Graphic #2_Ep 61_part 1

The Way Out Is In / The Heart of Meditation – Part One (Episode #61)

Sr Hiến Nghiêm, Br Pháp Hữu, Jo Confino

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Welcome to episode 61 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, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and leadership coach/journalist Jo Confino are again joined by frequent guest Sister True Dedication (Sister Hien Nghiem). Together, they discuss the sixteen exercises of mindful breathing which are at the heart of the teachings offered by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community.

This episode, the first of a two-part special, explains and breaks down the practice of breathing exercises one to eight. It includes the exercises’ traditional texts, revised versions (plus the reasons for their revision), and variations and adaptations, with extensive explanations given by the two monastics about how to apply each one to our daily lives. 

In addition, stories are shared about Thich Nhat Hanh practicing meditation, as well as the concrete steps taken and challenges faced over time by both Brother Phap Huu and Sister True Dedication. 

And why is sitting meditation the hardest practice? Is it essential to meditate in order to be a good practitioner of mindfulness? How can one ease oneself into attention? What difference does paying attention to our breathing actually make? These and many other questions are answered in this installment of the podcast.


Co-produced by the Plum Village App:

And Global Optimism: 

With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:

List of resources 

Sister True Dedication 

Songs: ‘The 16 Exercises of Mindful Breathing’

Dharma Talks: ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’

The Five Contemplations Before Eating 


Breathe, You Are Alive! 


Jo-ann Rosen 

Sister Jina 

Dharma Talk: ‘Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing’


“From a more Western background, there’s a goal we need to meet and then we’re done. And I think that has also been applied to meditation, mindfulness, or spirituality: we think that there is one aim and if we practice for this long, then we will feel successful and accomplished, and then we’re finished. But Thay didn’t stop practicing, even after being named a Zen Master. The Buddha himself never stopped practicing, even after his enlightenment. So we have to change our view of meditation, to see and understand it as a path of practice. And each step, each breath is a journey, is a continuation. And we will grow in our own understanding of the breath.”

“Our practice is also learning to befriend the breath, and seeing that the breath is our spiritual foundation, our spiritual home. And it’s mobile, because wherever we go, that breath is with us.” 

“Meditation in the sitting position offers a combination of stillness, alertness, and deep calm, and then deep looking can arise from that stopping and that stillness. And so, each of us may have to be quite creative to find the moment when we can have real stillness.”

“Meditation is not a fixed point in time or a fixed place; it’s a way to see the world.”

“In our deepest tradition, we learn there’s nothing to attain. There are fruits that may ripen, which we will get to in the later steps of these 16 exercises of mindful breathing, but ultimately there is no goal.”

“It was very important to Thay to bring meditation out of the meditation hall and to integrate it into our daily life; for it to be accessible to everyone. So there is a doorway, a pathway to touch peace and stillness in our day. We don’t need to be in a temple; we don’t need to be in a formal setting in front of an altar. But, even at home, that stillness, peace, and presence is available to us. And the doorway which allows each of us to reach it is the breathing and the simplicity around that moment. And that’s where we really have this direct authenticity of Zen, which is there in the present moment, whatever it contains.”

“There is no such thing as sitting for peace. We will sit in peace.”

“Sitting meditation is a cultivation of true presence; a practice of learning to be there for yourself.”

“In the sutra on the full awareness of breathing, the Buddha shows us how to transform our fear, despair, anger, and craving. I was so happy the day I discovered this sutra. I thought I had discovered the greatest treasure in the world. Before, I’d been content to simply gain knowledge, but I didn’t know how to enjoy the present moment, how to look deeply into my life, and how to enjoy the positive conditions that were all around me. This sutra is so basic and so wonderful. There are many great sutras, but approaching them without this one is like trying to reach the top of a mountain without a path to follow.”

“By being with our breathing and our breath, we’re opening up doors of experience that are not normally available to us in our daily life, especially in the West, where the particular paradigm we live in excludes other modes of perception and ways of being in an embodied, interrelated way in the world. And so, by establishing ourselves in the body – by opening up the door of our body, by opening up the door of our senses – we start to experience the embodied mind.”

“With this practice of mindful breathing, we’re establishing a real quality of presence and perception around ways of being in touch with ourselves in the present moment.” 

“To be a little bit more flexible and allow myself space to grow in the meditation is also very important, in the body as well as in the breath.” 

“One of the challenges with meditation is that our own ideas about it get in the way of doing it successfully, of having a fruitful time. We’re so convinced that there’s something to do, but that we’re doing it wrong, that we don’t allow ourselves to be as we are. And it’s simply the quality of our presence that is the meditation that is embracing, allowing us to be in the present moment in a deeply attentive, curious way.”

“It is a daily practice to live in such a way that we are awake to the joys in life. And it’s a training to actively identify them, and to balance that against our society telling us that we don’t have enough: ‘You can only be happy when you have this, when you have that, when you’ve done this or realized that.’ And so this is using our breathing, quietness, and stillness to cultivate, to activate, and to generate a feeling of joy as we’re sitting on the cushion, and then a feeling of happiness that has a little more peace in it.”


Dear listeners, welcome to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.


I’m Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.


And I’m Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition.


And today, brother, look who’s in the hut. It’s our favorite… Oh, I’m not allowed to discriminate… It’s our favorite guest, Sister True Dedication. We, brother, we try and bring Sister True Dedication often, and it’s hard to capture her, isn’t it? Hard to get her to come and join us. So, sister, it’s a joy to have you here today.


Thank you so much. It’s lovely to be here with you both smiling already early in the morning.


Sister’s here, weeee. And today we are going to be talking about meditation. And brother, we’ve… People will think, well, we’re on episode 61 or 62, how come we aren’t only talking about meditation? But I think we maybe go into that, but today we are going to talk about the way of meditation.


The way out is in.


Hello dear listeners, I am Jo Confino.


I’m Brother Phap Huu.


And I’m Sister True Dedication.


And, Brother Phap Huu, how come it’s taken us so long to talk about meditation?


If you actually listen to all of the episodes, they are all meditations, but I think we all are caught in an idea of what meditation is in a form such as we should be sitting very still with our back upright on a cushion, levitating and having no thoughts in our minds. And therefore we have received questions as well as feedback and comments asking us to guide and to talk about meditation. But if we actually reflect on all the topics that we have addressed and shared through the two of us with also many of the guests that we’ve had, meditation is deep looking. So all of our discussions is a process of deep looking into happiness, suffering, well-being, ill being, the past, the present and the future. But it is true we haven’t specifically talked about like a sutra or… Actually, we have, but maybe we haven’t touched the foundational one of our tradition in the Plum Village school, which is the sixteen exercises of mindful breathing. So in today’s episode, we would like to do that and we will hear about the exercises. But with Sister True Dedication’s presence, her and I, we will help break down the practice of each meditation and how to apply it. And I think we can even do it as we are listening to this podcast. And we also have to understand that meditation, as mentioned before, it has two wings, like a bird. The first wing is learning to stop, learning to identify like stopping because our mind is always moving, our mind is always seeking. Even enlightenment is a seeking, but having the capacity to just arrive in the present moment, to be in touch with the very here and now. And there are so many layers in the here and now, and we always come back to the body, first of all, because we have to know that we are alive, we are present. So having the capacity to stop is the first wing of meditation, and stopping here is not just physically, but is also bringing the mind to the present, and we can identify that if it is running towards the past or being carried away by the future or even being lost in the present. And that creates a habit of procrastination, of daydreaming, of nonstop thinking. And please understand, we’re not saying that thinking is wrong. There can be productive thinking. We speak about right view in Buddhism. And the second wing of meditation is the capacity to look deeply. But meditation always has to have an object, like to meditate we generate mindfulness, and mindfulness also has to have an object to be mindful of. So that is why for us, the breathing, the breath, it doesn’t come from the tradition of Plum Village, it originated from the Buddha himself. So the teachings of Plum Village and the teachings that Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has chosen to be a foundational practice and study, it comes all the way from the Buddhist time. So Plum Village is actually also very traditional. A lot of people think that Plum Village is not traditional. I would argue back that actually we are very traditional because a lot of our Dharma, we take it from the root of the Buddha’s time, like the 16 exercises of mindful breathing, the four establishments of mindfulness, which is connected to the 16 exercises of mindful breathing. We always teach on the eight noble path, deep listening and loving speech, ethics, the five mindfulness trainings, the 14 mindfulness trainings. So I would like to say that our meditation has a very deep root, but sometimes friends and folks misunderstand it because our teacher has spoken in today’s language and sometimes simplifying it. It sounds simple, but to truly apply it into everyday life, this is where it takes trainings, it takes experience, and it takes a community to reflect, to support each other, as well as growing in a way of meditation is to not see that there is an end to it. And I think a lot of us growing up in a more Western background like there’s a goal and we need to meet it and we’re done. And I think that has also been applied to meditation, mindfulness or spirituality. We think that there is one aim and if we practice for this long, then we will feel successful, accomplished and then we’re finished. But even the Buddha never stopped practicing after his enlightenment. Even our teacher never stopped practicing after being called a Zen master. So we have to change our view towards meditation, to see and understand that meditation is a path of practice. And each step, each breath is a journey, is a continuation. And we will grow in our own understanding of the breath. And what I really like about mindful breathing is that there’s no excuse, that none of us can have an excuse to not practice because as long as we are present, our breath always accompanies us. So our practice is also learning to befriend the breath, and seeing the breath is our spiritual foundation, our spiritual home. And it’s mobile because wherever we go, that breath is with us.


