Welcome to episode seven 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, hosts Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino were recorded in Thich Nhat Hanh’s former residence in Plum Village, the ‘Sitting Still Hut’.
Here, they talk about the yearly Rains Retreat – a 90-day retreat started by the Buddha – including the aspirations and other key concepts at the core of this gathering of practitioners. Brother Phap Huu explains in detail the origins of this ancient tradition, and how it unfolds in Plum Village, including some special insights from this year’s retreat.
Both then share their own aspirations, and discuss taking refuge in the sangha, the need to slow down, stillness, getting support from the community for our aspirations, and that even zen masters need constant reminders to practice. (Did Thay need help from the sangha? And is Phap Huu as busy as the others think?)
The conversation touches upon our (and their) relationship with ‘stuff’; a free yard sale in the monastery; how to know when we have enough; and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s jackets, and how he relates to his few material possessions.
Jo opens up about his youth and the burden of collective pain; letting go of possessions; and getting some of his best creative ideas while sitting still on a train.
You’ll also find out where the yellow-orange in our podcast’s logo comes from. And autumnal fruit trees make a cameo appearance.
Finally, Brother Phap Huu shares daily tips for beginners’ practice, and ends the episode with a guided meditation to find calm and solidity.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Alms Round – The Practice of Love, Humility, and Gratitude
‘Breathing In, Breathing Out’
The Faces of Manas Revealed
The Green Mile
Rains Retreat 2021
Rains Retreat Opening Ceremony
The Spirit of the Rain’s Retreat
“The Rains Retreat carries the spirit of being still; not running from suffering or chasing after an idea of happiness. This is an opportunity to return home to oneself, to take refuge in our spiritual family, to enrich and deepen our dharma body with our mindfulness practice, and to continue our teacher’s legacy in our sangha body.”
“Even though we devote ourselves to a monastic life and the practice of transformation for ourselves and our spiritual growth, it’s still very important to be connected to everyone in the world.”
“Walk just to walk, and do it with ease.”
“When we stop is the only time we’re able to face ourselves.”
“When we are still, our internal aspirations, voices, and perceptions have a chance to really reveal themselves. Then, we have the clarity to look at them with the eye of a practitioner, in order to take care of them.”
“This stillness that we cultivate is not only for our aspiration, our internal stories, or our internal reflection; it is also very important in the present moment, where we need rest or healing. We are so busy. We are not aware of our body. We’re not aware of our posture. We’re not aware of where there is stiffness, of where there’s stress. So learning to be still is an art for healing. And this is very important. To have total relaxation is one of the core teachings in the Plum Village tradition.”
“Stop, rest, and heal.”
“In modern Western society, we don’t trust natural processes. We think we need to intervene in some way. But, actually, sometimes the art of simply stopping, of resting, creates the healing.”
“Through the stories, the history, and the sutras that we read, we see that even the Buddha, after enlightenment, continued to keep his practice alive – because the practice is a living energy that you have to maintain.”
“That evening, the meeting ran late and I went straight home. I was sitting on the train – no computer, no phone, no book, no bag; just me. And I had one of my best creative ideas in years, which manifested into a whole new section of The Guardian. If I’d had my phone, my computer, or a book, I would have filled that time. But because I couldn’t, I just had to stop. And what I realized in that moment was that, when we stop, we allow more than just our mind to take place. Some people call it grace – well, there are all sorts of names, but it exists in those moments.”
“If we are constantly busy, we don’t allow for that channel of grace, that openness to life to actually show up.”
“Science is also showing that it’s not that you learn to practice mindfulness once and get the job done; we have to constantly remind ourselves, work with it, practice it, build it.”
“Thay was very selective in his possessions. Not because he’s picky, but because when you have enough, you don’t need more.”
Hello and welcome to another episode of The Way Out Is In podcast, I’m Jo Confino, working 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.
The way out is in.
Hello and welcome back. So we’re recording all of our episodes from the small hut of Thich Nhat Hanh, which is called Sitting Still Hut. So we feel very much as we record these sessions, Phap Huu, don’t we? That Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is very present.
He is. And we definitely feel the energy, the energy of stillness. When we sit in this hut it really invites us to just calm down and just to be aware of what is happening around us, who is in front of us, and also just to connect to ourself.
Yeah, and we’re sitting around Thay’s kitchen table and we’re with our colleague Cata, who does all recording and all the help. So, Cata, thank you for always being here, being so wonderful. Today we are going to be talking about what’s known as the Rains Retreat, which is a 3-month retreat that happens every year in Plum Village. And also as part of that, all the monastics and all the lay practitioners are asked to focus on what we call an aspiration, what it is, their focus, what is that over the three months of the retreat that people would like to focus on and to build their practice around. So Brother Phap Huu, you know all about the Rains Retreat. You’ve probably done, probably 20 of them or more. So tell us a little bit what is the Rains Retreat?
