because on the surface, they were being very kind because they weren’t addressing… You know, they weren’t telling him the negative. But actually it was really cruel because there was a total lack of honesty. And what I felt it was that they didn’t have the courage to actually sit down with this person and actually say the truth. And that because they didn’t speak the truth, this guy became more and more isolated and then became… developed a mental illness around. And I remember watching him sit in the office when a big story, because I would go into the main editorial meeting where decisions were made and then have to come back and tell him. And I remember how crushing that was. And not once did they have the courage to actually speak the truth or support him or to say what they actually wanted. And that really changed my mind away from thinking, Oh, well, it’s to be kind, if you just give people positive messages, then that’s the way to make people happy. It’s not. Because he was suffering. He knew they were taking the stories away because they didn’t think he was good enough, but nothing was addressed. So I think that that’s something that’s so important, courage and communication. The other thing, brother, you mentioned, is about, at the end, is about what it’s like to be with someone where you may have to protect yourself, because actually, you know, people can mistake Buddhism or compassion and deep listening to, well, this person’s very abusive, but actually, I know they came from a very difficult family and I know they’re projecting out that and if I’m just more kind, a more compassionate, and recognize and just be present, then I can change the situation. But sometimes we can’t change the situation. Sometimes it is abusive, it is dangerous, and people, as you say, need to vacate that space. And I know, of course, this is an impossible question on one level, but how do we know when it’s time to say, Actually, I’ve done my best, but actually now it’s my protection. And I think the Buddha had a teaching about, you know, about the need to protect ourselves.
Yes, the Buddha was the teacher and he had to learn a lot once he started to have students. And I think reading Old Path White Clouds is one of my favorite books that Thay wrote, because in the life story of the Buddha, Thay told it in a way to see that the Buddha was a human being. And through history, people have created the Buddha as a God, and that’s the very opposite of Buddhism, and that’s very opposite of what the Buddha wanted. He only wanted to be known as a teacher that has went through so much suffering and found a way out. And reading Old Path White Clouds, and as a monastic going to the history of Buddhism and Zen, you can see the growth of a teacher. And in one of the stories that the Buddha had was about a wild horse. So sometimes having students is learning to tame a wild horse, training the horse to know how to sit, walk, stand, and march, and run properly. And from time to time a trainer will meet a horse that is untrainable. And the trainer has to also think of all of the other horses that are in the community and how one horse can have such an impact on the other horses. So sometimes the trainer has to be willing to let that horse go back to the wild. And even though we can think that we have failed, but this moment of deep looking is to have compassion for all of the other horses that we have in our field, in our community. And this is very important because sometimes we have this idea of success, that after enlightenment, after being a renowned teacher, that we are perfect. We have the capacity to transform everything, to try to take care and heal everything. But that is not the truth. We will meet a particular situation where we are at our limits and maybe our teachings won’t work for that particular person. And we have to use our mindfulness, our awareness of our energies and collectiveness. Like how is that person affecting all of us here? As an abbot, I have to be mindful of this. During my times we had to ask one monastic to leave the community. It was a very difficult moment, but it was the right thing to do because that monk, his pride and his ego were so profound. It was so big that he even challenged Thay. He even came and challenged Thay. And I will never forget because Thay.
Where you there?