So thank you for that introduction. So I have been slightly concerned about doing this podcast, which is maybe another reason why it’s number 61 or 62, because I am not a natural meditator. So Paz, my wife, is sitting here, she gets up every day and the first thing she does is sit and I don’t. And so one of the questions I want ask, so I love sitting with the community in Plum Village, but when it’s on my own, I find it very difficult to have the encouragement or the sort of sense that actually sitting is going to help me because I like to… I feel I’m a mindful practitioner, through the day I look deeply, but I don’t naturally sit. So Sister True Dedication, before we dive into sort of, you know, the Plum Village tradition of meditation, is it essential to meditate in order to be a good practitioner of mindfulness? And, you know, is sitting the best way or the most effective way in your mind to actually gain these deep insights? Or is it just another way of doing it? And actually there are other ways that are just as effective. Is it a personal thing or is that actually there is a collective sense that actually everyone can truly benefit from this?


Some really good questions there, Jo.


Something to wake us up in the morning.


So I think, first of all, to also put you at ease, I think we may have had this conversation before.




That I also really struggled with sitting meditation at the beginning and I was very like wholehearted practitioner of mindfulness coming on retreats here in Plum Village, going back to the UK to work in London. And the one thing I could not do was the sitting meditation. I could do 20 minutes of walking meditation on the way to work. I could have all these different poems, the gathas integrated into my day, when I would pick up the phone, when I would go to the water cooler, when I would make my cup of tea. I had all sorts of practices of deep listening to my colleagues, like I was applying mindfulness, but I was really struggling with the sitting and the best place that I learned to sit was on the London busses. Busses rather than tube because we know that the London tube is super noisy. And it was a nun here in Plum Village that told me because I said I just feel so full and my life is so busy. And when I sit still, I just feel like my life is… I mean, my mind is so just busy and it’s just like, I don’t know, so much activity. And she said, Well, you need to learn to create islands of peace in your day. So actually she’s like, Don’t try to connect the dots, you know, don’t try and have a whole day in mindfulness, but try to have these little points of mindfulness through the day. And she was the one who said, when you sit on the bus on your way to work, don’t listen to music, don’t read a book or magazine. And this is before smartphones. So nowadays she’d say, Don’t scroll. And so I took this advice to heart. I would sit on London busses, take care of my posture a bit, follow my breathing, and just be there for life, for the city. And I think I really fell in love with London sitting like that on the bus, following my breathing, but just, you know, being aware of the people around me, having eye contact with people around me, looking at the streets, looking at the trees, the old buildings, the crazy street names. And it became… so my sitting began on London busses. And really it was only after quite a few years of that, maybe two or three that I started to have my own sort of more quiet sitting meditation that actually then the next step was in the park, before my lunch, because I insisted on taking my full hour long lunch break. I wanted to eat in mindfulness with the five contemplations. And then after I’d eaten, I would then sit quietly, you know, for five or 10 minutes in the park and just be aware of my breathing, the birds, the grass, the leaves, the trees. And for me, that started to integrate a deeper stillness into my day. And I think what meditation in the sitting position offers is this combination of stillness, alertness, kind of deep calm, and as Brother Phap Huu was saying then, then the deep looking can arise from that stopping and that stillness. And so for each one of us, we may have to be quite creative to find what will be the moment for us when we can have real stillness. And sometimes, like after meals, the body feels very calm and satisfied, so that’s a good trick that I learned. But there may be other things we do. It may be after doing a bit of gardening, we then just sit outside with a cup of tea and create the stillness there. Or it might be by the beach or in a sort of beautiful place somewhere that’s sort of calm. But what I started to realize, you see, is that everything I’m doing before that sitting is determining the quality of that ten or 15 minutes of sitting in stillness. And so this would be, in our teachers language, that’s the insight of interbeing. Like how we live the other moments of the day is going to determine what’s the state of our mind and body when we sit on a cushion. So if we kind of rush to have our timed 10 minutes of single pointed concentration and our mind is full of what we’ve been watching, what we’ve been hearing and what we’ve been worrying about, the quality of those 10 minutes is not going to be so high. So it’s to kind of create all sorts of like zones around that silence and stillness. And so even if it is only five or 10 minutes, it can have that quality and that depth and spaciousness. And then for people like you and me, Jo, then it starts to feel delicious. It starts to feel like refreshing water, you know, it feels calming and wonderful and it doesn’t feel like yet another thing that we’ve sort of crammed into what’s already a very kind of full day.


And sister, what you’re offering here is because a lot of people have a fixed idea of meditation as you sit on a cushion in a lotus position, in a quiet room with your incense and maybe an altar. But you’re broadening that out because obviously sitting in a quiet room, which is your space and a sacred space, I’m sure, is for some people very wonderful and very necessary. But what you’re doing is broadening it out, saying actually meditation is not a fixed point in time or a fixed place, but it’s a way we see the world.


Exactly. And I think that’s what was so important to Thay, was to bring meditation like out of the meditation hall and to integrate it into our daily life for it to be accessible to everyone. So there’s a sort of, there is a doorway, a pathway to touch peace and stillness in our day. We don’t need to be in a temple. We don’t need to be in a formal setting in front of an altar, even at home. But that that stillness, that peace, that presence is available to us. And the doorway for each of us to reach it is the breathing and is the simplicity around that moment. And that’s where we really have this just direct authenticity of Zen, which is there in the present moment, whatever it contains. And having taken care of our body mind in such a way that when we then show up to say, Alright, I am just going to be here in this moment with my breath and body to be in touch with life, whatever it’s got in it, if it’s got a city in it, if it’s got a park in it, if it’s got, I don’t know, an ocean in it or whatever else it’s got in it, we say I will have this total complete presence. And I will kind of be still in my body so I can really pick up everything going on in me and around me. And that makes it such a different enterprise or pursuit than this idea I need to attain a certain thing with concentration. And in the deepest aspect of our tradition we learn there’s nothing to attain. There are fruits that may ripen and we will get to them in the later steps of these 16 exercises of mindful breathing. But ultimately there is no kind of goal. We’re not sitting for anything. I remember one time we wanted to have a session in London and to call for peace, and it was the time there was still so much fighting in Afghanistan and we wanted to have a sitting for peace. And Thay summoned us into his room and and said There is no such thing as sitting for peace. We will sit in peace. And so that became the theme of this gathering that ended up being 3000 people in Trafalgar Square in 2012. We were sitting in peace, not kind of for peace. And so how could we create in the center of the city, there, in Trafalgar Square, one of the biggest and busiest squares in London, generating that energy of peace right there in that condition? And Thay would say that is just as powerful as a deep contemplation on the top of a mountain over many hours for several thousand people to do that for half an hour in the middle of a city.


Beautiful. Thank you, sister. And Brother Phap Huu, before we go into the practice of meditation, so you joined the monastery age 13. It was your birthday the other day, and you’re now 36. Happy birthday. Happy continuation day, brother. Yay. So you’ve been meditating within this community for 23 years. So is it… It would be just lovely for our listeners just to have a sense of how is that experience for you? And does it ripen and deepen? So what is the experience for you and how does it support your life?