The Rains Retreat is a beautiful tradition. It comes from the time of the Buddha and his original Sangha, his monks and nuns. And it began when his community started to grow and the community at the early days of the Buddha’s career, they didn’t yet have big monasteries, but they would travel around villages to villages in order to spread the Dharma. It’s part of the aspiration of a monastic is to practice, to learn the Dharma directly from the Buddha or directly from other senior monks and nuns, but then continue to have a chance to be in touch with villagers. So they would go each day before noon to go for alms round, to beg for food. And it’s a very beautiful tradition. And in many countries such as Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, the monks in the Theravada tradition, they still keep this practice alive. And you would go to each house, no discrimination. And you were standing in front of the house and stand there for a few minutes in silence. And if the home owner has some food to offer, they will come out and they will offer their food in your arms bowl, which is a begging bowl. And after you have received that, you will spend some time to share the Dharma, or if the laypeople have a question they have a chance to ask, then the monks would have a chance to share their experience through the teachings of the Buddha. Or if somebody in the family has passed away or they feel like they need a blessing, they would ask the monks or the nuns to chant. So this kind of tradition was also a door, a passage so that the monastic continues to keep a relationship with the world, with society, so that even though we devote ourselves to monastic hood and to our practice of transformation for ourselves and our growth spiritually, but it’s still very important to be connected to everyone in the world. And so each day the monastics would do this and they would travel from village to village. And in the evening they would sleep in the forest under a trunk of a tree or whatever conditions that is around. But when the community started to grow in larger number and they had to grow in bigger groups, especially during the rainy season, the downpour of the rain was heavy and made traveling much more difficult. And monks and nuns can become easily ill because of the weather. And they also started to notice that when the rain started to really fall down heavily, all of the insects, the frogs, the fishes, everything from the from the paddies, from the rice paddies, they would manifest. So then they realized by walking through these fields, because back in the day, they didn’t have, like, all of these roads like we do today. Suddenly they realized they would be stepping on a lot of living beings, so it was also a chance of the practice of compassion to not crush these living beings. So the Buddha decided that for three months during the rainy season, the monastic community would all gather at a selected place. And later on, monasteries were developed and built thanks to the lay practitioners who became lay disciples of the Buddha and the community. They would help create these monasteries for the monks and nuns so they would all gather and spend time together and they wouldn’t have to travel so far and so much. And they wouldn’t have to destroy rice paddies or step on living beings just because of the conditions of nature. So that was the origin of the tradition. But what it also allowed for the monastics and for the Buddha was a chance to deepen the practice. So the Buddha would then had the chance to stay within a boundary, a location for three whole months. That allowed the Buddha to offer many deep teachings, a continuous teaching. And it allowed younger monks to take refuge in more senior monastics, to be trained and to be guided and just to be around a presence to take in their their spiritual energy, their peace and their stillness. And this tradition has continued through all of the Buddhist monastic communities. And in Plum Village, we still maintain it. And it is a retreat that our teacher emphasizes a lot on deepening our practice and deepening our studies, as well as just to learn to be still. And originally, it is in principle just for the monastic community, but our teacher has opened the Rains Retreat from even before I came, all lay friends were always welcome. But in our community, our teacher would also have a chance to go deeper into his teachings and translating new sutras. Thay would have a chance to share them through his dharma talks and we all have a chance to learn together with the teacher and the students.
Yeah. So my wife and I have come for the last, before we moved next door to Plum Village, we came every year for 14 years during this time. And I think the reason we came was, was exactly what you’re saying. It’s also like the season. It’s sort of heading towards autumn, winter, and it’s about when nature starts to slow down. And it was always our experience that that it was lovely to come here during this quiet, reflective period where the energy, in a sense, was coming back to the center. And, you know, seeing how busy the monastics are, as you say, you go to retreats all over the world. And this is a chance, as you say, to deepen your practice. And also interesting that it’s a tradition that’s been going for 2600 years but is still very, very relevant.
Exactly. And I also just wanted to share that this tradition is also alive in every practice centers and monasteries. And in today’s time, I think every monastery would have to adapt to what season is most adaptable for their community. And in some countries like South East Asia, I think there are three months institute is in the summer. And for us, at one stage it was in the winter, but then we moved it to the autumn. Yeah.
So at the opening ceremony, Brother Phap Huu, as the abbot of the Upper Hamlet monastery of the monks, you sort of read out a sort of a wish for the community and about, you know, what this Rains Retreat could be, but also about your own personal aspiration. And as I was saying a bit earlier, I think one of the wonderful things about the Rains Retreat is saying, well, if you’ve got three months rather than fritter away, even if you’re being contemplative, if you don’t have a sense of direction of where you want to do, where you want to go, then the time can easily run, run away, even if you’re going slowly without accomplishing much. But this idea of having an aspiration, a focus saying actually, what is it? What is most in my heart at the moment? Where do I feel I most need to go? Where can I deepen my practice? It’s a chance to really deepen in a particular direction. So I’m just wondering whether you read out a sort of, in a sense, your message to the community. And it would be lovely, actually, if you could just read it out and then we can maybe discuss your own personal aspiration.
I would love to. But before that, I wanted to share about the ceremony on the first day of the Rains Retreat, because this is how this message becomes alive. So the image of the Rains Retreat I like to see and I picture in my mind is like we’re all birds in this forest. And throughout the year we’ve been flying to different countries to offer retreats or in our time of the pandemic we’ve also been flying through the Internet, through all of these online platforms, all of these interviews, as well as consultations in a way that’s also a way of being out and offering. And in the pandemic, we have been quite active and very positively active in order to bring the Dharma to our friends who have the aspiration to find a spiritual dimension in their life. And the Rains Retreat is this opportunity, this calling all the birds to come home and to return to the forests and reside and be still. And we have the first day, the opening day of the ceremony of the Rains Retreat we have the ceremony. It’s very beautiful. We all come together. We all wear our yellow, orange sanghati which is traditional robe that comes from the Buddha’s time that we all are transmitted once we become a monastic. And we gather and we sit together and there are drums, there are bells to welcome the opening of the Rains Retreat, which is incense offering. And then we have this practice of taking refuge. And this is very important because this is the tradition from the Buddha’s time also. So everyone in our community, we have mentors or mentees, someone we look after. And it’s a chance to really also develop sangha building, sangha harmony. We want to live together in harmony. And to do that, we have to learn to be to to be open, to take refuge in one another. And this is a real practice and it’s a practice for us who have been long in the sangha to open up and learn to be an elder brother, learn to be a refuge, learn to be open, learn to offer. And for young ones to learn, to also be vulnerable, to open, to share their difficulty, for us to understand and to support. And so there is this aspect of taking refuge. So in the ceremony, we all would come together to express our intention to practice together in harmony and because our community is so big, so we ask the representatives of the hamlets to have this opening speech to share the aspiration from their monastery. So I would represent the brothers community and before before writing it down and before speaking it out on the day, I would take at least three or four days just contemplating it, just cooking it like and just asking myself, what is it really that has happened for us in the last year, for the community and then for the world. And then what is it that we need and what is it that we continue that we want to aspire? So this is what I wrote.