I wasn’t there when he challenged Thay, but I was… Thay called me in and he said, Oh, you know, your younger brother and my student, he came and he asked Thay this question, as a challenge. And Thay said, I think the brothers need to have a deep listening session to him to understand what he’s going through. And we spent months, like slowly training, like listening, like why do you have such behaviors and why is your view particular lead towards Thay’s teaching like this? And he had a superiority complex. He felt he was here to save the community. And one time I did ask him like, What are you trying to save us from? Like we are suffering, that I’m certain about, and none of us is perfect, we’re all transforming, trying to transform. But you’re so young, brother, you’ve just been here for a year and a half, two years. I think you should also be humble. You know, I shared this to him. And I don’t know how much it entered, but he did listen. But through the months, it was just not working out. And the last drop was, for me at least. But now, looking back, I should have been more braver. I should have had more strength in telling the community. But because I was close to this brother, we were the same age in biological age, but not in Dharma age, I was much more senior, but we had this companionship. But at one point I just felt we started to become quite distant and we had a tea, and he was challenging me because I was a Dharma teacher now, and in the conversation at one point he splashed tea in my face and he wanted to see my reaction. And I didn’t do anything. Well, first of all, I was quite shocked. And second of all, funny enough, I felt I was really protected by compassion. I said, there’s nothing to do at this moment. But then just to end this conversation, because there was so much rudeness. And I think my compassion was to say, Okay, our conversation is over. And I did say […] I think our tea ends here. Luckily, the tea was warm but not hot. If it was hot, I think it was another story. But definitely I could feel my violence, my energy of violence manifesting. But I was able to very quickly become aware of it. But I didn’t tell anyone this because I wanted to protect his reputation. And fast forward, I think maybe three months later, we had a sangha meeting, a bhikkhu meeting, and it was a topic. And all of us just realize we’re at our limits. And we went and we asked, Thay, we said Thay, the bhikkhu sangha would like to ask this brother to leave. And we just feel like we don’t have capacity and maybe our understanding is not enough. And it’s hard. It was so hard to because we want to have capacity. And Thay agreed and we had to let go. And after telling the brother that brother that he had to leave, there was quite some sorrow and grief in that brother and even in myself, but then later I told the brothers of that incident, and some brothers were so angry. Looking back, if I was able to share it, to share about it, and maybe we could have had more direct guidance in a way and maybe put some more deep listening in, help him identify where this is coming from. Maybe this situation could have changed. But that’s the past, right? And I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but that’s something that I had to go through. And even today, like we just very recently in this week, we had to tell two brothers that the bhikkhu sangha sees that they are not yet ready to become a Dharma teacher even though they are candidates. And these conversations are always very difficult for me because I always want to lean towards the positive and say, We want you to become a drama teacher. But the real love is, No, you’re not ready. And because of these habits that you have, that you’re not mature yet to enter into that role. And I think now that it’s been a few days and been reflecting on it, I feel this was the right course of action and I think it is the right love. And I did share in a very, in a very open but compassionate way so that that brothers see that this is not a rejection, but actually this is love, because we want you to become a good Dharma teacher. Because once you are a Dharma teacher, in principal, you can teach now and you’re going to represent us. And, in a way, now that Thay is not here with us, we do have to have standards. We do have to have clarity and have courage to say, No, that person is not ready. That person needs more training. And I think this is going to help to shape the community in a very good way now for all of us to learn to have courage to address things that are difficult to address.
And brother, when you talked about anger coming up, what immediately came into my mind is that, you know, that there are two sides. We could be crossing someone’s boundaries, but often we feel people are crossing our boundaries. And often when someone crosses our boundary, what comes up is a sense of defensiveness, so we want to protect ourselves. But that can lead to defensiveness, which can lead to anger and then almost a counterattack. And I’m just wondering, you know, what would be your recommendation that if, when anger arises, someone’s crossed that boundary, something like… let’s just give an example, someone said something that’s very unfair, I’ve given my, let’s say, I’ve given, put all my effort into making something happen and then someone says is dismissive and just says, you know, I’m not committed, I don’t care, whatever. I get angry. I feel misunderstood. I feel that maligned. I feel that isolated, I feel that person is using their power against me. How would you recommend that someone could recognize those feelings, recognize what’s coming up, but not respond in that attack back syndrome?
