Welcome to episode fourteen 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.
In this episode, presenters Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino are joined by special guest, Zen Buddhist nun Sister Jina (Sister Chân Diệu Nghiêm). A former abbess of Lower Hamlet in Plum Village, since 1990, Sister Jina has been one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s first European monastic disciples.
Together, these three delve into what it means to arrive home in our bodies, in the present moment. And what is the present moment?
Sister Jina talks about her path to meditation – from yoga teacher in County Wexford, Ireland, to Plum Village, France, via Hokyoji Temple in Japan; her new book of poetry, Moments of Joy (“Instamatic photographs of my daily life but in words”); and her thoughts on meditation after more than 30 years’ practice.
She also shares further wisdom on Buddhist psychology; self-acceptance and self-healing; the importance of sangha; store consciousness (both individual and collective); the benefits on daily life of practicing meditation; guidance on the spiritual path; gladdening the mind and focusing on what’s right in the world. You’ll also find out how walking meditations can sometimes alleviate migraines.
Brother Phap Huu recollects moments of joy, wisdom, and support from the former abbess, while Jo tells of an unexpected encounter with a real estate agent.
Informed by memories of how others touch our lives, gratitude runs through the whole conversation. By the way, what are you grateful for today?
The episode ends with a short meditation guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
The Mindfulness Bell
‘Discourse on the Dharma Seal’
Moments of Joy
“I have come to the right place in the right way, aware of every step I take.”
“It’s who we are, individually and collectively, that changes the world.”
“The journey is the goal. It’s walking the path, it’s practicing. And to arrive in every step, every moment. It’s not, ‘I’m going to run because I want to get straight to enlightenment.’ That’s not how to get to enlightenment. In fact, enlightenment, if I’ve understood correctly, is in the present moment: to arrive in every step, to be fully present in every step, to live fully every moment.”
“This present moment holds the past and the future.”
“The present moment is the only moment we have. And if we realize that, we will live our lives differently.”
“Nowadays you hear a lot about self-compassion; I think that it’s a door that leads to full self-acceptance and to arriving home. The oneness of body and mind. My body is the home of my mind.”
“People tend to look for the problems in life, rather than looking at what’s right.”
“What goes into the mind, comes out of the mind.”
“We’re not headings, we are beings.”
“[Plum Village in 1990] looked like a very welcoming place. It had a meditation hall, a dining hall, and there were teachings. So, for me, that’s the monastery, that’s what makes a monastery. You have teachings, you have clothing, food, and a roof over your head – what else do you want?”
“I made a distinction between what I called passive thinking – thoughts just passing by – and active thinking: engaging with the thought that passed through my mind and caused pain.”
“If a tree dies in a garden or a forest, the mistake is to give all your attention to that one tree, when actually it’s really important to look at all the other trees that are still healthy and vibrant.”
“I think home is that sense of collecting all the fragments of our life back together.”
“My experience is gratitude, and gratitude is definitely one way to gladden the mind. So look at what is right in our lives. Even if a lot of things go wrong, look for what is still right, and I’m sure we will find something. And then allow what is right to gladden our mind.”
“Let’s say store consciousness is like the Earth, which contains all the seeds. And the seeds that you water will grow into plants. But when they grow into plants and flower, they become mental formations. And you have positive mental formations, not-so-positive mental formations, and neutral mental formations. So I practice, ‘What do I consume? What seeds do I water? What plants am I growing? What is my garden of the mind looking like?’”
Welcome back, dear friends, to the latest episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In.
My name is Jo Confino and I work at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, in the Plum Village community in France.
The way out is in.
Today we have a wonderful guest: Sister Jina, my elder sister. She has been in our community since 1990. She first came to Plum Village for a three-week retreat and it was based on Buddhist psychology. Sister Jina, would you like to share with us how you arrived in Plum Village?
Yes, certainly. And I would like to start with how I actually physically arrived in Plum Village, because that’s quite an experience. I had registered for the retreat, so I knew Plum Village was in Loubes Bernac. I didn’t know anything about Plum Village at that time, so I looked at the map and saw Loubes Bernac is not very far from Eymet. And I checked on the public transportation and I found there is a bus from Bordeaux to Eymet and then on. So I thought, I take that bus to Eymet and I’m close to Plum Village. I arrived in Plum Village and then I thought, so I’ll call Plum Village to tell them I am in Eymet. I looked in the telephone directory: no Plum Village. So I went through the whole list of people around Loubes Bernac and I saw Unified Buddhist Church and I thought, ‘Well, that’s the only thing that says Buddhist, maybe that’s Plum Village.’ So I called, and a very kind lady answered the phone and I said, ‘I am in Eymet.’ And she said, ‘No, you’re supposed to be in St Foy La Grande, we don’t go to Eymet, we only pick up in St Foy La Grande.’ And I said, ‘Well, don’t worry, I’ll walk.’ And she said, ‘Oh, well, maybe we’ll find somebody to come and pick you up.’ I said, ‘OK’. So I set out walking. It was a very hot day, and I sometimes suffer from migraine. And as I walked, a migraine come up. And every time I put my foot down, it went ‘zing, zing’ in my head. So what did I do? Whenever I put my foot down, I put so gently down because I didn’t want to have this zing-zing in my head. And I walked, and I walked every step very gently on the Earth, you know? And then I came to a tree and I thought… with some shade, I have to stop and sit down. And then from the other side came a little Renault 4, a sort of battered up. And the window went down and somebody said, ‘You must be Sister Jina.’ And I thought, ‘Saved’. So I was taken to the Lower Hamlets in the Renault. Next day, there was an orientation by Thay, and what did Thay speak about? Walking meditation. I thought, ‘I have come to the right place in the right way: aware of every step I do.’