Sitting meditation was also the hardest practice for me too. I think we’re all in the same boat. It was so dreadful because I was never taught to sit still. I was never taught to sit still. We were never told and instructed how to feel the body, how to be aware of the mind. So suddenly arriving and making the decision to become an aspirant, you have to dive into the world of the monks and nuns. And it is every morning sitting meditation and every evening. And I will confess that I just forced myself, I had to force myself to sit on the cushion. And the hardest part was just staying awake. And I would just like keep falling asleep through the meditation. And I did many techniques to stay awake. And the best one was just to do full lotus and be in pain and just to feel the pain and the sensation of it, which made me very flexible. But what I would like to really emphasize is that the sitting meditation itself has become the foundation of stillness for me. It’s just like exercising, like when you first start, you don’t know how. So like when you first start stretching, then suddenly there’s pain there. Or when you start lifting weights or doing a pull up, your muscles become sore and I guess like the sitting stillness, the sitting in stillness, the soreness was the agitation, the mind telling me, wanting to move, wanting to leave this hall, like there were times like I was just sitting there and my mind was like, What are you doing? And it is exactly in those moments that you get to hear yourself. You get to identify the emotions that are present. You get to identify your own thoughts like, and you get to see, Oh, my goodness, I have these thoughts because I’ve been consuming this, this, this, and this. So for myself, the form of the sitting meditation it is actually for myself has been very important because it has interbe into my daily life. So I experienced stillness thanks to the sitting, so therefore I know how to be in stillness. And I would say that when we talk about true presence is a cultivation, we have to know how to be present. And in a lot of our sharings we talk a lot about the power of presence. And the sitting meditation is a cultivation of true presence, is a practice of learning to just be there for yourself. And we spoke about the four mantras, and the first one is I am here for you. As with sitting meditation is a direct practice of I am here for me, I am here for myself, for the discomfort, for also the stillness that I get to touch, the peace, the insight that ripens as well as the sitting itself is healing. When I first heard this from Thay, I didn’t quite understand it because it feels like I’m not doing anything, where is the healing? But the healing is that in that moment I am peaceful. I am calm. There was love. And that energy becomes a reality. And it is healing the past. It is healing the wounds that I have experienced, the non peace that I have touched, you know, by being bullied or being abused and so on. So in that moment of real peace, of real stillness, there is the healing. So the sitting is the healing, the sitting is the peace. And we can even say to uncomfortable sensation, thanks to the stillness is being transformed by us, giving it permission to be present and embracing, looking and caring for it. So the sitting meditation for myself, it has ripened a lot. On a busy day, the sitting itself is just to sit and do nothing. Our teacher used to encourage us and he uses this encouragement and I think is so, so skillful. Thay says sometimes when you don’t want to go sit is exactly when you need to go sit, because in that moment nobody will bother you. You have 30 minutes that nobody is allowed to interrupt your stillness, but if you don’t go sit, then people will interrupt you. People will ask for your attention. You get lost in your emails, you know, in project planning, etc., etc., etc.. So sometimes I think even as meditators we create a view like meditation is doing. But here Thay is saying meditation is being. So the sitting is to be alive, is to be very present. And just to, you know, just to go back, and I think I was just a teenager, so like falling asleep was just very normal. And being annoyed was very normal because it’s the first time I’m not with my video games every day. I’m not with my cartoons every day. And the television, which was always on it became white noise. Right? Is this that we call it? White noise? And to sit in stillness with the whole community, the silence is very powerful. And that silence of sitting with others when you want to give up, you’re reminded or you are encouraged by the other’s presence, the other’s stillness that are there for you. And I’ve grown so much in just learning about my body thanks to sitting meditation, you can see how much tension you allow yourself to have. And just by being present and just having the insight of your own body is a whole journey in itself. And we will get into this in the 16 exercises of mindful breathing.


One last thing, sister, that comes to mind as brother’s speaking, before we sort of dive in, is brother was talking about, you know, when he was 13 about cartoons and TV on. And now, of course, with social media and you know, there’s this whole sense now that people’s attention span is virtually disappearing, that people will sometimes, if they watch a video, you’ve got to reach them in half a minute because then they’ll switch on to something else. So I’m just wondering, in this modern time, one question is, is meditation actually becoming more important as a practice? And secondly, if someone is listening who is, in a sense, caught up in social media and this addiction to smartphones, how can one start to ease oneself into attention? Because actually meditation is bringing is about deep looking, about bringing one’s attention to a singular place.


A really good point, Jo. I was having the same feeling listening to Brother Phap Huu, because I think our society has just literally moved in such a direction that there are no natural points of stillness in our life anymore. And I think they were there in the past. I think life was not so fast. It was not so full. There was not so much striving. And we all get caught up in it. And it’s not that in the monastery we’re completely free from it either. We can feel this incredible pace, this incredible busyness, this incredible overwhelm. So it starts to become like a survival need, as a human right. And Thay used to say, we have the right to sit. We have the right to sit in stillness and in peace. And we have to kind of reclaim that for ourselves. And then for each one of us, it is this art. What will that look like for me? What will stillness and silence mean for me? And how can I make it make sense in my day and with what I’m doing? And so, as you say, for those of us who are more full and more busy, maybe living at a higher speed or whatever, I think the trick is we have to enjoy it, so to not think of it as hard work. It has to be something that feels delicious and feels wonderful. So another trick that I had as I was edging closer to the stillness of sitting I realized that every time I sat, I wasn’t at peace with my body. That was the first problem, actually. I could not come back to my body and feel in peaceful relation with my body. So one of my tricks was deep relaxation so that I will make peace with my body through the practice of deep relaxation. I made a commitment to do it every day over the course of about 18 months. I think I kept on going. And through that that became the door for me to be in good relation with my body. Because you’re lying down. It’s fine. You have permission to go to sleep, it’s fine. And as long as you’re slightly awake, we’re in this kind of kindness and compassion for our whole body. And so for me, that was my door to sitting meditation was through the practice of deep relaxation because it was where I unlearned all the toughness I had towards my body. So for those of us that have done sports, if we’ve had whatever kind of energy in our family around taking care of the body, it may not have been there. Right? So we have to kind of unlearn that toughness of seeing our body as an instrument, something just that is helping us function in life and like kind of like being a bit brutal with our body or a bit tough. And then I had to discover for myself how I could make peace with my body, not blame my body, but thank it for making my life possible. So for me, the trick was the deep relaxation. So for anyone listening who’s like, just even the thought of sitting in silence is so challenging to trust that kind of a training and a discipline in the deep relaxation, a commitment to that over a few weeks, a few months is already opening the door a little bit wider to the peace of sitting meditation, because as we enter these first few steps of the 16 exercises to be in kindness towards our body, in gentleness and acceptance as Brother Phap Huu was just saying, it may be that we need that practice of relaxation first to be better friends with our body.


And I love that way of describing it, which is the worst thing is when people feel they need to force themselves to meditate, and if they don’t do it well, then they berate themselves and use that as a way of attacking themselves.


And I think the body can so easily be uncomfortable. I think I had months when I first ordained, when I was a novice, I had months, I was like it is just so uncomfortable. And I, you know, I really understood that the posture when we come to the sitting meditation, the posture is the sitting and every kind of couple of minutes having to readjust my posture to open my shoulders, lengthen my spine, relax my jaw, you know, like it felt like such hard work. But actually it was a kind of a way of training my body and every muscle in my body to find a position where I can be at ease and at peace, where the lungs can open and have a nice deep breath, where my shoulders can be relaxed. And all of the posture aspect of the sitting meditation is then kind of helping reveal the stillness. And so even though… So it’s not to say, as Brother Phap Huu was saying, it’s not to say that it kind of will happen right away, but there is a a kind of a cultivation of the body and our relation with the body that’s then the foundation.


Thank you, sister. And brother, before we dive in, which I know we keep saying before we dive in, but is there anything you want to say as a sort of opener in terms of before we go into the specific exercises about how you help someone who might be sitting here listening to us who is either starting out or maybe even just finding it a bit difficult, or how you might introduce meditation.


To meditate is to be alive, to meditate, is to connect, to meditate is to really feel that you are a miracle of life despite knowing that you have agency over your own breathing, your own deep looking and understanding that comes with it gives you that freedom. So meditation is freedom. Meditation allows you to be exactly how you are in this moment. And the 16 exercises of mindful breathing is a real gem in Buddhism. When our teacher was going through his difficulty as a young monk, he shared with us that when he found the sutra on the 16 exercises of mindful breathing, he felt like the happiest person that day. He said that I found treasure. I found the greatest treasure in Buddhism, and it comes directly from the Buddhist teaching and it is still so relevant today.


Thank you, brother. So actually, let me just, because there’s a book of Thay’s, Breathe, You Are Alive, which goes into the sutra on the full awareness of breathing. So actually I just want to read his opening paragraph because it speaks directly to what you said, and I think it’s very helpful introduction. He said, In the sutra of the full of awareness of breathing, also known as the Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha shows us how to transform our fear, despair, anger and craving. And speaking to what you said, brother, I was so happy the day I discovered this sutra. I thought I discovered the greatest treasure in the world. Before I’d been content to simply gain knowledge, I didn’t know how to enjoy the present moment, how to look deeply into my life, and how to enjoy the positive conditions that were all around me. This sutra is so basic and so wonderful. There are many great sutras, but approaching them without this sutra is like trying to reach the top of a mountain without a path to go on. So now maybe we should dive in. So there are 16 exercises. We’re not going to do them all today. We might get through eight today and then we can do another recording for the next eight. But maybe I should read… There are four preliminary exercises and maybe I should read the first two which are on breathing…


So I have an interesting question here, Jo.