When that energy comes up, come back to you, first of all, your mindfulness of anger. Don’t push it away, don’t say I’m not angry, nor say I’m angry, but I want to be mindful of this energy and I want to take care of it. And if it is particularly a situation where we have to address in that moment, speak slower, be more intentional with the words you want to choose to address the situation. And also acknowledge that I feel hurt, my dear colleagues, I listen to that, I feel very misunderstood. But I want to understand why there is such perception. Can you share more so I can understand why you think of me like that, or why my view has been pushed aside? And can you allow me to also express my point of view? And there is a way to share and a way to acknowledge them. I think when somebody attacks us, it’s because they feel not acknowledged and they felt not heard and they felt not seen. And so therefore their voice and their tone become like that. It’s like a baby just asking to be heard. And to defuse it is not to not do anything unless we become quite violent. If we are to be quite violent and we don’t want to be violent and allow ourselves to have space, we can say, My dear friends, I’m very emotional right now and I choose not to respond and allow myself to have time to take care of myself. And I want to respond, but I want to respond in a much more peaceful state. And I want to embrace my anger right now. And I think that is a strength. And that can also offer the other person an opportunity to recognize his or her or their emotions. So, you know, does this practice of listening to a bell in Plum Village, we have asked people to bring it into their workplaces in meeting settings when such high energy has been built up, high energy in a negative way. We need a moment to come back to ourselves, because if we are going to continue to create something with this energy, I don’t think it is what we want. We don’t want the final decision to be based with this anger and this division in our meetings in Plum Village. If any one of us sense the tension arise, the facilitator would invite the sound of the bell, and invite everyone to just come back to the breathing. And a good facilitator can remind all of us our intention of this meeting and can remind us to be more skillful in our sharing, not to bypass the suffering, but to be considerate in our sharing and to use words that can offer clarity, but not put someone down. And if someone is aware that they have caused disruption, they can begin anew right away to bring harmony back. And in my time as a facilitator, we have had brothers who were aware that their sharing was very emotional, so they have joined the palms and they have said, Dear sangha, I am aware that my sharing was very emotional. I would like to begin anew. And we may think that that seems weak, but that is actually such power and such courage and such harmony. And if anything that… I remember coming up to that brother and thanking him for being so open like that and vulnerable like that. And there has also been only one time in my bhikkhu life. I wasn’t yet the facilitator, but there was such high tension in one particular meeting that one elder in our community said, I would like to advise us to stop our meeting because this kind of disharmony and this kind of tone of voice that has been expressed is not the outcome we want. I would like us to stop. Come back and take care of us, of each and every individual. And let us come back tomorrow so that we can come back with a more positive energy and clarity. And that was the right thing to do. And nothing is lost, because if we’re to force ourselves to push through, then the outcome, I think we would regret it. But just giving us a little bit of space, another 16 hours, but it offers us time to come back and take care of our emotion. So here I’m giving us so many different situations that I was a part of, but we also want to practice when we are happy, when we are well, when we are peaceful, to generate this stability of this mindfulness, of being aware of our anger. Please, do not wait until you are angry, until you are violent to practice. At that moment it is too late. We have to already invest our capacity to embrace and call our emotion by its name in the present moment. Even thinking that, you know, Oh, I’m just taking care of my happiness, that’s not good enough. No, you have to be aware of your happiness. You have to be aware of the goodness that is there so that when the ill-being comes, you can embrace it. So that’s very important. Don’t wait until that moment.
Thank you, brother. As you were talking, you reminded me of the classic example of not responding to things immediately by email. I don’t think there’s an email I’ve ever kept intact that I decided to wait and review the next morning. And it was… And it’s a great example of watching our emotions at work because the emails I’ve written in the heat of the moment tend to be accusational or defensive, tend to throw fuel on the fire. And the next morning, if I leave it a day and let myself calm down, let myself be mindful and then come back the next morning and read it, I think this is no solution in this email at all. This is me wanting to get back at the other person, wanting revenge, actually, sometimes. And actually, is that going to help the situation? Very, very rarely, if ever, as someone taught me, if you want revenge, dig two graves.
Because you’ll have to dig one for yourself, too. You might think you’re digging one for the other person, but in that death, you kill yourself.
And with distance there’s understanding. With time, the heat of the moment dissipates. And one thing, brother, my wife Paz talks about sometimes loving people from a distance. And that sometimes it’s important not to getting close to, that we can do our healing without a person being present. We can love someone at a distance. And I was thinking beyond that, sometimes it’s about putting in borders, even with people who have passed, that there’s this idea that often we continue to live patterns. So if we feel a parent has been harsh with us, then often we continue to live that harshness. We continue to blame that person. We continue to be a victim of that situation. Even if our parent may have died many years ago, we may still be trying to seek revenge on them by showing up in the same way that they were blaming us for. And I’m just wondering, brother, if you can talk a little bit about that whole idea of setting boundaries beyond people in front of us, even with people who have passed, how we’re able to do that and the importance of it.