Beautiful. Sister, can you tell us a little bit about just your path to meditation? Because before you became a monastic, you had a yoga center and a meditation center. Can you just talk about what first, maybe, what first attracted you to this practice?
First, I think it’s in my genes. My mother was Irish and in Ireland they say ‘one child for the church’. Well, my church ended up to be a Buddhist church, but that’s fine too. My mother read D.T. Suzuki and Edward Kinsey. ‘Many ordain’, my mother said. She always knew I would become a nun but did not know in which tradition, because I was also interested in yoga and I’d practice yoga, and I had trained as a yoga teacher. And at that time, I lived in a house in County Wexford, in Wexford town, in Ireland, that had a long building in the back that the previous owner used to teach dance to children. So I turned that into a yoga and meditation center, and I started to teach yoga and meditation in Wexford town, and it took off very well. And then one time I realized I need some more guidance to continue on the spiritual path. And I went to some retreats and one was in Germany, led by a Dutch meditation teacher who spoke about various meditation techniques. And one he spoke about, he said, ‘There are… The monks in Japan don’t even think.’ And I thought, I know how to do this because I suffered from migraine, from time to time. And if I wasn’t walking down the road, I would go into a dark room, make it cool, dark and sit, sort of sit up and I would see the thoughts pass by. And if this thought caught my attention and I would engage with a thought, like elaborate a thought, I had like a lightning through my mind. And I used to say to myself, ‘Don’t think, don’t think.’ So I made a distinction between what I called passive thinking – this is thoughts just passing by – and active thinking when I engaged with the thought that passed through my mind and that caused the pain. And so I was at this meditation retreat with this Dutch teacher, and he said ‘In Japan, there are even monks who don’t think.’ And I thought, ‘I know how to do this. I’m going to go to Japan and practice meditation with those monks.’ That’s what I did. That’s how I ended up in Japan.
And sister, tell us about that experience. What was it like?
Yeah. And that practice.
I also happened to do pottery. So from that side, on the wheel, you know. So I was also interested in the Japanese art. So I decided to take three months off from my work and flew to Japan to go and visit potteries and visit Zen temples. And that’s what I did. I had wonderful experience for three months. But that also gave me a connection, a stronger connection with the Japanese tradition because of my pottery and my meditation. However, I found out – maybe it is important to hear – when I didn’t have a splitting headache, a migraine, it was not so easy not to think, you know? I was much more motivated not to think when I had to headache than when I didn’t have a headache. And so slowly, slowly I learned also to let the thoughts by without engaging in them with a practice, without having a headache. So in Japan, I found, I think, my first spiritual home. And after three months I went back to Europe and a few years later had another opportunity to go to Japan. And I went to the main temple of the Sōtō school, Dōgen Zenji, that there’s just sitting. And then I met somebody in Tokyo who said, ‘You know, there is a smaller temple – which is not so big as Eihei-ji – which is very nice, it’s not very far, and it’s actually founded by a Chinese student of Dōgen Zenji’. So I went there. It was a little bit further into the mountains, and I really sort of had this encounter with the teacher who was elderly already, full of compassion, that I thought this person I trust fully to give my spiritual life in his hands. It will be safe there. So then I asked him, the teacher, whether he would accept me as a disciple. And in Japan the monks can get married in certain traditions. So this master asked me, ‘Are you sure? Wouldn’t you like to marry a monk?’ And I said, ‘No, thank you. I want to become a monk myself.’ And so he said, ‘OK, I’ll accept you as a disciple.’ So I ordained there. And this temple is also 700 years old. It’s the second oldest Sōtō temple founded by a Chinese master. And I was the first woman and the first foreigner to ordain in that temple. And there were, you know, five monks also. And one of the monks had found it a bit difficult to see me there. So I had bell duty – the most important role in a ceremony, in a big ceremony. I happened to be about…, so I was sitting behind the bell, practicing a few bells, and this monk came in, looked at me and said, ‘Foreigner. And a woman.’ And I said, ‘The founder of this temple was a foreigner, you know? Chinese monk.’ And then he was happy to leave me alone, at least at that time. And yes. But my master was a very compassionate, very compassionate, and I owe him a lot.
And sister, do you want to tell us a little bit about your introduction to Tich Nhat Hanh and how you came to join this tradition.
Yes. And so after three years in Japan, where in the temple you have quite a busy life, I had no time to really study Japanese. My Japanese was rudimentary. You know, I could get by in daily life, I could understand my teacher, I could interact with the monks and my brothers. And so, I asked my teacher for permission to return to the West to find a place where I could study Buddhism more in depth in a language I understood better than Japanese. And he said he was sorry to let me go, but for my own progress on the path, he let me go. He supported me. So I came back to the West and first attended a retreat with Ayya Khema, which was very good. And I also went to America to Gringoats, where I came across the first issue of the Mindfulness Bell because it was 1990. And in there, it said 21-day retreat, Buddhist psychology and whatever, mindfulness or something like that. And that’s what I want! So I wrote, you know, to register and I came. So I came to Plum Village, and then I was asked by one of the sisters after the 21-day retreat to stay for the summer. So I stayed. And after the summer, somebody came and said Thay has asked us to ask you to stay indefinitely. And I thought, I do not know what indefinitely means, but I’ll start today.
Wow. So you never… You didn’t leave?
No. So maybe indefinitely is still going on.
Well, later on, Sister Jina, you became the Abbess of Lower Hamlet, and I imagine in 1990, when you arrived at Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, it didn’t look like a monastery, right?
It looked like a very welcoming place. But it had a meditation hall, it had a dining hall, and there were teachings. So, for me, that’s the monastery, that’s what makes a monastery. You know, you have teachings, you have clothing, food, you know, a roof over your head. What else do you want?