Brother, just before you read it out, just one small fact that our listeners won’t be aware of is that the color background of The Way Out Is In which you all see illustrated, it’s actually the color of your sanghati robes. So we actually took a picture of your robe. So that yellow background to the branding of this podcast series is your gown.
That is correct. So, dear friends, this is my aspiration. How fortunate we are to have the conditions to be together and practice for three, four months. The Rains Retreat carries the spirit of being still, not running away, either from our suffering or chasing after an idea of happiness is an opportunity of returning home to oneself, to take refuge in our spiritual family, to enrich and deepen our dharma body with our mindfulness practice, and to continue our teacher’s legacy in our sangha body. This is a beautiful tradition the Buddha has created for us to rest and heal. What is left is for us to continue to learn to open our hearts and our minds. The pandemic continues to be a challenge for many globally. It asks us to continue to practice with impermanence, learning to adapt, to let go and to accept reality. We know the Earth still needs a lot of care and healing. May our practice contribute to the well-being of our planet. This Rains Retreat, I really want to practice to slow down. I asked my brothers and sisters to support me so I don’t lose myself. Please, dear teacher, elder brothers and sisters, be a refuge for me and for the whole community.
Wow. Thank you. Brother, before you talk about your aspiration of wanting to slow down, so we’ll come to that in a minute. But you talked about being still, and one of the things that I feel about sort of modern civilization is that we’ve completely lost our connection to the seasons that, you know, when autumn comes and into winter, you know, nature knows when to be fulsome, when to come into its sort of its true manifestation and then to start letting go and the leaves to fall and then to be still in the winter and to sort of, in a sense, for the energy to come back in. So can you talk a little bit about what you mean by stillness? Because it’s like most people are living their lives as there’s no season, that they’re busy every day of the year, that there’s no period where it’s a chance to sort of just slow down. And yet you have three months, a three month period every year where the purpose is to do just that. Talk about what it is to be still.
I see in my practice, stillness is an ingredient for peace. I definitely see when peace can manifest is when there is stillness inside of me. And just like you have shared, like it’s so easy to be busy nowadays and it’s so easy to be stimulated through the devices, through noise, through activities. And if we are not skillful, we will get caught in this cycle of busyness and even for us monastics, because we are a part of the world, so all of this noise from outside also finds a way into the monastery. And the practice of stillness it also helps us to look deeply. The image that we have in one of our songs, Breathing in, breathing out, I am blooming like a flower, Solid as a mountain, Fresh as I do and water reflecting. Right? So it gives this image of a lake. When the lake becomes still, it has a chance to be a mirror for it to reflect reality. What is happening in the here and now for it to really manifest? And we see that there is a lot that we want to manage and to take care of inside of ourselves, especially if we want to start to understand ourselves more. We also have to allow ourselves to be still more in order to really see what manifests for us, because when we are still our internal aspirations and voices and perceptions have a chance to really reveal itself, and we have clarity to look at it with an eye of a practitioner, of someone who looks at it as an observer, to take care of it. And if we are always busy and I’ve been busy through the year and I was like, oh yeah, I need to do that. But it becomes a procrastination, it becomes a dream, it becomes a wish, and then you’re going to keep holding it off because you’re never still or you never really allow yourself to really do it. So this stillness that we cultivate is not only for our aspiration or our internal stories and our internal reflection, but stillness is also very important in today where we need rest, we need healing. We are so busy. We are not aware of our body. We’re not aware of our posture. We’re not aware where there is stiffness, where there’s stress. So learning to be still is an art to heal. And this is very important. This is one of also the core teachings in the Plum Village tradition where we have total relaxation
And also Thich Nhat Hanh has one of his calligraphy, it says ‘stop, rest and heal’. And he gives the example of an animal which is injured, that it goes and finds a quiet spot maybe in the forest or wherever its habitat is, where it feels safe. And it just stops and it allows the natural processes of life to show up. And sometimes I think in modern Western society, we don’t trust in natural processes. We always think we need to intervene in some way. But actually, sometimes just the art of stopping, resting creates the healing. And it’s funny, brother, you were talking… It’s just a very small example came to my mind, which was when I was at The Guardian, I was very, very busy all the time. And I remember I went to a meeting and I was supposed to go back to the office to collect my computer, my phone, to take my long train journey home. And that evening the meeting went on late and I went straight home. So I was sitting on the train. No computer, no phone, no book, no bag, just me. And I had one of the best creative ideas I had in years, which manifested into a whole new section of The Guardian at that time. And if I’d had my phone, if I’d had my computer, if I’d had a book, I would have filled that time. But because I couldn’t fill it with anything, I just had to stop. And actually, what I realized in that moment is that when we stop, we allow more than just our mind to take place. It’s like it’s like, you know, some people call it grace, some people call it… well, I mean, there are all sorts of names, but there is that sense of. You know, when, for instance, some great inventions happen in more than one place, at the same time, it’s almost as though there’s always stuff in the energetic field that we can almost reach our hand into. But if we are constantly busy, we don’t allow for that sort of channel of grace, that openness to life to actually show up.