Boundary here in the light of a practitioner is to know our capacity. And we will meet people and friends that will later on not become friends anymore also. And sometimes to push yourself to continue that relationship can become not so helpful. And we have to acknowledge that this is the reality. And I have to accept it. And I have to also shift my energy in a different relationship, a different friendship, and to have different boundaries. I think when we talk about boundaries, it’s not one boundaries, we have many boundaries. And each relationship is a boundary. A good teacher is someone who takes time to have a relationship. I truly believe that before trying to help that person, I have to also have time to just be human with that person, having a cup of tea, having to see them as a friend, not just as a student or as a younger, a mentee, if I’m a mentor. And I remember in my own relationship with brothers and sisters, there was one brother who I truly admired, he was my younger brother in the Dharma. He had so much talent, and I just liked being with him, and he was a very good writer. He wrote many beautiful songs in Vietnamese, and I was trying to improve my Vietnamese. So by learning more Vietnamese, I would like to sing, and that was a more easier way for me to expand my vocabulary, and etc.. And one day he just gave me a cold shoulder. And it was so shocking. And I started to try to like, go down memory lane, like, what did I do wrong? What happened yesterday? Did I say something? Did I behave in such a way that made him feel maybe inferior to me? And then I also wanted to practice, okay, this is just my perception, maybe that is not the reality. And so I tried in tea circles, when I entered, he would leap. Oh, that was so painful. And I also was dealing with my own complexes. I thought, Oh, no, what have I done? And your mind starts to create 20,000 stories, and then I start to become toxic towards myself also. And one day I just accepted, okay, we are not going to be friends now. And I just have to accept that whatever he’s going through, I don’t understand, and I just leave it at that. And I started to love him from a distance. Just saying like, Okay, brother, love and life to you. I hope that you have peace, you have freshness, you are transforming whatever you are going through. Till this day, I don’t know if we’re still friends. He’s still in the community and I still haven’t met him. He’s not in Plum Village, he’s in a different monastery, and whenever I do meet him through monastic retreats or so on, I will come and say Hello. I’m not so petty to push that person totally away. And I will do my greetings, and just to gauge the energy. And about three years ago, I still felt he didn’t want too much communication. Respect. And I just created, you know, a kind of created my own boundary that okay that’s where’s that, I don’t have to pursue that. And knowing the middle way, right? In Buddhism we always say like not to be too intense with everything and then not to be too loose with everything, knowing what is enough. And I looked at my present moment, I still have relationships with other brothers and sisters, I still am growing. And it’s okay to lose one friendship, because I don’t want to drag myself down because I wasted… I take that back. I didn’t waste energy, but I put a lot of energy into this deep looking. He was part of my meditation almost every day, like, What did I do wrong? But at a moment, just to let it go. Sometimes true love is just learning to let go. And that was very powerful for me and knowing that not everyone would like me. And that I also don’t have the capacity to love everyone. But what I can do is to continue to cultivate love in myself. I did, I was bitter toward that person, towards that brother, because he, my voice was he dared to push me away when I didn’t do anything wrong. He dared to have such a perception about me. And I was quite bitter and it became the way I looked at him. The cold shoulder that I was receiving, I gave back that cold shoulder. So we start to mirror the pain that we receive. And this is when we have to practice to set our intention to be okay with someone not loving us. But we don’t have to become that hatred. We don’t have to become that cold shoulder. And to just continue to cultivate loving kindness in ourselves, because we still have so many other networks.
And brother, Thay talks about if you say something negative to someone or you’ve acted in anger, you can send a kind thought after it to neutralize it. And also, you know, coming back to that idea, a lot of people, as I say, have problems with boundaries, are people who have passed often their parents. And I would imagine, brother, that what you said, for a living person is just as valuable for a person who has passed. Like, we have this idea that when someone passes that time stops and that it’s too late. And I think one of the things I’ve learned through Thay’s teachings is that it’s never too late. We can go and heal things in the past that change things in the present because they’re no longer valid, and we can have feelings for someone who’s passed and they’re not locked in time, we couldn’t go back, and we can heal, care for, talk to them, write to them about what our pain has been in order to rebuild our healthy boundaries. So it’s not just in one life. Brother, one of the things that was cropping up in my mind, so here’s a challenging question. Thay’s, in a sense, entire teaching is based on the idea of interbeing. We cannot, we are not by ourselves alone, that in ourselves is the whole universe. The whole universe is in us. And that seems to speak against boundaries. Because Thay teaches that, you know, that there is no self, that we are not separate selves, but we are deeply connected to all life. And yet boundaries, by their nature, create separation, because if we feel we need to protect ourselves or defend ourselves or be compassionate to ourselves, that suggests there’s a separation. And I think that sometimes spiritual teachings can be misunderstood and people can say, well, if it’s all interbeing, then I just have to sort of accept what comes my way because I have to forgive everyone and I have to find the pain in myself that I see in other people. And all that is relevant in one sense, but another can be quite dangerous, actually. I just wonder how you explain that, because one of the teachings of the Buddha is about a cow and their skin, and I wonder whether that is relevant in this particular moment or not. But it would be lovely to understand about if there’s no self, what are we protecting him?