Sister, for a lot of our listeners, they don’t really know that much about Buddhism or the practice. It would be really lovely to get a sense of your journey. What is it that you’ve… you know, what is the essence of what you’ve learned in these last 30 years? I know that’s a big question, but what are the sort of things that have helped guide your life?
Impermanence. Yeah. Interbeing. I like mindfulness, concentration and insight. It’s, you know, that I can… Yeah, it’s maybe my path. Have the mindfulness, you get the concentration, you can look, especially in how things come to be. I’m also especially interested in Buddhist psychology, that’s to say I’m interested in the mind. So, the focus of the practice is, still: how do I nourish my mind? You know, what goes in, comes out. It’s with everything. It’s what goes into the mind, comes out of the mind. So what do I look at? What do I listen to? What do I read? What do I think, especially think, you know? What do I water or strengthen? I don’t know how much I go into Buddhist psychology, but, you know, what seeds do I water in my store consciousness, in my daily life?
So, sister, for those who might not know, can you just sort of maybe describe what you mean by still consciousness? Because that’s quite at the heart of Thay’s teachings and Buddhist teachings as well. What is store consciousness?
Store consciousness is the totality of seeds. So you have a collective store consciousness, your whole country has a kind of a… you can see the store consciousness in the way a country is, the population and things like that. But we also have an individual store consciousness and we have all of the seeds in store. I cannot say there’s no discrimination in me. There is because it is in me in seed form. But like any seed you have in the Earth… Let’s say store consciousness is like the Earth that contains all the seeds. And the seeds that you water will grow into plants. And when they grow into plants and flower, they become mental formations. So it doesn’t become a physical formation like a plant, but a mental formation. And you have positive mental formations and not so positive mental formations and you have neutral mental formations. So I practice ‘What do I consume? What seeds do I water? What plants am I growing? What is my garden of the mind look like?’
And what’s your experience of how difficult is that? Because for a lot of people now, in this very complex world, they have so many thoughts, so many… they consume so many different things. They’re completely surrounded by advertisements and different ideologies and different thoughts. And they… How does one start to cultivate that when it can feel so overwhelming?
Difficult to do alone. Difficult to do alone. So to find a group of people who does the same thing, who is aware of what they’re watering in their store consciousness, even if they don’t know the word stored consciousness. Or who are mindful consumption, you know, through, whatever, mouse, ears, eyes. Thinking. Don’t forget thinking. So sangha and sangha building. And this is one of Thay’s teachings. It’s also what attracted me so to Thay’s teachings, what I find very good: sangha building. The importance of that alone is not easy. I’ve just come back from two years sabbatical. It was not meant to be two years, but because of COVID, it turned out to be two years. And I was in contact with the local sangha. I really needed that, because there’s so much being offered. We have access to all sorts of things and we need a very clear knowing what this does to my mind. And my mind is also my being, so what kind of being do I become through what I consume? So I think, in the world, what we need is sangha.
And can you give us sort of… Is it possible to describe what impact that has had on your life? So you’ve been practicing for more than 30 years? Probably nearly 40, probably more than 40, 50 years, maybe now. How would you describe the benefits of that to your daily life?
You know, usually you can describe when you have something else to compare it with, but I only have one life, so that’s not so easy. Sorry.
No, it is true, but just a sense of how your life is as a result of all this effort?
Yes, yes. First of all, it’s never a boring moment. It has definitely made me more compassionate towards myself and toward others. So, not so judging, not so discriminating. So more inclusiveness, and also more able to understand. I used to be afraid of people who are angry, as a child. Now I understand that their seed of anger is big in them, not necessarily because of their own doing. No, they may have… We inherit seeds from our parents, grandparents. And it’s very interesting to sort of write down ‘this seed is my grandfather’. Sometimes they just say, ‘Where is my grandfather? And this is my mother, this is my aunt’… One of my aunts was a nun. ‘This is my aunt’, definitely. And to be able to embrace it, I think when we see what comes up in us – sometimes good things, we’re very happy to embrace those – but sometimes that’s not so good, to really acknowledge it is there and I need to take care of it. And if I want to take care of it, I have to embrace it. I have to take it like if a little child cries, I have to take it into my arms. It’s not going to stop crying if I just leave it by itself. So when I see something in myself that I think that’s not so positive, then I’d say, first thing is to accept it. So I also accept my non-perfectness. I’m not perfect. I still have lots of opportunities to grow and to become more compassionate. And so the practice basically has allowed me to have more self-acceptance, self-compassion and that is what I need in order to take a step in the direction of healing.
And Brother Phap Huu, can you tell us a bit why it is… So Sister Jina is so loved in this community, and before we started recording, you were just saying how she had been a role model to you because she had been an abbess before you became the abbot. And I was saying we should start a series called the Abbess and the Abbot. I don’t know if it’ll be a comedy or a drama or what… But can you give us a sense of what is it about Sister Jina that, because she says, quite rightly, I am me, so I can only experience myself, but you are not Sister Jina, and so you’re able to experience as an outsider. What is it about her that you feel she’s gained from this practice? And how is it supported you?
I first met Sister Jina in 1999, I would say, because that was one of the summer retreats that I stayed in the Lower Hamlet with my sister and the sisters. And even back then, as a child, I remember seeing Sister Jina go around the monastery. And one thing that I always noticed was her elegance, her way of walking, her way of interacting, her way of moving. It had this elegance. And later on, I learned that she also has some background in dancing. And so that’s where I see this, this elegance, this flexibility would be translated just through her body action. And when I became a monk, I was very young, I was only 14 years old, but 13 years old as an aspirant. And I became aspirant, which means in training, with three other young teenagers. And among them, there were two young teenage girls and we were all trying to discover our roles in the community. And I know that the young teenager girls who later on became two sisters in our community. Because we would always gathered on days of mindfulness and we would talk about our life and gossip about monastery life, and we would always ask how we’re doing. And I always remember the sisters sharing that Sister Jina is very supportive, the Abbess of Lower Hamlet is very supportive of their presence and their growth. Because we were very young, so we were very new and I am sure we made a lot of mistakes and what we shouldn’t be doing. But because of our nature at that age, we were also still being young and we always felt accepted. And I think for myself, I felt accepted by Sister Jina and I think we have an age gap in our…
Of how many years is it? It must be about 40 years.