Oh, dear.


Which is whether we would like to base on the sutra text itself or whether we’d like to base on how Thay teaches it or whether we’d like to kind of jump between the two.


Well, why don’t I read out the traditional text and then I think let us then redefine it, because I think the whole… What is so extraordinary about Thay is that he said that Buddhism should always be revitalized for each generation to make sure that it is appropriate for each generation. So maybe we start off with the traditional text and then we can go to the revised text and also explain why it was revised, because I think it’s quite useful to understand why that was done. So why don’t I do the original text and then you can bring it up to date, sister. Does that work? Yeah.


Okay. Can I make a joke?


Yeah, of course you can. Absolutely. We need one.


Because you’re the ancient venerable here, and we’re the new generation.


I want a high platform now to sit on, please. You can just bow to me. That would be great. Okay, here we go. Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. So the first one is breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath. And then the second one. Breathing in a short breath, I know I’m breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath. So this is venerable Jo reading the first. And now my novice, Sister True Dedication, would you like to explain, you know, bring us up to date, and then we can start sort of explaining what these mean.


Yeah, well, what’s so wonderful to know about Thay is that as we’re Mahayana tradition, Thay also had access to the Chinese translations of this sutra, as well as the […] and his, you know, deep mastery also of classical Chinese. It was one of the first languages he learned as a young boy even before entering the temple. So Thay has this deep capacity to read these old texts and to be able to access them in their essence. And so when Thay was seeing how we might apply this, he was drawing on both the Mahayana tradition and the Southern Theravada tradition, so we are quite rich, we’re doubly rich in the Plum Village tradition. And for Thay, those first two exercises, he simplified them with such elegance. The first step being to identify inbreath and outbreath. To identify here means to come back and know that it’s happening. So we come back into that, the physical experience of the breathing when we identify it. So that’s quite close to the traditional one. But then the second one then becomes to follow the inbreath, in and out. And Thay then developed this, at a certain point he started saying, follow the whole length of the inbreath from the beginning to the end and the whole length of the outbreath from the beginning to the end. And so what Thay is doing here is he’s already transcending whether it’s long or short. So in some of the traditional translations, we can get caught in, Oh, if it’s short, I know it’s short, and then we start measuring. Is it short? Is it long? Is this a medium breath? What’s going on? But actually we are identifying in the most basic way, just to note, this is in and this is out. It’s a very low level, low entry bar here. We just know it, just tell the difference. In this moment, right now, as we’re listening, are we breathing in or are we breathing out? There’ll be a moment when it’s one and there’s a moment… Moments when it’s one and moments when it’s the other. So it’s very simple. But right away our bodies needing to perceive a quality of our physical experience in this moment. So that’s our door right into the present moment. We’re starting with being aware of whether it’s breathing in or out. And then this following the length of the breath, there’s already this insight in Thay’s updating this, whether it’s long or short is fine, and we are being with it with all its qualities. And now also knowing what we do about the body, we know there can be… There’s the quality of length, but there’s also the quality of sort of jaggedness, you know, is our breath catching? Maybe because our sympathetic nervous system has been activated and so our vagus nerve is maybe interrupting our breathing a little bit. So there’s a lot of data in our inbreath and our outbreath. And as we’re following it, we’re perceiving all the aspects of quality of that in and outbreath. Is it regular or irregular? Yeah, jagged or smooth, long or short? So Thay kind of expands this second step to be following and being with in a really deeply non-judgmental, non discriminating way the quality of our breathing however it is.


Beautiful. Brother, you know, some people who might be listeners… you know, focusing on your inbreath and your outbreath, following the length of your inbreath and outbreath. You know, what has that got to do with life? You know, we’re breathing all the time. So by paying attention to our breath, what difference does that actually make?


That is mindfulness itself. And in these two first practices of identifying and then following, you are also developing two of the trainings in the Buddhist school, which is mindfulness and concentration. So what benefit? Well, the first benefit is the breath helps bridge us from our mind to the body. That just to identify that you are breathing. And I would also like to add on you don’t have to think about the breath as you feel the breath, because the breath is already happening. And so when our teacher has updated in his way of teaching and sharing it, it is like just know that you are breathing. And by knowing that you are breathing, knowing that you are there and because you are there, then you have agency. By being present we allow ourselves to to be the best version of ourselves. But the second exercise is very important because we can be mindful, we can be aware, but we may lose our mindfulness really quickly because we have the habit of thinking of the next thing already. And Thay always gives us this image is like, we’re invited to go and look at a beautiful sunrise. And as the sun starts to show itself, there is an awe, like wow. But we’re so conditioned to then take it for granted, think about the next thing and we lose that moment. So the second exercise of mindful breathing to follow and to take refuge in the inbreath from the beginning, all the way to the end, it is developing our state of oneness. Nothing can interfere us in this moment. We are truly present for our breath as being truly present for ourself. So this exercise of mindful concentration has really transformed my sitting meditation because I recognize how quick it is for me to jump from topic to topic, from thought to thought and being uneasy and being agitated. But when I have a foundation to take refuge in, every time a thought comes, I say, I’m just going to stick with my inbreath from the beginning to the end. And I start to develop this stillness with one with the breath. And it has translated throughout my whole life. Whenever I am emotional, I can just feel my breath changing. When I’m agitated, my breath is very different. When I’m angry, my breath is very different. So by knowing your breath, you also know yourself. By connecting your emotions to the breath, you can accompany the emotion and not allowing the emotions to then hijack you in that moment. You allow your breath to become your foundation of being in that moment. We’re not suppressing the anger, we’re not suppressing the feeling of irritation, but identifying, Oh, I’m irritated right now. If you cannot identify your breath, don’t even think about identifying your feelings and emotions. So, yes, the word basic, but I think a lot of us now we’re using the word foundational or fundamental, like the breath is the fundamental place to take refuge in for it to shine the light of mindfulness to what is happening inside and around us. And then to not be lost in our emotions you develop this concentration of staying with the emotion by the hand-helding of the breathing. So for me, this is why there is a power to mindful breathing here where you don’t lose yourself, but if anything, you are allowing yourself to be truly there for exactly what is happening. But you don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by the mind, by the emotions, by the feelings. But the breath continues to be this thread for you to see, to think, and to say things in a more compassionate way. Essentially, as meditator, that is what we want to bring to the table in every approach, in every connection is that understanding which develops our compassion and love.


Thank you, brother. And sister, you know, you’ve both been talking about the fact that meditation is not a separate part of the day. It’s not like you rush to your meditation. You sit and then you get on with your life. That actually the meditation, both before and after, has a deep impact. And so I’m just wondering just whether you want to add anything to what Brother Phap Huu was saying about if you develop your breathing in your meditation, how that helps you in the rest of your life.