First of all, we have to understand no self doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. No self is the insight of interbeing so that looking back at our own body, we cannot be by ourselves, we are so conditioned by so many other existences, the tree, the sun, the rain, the food, our parents, our ancestors. So we cannot be by ourselves, we have to interbe with everything. So therefore man is only made of non-man elements, human is only made of non-human elements. So that’s a deep teaching in Buddhism. And yes, there are no boundaries in interbeing, that’s the ultimate dimension and that is reality. But in the historical dimension, like me, you, Cata, Paz, our community, we do have to create set rules to help us protect ourselves, to have a harmony in our way of being. So the teaching is to have boundless love, to cultivate a boundless mind that can see the interbeing nature of everything. But collectively, if we are not mindful and we don’t set up boundaries, like the cow, if the cow has a wound, then the bacteria will start to come and infect the wound, and the skin won’t protect it anymore. So this is like our mind, we have to learn to guard our mind, to have to learn to guard our community, the people we hang out with, because if we don’t, they can infect us and we will become the energy that we receive. So this is, in a way, if we look at it in a interbeing nature, we can receive and we can see them as someone who is suffering. But here’s the interbeing is that we can take their suffering and we can transform one of the habits that they have inside of us, because we also have that too. But we don’t want to become that for them. We don’t want to become that negativity. If we’re skillful, they can adapt to our positive energy, our kindness, our understanding, and it can change them. There’s a very famous story of one of the Buddha’s encounter with a serial killer. And the serial killer was Angulimala. He had a very, very wrong view that he needed to kill a hundred persons. And each person he takes a token, like their fingers, and he created a necklace. And one day… I’m sorry about…
Joyful example, thank you, brother.
… the description, but, you know, this is a historical truth, a fact. And one day the Buddha was walking in the village where Angulimala was present, and a lot of the villagers told the Buddha to please hide. Please, please don’t walk the village because it’s very dangerous. But Buddha was a very capable person. We have to understand that the Buddha was a prince who was very well trained in martial arts. In history, he was really well known as an athletic person, very good archer, knew how to take care of himself physically very well. So the Buddha had a particular kind of confidence. And what happened in that moment was actually when the Buddha was going for alms realm, he noticed Angulimala coming towards him and Angulimala said, Stop, stop Buddha. And the Buddha said as he was still walking, the Buddha said, I have already stopped, it is you who has not stopped. And is shocked Angulimala, he didn’t understand what the Buddha was saying. You say, What are you talking about? You’re the one that’s walking, you foolish man. And the Buddha, with such authority, said, I have stopped my wrong action in this lifetime, but you are continuing to do evil action. You need to learn to stop. And that moment was a wake up moment for Angulimala. And because the Buddha was so courageous and I think his presence was so powerful that Angulimala had to listen. And through those words, Angulimala looked back at his action. And said, Wow, I am an evil person. My deeds are so wrong. And Angulimala actually started to repent and started to break down and he said, Buddha, what do I do now? I have killed people, I have done so much harm. What can I do? And the Buddha said, in this moment, you have recognized your wrong action, and it’s a moment that you are being reborn. It is an opportunity for you to practice the way of love and understanding and nonviolence. And Angulimala said, I want to be a student of you. I want to be a monk, but I’m afraid I won’t be accepted because I have so much wrong action. And the Buddha said, If you are ready to be hated, if you are ready to still be seen as a killer, but you are ready to transform in this moment, I will allow you to become my student. And people will see you and they will shout at you. People will see you and they will throw rocks at you because you have done so much harm. But this is also a part of the healing that you need to demonstrate. You need to show that you are changing and Angulimala accepted and he receive the name. Ahimsaka, I think, means nonviolent. Right? Nonviolence, ahimsa. And as he became a monk and as he joined the monastics in the alms realm, he did have to face all of the hatred towards him. And