Something like that. We don’t have to be so accurate, but something like that.
Or just say that you’re five years older, sister, 45.
But. But I always took refuge in Sister Jina, because I felt her acceptance and I felt that whoever and however I am, she will support me. That’s the first thing. And in a lot of times, maybe the first thing you feel from somebody else is a judgment, but from Sister Jina, I felt she looked at me as who I am, and somehow that just gives you space, right? That allows you to also recognize yourself and see your own shortcomings and also see your growth. And like Sister Jina shared about nourishing our store consciousness, our mental formations, our qualities in us, I also received a lot of… in our Plum Village language, we call it flower watering, our appreciation. And so for someone young like that, for somebody who has been a monastic for a long time to express that, that has a huge impact on us. And so I remember, especially during the Lunar New Year, when we would visit each other’s room. And we have this tradition in our culture to express our gratitude. And it’s very easy for a young one to express their gratitude to someone who has been here for a longer period of time. But when the elders would express their gratitude to me and to the young monastics, we just felt so loved and that gave us a lot of nourishment, a lot of nutriment. And then later on, I became the abbot of Upper Hamlet and Sister Jina was, still is the abbess of the Lower Hamlet at that time, and I remember her congratulating me. And I remember her sharing that if I need any support, please reach out. And that was really important for me. And we never had any official like abbot or abbess gathering or like training. And that’s one thing that was very unique is that there wasn’t a particular training on what it means to be abbot or abbess. So I did look at Sister Jina as a role model. Seeing how she took care of her hamlet, how she listened and how she was able to just be. And later on, now I’ve been an abbot… this is my 10th year, Sister Jina. So now that being an abbot, I recognize that those are the three qualities that are super important: how to listen, how to be, because to be means you have to be present, and to be truly present, you have to be open. And in that way, you can hear the concerns, you can hear the questions, and you can also hear the suggestions that people want to offer. And sometimes they just want to be listened to. And that’s what I received from Sister Jina. And I said, OK, this is something doesn’t cost so much. It just asks me to be present and just to be with them. And this is some of the key elements that I can share that I’ve really appreciate from Sister Jina, and there’s so much more. But those are some of the things that I can point out right here, right now.
All right. Thank you. And it’s quite interesting. I just want to pick up on something that happened to me yesterday, which taps into this. And Sister Jina, you talked about how important it was when you entered the Japanese monastery that you saw in this master that you could trust your spiritual life to him. And I had this really strange experience yesterday where I was just in the garden and someone just came down the driveway who was a real estater, so he was someone who buys and sells properties, and he was looking for a house which he thought might be for sale locally, and did I know where it was? And I asked him his name. And then I said, ‘You know, you look very friendly’. And we just started chatting about it. And he said, you know, he said, ‘What do you see in me? What is it you see?’. And I said, ‘I see that you’re someone I can trust fully’. And he just burst into tears and it touched him so deeply that he said, ‘Well, so few people trust us as property agents’, you know. But just for someone to say, I trust you, just, literally, it was so unusual.. He just came to look for guidance, but he felt something very deeply. And so, it’s that sense of when you feel you’re in the presence of someone you trust, it just creates safety, it allows us to fully express ourselves. And it’s a shame, in one sense, that this is a podcast, not a video interview, because as I’m looking at you, Sister Jina, right now, and every time I see you with your bright, shiny blue eyes and your sort of joyful nature that it’s… That every time I see you, it is with… It’s like a tuning fork, it resonates to the joy in myself. It resonates to the lightness of my being. And so, as you say, you can’t experience yourself beyond yourself, but here are a couple of examples of people that you touch. And I think it speaks of the depth of the practice, doesn’t it? Of how much we’re able, anyone is able to embody this work, that you often don’t have to say a lot, but it’s your embodiment, it’s who we are individually and collectively that changes the world.
So, sister, tell us a little bit about your practice. So some people say, ‘Gosh, you’ve been practicing this tradition for 31 years, you should know it all, you should be enlightened, there should be nothing else. You should just sit there on your chair with light pouring out of you and sort of job done’. Is it still a journey you’re on? How would you describe where you are and what you see?
The journey is the goal. So it’s walking the path, it’s practicing. And to arrive, if you like, in every step, every moment. It’s not like I’m going to run because I want to get right to enlightenment. That’s not how you get to enlightenment. In fact, enlightenment, if I’ve understood correctly, is in the present moment. Yeah. To arrive in every step, to be fully present in every step, to live fully every moment. I have an image that my mind is like fluid, coloured, maybe. And let it flow from a mind, where it may be heavy, to every nook and crook of my body. And then my body and mind are perfectly one and then nothing can throw me over. Nothing can bascule, nothing can disturb me. Nothing can throw me off. Is that what you say? Yeah. So that’s my practice. It’s what I practice when I sit on a cushion, of course, because then you have a moment where you don’t really do anything. But I also practice it during the day, maybe when I stand somewhere and I notice when I’m starting to get top-heavy, you know, when all your energy is in your head, I think a little bit. And you give me a little push and I’ll fall over because I’m totally top-heavy. And just a moment I’m bringing, I’m spreading the energy all out through my body, you know, to the tip of my toes, tip of my fingers, if you like. And then you can try and push me over and you won’t succeed. I mean, people have tried. It doesn’t… you cannot. And to live like that. And for me, when I came to Plum Village and I saw Thay walk, I thought, ‘That’s it! Total oneness of body and mind moving through space’, if you like. And I thought, if you tried to push this man master over, you won’t succeed. I won’t succeed.