I think the breathing for me has opened up new levels of experience. And the reason I want to say this is because I think I first came to this practice thinking that I practice mindfulness with my mind actually. And I think, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve tried the breathing thing, but now I want the deep stuff. I remember having a consultation with a nun, and I was kind of like, Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve done the breathing, but I really want to understand how I can progress through my practice. And it was like it was a bit like I had somehow… the image I have is like dragging a kind of animal by a lead and pulling it to, like, food or water and forcing it to drink. Like, she just brought me straight back and then started doing this immersive guided meditation on the breathing. And my mind didn’t want to go there. I was like, No, I want the deep stuff. By being with our breathing and our breath we’re opening up doors of experience that are not normally available to us in our daily life, and especially here in the West, where our particular paradigm that we are living in excludes other kind of modes of perception and ways of being in an embodied, interrelated way in the world. And so by establishing ourselves in the body, I want to say by opening up the door of our body, by opening up the door of our senses, is where we start to experience are embodied mind. Because if we think our mind is there without our body, we’re kidding ourselves. And with this practice of mindful breathing, we’re establishing a real quality of presence and perception around our ways of being in touch with ourselves in the present moment. And in these first two exercises Brother Phap Huu was sharing about, yeah, have the sleepiness, right? Or the kind of overactivity, and I was sharing about the overactivity or so that we can have. And there’s one story I have which is I was the bell master for a Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, by Thay, our teacher, and I was falling asleep. And I just don’t know what happened, I could not stay awake. So I’m just a couple of meters in front of him and he could tell that I was just really struggling to keep it together. And suddenly he started teaching about there are two ways to follow our breathing. He’d say, For example, if you’re feeling a little bit sleepy, you must be sure to follow your breathing at the level of your nostrils. And then he gave this guided meditation, you focus on your nostrils and the coolness of the air coming in and the warmth of the air flowing out. And you keep your focus of attention at your nostrils. And if you are feeling, you know, agitated, overwhelmed by emotions and little bit restless, you follow your breathing at the level of the […] point, the kind of belly button, the deeper breathing. And so if we are choosing to practice these first two exercises of identifying the breath and following the breath as a way to if we recognize right away, oh, we’re agitated, we might put our hands on our tummy. And in the sitting posture, you know, naturally in our tradition we like to hold our hands in our lap and we can feel that our belly expanding and contracting with the in and outbreath. And that will be our grounding place to kind of hold our attention. And if we’re feeling sleepy, we hold our attention much higher up at the level of the nostrils. And that was somehow I don’t know what is happening, but it really helps to kind of oxygenate the brain. And we really feel much more alert following the breathing there. So this is actually a deeper point. And there’s many hundreds of books about this, where we follow the breathing, how we follow the breathing. And in the Plum Village tradition, we can have these two practices, the calming way of following the breathing, the more alert way of following the breathing. But also, and this starts to bring us to the third and fourth exercises, the breath is an embodied breath. It doesn’t exist outside the body. So actually, we are following the breath within the breath. So that whole experience of the kind of mechanism of breathing as we breathe in, our entire body is participating in that inbreath and receiving that inbreath. And as we breathe out, the entire body is releasing the outbreath. So we are following not a thing, the breath is not a thing. We’re following an experience that is happening throughout our body and can be marked either at the point of the nostrils, at the point of the diaphragm, or the entire sort of upper trunk and the whole body receiving and releasing the breath.


Thank you, sister. So we will now go on to the third and fourth. But one thing I’m finding very helpful in this conversation personally is what you’re describing is that this practice is not a static practice of breathing. It’s I mean, breathing in, you know, because I think a lot of people say, well, breathing in and breathing out is a static practice. Once you’re following your breath in and following it out, that is, you just do that. What I’m hearing and what you’re saying is that there are many, many layers to that. And that’s a practice that can deepen, deepen over time. And I’m just wondering, brother, if there’s anything you want to say about that specifically or we move on. Okay, We’ll move on. So the third and fourth. So in the traditional text, Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body. And number four, Breathing in, I calm my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my whole body. Now, sister, you sort of you were giving us a segue into that. Is there a modern version of that? And also would you like to introduce that and then Brother Phap Huu can follow on.


Yeah. Thay often when he was teaching us, so he keeps the same two elements. The third step to be aware of the body and the fourth step calming the body. So if you like, the first pair is identifying the breath and then following the breath. And the second pair is kind of identifying the body and being with and calming the body. So Thay did stick very closely to the traditional version in this, aware of the body as we breathe in sometimes and then calming the body as we breathe out. So what’s also like an interesting question that we come to is how, which line goes with which breath and so on. And obviously in our tradition, we have this guided practice of meditation that Thay has developed. So sometimes it’s even possible just in two breaths, to follow all four exercises. We can realize it very quickly. And sometimes if we only have two or three breaths to establish ourselves, we can kind of realize the fruit of all of these four steps we become present with our breathing fully following the whole length. In doing so, becoming aware of our whole body and breathing out, calming our body. There’s one detail that I’ll give and then pass over to Brother Phap Huu, which is that when we practice awareness of the body, there’s a phrase that’s very important to us as we do this, and that’s practicing awareness of the body from within the body, mindfulness of the body, from within the body. So that means that we’re activating all our physiological data points, temperature, position, pain, contact, all of these things. We are perceiving our body from inside. It’s not that the mind has gone outside and said, Oh, that’s an inbreath, that’s an outbreath. And it’s not that the mind is saying, Oh, there’s my body, and we’re not having an out-of-body experience kind of looking back at it, but we’re feeling it from within, interoception. So we’ve got many aspects of that that science is sort of discovering as we understand how our nerves and how our body’s awareness works. And so that also becomes very important to be able to have this kind of inner eye, we might say, perceiving the body from inside.


And, sister, one thing just to highlight is that often people can make a mistake of using things in a formulaic way. There are 16 exercises I’m going to go through and one, two, three, four. And the whole, what you pointed out, is that actually you can do four in 2 minutes or you can just choose one of the 16 and study that for years. So there’s no formula. It’s about I think what is needed in that moment, what’s important in that moment.


I think so. And to allow, and Thay really was very clear about this, it should feel like an art. It should feel like music to be able to follow our breathing. So it should feel elegant. It should feel, yeah, formless. And at the same time it’s a training. So to like you say, we could take one aspect and intentionally deepen that and challenge ourselves to really cultivate the concentration with it, but also keep that balance of that joy, that beauty, that music, the art of the breathing.


Thank you. So, Brother Phap Huu?


I just want to add that I’ve used sometimes with the guided meditation that we offer when it comes to the body, Thay, our teacher, would also say, aware of my body, I breathe in, smile to my body as I breathe out. So depending on the audience or the community that we have, we are allowed to be flexible in bringing new words into the guided meditation. Like Sister True Dedication has shared, a lot of us are still… our biggest practice is just to accept ourself. So the the practice of smiling as simple as just a smile can be the most deepest practice ever. Because the smile sometimes we feel like the smile is like is to give to somebody. It’s like an appreciation. I’m smiling to you. But have we ever just smiled to ourself? Like smile to our own body? Smile to our own present moment? Even to smile to the discomfort and all the sensations that are happening. And I think a lot of times we suppress, we try to suppress. We look for medication. We look for a way out, and it can be in consumption because we don’t want to be with the body. So the power of coming home to the body, which is the third practice to identify. And to feel the body is key to mindfulness, meditation and insight. Because this practice is the insight because you have a body, you’re alive. So the first three is like identifying my inbreath is mindfulness. Following our inbreath and outbreath all the way through, developing our concentration. And the third one, I’ve heard our teacher share that just knowing that you have a body, that is insight already. So you can even see the three trainings, mindfulness, concentration, insight, smrti samadhi prajna it’s already embraced in the exercises of mindful breathing. And the word calming the body is very traditional and very soothing. And sometimes we also use the word relax in the body, so aware of our body as we breathe in, relaxing our body, as we breathe out. And so for me, like this, what Sister True Dedication has shared, like, don’t be caught in the numbers, one, two, three, four. Sometimes it’s thanks to I’m aware that I’m so tense that I am practicing then the mindful breathing because the body becomes my bell of mindfulness. My body is like, you are so tense right now. Relax, Phap Huu. Oh, okay. Then I would put my hand on my abdomen and thanks to the body I can practice number one and number two. So don’t be caught in formulas also. Sometimes numbers and words are just to explain or to illustrate the practice. But I think as humans and we like to stick to what is written and we become also too dogmatic about that too. So, like Sister True shared, Thay says mindfulness is an art, the art of mindful living. So thanks to the body, sometimes we are reminded to come back to the mindful breathing. So this is a layer that I would like to contribute to the first four exercises of mindful breathing.


Thank you. Sister, I was once coaching the senior director, the global bank HSBC, and he got to the point where he said, I feel like I’m a head on a stick. And he said, I don’t even know I have a body anymore. You know, I’m just thinking all the time and acting all the time. And I know in my experience of growing up that it was all about the mind. It was all about the thinking and the achievement… But it was all mind orientated. And so I’m just wondering for people who may be in that position, this is a way of obviously connecting to the body. But is there anything more you can offer for people of how to connect with the body? You know what it… I know you’ve already described it somewhat, but is there another layer of how do we actually start to recognize we have a body? So obviously the meditation is about recognizing, but I’m just wondering if there’s another layer that you may want to add.