Exactly. And stopping is actually one of the wings of meditation. So actually, to practice meditation, we have to have the ability to stop and to rest. And Thay, our teacher, is very modern. So he at one time during one of our Rains Retreat, he shared with us that already in the spirit of the Rains Retreat we have a boundary that we stay within for three months and we only go out of our boundaries only when we need to. For example, our shoppers of the community, we have to go shopping or we have to go fix our car. And it’s a very direct purpose. And we don’t go and we let our mind and our habit take over. Like you’re driving, and then you see a boulangerie, you’re like, oh, let’s stop and get a croissant or a baguette. No, that’s not the spirit. So in the Rains Retreat when you ask permission to leave the boundaries, you go directly to the the task and you had to come back right away. That’s also a spirit of it. And that’s also…
Dear friends, you just listen to some nuts falling from our trees. We’re just closing the door. And so there is this… these rules that we set up in the monastery to help everyone to be still. But then when you, Thay said also we don’t allow ourselves to go out with our minds too much meaning spending too much time on the computer, on the internet or listening to news or listening to music. So all of these other forms that we can’t allow ourselves to escape from the present moment is still present. And there is a commitment, there’s a real commitment that we have to make or else our habits will take over.
So, brother, I have an admission to make because our house is about 100 meters outside the boundary. And, you know, normally on occasion, the monastics or some monastics will come and visit us for, you know, nice cappuccino or latte or pancakes or whatever. And so I was thinking that given we’re just outside the boundary, that when the wind is blowing the particular way, I will make lots of fresh coffee and the smell of it will float across the boundary. And I can see if I can sort of get some of the monastics to sort of cross the line.
Sure. And I’ll have binoculars and I’ll just be looking through to see which brown robes and bald heads are crawling to your house.
Or we could, or I could photograph them and then send you the photos. We could do… It’s like in Buddhism, there’s this whole concept of manas, isn’t it? Which is a bit like the egos, it’s like the part of us that is the sort of part of us that will do bad things.
So maybe I could entice the monastics to see who crosses the line and then…
You can test them.
Yeah, test them in a hundred different ways and then send the photos to you. But let’s not discuss it on the podcast.
We don’t want people to know about it. Brother, aspirations. So maybe we should share our aspirations. So why don’t you go first. So you talked in your letter about the need to slow down. What is that all about for you?
I see for myself that I have started to bypass a lot of the basic practice because I feel like I’ve been a monk for 20 years now and the abbot of the community. I have, quote unquote, important things to take care of. And the community loves me so much and I’m so blessed that I really feel this love and this respect and I am also so in love with the community. And a lot of the times I feel like… There are sometimes I’m doing things and I could do much more mindfully, but nobody says it because people are like, ‘oh, he’s so busy’. And within the last three years, like almost every interaction I’ve had with, like, my monastic siblings or even laypeople like friends that come along, the first question they would always ask me is like, ‘brother, are you busy?’ Or they would share their concerns like, ‘oh, I don’t want to bother you because I know you have so much to do’. And I started to have this, I start to recognize this reputation I had, which is like I’m so busy. And I I ask myself, am I that busy? And am I really giving up this energy that I’m not present enough for people? I’m always present for meetings, I’m always present for tasks, I’m always present when it’s a road that I need to offer, I feel that. But then am I not present for just being, just being a monk, just being a brother, being a friend? So one day in Upper Hamlet I was just walking from my office to my room, which I don’t know how far that is, but this is a good distance. And the spirit in our monasteries, whatever we walk, whenever we walk, we walk in the spirit of walking meditation. Walk just to walk and do it with ease. And I started to recognize I didn’t enjoy walking as much. I am always trying to get to the destination in order to rest or in order to do or in order to practice. So I started to see this habit or this voice inside of me is just saying, just do, there’s things for you to do. Today you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that. And I just started to realize I’m becoming a victim of my own ambition, in a way, and I’m also allowing myself to not enjoy the present moment, and that’s when I was like… Especially because we had this podcast with one of our sisters and just listening to her share about her practice and her way of being just so inspired me to slow down. And that’s when I realized, like, I need to slow down so that I don’t lose my aspiration because my deepest aspiration is to live out my life as a true continuation of the Buddha and of our teacher Thay, as well as to be a real monk.
And in your letter that you read out, you talked about asking the community of monks and nuns to support you, because I think that’s really fascinating, because it’s sometimes so difficult. We can have an aspiration on our own, but it’s sometimes very… It’s like a New Year’s resolution in a sense. It’s like we can come up with something, but if we’re on our own, it actually can be very hard to keep to it. But you’ve very specifically said, I need the support of you, my community. Tell me a bit about how that works in your mind.
For me, when I can vocalize it, it also has a very big impact on my actions. Like, yeah, we all can just make aspirations and keep it internally and then we don’t do it, OK, next year. Because no one knows. But the moment when you have the courage to speak it up, to share about it and to voice it, it also has your seal in it. And then, in our tradition, which is taking refuge in each other, there’s a part where we also want to allow others to help us and for myself, especially as an elder brother for many in the community, sometimes if you don’t ask, then the young ones will say, ‘oh, you know, he’s solid enough, he can take care of it, he can handle it’. But sometimes, no, we need that support because we are also vulnerable at some stages or sometimes we even lose ourselves in our habits, in our energies of frustration and whatnot. So for me to say ‘please, help’ is also just to open that door to allow people. And I honestly don’t know what kind of support I will get, but I believe because I have shared those words, let’s say if somebody sees me rushing back because I have said, please support me, somebody might just say, brother, slow down. And that would change. That will help me change my way of walking in that very moment.