And sister, can you talk a little bit more because often, and Thay has said this and I feel it often in myself, that I don’t feel my mind and body are connected at all. That I don’t have this sense of oneness. What is so important about a mind connected to the body as opposed to, you know, with people sitting in front of computers every day and they’re using their mind all the time, but their body is like just an accessory or just a vessel to hold the mind? Well, why is it important to change that perception?
Well, simplest answer is to live life fully. We’re not headings, we are beings, if you like, you know? So come out of the head and come into the body. So we have bells in Plum Village. When we hear a bell, we stop doing what we are doing and we come back to ourselves. Let’s just say my practice is to take my breathing as an anchor, as something to hold me in the present moment. The breathing in and out is always happening in the present moment. So is our body, but the breathing is moving and therefore I find it sometimes a little bit easier to bring my moving mind to something that’s moving, but in the present moment. And then being totally aware of the inbreath as it starts from wherever you feel, maybe somewhere the nostrils follow it all the way down, the air is a little bit cooler. Than the inside of the body. And follow it all the way out. Also, that is something that happens in the body, so then the body and the mind are one. And then you have to the solidity. Thay says ‘I have arrived, I am home.’ I was very intrigued by that ‘I have arrived, I am home’, so I practice arriving in every step. And I did something like I take a step, I said, ‘I’m not going to take another step before I know I have arrived.’ When we’re arriving, we know we have arrived. And if I need to describe the experience of arriving, it is the mind, again, like becoming the same shape as my body. And it is indeed a feeling of a arriving. Thay used the image also of a pebble that falls to the bottom of the river. And that’s, I thought, yes, I make my mind the same shape as my body, so it starts from the top and it goes all the way down. And it has, I used to call it, a sinking feeling. You arrive.
And what would home mean to you if that’s what arriving feels like? What is home to you?
What do you think?
Well, home is when I feel I’m fully myself, where I feel I can let go of the mask or pretense of trying to be somebody else or be more than who I am, or to hide parts of me, but just to be fully sort of, in a sense, naked and transparent. And that I don’t need to hide anything and I can be happy and content with all my wounds and all my scars. I think that’s my sense. And, in fact, when I think… I might have described it in one of the previous podcast, but when I first came to Plum Village and my wife and I got married here and Thay invited us for tea the next day, and he said, ‘How have these last two weeks been for you?’ And without thinking, I just said, ‘They’ve been two of the happiest weeks of my life’. And he sort of asked me to talk a bit more about that. And I said for the first time I feel I’ve come home to myself. That I could let go of my worries, my fears. And it felt I was fully me and, in a sense, in the way you had your moment in Plum Village, you know, my moment was that because it suddenly dawned on me that this was… that I’d never experienced that before. I had spent most of my life being at war with myself. Always arguing with myself, always unhappy with myself, always judging myself. And the part of me that wanted to feel whole was often felt squashed and attacked. And this was the first time that I was able to fully let my defenses down and feel whole. Thank you for asking.
You’re welcome. Thank you.
How about you, sister? What does it mean for you?
To be home?
Yes. For me it’s also a full acceptance of what I am, how I am, and where I am. It’s really… Nowadays you hear a lot about self-compassion and I think that’s self-compassion, you know, it’s just also a door that leads to full self-acceptance and arriving home. The oneness of body and mind. My body is the home of my mind, you know.
Brother Phap Huu, what does it mean for you? Because I think this is, I think, you know, the whole of life is about wanting to come home in one sense, that’s everyone’s journey.
Somehow this has become a very deep question. It’s making me reflect a little bit. And I think where I am at now, in 2021, and with all of the challenges of the world and the challenges of the communities and the questions that we have to look at, sometimes I want to just hide away in a tunnel somewhere and look at the wall and not to have to think too much. And so sometimes I feel like I try to run away from something, and that’s when I know I’m not at home. And recently, I’ve also been practicing on accepting, accepting whatever manifests, whatever happens. There’s always a way, there can always be a way and it might not be the best solution, but it is the best we can offer and we can do right now. And for me, if I feel that there is solidity in that present moment, and there is acceptance in that present moment, and I still have confidence and trust in myself, as well as in the community, that’s home for me at that present moment. And for me, I think home is not a permanent thing that I should be attached to in this state of feeling and the state of emotions, but, for me, I also have to learn to nourish my home. And then to feel more at home in every moment, because there’s no perfect world and there’s no perfect situation. I don’t know if that makes sense, but when you asked, and when I was listening to Sister Jina’s sharing, that also made me reflect a little bit. Because I can always say, ‘Oh, the monks’ residence is my home’. But that’s maybe not exactly the home that we look and we contemplate, and we try to understand when we talk about the practice.
And it’s funny, because my wife, Paz is an artist, and when we were in New York, she had an exhibition called ‘Home as a Shelter’. And just that name, I think, said so much. Home is a shelter to ourselves, but she works with discarded objects and found objects on the street or on the beach. And it’s like she collects fragments of herself and then she weaves them together into what she calls nest-like structures. And I feel that that’s so symbolic of life. I feel in a cabalistic, in the Jewish spiritual tradition there’s this idea that there is this whole vessel that was like a pottery vessel almost that was splintered into a thousand pieces and that we spend our lives almost trying to collect those pieces. And in that sort of Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi, you know, trying to bring them back together, but not by glue, but with gold, in the sense that we’re creating something, we’re trying to recreate, bring something back. But actually, that’s more beautiful than when it was in its original state. And I think home is that sense of collecting all the fragments of our life back together. And sister, there’s a lot of talk about the present moment. And I know this is something that’s obviously a deep part of the practice, but something you keep coming back to in the present moment. So can you for those who are listening, can you just talk about, in a sense, how can you describe the present moment as opposed to the fact that it’s going through a day is just, of course, it’s the present moment because I’m here now. What is the deeper meaning for you of the present moment? And how can someone start to live that, who may not have any sort of deep understanding of Buddhist philosophy or the practice? Someone who’s maybe listening to this, who’s just come across it by chance?