Thank you, Jo. I think it’s so true that it is not that this is possible or easy or obvious or evident for many of us. And you describe for those of us who are so much in our mind we don’t feel the body. Honestly, I think I would say we don’t need to start with the sitting meditation. We start with the yoga practice. We start with dancing. We start with deep relaxation. Start even with just walking meditation. Fast or slow, dynamic. I think there are ways to come into the body that are more accessible in movement because in the stillness, the mind, if it’s overactive, will just take over, and then the mind then hasn’t got that relation with the body yet. So I think for many people who have an overactive mind or feel like a mind on a stick, brain on a stick, then it would be these other doors, Dharma doors, practice doors, mindfulness doors. We need to go through these other doors first before we can expect that this practice can unfold in a natural way without that sort of overbearingness of the mind in it. And we can actually sometimes make ourselves suffer on the cushion. I think that’s also something we should share, that there is also kind of wrong practice on the cushion, like there’s a wrong way to do this. And we may put ourselves under too much pressure and actually sort of with the mind, like forcing our concentration, like we’re sort of bending a metal bar to kind of hold on to that inbreath and outbreath, and we can use too much sort of strain. And in our tradition of Zen and this art of mindfulness, we wouldn’t use that kind of force for this single point of concentration with the mind. But that would emerge naturally from this very embodied mind. So for those folks who feel that way, yeah, we will want to try other practices. There are also other kind of cases, which is, for example, some of us who may suffer from panic attacks. Actually, the breath doesn’t necessarily feel like a safe place and overthinking about the breath because of how we’ve had past stressful relationships with our breath can be super challenging. So in that case, also it would be about using the practice of deep relaxation or other movements. You know, maybe not sitting still is not the right thing for us, but sort of really using our whole body to open our arms or becoming aware of different parts of our body can be helpful. And that’s also true for those of us for whom the trunk of our body is not a safe place, then where we feel a real numbness towards our body, then we may like to take, for example, our thumb. And instead of becoming aware of our whole body and our breath just as we breathe in, we just feel the end of our thumb and just try to feel the breath coming in to the end of our thumb. And as we breathe out, letting it come back down our arm or down to our big toe or our little toe, we take one part of our body that feels safe, where we feel we can reach it with ease and without fear or without forcing. And so actually, one little trick I will just say is that we can use our fingers. And I think for some of us that are using our fingers a lot, like with the devices, with our keyboards, there may actually be a huge amount of awareness in our fingers and also a huge amount of kind of activity and even restlessness. So we can also kind of follow our breathing by holding a different finger for each breath as we breathe in and out. And that can help us feel this sort of embodied connection. There are different things we can try, and I hope you can… Jo-ann Rosen is a wonderful Dharma teacher in a tradition, and perhaps we can have her on this podcast to share a bit more about her experience for those folks who find it hard even to do these first four exercises of mindful breathing. What other points of entry they could have.


And we can add some details to the show notes. Brother Phap Huu.


And I just wanted to add that our teacher has said our practice is a practice of nonviolence. So even in sitting meditation, when there’s pain, we can undo our legs, we can release the tensions that are being built up. And I think this was for me when I heard my mentors or the monks and nuns, you know, sharing that if there’s so much pain, don’t force it, just undo your legs. Like to give yourself permission to bring back that ease in the body is really important because we may have a perception that to sit is just to be in stillness. And if we said we’re going to sit for 30 minutes, we have to endure that pain for 30 minutes. But that is not true. Well, in our tradition at least, is that if there is tension and pain and numbness during our sitting, please be kind to yourself, you know, and just undo your legs, massage them. Our teacher has even given us permission if we’re falling asleep too much, he said, Just stand up, go to the back of the hall, practice slow walking meditation, and then come back. So I just want to mention this because our teacher was very kind and that kind of attitude toward Zen, this kindness that he brought for me, it was very, very needed because I grew up in some strictness and my mind can be very, very strict with myself. If I hear one instruction, I will stick to it. So for me to be a little bit more flexible and allowing myself to give space to grow in the meditation is also very important in the body as well as in the breath.


Thank you both for this, because Buddhism is a path of compassion and often people aren’t compassionate with themselves. And as I said earlier, we can use meditation to beat ourselves with a stick. And I know, brother, that there’s been a lot of feedback to the guided meditations you have after these episodes that people have said, Oh, thank you so much for allowing me to have a short breath, you know, because when I have a short breath, I think I’m failing. But when you say whether it’s short or long, you know, just breathe. And so I think what you both just shared will offer actually a lot of people balm and permission to recognize it as a practice to support them, not to be perfect. So we’ll move on to the second set of four, but sister, one thing before we do, you talked about, you know, mistakes we can make in meditation. And I’m just wondering, is there anything else you want to mention that people often you hear in consultations that people may think meditation is one thing, that you can also allow them, maybe if they have that perception, to ease that out of their system.


One thing I remember in a deep session of guidance from Sister Jina on this topic, it was for monastics only. And some sisters were saying, Oh, I’m failing in my meditation because I don’t have a calm mind. And Sister Jina was so clear and sharp and warm and kind and she was helping the sisters see, because that can be a real perception in Zen that we need to establish tranquil mind for 30 minutes. And, I don’t know, maybe people give themselves 30 seconds. Or, you know, 90 seconds, and then I must be established, you know, in this tranquil mind then for this session of 20 or 30 minutes, which is how long we sit for in Plum Village. Very interesting fact that Thay did not suggest us to sit much longer than that, although sometimes we do sit for 45 minutes. So for me, what I learned from this question about feeling that we need to have a pure mind, a calm mind, a clear mind is that we are sitting to be with our mind as it is. And it’s how we relate to the quality of our mind. That is the important thing. We’re not trying to change the content or quality of our mind, but we are choosing to relate to our mind and body in a certain way. And the same goes for our body. If our body is agitated, we are not here to punish or Thay used the phrase also, we’re not here to transform our body into a battlefield, a heart into a battlefield. If we are sitting and it is agony, we lie down and, you know, take care of your back, lift up your knees, put your hands on your belly, follow your breathing there. And we have that flexibility when we’re practicing at home. And so I think we can… I think one of the challenges with meditation is our own ideas of meditation get in the way of us having a successful meditation, a fruitful time. And we’re so convinced that there’s something to do and that we’re doing it wrong, that we don’t allow ourselves to be as we are. And it’s simply the quality of our presence that is the meditation that is embracing and allowing us to be in the present moment in a really deeply attentive, curious way.


Beautiful. Thank you, sister. So let’s go to the second four exercises. So again, we’ll go two by two. So number five. Breathing in, I feel joyful. Breathing out, I feel joyful. And number six. Breathing in, I feel happy. Breathing out, I feel happy. Is there a more modern interpretation of those?


Yeah. So what we’re doing now is the first four relate primarily to what we call the foundation of the body. And now we’re moving on to the sort of second foundation of our mindfulness, which is the feelings. So these next four exercises all relate to our feelings and Thay kept these same two key words, the fifth exercise is for joy and the sixth exercise for happiness. And Thay used this word generating. So generating in that very moment, because sometimes with the traditional version, we can think, Oh, I’ve got to find it, you know? But I think for Thay it’s more like we reveal it or we actively generate it. So generating joy and then generating happiness. And maybe I’ll pass to Brother Phap Huu next to share like what is the difference in quality between these two energies. Because I think in the English translation, we may think that these are two very similar things.


I’ve heard many times Thay share that in joy there’s excitement, not saying that excitement is bad, excitement is energizing. And the difference between joy and happiness is that but happiness there is this feeling of satisfaction, like we’re just happy. Anything… We accept everything as is. And Thay gives this image such as you’re going on a very long hike and you ran out of water and you’re very thirsty. But, you know, when you arrive at the lake, you’re going to have clean water to drink. So you’re excited, so you’re energized, you’re generated… you’re being generated with joy by the knowing that I’m going to have water to drink. And then when you arrive at the lake, you scoop the water, you drink the water and you feel refreshed, then that is real happiness. And that is a happiness that is taking over your whole sensation of body and mind, because there’s nothing more than to seek for because you have it. So when I practice generating joy and generating happiness, we also have to just come back to ourself and ask, What does that mean? Because whenever we think about the word happiness I was associated with, like winning competition. That’s happiness. I grew up very competitive. I loved sport. I was in a taekwondo dojo, a very well student and won some trophies for my dojo. So I was very competitive. So my idea of happiness was to win. So when I heard this practice, it was really hard because there’s nothing to win in the monastery. We don’t really have competitions here. And it was very interesting that this became not just for the cushion, but this was a deep looking for me. What does happiness mean in daily life? What does joy mean? How do I generate it? And our practice by this fifth and sixth exercise, we know that coming home to the here and now, being in touch with the body just by knowing that you’re breathing naturally, there’s no obstacle to your breath. That is joy. That is happiness. And you start to look deeply in the present moment of your life, and you can identify the real joy that is there. Thay always asks us to just be aware that your eyes are in good conditions, that you can see your loved ones, you can see the blue sky, the changing colors of the leaves, the impermanence of the coming and going. All of these recognitions can be your happiness. And then just coming to the present moment. If we’re eating, we always start by joining our palms, coming back to our mindful breath and just to be aware that we have food in front of us. And that already is joy. And then when you eat it, that’s true happiness. So the gratitude that is cultivated in that moment, it is being generated. It is a practice beyond the cushion. So we have to see that the fifth and sixth, it is to nourish our well-being. A lot of the times, I think, sometimes Buddhism it is seen as we only talk about suffering, suffering, suffering, suffering. And Thay, and then on the other side on the development of Plum Village, people are like, Plum Village just talks about happiness. Happy, happy, happy. But actually, we will come to the suffering in the seventh and eighth. But to have the capacity to generate joy and to generate happiness is also the antidote to consumerism of our times. If we know how to be happy in the here and now, we don’t have the desire to run after objects of desire which we think are our joy and happiness. So these two practices, if cultivated and looked deeply, it is to tell you that you are enough. You can be joyful in the present moment. You can be happy with what you have right here, right now. And it doesn’t stop you from living the present moment, because we know that when we are running after our desires or an idea of happiness, we are not giving us permission to be who we are in this very moment.