the Buddha taught him every time somebody throws such harsh language and a gaze that is unkind, you have to breathe with that and you have to accept it, and you have to still come back and generate your kindness and your understanding that you have done suffering. But you are in this moment, you are beginning anew, you are changing. Now, this action of not reacting will show people that you are changing. And the king one day heard and couldn’t believe it and he came to the Buddha is like, Did you really ordain him? And the Buddha is like, Yeah, he’s right there. And it showed that a person can truly change. But the condition that that person will meet, it’s a condition. So our mind consciousness and our collective consciousness, we have to have boundaries. That’s why as monastics, we have all these, all of these precepts. On an ultimate level, I do want to create a bodhisattva heart being ready to be in any situation, but I have to know my limits. We have precepts like we shouldn’t sit at a bar where there is alcohol, there is dim light and music and maybe a lot of negative energy because we are training and we are learning to generate a compassionate heart and a right mind. And if we go into those places, then we become that habit again. So these boundaries start to cultivate the aspiration that we are walking towards. So we do have to be very intentional. And so this boundary is not to push people away, but is also to learn to guard ourselves. And at moments when we are ready, we can expand our boundaries, such as, you know, hugging meditation. You know, a traditional monk, we don’t have physical contact with people. But when Thay was in the West and Thay was teaching and he was on his flight towards Chicago, and one of his lay students that he met in the U.S. was so moved and had so much gratitude towards Thay and she didn’t know what to do to express that love. So as Thay was at the airport and leaving to board his plane, she just came and she hugged Thay, and Thay was stiff like a log. He would explain this to us. And at that moment, he just realized that as he was sitting on the flight, he realized that this is a Western way of expressing admiration and gratitude, and if I am going to take root in the West and build a community here, I have to open my boundaries a little bit in order to blend and to take root so that others can receive this teaching. And we’ve added a practice called hugging meditation instead of just pat on the back, you know. But really just acknowledging that that person is there and we hug with three mindful breaths. The first breath just saying that I am here for you. The second breath, I know you were there and I’m so happy. And the third breath that we are of the nature of impermanence, that one day we have to let go. And so boundaries can be protective, can support, but sometimes if boundaries become obstacles, we have to learn to open.
Beautifully spoken, brother. And as you were talking, I was thinking that Thay’s Five Mindfulness Trainings, which is his sort of way of expressing a new global ethic, are all about boundaries, actually, and about shifting boundaries, not about saying actually, you know, often people say, Oh, I want to completely change, but it takes time to change. And often if you’re trying to shift the boundary too far, that can be a way actually of not changing. So, well, it was too difficult. It’s like, well, if you’re forced to go and see a therapist, you’ll find some reason not to go further. Because if you choose to change, then you’ll go and see a therapist and you’ll get something out of it. And I think, Thay, you know, for instance, in the area of consumption, you know, Thay doesn’t say stop, stop, stop everything now, but he shows actually, if you’re where you are now what a healthy boundary looks like and what you can work towards. And so actually, boundaries can create an aspiration, they help set a condition of change and also allow us to also not judge ourselves where we are, because I think that’s often the way people berate themselves, stop any change by saying actually, Oh, well, I’m never going to be good enough. Oh, look at me, I can’t change. Where’s actually resetting boundaries and then resetting actions towards those boundaries can make a big difference. And brother, I think what you also said a bit earlier, and I think we come back to this many times in many forms, but the power of presence…
I was coaching someone today. They say, how can we change the system? How can I change the system? And change the system is being the system you want. It’s about expressing. It is about holding that space. And I think sort of there’s something about not talking about boundaries, showcasing boundaries, showing what it’s possible to, just showcasing what it is possible, how it is possible to be different.