I think in their lives they can take something, maybe when the alarm clock goes off in the morning, maybe you sit it five minutes earlier than you usually get up. And then, you switch off the alarm clock and then kind of jump out of bed and start doing things, to stay in bed or sit up. And for a moment, ask yourself ‘How’s my body?’ and sort of go mentally through your body, your body parts. This is what I do, not every day. And I think my eyes are being there. My nose, my mouth, my ears, I think, my hands. I think all the parts in my body. Also my heart, my liver that functions, and I thank them for being there. And when there is a part that hurts, maybe a little bit… Let’s say we ate too much of something the day before and you wake up and you’re not quite sure what your liver is trying to tell you. When something hurts I go with my attention to that part of the body and I say, ‘You may be there, too, I love you too’. So that my body is and feels well and loved. And there’s so many parts of our body that work so hard for us, and, I think, sometimes, you know, I go a whole time and think, I haven’t thought, I haven’t thought of thanking my body at all. And it’s just doing all this, this job. The heart just keeps beating all the time, and blood keeps flowing and all such things are happening. And to thank them. And that is what gives me a lot of energy in the morning. When I wake up, I start the day with gratitude for my body. And then the rest of today can unfold.
And the present moment. What is the present moment?
Is there something that’s not the present moment?
Oh, Brother Phap Huu, this is getting too… You take over! This is going too deep for me. Brother Phap Huu, question to you: Is there something that is not the present moment?
Wow. Is there something that is not the present moment?
I’m not going to answer that one. I think the answer is no, but I’d rather have someone else describe why before we get the answer from Sister Jina.
Well, maybe let’s go back to what is the present moment? The present moment is where life is happening, and that is very clear. But it takes a practice. It takes an attention to be present for that life, that moment that is happening. Because time is flowing, and the concept of time, we gave it, right? But it’s always happening. And right now, this very moment is the present moment. But the next moment it becomes the past. And then the next moment it becomes the future. So the present moment is a manifestation that is all around us. How our life is, our loved ones is right there, right here. That can also be the present moment. Your breath can be the present moment. The gratitude can be a present moment. The awareness of life, the awareness of the tree, that can be the present moment. And we, as humans, we have so much capacity because we have so many qualities inside of us and we have to know how to touch the present moment in order to allow these qualities to manifest truly, especially the qualities that we want to nourish and that we want to grow for it to be a strong character for us. For example, in this present moment, do you have compassion or not? If you can touch that seed of compassion through understanding, then in the present moment you can call that’s a compassionate moment. So the present moment holds everything, but it depends on how we can cultivate that present moment. That’s very important. And this sounds very easy, but it’s a whole life training. And I just want to say I’m enjoying this podcast so much because I don’t have to say a lot and I get to listen to our dear wonderful elder sister Jina. And when she was talking about her practice and what she has been able to gain and being able to recognize what has supported her on her journey. And a lot of it, we can see that it is the fundamental basic trainings that you will hear on your first retreat when you come to Plum Village. But still today, when Sister Jina mentioned especially about walking and being fully present for your step, and I still recognize that I still have to put a lot of energy into that practice. I still see that there’s so many times that I’m just rushing, and there’s so many times that I’m just walking without knowing why I’m walking. And that’s why these practice, even though they are so simple, but they are so deep. And when we talked about home and ‘I have arrive, I am home’, this is the first Dharma Seal in our tradition, the Plum Village tradition, being able to arrive and be home in this present moment. And because this present moment holds also the past and the future.
It’s interesting because in some ways you said, brother, you know, it’s so simple yet so profound. But in a sense, the profundity is always simple that actually people, especially with the sort of Western mindset, we’re always looking for complexity and that we think we can find truth in complexity. But my sense is, you know, of course, we have to understand complexity, but actually the most profound things are always the things that almost it’s so easy to take for granted. And by taking it for granted, actually, it’s an avoidance, but actually, it’s profound. So, sister, you asked the question ‘Is there anything other than the present moment?’ And I guess from Phap Huu’s answer, the answer is ‘No’, but help us. Is there anything else you want to add?
Well, thank you, Brother Phap Huu. It’s wonderful to hear you share the Dharma so beautifully. The present moment is the only moment we have. And I think if we realize that this is the only moment we have, we will live our lives differently. We may not spend time thinking what we’re thinking. We may not say what we’re about to say. We may not do what we were about to do, because it’s the only moment. We also will interact with others in a different way. We think we’re going to live forever. We live as if we’re going to live forever. We live as if everybody else is going to live forever. But that’s not the case. If you think this is the only moment, there wouldn’t be so much more, I think. If everybody would realize that, you know, this is the only moment we have. In Plum Village we have bells, many bells we hear, and whenever we hear the sound of the bell, we stop. Which means we stop our physical actions. And some of the younger ones they like to stop, like with one leg in the air and one hand in the air, because that’s when they hear the bell, you know, they freeze, become statues. We can put our foot and our hand down, of course.
And be relaxed.