Thank you, brother. Beautifully spoken. Sister, in my experience of people, people find it very, very easy to generate suffering, to generate problems, to generate what’s not going well. And we find it very difficult often to actually be kind to ourselves, to actually feel happiness. So is that why it’s important to generate it? Because it’s not about finding it, but is generating it. Is that because actually we often have an imbalance?


Absolutely. I think so. And we have an imbalance also when moments of sadness and sorrow, like if we’re passing through a depressive phase in our life, we may notice that it’s harder to identify what brings us joy, what brings us happiness. And for me at least, that’s always an alarm bell when I struggle with this step and I’m sitting on my cushion with this anger or this is often, I use these practices often at the beginning of each session of sitting. And if I just can’t find a joy is my… that’s my alarm bell. Oh, I must be going through a more depressive patch. And it’s like, Oh, and then I know I need to pay attention to be able to actively identify them in my life. And that’s why things like an evening gratitude journal, you know, before we fall asleep to identify three things, whether we write it down or we just bring them to mind, three things that have brought us joy in the day. And so for me, when I’m practicing this, it’s really an exercise as I’m breathing in to bring to mind something that brings me joy. And I do use this easy one. I have eyes to see. I have a body, I am young enough, I have energy, and it can also be I have had pain, but I’m able to take care of my pain. I have some back pain. So often I’m very aware of pain in sitting. And I’m embracing that back pain. And that gives me joy because I know that I am larger than the difficulty that’s going on. So identifying the joy already has some interbeing with suffering in it, because actually some of my greatest joys when I have a victory over a difficulty. Right? That’s the greatest… We’re having competitive victory in our taekwondo. Victory over suffering gives me joy, or victory to know that I’m more than it. So this is, it is a a daily practice to live in such a way that we are awake to the joys in life. And it’s a training to identify them actively, to balance it out, because our society is telling us that we don’t have enough. You will be…. You can only be happy when? When you have this, when you have that, when you’ve done this or realized that. And so this is really using breathing, quietness and our stillness to cultivate, to activate, to generate feeling of joy as we’re sitting on the cushion and then a feeling of happiness that has a little more peace in it. And we do this so that we have the strength. Then in the next two exercises to embrace our pain. And Thay once described it as being like someone undergoing an operation in a hospital. And you’ll always have the anesthetist and the other specialists will come and they will check. Are you strong enough for this operation? Is your body able to do it? And so actually, in these 16 exercises, we’re saying we don’t go straight for the pain, straight for the suffering. First, we have to sort of do a few push ups and star jumps to make sure that we have the strength and grounding of our joy and our happiness. That perspective, that breadth of vision before we then go into the next to around being aware of our pain.


Thank you, sister. And what I keep hearing and what you’re saying, which I think is really helpful, is not to see meditation as separate from the rest of our day. So, you know, when I’m working with people, one of the suggestions is exactly what you say is just have a cookie jar or a biscuit jar and every night write down something you have gratitude for and watch it fill up. And also, you know, sometimes for people, as I say, write down on sheets of paper I give myself permission to and it might be just have a ten minute walk. It might be just to sit quietly and maybe just to spend time with my kids rather than work in the evening and to watch that fill up. Because we also need some sense that actually we’re building something up through this practice. And what I keep hearing, again, through what you’re describing is that that this is building up an ability is not just every time you sit and then you next day you sit, but actually what you’re building up is one’s capacity to live a full life. So thank you for that. So now get ready, folks, buckle up. We’re heading into our suffering. So the numbers seven and eight. So number seven. Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations. Breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations. And number eight. Breathing in, I calm my mental formations. And breathing out, I calm my mental formations. Now, some people won’t be aware of what mental formations are so maybe… Who would like to start off? Sister TD?


Yes. So this gets very interesting. And so we see Thay experimenting with different translations here. And in the translation you just read he was translating the word as mental formations, but actually in Thay’s more evolved teachings, he just stayed in the language of feeling still for number seven and number eight. So number seven becomes aware of a painful feeling. And number eight becomes calming a painful feeling. So seven and eight there are mirroring three and four, aware of the body, calming the body. And then number seven, aware of the feeling and calming the feeling. And so the scholars amongst us can explore how this can be informed or so by the various Chinese translations that Thay had access to. And so in this second set of four, we’re staying with the feelings. First of all, generating joy. Second, generating happiness, then becoming aware of painful feeling and then embracing, calming that painful feeling. So what’s super interesting for me in this is there’s this gentle opening up as we go through the feelings having established that joy and happiness, we then dare to ask ourselves, How am I doing? What’s really going on? What’s eating at me right now? What’s there in my body and through my body? My feelings? Because of the interbeing of body and mind, sometimes people would come up to Thay and ask Thay, are the feelings a mental manifestation or are they a physical manifestation? And Thay would be like the interbeing of body and mind, so feelings are both in the body and in the mind, and maybe they start in the body or maybe they start in the mind. And that’s an interesting thing that we could get onto. But here we’re really looking at feeling in all its aspects and recognizing what might be painful but is going on for us right now. And we have this practice we call mere recognition. It’s a kind of technical term in Buddhism, it means neutrally without discrimination, just naming and recognizing. Ah, I’m feeling not just angry, I’m feeling resentful, you know? Oh, and behind my anger and resentment, I’m feeling hurt. So I’m feeling hurt. And so in this exercise what can be really interesting as we do it, we’ve moved through, it’s a bit like a kind of sun salute sequence, right? We are moving through these steps in sequence, even though they interare and they interrelate also to our wider life. But in this training on our sitting cushion, we’re moving through them in sequence and for me, as soon as I open up and ask myself what is the painful feeling, it’s a bit like a kind of jack in the box, pops out, throws me off center, and then I joke, sorry lots of images here. I joke that it’s like snakes and ladders, right? I have to right away go back to that step one. Okay. Aware of my inbreath, aware of my outbreath, following the whole length of my inbreath and the whole length of my outbreath. And I have to reanchor myself because the feeling has been so activated. But it’s not that I’m then avoiding my feeling because the feeling is there in my body, it’s there in my vagus nerve, it’s there, my breath is carrying the imprint of that feeling I’ve just allowed myself to feel. And so by being with my inbreath and outbreath, accompanying the whole length of my inbreath and outbreath. And then becoming aware of the tension that is there because of the feeling I’ve just allowed to reveal itself. And then calming that tension in my body. So going back through those first four exercises while holding the feeling I’ve just given permission to be there, then allows me to be with the feeling in this deeper way. And then I can arrive at this eighth step, which is then calming the painful feeling. So for me, I’m really often using all of these steps in interrelation because the idea is that our breathing or the principle is that our breathing is grounding us through this exploration. And as we’re entering into this exploration of what is happening in our feelings right now, our breathing, staying with it deeply is what will help us accompanying and ultimately care for those feelings. And then as we go through these exercises, get insight and awakening about them.


And sister, I mean, this is fundamentally important because a lot of people fear that they’ll be overwhelmed by that feeling. That if they open the door to a painful feeling that this monster will come out and gobble them up and that they have no defenses for it. And that the more we don’t go there the more the fear becomes bigger and the problem, we think, will be larger. So what I’m hearing, what you’re saying is what this does is give us the capacity to hold that feeling that if we weren’t doing those other exercises, weren’t preparing for that, that that fear might overwhelm us.