And for those who may not listen to every episode, you were also the attendant, personal attendant to Thich Nhat Hanh for 17 years. Did Thay need help from the sangha for his practice?
Of course, Thay always took refuge in the sangha. In the past, at the beginning of the Rains Retreat, Thay would also share that he is taking refuge in the community so that he can continue to nourish his own practice as well as his own way of serving because he knows he cannot do it alone. He needs the community to support him. And I believe that’s where he had the most strength that was offered to him, was by being with the community.
All right. And brother, I mean, some people might be listening and saying, well, you know, Brother Phap Huu, you’ve been in the practice 20 years, and you’re telling us you have to be reminded of the basic practices. And they might say, well, you know, what’s all this Buddhism about? You know, is it not working? And one of the things in my experience is that, you know, we’re so habituated in our monkey mind that actually we always have to be reminded of this. This is not a destination where one day in next year you will be fully realized and you will never again have to be reminded of the practice. And I remember asking Sister Jina many years ago, who’s one of Thay’s longest serving Western monastics. I said, Sister Jina, don’t you get bored with Thich Nhat Hanh repeating the same sort of advice or teachings every time? I mean, you’ve heard it probably thousands of times. You know, do you get bored? Doesn’t he get bored? And she said, ‘Are you practicing?’ In other words, you know, we can be told things a thousand times, but actually are we truly practicing? And also we constantly have to be reminded because we’re like an elastic band, if you sort of stretch it, the tension of it wants to pull back to its original form, which is for our minds to go in a thousand directions. So tell us a little bit about that sense of, you know, after 20 years, you’re still there to remind yourself is that failure, is a success? Is it just the way life is?
That’s being a human. No, we are always changing. And because we’re also always adapting, so we also need to strengthen our own practice. And I just look at the Buddha himself and I ask myself, after enlightenment, why didn’t the Buddha just stop? But through the stories and through the history and through the sutras that we read, we see that even the Buddha, through his time after enlightenment, he continue to keep his practice alive because the practice is a living, is a living energy that you have to maintain. It’s a… we speak a lot about mindfulness, right? And we say mindfulness is in each and every one of us. And it depends how we nourish that energy of mindfulness for us to have it available or not.
And neuroscience shows us that if we don’t… if you don’t use it, you lose it.
So actually, the science is also showing that actually it’s not like you learn it once and then job done. We have to constantly remind ourselves, work with it, practice it, build it. And also, I’m wondering, brother, whether for you the practice changes.
It does. So one thing I always tell my younger brothers when I have a chance to mentor them is don’t take this basic practice for granted because I’ve listened… I’ve had the chance to listen to, I don’t know, hundreds and hundreds of dharma talks by Thay. And I also don’t get bored because when it comes down to the theory, I think I can share about it. But then when it comes to the practice, this is where I see the difference. So on the first day of my arrival in Plum Village, I hated sitting meditation. It was painful. It was dreadful. It was suffering, like just learning to sit still and do nothing? Wow, that was crazy. That’s a crazy idea. But now, having that chance to sit and do nothing, that is such a gift. And knowing to enjoy silence, knowing to enjoy the breathing, connecting to the breath, seeing your mind, what is manifesting and in how to guide the mind. Before, when I just started, I needed a lot of mental reminders internally. I would even say, ‘oh, I recognize stiffness in my back, I need to relax, I recognize my thought running to the past, running to the future, I see myself being carried away by this quote unquote perception’. And just identifying, and you have to put a lot of energy and emphasis in recognizing it because you’re not used to it. But now I can just sit there. And when a thought comes up, instead of putting so much energy, I can say my mindfulness kicks in and says, ‘ah, you are starting to go in this direction, refocus, reguide it’. And your ease into practice starts to manifest also.
And there’s also something, brother, about stopping is having to face ourselves. So I see a lot of young people who… There’s a moment something’s not happening, they see it as boredom and immediately looking to fill that time. But actually, when we stop is the only time we’re able to face ourselves. And it’s funny because we, my wife and I, moved here about 15 months ago now, and we were asking ourselves after a year, you know, are we truly happy here? And, you know, and in some ways we have all the conditions. We have a nice home. We’re next to the community we love. We’ve been able to practice through the pandemic with the monastics, et cetera, et cetera. But there was something in both, in the back of our minds that wasn’t fully happy. And I was sort of ruminating on this. And then one morning I sort of got it. So the reason we’re not happy is because, you know, we’ve moved from New York, central New York, busy job, busy life, full of exciting baubles and exciting life. And my wife’s an artist and exhibiting and all those sort of things. And suddenly we’ve had to stop. We’re in the middle of nowhere in a house with a small village, sort of 10 minutes drive away. And stuck, quote unquote, in this house. And so the reason I was not feeling completely happy was actually not because I wasn’t completely happy, but I was creating the conditions to feel where I wasn’t completely happy and actually have to face more of myself.
And Jo, what is your aspiration for these three months?