And be relaxed, exactly. But they play. So we stop and relax. When we stop, relaxation comes naturally. It’s the nature of stopping. It’s the nature of letting go of what is crowding our mind, what is preoccupying us, what is tearing us away from the present moment. And then this relaxation, the stopping happens naturally. And if, for instance, at home and you have the telephone, just the telephone ring nowadays, you don’t need to be at home, it can ring anywhere. So if we hear our phone, whatever gadget we have, ringing, instead of frantically starting to look ‘Where it is? In which pocket did I put it? Is it in my backpack? Is it in my coat? Where is it?’ You know, that is hectic. And then answer in a not very peaceful way. And instead of doing that, we can, when we hear this tune, to take a moment to become aware that our inbreath or outbreath is happening. It is a miracle, because that’s life, and life is a miracle that is happening. We can become aware of our body. Are we tense? You know, what is happening? And, of course, we can become aware of our mind. And what is the state of our mind at the time? And can we, with an outbreath relax the tension attention in our body and let go of what was preoccupying us? To be truly present and then answer the phone, we will hear who’s calling. We can tell already by the sound of their voice whether they’re happy or not happy. What kind of support they may need, and whatever they ask, we can respond from a place of being present. And the other will feel heard, understood. And if everybody would just do that, you know, the world would be a much better place, would be more compassionate, because we all have the seed, that means the capacity… It’s that what you could call it, it’s an… I’m looking for another word that doesn’t come. But anyway, we all have the capacity to be compassionate. We all have the capacity to be present. We just have to cultivate a little bit because we have forgotten that we can be present and we have the capacity to be compassionate. On a trip to India we went through a little village and the bus stopped and there was a man doing his laundry. And I looked and I could see that man is truly present. There’s nothing on his mind, he’s just fully engaged in doing his laundry. He probably never heard of mindfulness, but he knew his life was presence. So we do not need to study a lot, we don’t need to read that many books, if we can become aware of our breathing, which is a process of the body, so it brings us back to the body. Relax the body, we will see we are present, we will see more clearly what is happening within, what is happening around us, and we will interact in a more, I would say, appropriate to the situation, but I’d like to call it compassionate way.
Sister, I want to come to your book because you’ve written a book called ‘Moments of Joy’. And these are things, I mean, coming back to the present moment, these are things that you have written down in the present moment. So I’m going to just read out three or four. Before I do, it’s organized on the seasons. So that starts with summer and autumn, spring, sorry… summer, autumn, winter, and then spring. Before I read it out, can you just tell us a little bit about the book, about what it is that you mean by present moment writings?
Yes. May I first say something about the seasons, about the book?
Yes, of course.
Well, I had this collection of moments of joy, and they asked, the publisher asked me, ‘Do I have something to publish?’ and I thought, ‘OK, well, I have this.’ So I just gave it to them and they said, ‘Can you arrange it?’ I thought, ‘How do I arranged these moments?’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, well, the easiest way is whatever I have noted down in a spring season, I was called spring and then, you know, summer, autumn, winter.’ But it has nothing to do with spring, summer, autumn and winter. So if you go through the book, you ‘d think ‘This doesn’t reflect winter’, it’s because I didn’t want to call it one, two, three, four, that’s why I choose…
Well, it’s poetry in motion.
Thank you. Okay. These moments of joy are actually my diary entries. It’s not poetry. During a three-month silent retreat, I started to keep a diary, which I usually don’t. So after a few days, I started to just jotting down in a few words a moment of the day. And that moment was when I was truly present. I decided my practice is going to be dwelling in the present moment. So it was really coming back to myself all the time with my steps. When I noticed my mind was wandering off to somewhere miles away and in a different century, if you like, I thought, ‘No, no, no, we are in this century and here and now I brought it back to my body. My body is here and now. My mind can be anywhere, but my body is here now.’ So I brought it back to my body and filled my body with mindfulness, to be in the present moment. And then I started to live moments that, the moment I live them truly present and express itself in words. I have Irish roots. Irish people are people of words, so they express themselves in words. And then my diary more and more to our little moments written down. And I call them moments of joy because at the moment when, you know, I’m truly present, there is joy, there is no worry, there’s no anxiety, there’s no fear. There is no kind of an overwhelming joy, if you like, there is jus this present and that is very joyful. And that’s why I called them ‘Moments of Joy’. And when they came back, I would write them down. These moments are maybe… when you’re a photographer, you know, you walk around with a camera. I traveled quite a bit before I ordained, and I always had a camera with me to get the shot. And you cannot sort of see a little scene and think, ‘OK, what lens am I going to take? Am I going to take this one, this one, this one?’ And by the time you get your camera ready, the moment is gone. So it’s more like instamatic photographs of my daily life, but in words. In words.
So maybe I can read one from each season. So summer: Let me enjoy every moment of this sitting. All is quiet. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, just me and my breath. Autumn: This morning, it looks so quiet outside. I opened my window to hear the silence better. Winter: This morning, my little yellow teapot fell. Broke. And turned into sweet memories. And then spring: At the tip of every blade of grass, a glistening dew drop, a carpet of diamonds. Beautiful. Thank you, sister.
In the introduction to the book you talk about gladdening the mind. And I just wanted to ask you a bit about that because when we were chatting the other day, you were saying people always tend to look for the problems in life rather than looking at what’s right. And I remember Thich Nhat Hanh used to say something similar, he said, ‘If a tree dies in a garden or a forest, the mistake is to put all your attention on the one tree that is dead, but actually it’s really important to look at all the other trees that are still healthy and vibrant’. Can you just talk to us a little bit about what you mean by gladdening the mind and about that sense of focusing on what’s going right in the world?