Yeah. Yeah. You have the power of knowing oneself…
… is a teacher itself. I think for myself what I learned most from many seniors and elders in the community and Thay himself, it’s not just through the words, but it’s through the way of being. Like the boundaries to not rush, to be aware that I have an energy of rushing and to stop and to walk even slower. Wow. And that’s when you start to be the change you want to be, and that’s the safe practice boundaries that we can always be embedded in. And that’s why the fundamental practices, walking meditation, sitting meditation, opening the door, putting on your shoes, the way you greet someone is all fundamental, but it also showcases your true presence. I remember one time, like I was just so lost and just so anxious, and I just saw a brother walk through the path in Upper Hamlet. And that was the teaching I needed, like, don’t be carried away by all of this negative energy that my mind was producing and come back to this safe island of stopping. That is a boundary. So that we stop our non-stop thinking radio station and to create a net to embrace and to let it be with a different energy. So boundaries are for us to not lose ourself also. Yeah, and I think just the last one I want to say is that we can have mistakes or we can have sharings that we do today that are not the best and we have a chance to look back in guidance, in guiding, and they’re all for us to continue to learn. And I have a very deep relationship with Thay, and in one of his most profound way of being that many, many people don’t get to see is his generosity of being a teacher. But I’ve seen him grow through the years. At the beginning, Thay was more strict and direct with us, but slowly through the years, I saw Thay become much more compassionate but not lose that directness. And I can even say it, Thay grew as a teacher and Thay learned from his own way of teaching. And Thay always communicated. Sometimes he would ask us, Do you think that way Thay shared to the community was good enough? This is a Zen master asking all of his students who are all beginners. And that openness is to allow us to continue to grow. And Thay’s love also expanded through the years. There was a sister who is my generation, so my peer, and we grew up together as monastics, and at one point she went through so much difficulty. And Thay was spending so much time taking care of her. And I was able to see also, maybe I can say a little bit sadness in Thay like to see his students suffer. And for myself, my boundaries, my capacity, was not enough to continue to love. And one day, out of my naiveness, I went to Thay and I said, Thay, just let her go. Just let her go. Because in my own mind, I felt like she’s taking so much energy. And Thay with such a gentle smile, looked at me and he said, Phap Huu, one day, when you become a teacher, you will understand. The love that Thay has for his students is boundless. If Thay can still help, he will do everything in his power to help. And he said, When you become a teacher, that student is you. So I cannot push that student away. Wow. And that moment has stayed with me, very, very present, very alive. I even remember the setting we were in Deer Park Monastery, we were in Thay’s hut, and I was sitting on his left side when I shared this, and the way Thay looked and the way he shared to me has now become my teaching. That is interbeing right there. But Thay has been a teacher for many, many years, and his love has expanded so much that his his embrace is so profound. And later on this sister did leave after, I think like five or six years, but she will never forget the love that she received from Thay. And she’s still shared with me that she has never received such profound love and that will never be lost. So like what we said, there’s nothing lost in experience and what we can offer.
Thank you, brother. Thank you. So, we normally end a session with a short guided meditation. Lots, we’ve been talking a lot, and we also then want to come back to the core practice of coming back to this present moment of calming our mind, calming our body, coming fully back to this present moment. So, brother, if you’re up for doing that today, I think everyone listening would welcome that.
Dear friends, dear listeners, wherever you may be, if you are sitting on a bus, in an airplane, on a train, or going for a walk, going for a jog, or just cleaning your house, if you allow yourself a moment to just be still, you can stay standing or you can find a bench, a chair, a sofa and sit or even lay down if you’re so tired and just allow me to guide you through some mindful breathing. First of all, bring your attention to your inbreath. As you breathe in, just call your inbreath. This is inbreath. As you breathe out, call your outbreath by its name. This is ourbreath. In, out. And as you breathe in, you can feel your inbreath coming in as your abdomen is rising. And as you breathe out, you can feel your abdomen falling. So feel your inbreath, and feel your outbreath. Rising. Falling. As you breathe in, offer yourself kindness to your body. As you breathe out, allow yourself to relax. Relax in your face, your shoulders, your arms, your hands, your chest, your back, your buttocks, your two legs and your two feet. Inbreath, kindness to the body. Outbreath, I relax. Breathing in, I take care of my stability, of my presence. Breathing out, I nourish the mountain inside of me. In, stability in presence. Out, solid as a mountain. Breathing in, there is space in my heart. Breathing out, I offer that space to those that are close to me, to my loved ones. In, offering space. Out, to my loved ones. Breathing in, with this breath I feel so alive inside of me. As I breathe out, I connect to life all around me. In, life inside of me. Out, life all around me. Breathing in, this is a present moment. Breathing out, this is a wonderful moment. In, the present moment. Out, wonderful moment.
Thank you, dear friends, for practicing.
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