Well, brother, so I was sitting in the opening ceremony and I suddenly thought, ‘oh, I forgot to think about my aspiration’. So actually, it came to me there and then in a very sort of powerful visualization. And the best way to explain it, let me have a go. So when I was young, sort of young, early teenager, young child, early teens, I sort of had no sense of why I was alive. I really felt that I couldn’t work out. I felt I was worthless, that I had nothing to offer, that life was really confusing to me and I couldn’t really make sense of anything. And my experience of that was I felt I was sitting at the edge of an ocean of sadness. And I felt all that sadness was mine. I felt I was sitting at the edge of my ocean of sadness and and it was mine alone. And then sort of later in life, you know, this must be about 25 years ago, I was seeing a therapist stroke coach, and I went on this sort of.. He took me on this guided visualization, which he didn’t… he just created a space in which I went on a journey. And I remember I was at the edge of the abyss and I was clinging to the edge. I didn’t want to fall because for me the abyss was my annihilation. And he suggested I just let go. And I let go and I fell and fell and fell and expecting to sort of hit the ground and just splatter. And that was the end of me. And instead I sort of landed on my feet in this sort of underground sort of walkway. And I followed this walkway and it opened up into a cavern. And to my left there was a pool of water completely still. And on the other side of the pool was a little bassinet with a baby in it. And I walked to the bassinet and lifted up the child and realized that the child was myself. And I recognize in that moment the child represented my innocence. And that I held the child close to me and all of a sudden a sort of the darkness almost, just almost, I was transported up to the surface of the earth again. And it was this sort of bucolic, sort of beautiful spring day with children running around and butterflies and birds singing. And it was like a great healing moment. And then in the opening ceremony, I experienced myself back in that place, in that underground cavern, because what I’ve been feeling while I’ve been in Plum Village is a sense.. this wish to go deeper. And I haven’t known what that means. I keep on saying I need to go deeper. What should I do? But nothing has really sort of resonated with me. And I sort of just had that as an open question to myself. What is it? What does it mean to go deeper? And part of that is because, you know, I’m sure a lot of the monastics feel like that. When you meet people and want to support them, often what you learn through the practice comes across as wisdom. And so you support someone and they say, oh, my God, that’s amazing. Thank you so much. You know, that’s such great of wisdom. I really contemplate on that. And in a sense, it’s very easy to mistake, mistake it is me being at my edge. Oh, look how wise I am, I’m supporting that person. But also realizing that actually the truth is that I’m in my comfort zone. That to me, while a person who’s never come across this work may think, oh, wow, but to me, I’m just sharing what I already know and it’s easy to get stuck in that place. And so as I was sitting in the meditation hall, I thought what is it to go deeper? And as I said, I felt myself back in that same place, in that underground cavern and I saw there was a hole going down with the sort of rungs, metal rungs, almost like sort of going down from the street into a sewer. And so I started climbing down the rungs of the ladder and went down and then found myself sort of waist deep in a black river. And I actually river is a generous term, it was a… It was maybe a stream or a brook, but it was quite, quite strong water, but not a huge river. But it was there. And I followed it and it came out to an ocean, and I sat on the beach and I realized it was the ocean of sadness, but it wasn’t my sadness. It was everyone’s sadness. And for me, it was realizing as I sat on the beach and I was listening to all the cries for help that actually I could be there for the people who were crying for help and I could sit there on the beach and it wasn’t that I was uncaring because I felt the pain. But I didn’t feel I was being dragged into the ocean. And it was a sort of realization of my journey that that over many, many years I’ve helped to sort of transform my own ocean of sadness. And I also mistook it as all mine, whereas actually I think that ocean of sadness as a collective ocean. And so I suppose my aspiration, what is my aspiration? My aspiration is to go deeper into my own transformation in order to be there for other people. You know, it’s very hard. There was… There’s a film called The Green Mile, and it’s starring Tom Hanks. And it’s got this character who’s on death row. He’s falsely accused of killing two girls. And at some point, I can’t remember exactly, he said, you know, he’s about to be executed and the prison wardens want to save him. And he says, I don’t want to be saved because it feels like they’re shards of glass going into my head. It feels like, you know, I feel all the pain in the world. And I realize sort of as a child, I sort of mistook the collective pain for my pain. And so it’s about how do I feel all that pain but not be consumed by it and be able to go into, you know, what some people might say is hell and just be there for people. And in that sense, I think it’s very much like Plum Village, you know, is sometimes you don’t have to do a lot. You just have to be there. And Plum Village as a community, as a light in the world, isn’t always about you doing something particular. It’s about you holding an energy that is important in the world.
Yes, and we have to also nourish our joy and nourish our well-being and in order to be present and that’s also… This is a wonderful opportunity for you too Jo to also rest and heal and also allow yourself to just be and not always give, because that is also a habit. And if we’re unmindful, we can also be be dragged under the impression that we always have to give. Because there’s also a hook, which is the praise as well as the the gratitude, and that can also make ourself being lost. And that’s why I also added that line for myself, because I want to slow down and to learn to be and learn to be myself and go deeper, because I don’t want to lose myself, because projects are beautiful projects and giving is such a reward in it, but I, I speak for myself, which is like sometimes I do see there is a hook which is like, oh, you know, you start to see people giving you respect and giving you all of these admiration. And that in itself can also make you lose yourself.
Yeah. And can I say, you know, there’s that phrase that the most troubled children are the children of therapists because… And the phrase is almost based on the idea, the idea that, you know, if we constantly focus on helping others, it’s often just as much an avoidance of dealing with our own problems because we think, oh, well, we’re helping this person to deal with their problem and we’re helping that person. And therefore, I must be OK. Rather than actually recognizing that actually it’s a collective energy, which is if it’s your problem and I’m sitting here with you hearing your problem, then at some level that is also my problem. And I think that that resonates with, you know, the Buddhist teachings on store consciousness that each of us are all the seeds of joy, happiness, anger, resentment, jealousy. And actually so when we when we want to support someone else, actually hearing their story is also, by its nature, going to touch something in ourselves.