Yeah. With gladdening the mind I am referring to what I was talking about earlier: how to nourish our store consciousness, how to nourish our mind, watering seeds. And if we watch a lot of violent movies, we are watering the seed of violence in us. We all have the capacity to be violent. In some of us the seed is not very strong, so it doesn’t express itself in our thinking or speaking or actions. But if we start watching violent movies, we can become violent ourselves or fearful. And so, gladdening the mind was my practice: I’m going to look at things and recognize how it is a precious something, you know? When we see in the sky a rainbow, everybody goes, ‘Oh!’, you know? It is collectively decided that a rainbow is beautiful. But we don’t always have these conditions around us, and if we’re really present, we can see things that gladden our mind, that we’re happy about. So if I have a toothache, I’ve noticed my tongue always goes to the tooth that hurts, you know? And I’m miserable. And one day I thought, ‘OK, one tooth hurts. And how many teeth do not hurt?’ You know? I felt better straight away. So gladdening the mind, look at the way we look at things. And we can look at something and it will make us miserable. Or we can just look at it from a different angle. And, you see, my experience is gratitude, and gratitude is definitely one way to gladden our mind. So look what is right in our lives. Even if a lot of things go wrong, look for what is still right, and I’m sure we will find something. And then allow that what is right to gladden our mind.
Brother Phap Huu, what’s a moment of gratitude you can point to today?
Right here, right now.
Give me a sense today. We’re approaching lunch time. What can you show gratitude for this morning?
Right here, right now with Sister Jina, with Jo Confino and the whole squad around the table. I haven’t seen Sister Jina in almost two years, so just to have her presence back with us in Plum Village and her accepting to join our conversation, I’m so grateful. Because it’s been a long time for me just to sit with a long-time spiritual friend who has impacted my life so much within the last 20 years as a monk. And today, just to hear your experience and your sharing has really given a lot of new energy for my own practice and my own way of looking at life. And I will definitely practice gladdening the mind today, tomorrow, and continue to see all the beauty of life, no matter what situation we’re in. So thank you so much, Sister Jina.
Yeah, thank you, Sister Jina. And just before we wrap up, I mean, I don’t know if the listeners are able to feel the energy that is in this room, but there’s a sense of, as Sister Jina’s been talking, we’re being almost clunking down the levels. You know, you start off at sort of surface level and then you sort of feel yourself going down a level, a level, a level. And in terms of gratitude, for those listeners who haven’t listened to all the episodes, we’re actually recording these episodes in the hut, the Sitting Still Hut of Thich Nhat Hanh in Upper Hamlet, this very simple hut made of wood. And we’re sitting around his kitchen table and there’s a doorway through to his living room, very small living room and bedroom. And his jacket and coat are still hanging up because Thay is now living in Vietnam and has been for the last three or so years. And, as Phap Huu said, we’ve got a couple of other monastics, my wife Paz is here, Cata is here, who is a long-term lay practitioner. And we’re all sitting, we’ve all been brought together by a great teacher who has touched the lives of millions of people around the world, who have given people a sense of hope when they were in darkness, a sense of how to be in the world, a sense of how to counteract the almost, the sort of almost viciousness of the capitalist system and Western system in which we live, which often drags us away from ourselves. And Thay has offered us, as you say, sister, a way home. And it’s where we all want to come, or want to come home to ourselves. So Sister Jina, it’s been an enormous honor and I know you don’t particularly like to be in the limelight and giving interviews, so I very much appreciate the fact that you joined us this morning and brought this sort of weight, as you call it, this sort of weight to the conversation. I feel heavier, but in a lighter way. And there’s a paradox I haven’t quite worked out, but it feels true. So thanks, Sister Jina, thank you very much.
Thank you. My pleasure.
So thank you for listening to this latest episode of The Way Out Is In. You can find all the other episodes in the series on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts, on all other platforms that carry podcasts, and most particularly the Plum Village App.
And this podcast was possible thanks to the Plum Village community as well as the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.
And now, as usual, we’re going to finish off with Brother Phap Huu giving us a guided meditation. And in all the beautiful feedback we’ve had for these podcasts, one of the things people particularly mention is that they really value these short meditations. So brother, take us away.
Take us home. Dear friends, wherever you are – you may be walking, going for a jog, going on a commute, sitting on your sofa – wherever you may be, if you can pause and allow yourself just to be still. But relaxingly, allow yourself to be aware of the body, whatever state it may be. If there is any stress, any tension, just allow yourself to be present and slowly let these muscles relax. Now, let us bring our awareness to our breath. As I breathe in, I identify this is an inbreath. As I breathe out, I identify this is an outbreath. This is inbreath. This is outbreath. My mind may be wandering to the past or to the future or to a story. But allow it to ease. Allow yourself to just be with the breath. Let the mind gently come home to the body. Now breathing in, I follow my inbreath from the beginning to the end. And as I breathe out, I follow my outbreath from the beginning to the end. I am one with my breath. In, I am one with my outbreath. Out, allowing myself to arrive deeper in my body, allowing myself to arrive more in the present moment. Breathing in, I am in touch with life around me. Maybe there are sounds of the birds, sounds of people walking by. Just allow yourself to be present with life happening around you. But you are solid because you are home in the body and in the mind. Breathing in, life all around me. Breathing out, life inside of me. Breathing in, I enjoy this present moment where life is happening. Breathing out, this is a wonderful moment. Breathing in, I am grateful that I am alive. I have conditions to breathe. I can walk. I can stand. I can eat. I can see. How wonderful it is to just be alive. Breathing out, I smile to life with gratitude. Inbreath, how wonderful it is to be alive. Outbreath, I smile to life. Breathing in, life is present. Breathing out, I am present for life. Because I am present, this present moment is my home. In, present for life. Out, this present moment is home. Breathing in, I am in touch with all the wonders of life. Breathing out, I am grateful for all those wonders, all those conditions. Let me be grateful for these conditions and not take for granted these wonders in life. It may be small, may be simple, but it allows me to touch gratefulness as well as kindness and compassion in my daily life. In, inbreath. Out, outbreath.
Thank you, dear friends, for listening and joining us in this podcast, as well as for practicing. We wish you a wonderful day wherever you are.
The way out is in.