Absolutely. And often it’s just enough to let, for me, I just let the feeling be there and woof, it comes up. And then I, I then maybe simply breathing for another 10 minutes with that feeling as it is without trying to investigate it or have a story around the feeling. That’s also a really important point as we go towards the feeling, we’re still embodied, still through the breath. And it’s about opening up our heart to feel it’s not yet about stories or rationalizing or kind of arguing and thinking. And so being with our feeling in the body and how it’s expressing itself in the body and taking care of the feeling through the body and through our breathing. And if, as you say, it can feel overwhelming, I mean, first, yeah, we hit the jackpot. We found something to practice with. But second, we can open our eyes, we can open our eyes and feel and be aware that we’re in a safe place in that moment. And then as we’re following our inbreath and outbreath, and then we might name the feeling. So we might say, Hello, my anger. I know you’re there. Breathing in, hello, my anger. Breathing out, I’m with my anger. Whole length of the inbreath. Hello. Holding to the outbreath. I’m here for you. And then we have Thay’s practice like I’m smiling with you. And we just call it one word, anger. It’s not anger because he did this or they did that or they said this. Just the felt sense of anger. Not the story about the anger.




No, really beautiful, because a lot of the times we associate then the story with it and then we get angry again. See? So this is where a lot of folks think they have to go back into the past and refix the story. But you can’t because that story has already happened. But as a practitioner, just by naming it, calling it by his name in this present moment also gives you freedom, because then you can let go of that story by recognizing where is, what has happened today to nourish this anger again. So this set of four is looking at the eight noble path. It is the practice of right diligence. This identifying the feelings, how we cultivate our feelings in our daily life. What we are nourishing ourself by, what we are consuming, what seeds that we are watering each day. So by the Buddha sharing it very specifically in these exercises, he is encouraging us to really practice our diligence and be mindful of our diligence of where we are putting our attention of body, speech and mind. Especially how we are consuming by being with the people we are around. How are we consuming what we hear, what we see. Because all of that will have an impact on our joy, our happiness, our painful feelings, and then the capacity of caring for our painful feelings. Because if we are always in a state of overwhelm, then we will never give ourselves a chance to then calm the feeling. And this is where, you know, when you read the sutra, the text of this of the sutra, the Buddha actually tells the monks, go and sit under a tree. So to set up a place, environment to be ready to hold these emotions also for me would be quite interesting to practice with. When you want to go a little bit deeper into your painful feelings, the setting, you can be supported by the setting also. And Thay once, not once, but many times in family retreats and retreats for lay friends who come to the practice center or when we’re on tour, Thay would encourage and even ask the friends, you know, at home, everybody has a living room. Everybody has a dining room, a study room, an entertainment room. Why not have a breathing room? Or like, just like, not maybe not a whole room, just a corner. And we kind of set that place up so that that becomes our supportive practice, our supportive environment, so that we can come and practice to feel our breath. And Thay once shared in a family retreat, and Thay says that in this room, when a member of the family is angry, that member will go to that corner or go to that that room and will just practice mindful breathing. And everyone who is in the household knows that that person is in that room. They’re practicing. They may be taking care of their anger or taking care of their emotions, or they need a place to generate their joy, generate their happiness. So Thay once said, in Thay’s opinion, a modern house in the 21st century should have a space to mindfully breathe where we can cultivate our goodness, our wellness. Right now we have gyms, we have exercise rooms, and we dedicate all of these spaces when we develop our dream home. So Thay was saying, don’t forget about the spiritual dimension that we can cultivate and care for, because that has a big impact in our daily life. So the coming home to oneself and identifying, and I would always, my practice is also just to smile to the emotions because I’m very judgmental. I always have a joke, I’m always judging, so don’t ask me. But my practice is I smile to my judgment. And because we have perceptions and we will get into that later. But this practice is also the first eight is really looking at how we’re caring for ourself. And this morning somebody asked me, how do I generate love for myself? And I said, You know, dear friend, the first thing is just to come home and to smile to yourself, smile to your body, smile to you, that you allow yourself to be in Plum Village in this moment. That is love. So coming home to our feelings, our emotions, sometimes I […] trapped, we may think, Oh, why after eight years or ten years of practice, why do I still have anger? Why am I still jealous? Why do I still have resentment? And so on. And we think that that’s a failure. And we said, Oh, if I practice, then I should be free from all of this now. But actually, the more you grow as a practitioner, you have the capacity to embrace, to commit, to accept it, and to transform it.


Just finally and then because we’re going to record another episode for the other eight. So to bring the 16. And 16 is too many in one session. But just before we close for today, you started off brother by saying, you know, the Buddha after became enlightened, continue to practice. Thay continued to practice until his last breath. What did you either view… A question for either of you, what did you notice about the quality of Thay’s sitting that did you see that change over the years? Was he always perfect? Did he sometimes move his leg an inch because he was in pain? What could you say about Thay’s practice? Because as we know, you know, Thay was a human being as well. And he was, you know, he was an extraordinary presence in the world and also a human being as often in Plum Village you say, the Buddha, he’s not a god, he was a human being. Any anecdotes or any things you spotted about Thay over the years and his practice?


I want to say I honestly never seen anyone sit so calm and so, I want to say beautifully, and then it sounds like I’ve got a crush on my teacher. Maybe I do, maybe I do. But so beautifully and with such ease and freedom. So still. But with such ease and freedom. And I think, you know, be beautiful, be yourself. You know, I do… I’m obviously a slightly more dynamic person. And yeah, that’s a part of who I am. But I think part of my thirst in wanting to study and learn with Thay and to understand this practice of meditation is that I do thirst for the kind of peace and freedom that I saw him have when he was sitting in silence. I remember one day, actually, I was summoned to come visit him here in this hut, and it was a rainy day and he was just sitting in front of the window here, looking out across the fields and the forest. And it’s like I didn’t even want to knock on the door. I’d been summoned. I knew I had to come in, but I didn’t even want to make those three knocks because I thought, How can I disturb this peace and simplicity and just freedom and also depth. Thay was someone so deeply in contact with the pain of the world. So his sitting for me always had this depth to it. And actually, that day, then he turned around he had some strong feelings about something. There was a difficulty that we were trying to solve internationally and Thay also made use of his practice of sitting to embrace the pain, to be present for pain, and that I found deeply inspiring. I didn’t… He wasn’t using it to transcend. He wasn’t using it to escape, but to be with that depth and his sort of dignity and peace and freedom. And it’s also silent. I mean, it’s not like we talked to him while he’s sitting. I mean, this is all through observation. Right? Or then seeing him come out of his sitting position and sort of we enter… It was more like we enter into the orbit of his awareness since we knock on the door and come and approach him. And how he, you can see the depths with which he’s perceiving the world, and to be looked at by him it’s like I feel like I just had an X-ray scan. Like I’m now a phenomena that he’s looking deeply into. So I think, yeah, I found it very impressive. And that’s one thing I also want to say just before we finish about this, being aware of the painful feeling and calming it, and as Brother Phap Huu has shared, it’s not about making it go away. We’re not spiritually bypassing here, what we are doing is waking up, opening up, allowing our perception to expand, our felt sense to expand, to recognize actually really what is already going on but we’re ignoring it, and we’re pretending it’s not there. So we’re allowing it to be there. We’re recognizing it. And the calming step, number eight, is not about changing it, but it’s sort of the accompaniment of friendship, of companionship, of presence. I’m here for you. I’m here for you because there is tension in that painful feeling, and I am here to help embrace it, to soothe, to soften. So it is like just you want to give someone a hug when they’re crying. It’s that we’re giving our feelings a hug with our mindful breathing knowing that then we will look deeply into them. And also just one final, final thing to say is that these feelings, they may have a place in our body. Like, sometimes, like for me, my sorrow is really in my upper chest. I know that’s where it is. And so as I breathe in, I am embracing, greeting, encountering my sorrow and grief there, in my upper chest. And as I breathe out, I’m softening it there. But I’m meeting it. I’m not pushing it away. I’m encountering it there. And sometimes for me, anger’s either in my jaw or in, like, my gut, my tummy, you know, it’s sort of… So there may be different places where the feeling is showing up in our body. And as we accompany with our breathing, we may meet it in that place so we can ask ourself where is this? Where is this feeling in my body? And that’s an interesting question. Whether it’s despair, grief, sorrow, anger, resentment, jealousy. In Buddhism, we love lists and there’s lots of lists you can have to help you with this exercise. What is that particular feeling, that’s showing up right now? Can I name it? And where is it in my body? And with my full awareness of my breathing can I encounter it, meet it, and embrace it in my body?


Thank you, sister. And what I hear and what you say is the truth that only we can do this for ourselves. You know, we can’t, no one else can do it for us. Nothing we buy or consume. As you say, brother, can resolve this for us. So actually, the only person who can help with this is ourselves. So actually, how can that be any other practice than to become aware and to care and to calm ourselves because no one else can do