And we also have this other really cool tradition before we start our Rains Retreat we have room changing.
So this is also a Plum Village special trademark, I would say, because we all share rooms in our residence and once a year we have an opportunity to have a new roommate or a few new roommates as well as change location. And it’s a very joyful event and almost sometimes also like everybody has a little bit of curiosity or even some anxiety. Who’s going to be my roommate this year? But we always conduct the meeting in such a joyful way in and for everyone to have a chance to share their needs as well. But after we have selected our new roommates, then we decide we have a room changing day and it’s a whole day. And this particular day is a real day of letting go, because in principle as monastics we are supposed to be very simple. We are supposed to not have too much possession. In the beautiful scripture, it says a monk in his possession is only his begging bowl and his three robes. But we joke around now, my begging bowl, my three robes, my laptop, my three luggages and so on and so on and so on. And so once a year is also this practice of learning to see what we have in our possession and is it really necessary? And is so joyful. So we have this courtyard in the middle of our residence and every retreat, before the Rains Retreat, we do this room changing and everybody gets to go through their stuff and see what is useful and what is still in very good condition but I don’t need it now and it might be in somebody else’s interest. And we will put it in a space where everybody can go shopping, but it’s free. It’s like this yard sale for free, but within just the brothers community. And I bought a tea tray in 2005 and I’m so happy that it is now still alive and still being used not by me but by someone else in the community.
And is anything you picked up in the yard sale, brother?
This year? Two coat hangers.
A big shopping day.
It is, and you just realize actually you don’t need to buy so much. Sometimes it’s already there and you just need a condition for it to manifest because everybody goes through the stuff. And I’m like, huh? I’ve been having this umbrella for like three years. I don’t even use it. I put it out and voila.
So brother, as I said at the beginning of this podcast, we’re sitting in Thich Nhat Hanh’s very modest wooden hut. And I’m looking through his door now and it’s virtually empty. I mean is… He’s got a robe hanging, an old jacket. Did Thay, do this as well?
Tell us about Thay’s relationship to stuff.
So Thay was very selective in his possession. And I think it’s not because he’s picky, but it’s just because when you have enough, you don’t need more. So if somebody offers you something, I actually don’t need it. And but, of course, as a teacher and a lot of students, a lot of followers, we always want to express our love and express our gratitude. So someone would always want to give a gift to Thay. And Thay always accepts it and Thay shares it to the community. It’s very beautiful. Thay would also not do this like annually, once a year, room change because Thay doesn’t do that. He has a hut and he’s already very simple. And he does offer a lot already, so we don’t need to ask Thay to do this. But from time to time, Thay would gather some of his jackets or his robes or his sweaters, and Thay would send it to the brothers. And Thay would say these are some of my clothes that Thay doesn’t use anymore. If anybody has a need, please feel free to take it. And of course, every one took one as a souvenir, even if they don’t wear it. But it’s a souvenir. And there was a time, and I now regret it, and I actually I’ve never shared this story. So Thay also has a few jackets and they’re very simple and they’re all brown.
I would call them shabby.
Exactly. And shabby. And he had a few jean brown jackets and now I think is very cool. But back then, like one time, Thay also said, Phap Huu, do you want one of my jackets? And I was very young and I’m like… and in my mind, I’m like, this is not fashionable. And I said, no. But now I regret it. And now, now I, yeah, I don’t have it, which is totally fine. But I did realize that if only at that time I let go of the notion of fashion and just say, oh, this was a gift from your teacher.
Yeah. So, so just talk about jackets for one moment, brother. Is this… Is the story I was told. Is it true, which is that every year for 14 years during the sort of Rains/Winters Retreat, I saw Thay always in the same jacket. I don’t think he ever changed it. And what I was told was that when he would go to important events like whether it was the Congress in America or the Houses of Parliament or the Indian Congress, you know, he often met very senior people. That occasionally some of the monastics would offer him a new jacket to smarten him up a bit and that every time he refused. Is that true?
That is true. I have witnessed that. So it is true.
And what did Thay say? Was he annoyed that people were trying to foist these nice jackets on him or…
I think. I’m just trying to recollect my memories, but… Not annoyed, but just kind of like sharing that Thay doesn’t need it, and I think the one giving is more annoyed. And it’s because it’s something, it’s a practice of Thay, which is like Thay has something that it already works. It fits Thay. It’s his style and voila, that’s it. Why do I have to keep searching for more when I have it already? And that is a practice in itself. And we’re always running after something. And part of our practice is like, Thay has a calligraphy and he says ‘you have enough’. I remember that calligraphy because I have to remind myself that sometimes you see things on home visit, you go to a mall, and you’ve been in the monastery for so long. Suddenly you’re exposed to this world of fashion and you’re just like looking and your desire comes up, but suddenly you realize that that’s not the real happiness. So I really see, like, Thay walks his talk.
And that’s what really impresses me.
So it’s interesting you mention that, brother, because this morning I was going through my Instagram feed and there were two photographs. One, the first photograph I had was of the Burning Man festival, which is a big sort of festival in I think in the Nevada desert, which I’ve always wanted to go to. It is a crazy sort of festival. And it was a picture of two very beautiful women in these sort of bikinis, but with sort of metal plate bikinis looking very glamorous. And it looked wow, that’s rather nice. And then I have to say, my wife is looking at me. She’s here, sitting there looking at me. I’m going to have a chat later, I guess. And then straight underneath was a picture of one of the Vietnamese brothers, Brother Minh Hy sitting in meditation. And it was a post from the Thich Nhat Hanh foundation. And it was such a jolt for me because one the and these were literally one after the other. That picture of Burning Man was these women being glamorous about, it’s the excitement and all that. And then on the surface, I then went to the picture of Brother Minh Hy and I thought, oh, that looks so boring. So this is sitting there in meditation with his hat on. And it was a really jarring image for me because because I wasn’t expecting it and I noticed my response and I sort of sat with it for a few minutes and I realized that on the outside, the Burning Man festival looked very exciting, all the things that you can imagine on the outside. But Brother Minh Hy who I know is and is a wonderful example of monastic deep in the practice, deep in compassion and love, sitting there has all that on the inside. And it was just such a powerful notion of how my mind grasped onto the Burning Man because I’ve always wanted to go to it and then released it when I realized actually that that wasn’t where the answer is, that the answer is inside. So it was very powerful. And also, brother, I have to share about letting go of stuff, because when we left New York a year and a half ago, whenever it was, we got stuck in lockdown in Mexico for four months, and we had two suitcases and two small bags. And so for four months, that’s all we had. And we were so happy. You know, we just washed our clothes every day if we needed to. We didn’t have anything to worry about. And then we arrived in France and three months later, sort of a whole shipment of goods arrived from New York, sort of, you know, 298 boxes. You know, 150 of those were my wife’s supplies and all the stuff that we collected there, our clothes, there was a sofa that was a… And we just looked at each other, oh, my God, what are we going to do with all this? You know, we don’t need it. We were very happy without it. And also, it’s true that we were very happy to receive it at one level because it was a lot of stuff that we have a connection to. We bought it here. We did this. But it was just a reminder. You know, that was part of us that that thought if the if the ship sinks in the transport and we lose everything, actually, it really, really doesn’t matter.
It’ll be OK.
It would be fine. And in a sense, we were hoping it would sink. That we don’t have to worry. And also sometimes we’re forced to let go of things. So my wife, when we used to live in Brighton, there was a telecommunications box outside of our house. And occasionally I would go to work, and at the end of the day, I would come home and I would see a couple of articles of clothing on the telecommunications box. And I’d think, oh, what are those? And I’d take a closer look, and I thought: those of mine! And then I’d go and say, what have you done with that? Because she said, is that all that’s left? Just two articles. And so I was forced. She helped me to let go by putting this stuff out while I was there, because otherwise I would never have let it go. So sometimes we need help.
Anyway. Brother, thank you again for sharing. We should keep in touch with our aspirations. I will write a note to all the monastics to make sure that they support you in that. But it’s really important for all of us to have a sense of where are the changes we might want most important to make, and to have that focus and clarity and commitment. So, thank you, everyone. Dear listeners, we hope you have enjoyed this episode of The Way Out Is In. You can catch all the other episodes on Apple podcast, on Spotify, on other platforms that carry podcasts and also on the Plum Village App.
And this podcast was brought to you by the generous donors of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If you would like to support future episodes of the podcast and the work of the international Plum Village community, please visit www.tnhf.org/donate .
Great. Brother Phap Huu, in the now old ancient tradition of the last few months, you offer us a guided meditation at the end of each episode, so please bring us back to our center.
So dear friends, wherever we are, allow ourselves to be still, if we can, either standing, lying down or just seated on our chairs, our sofa. Let us bring our awareness to our breathing. As I breathe in, I’m in touch with my inbreath. As I breathe out, I am in touch with my outbreath. Inbreath. Outbreath. Identify the breathing, it is already happening. Just allow yourself to be aware of the breath. As I breathe in, I feel my abdomen rising. As I breathe out, I feel my abdomen falling. My abdomen rising. My abdomen falling. With each breath, I can breathe a little bit deeper. And as I breathe out, I can allow the breath to be a little bit slower. Deep and slow. Breathing in, I recognize freshness in my life inside of me. My smile. I feel so fresh, like a flower. All of us humans are flowers in the garden of humanity. As I breathe out, I enjoy this freshness. There is life inside of me. There is life all around me. Breathing in, I recognize my stability. Breathing out, I feel solid like a mountain. Stability here is stability to be in the here and now. I am not being pulled away by my emotions, my feelings. Our thoughts of the past are worries of the future. I allow myself to be still, solid. In, solidity. Out, like a mountain. Breathing in, there is calm, stillness. Breathing out, like a clear lake reflecting everything that is. Whatever manifests in me, in my thinking, my perception I allow it to be. I smile with it and I ground it with my practice of mindful breathing. In, still. Out, calm like a lake. Breathing in, I recognize space inside of me. Breathing out, I taste freedom. Freedom from being carried away. Freedom from thoughts of the future, thoughts of the past. I allow myself to be in the present moment. I allow space to manifest inside of me. I accept myself. I have space to also have love and compassion for others. To have understanding. In, there is space inside of me. Breathing out, I feel free. Thank you so much, dear friends, for practicing with us.
Thank you, Brother Phap Huu. And I’m just wondering whether you could suggest one small practice, because sometimes people don’t know where to start. So is there something you would suggest that people could maybe just experiment with this week?
So dear friends, for this week I invite you to allow yourself to have 10 deep inbreaths and outbreaths at least once a day. And you can break it up five breaths in the morning, five breaths in the evening. Or split it throughout the day, but allow yourself to have at least 10 mindful inbreaths and outbreaths. And if it helps, you can even put your hand on your abdomen each time you allow those breaths to be those deep and mindful breathing.
Wonderful. Thank you, dear listeners. Thank you for being part of our journey and hope to join us for another episode soon.
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