Graphic #2_Ep 62

The Way Out Is In / The Heart of Meditation – Part Two (Episode #62)

Br Pháp Hữu, Sr Hiến Nghiêm, Jo Confino

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Welcome to episode 62 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 continue their discussion with Sister True Dedication (Sister Hien Nghiem) about the 16 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 second of a two-part special, explains and breaks down the practice of breathing exercises nine to 16. It includes the exercises’ traditional texts, revised versions, and variations and adaptations, with extensive explanations given by the two monastics about how to apply each to our daily lives. The first eight exercises are also briefly recapped, along with a description of the Three Doors of Liberation.

Also, where do the 16 exercises come from? How do we gladden the mind? What is true strength? What about authenticity? Why is it important to name the mental formations? What does liberation feel like? And how do we integrate the 16 exercises into a busy life? 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’ 

Thay’s Poetry: ‘Please Call Me by My True Names (Song & Poem)’ 


Sister Jina 

‘51 Mental Formations’ 

Dharma Talks: ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’

The Way Out Is In: ‘The Three Doors of Liberation (Episode #18)’ 

The Art of Living 

Chinese Buddhist canon

Dharma Talks: ‘The Five Remembrances’

‘The Four Dharma Seals of Plum Village’ 

Master Tang Hoi




“‘What is going on in my mind?’ This phrase is a mental formation. And, especially in our tradition of Buddhism, we love this term ‘formation’; it means that everything is made of everything, is composite. Even our happiness, our sorrow, or our depression is made of lots and lots of different elements. There are many threads to them, and that insight, simply the word ‘formation’, can help us to not be so scared or overwhelmed by our feelings. There’s an inquiry here, an investigation: ‘What is going on in my mind? What has come to be, what has formed in my mind at this moment?’”

“In terms of Buddhist psychology, because our mind has different layers and different depths, we can be carrying a feeling in it without knowing that we’re carrying it. And I would say my loneliness is a feeling. It’s partly in the body, but largely in the mind, because of the way my mind processes my daily life. So, unconsciously, I’m processing my daily life, and perhaps even without words, non-verbally, I’m experiencing all sorts of moments as lonely moments. So I’m feeding the seed of loneliness in myself, without even knowing it.”

“A lot of people feel power in their negative mental formations. If we’re angry or jealous, or whatever the feeling is, sometimes we feel that gives us power. And gladdening the mind at that point feels like disloyalty to our negative feelings. So it feels like a rebellious act to have a strong negative feeling and then to gladden one’s mind, or bring happiness at that moment when, actually, we often want to feel righteous; we want to believe that that negative feeling is who we are and is justified.”

“How we cultivate our mind shapes how we interact with the world. So if we have an evil thought, that evil thought can become our speech, can become our action. But if we have a kind thought, that would then become our kind action, our kind speech, our kind attitude.”

“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.”

“You are much more than your emotions. Never die because of one emotion.” 

“We may feel completely stuck in the depths of the ocean of our despair and depression, but thanks to impermanence a day will come when that depression will no longer be there. That depression is surviving because it has sources of food. That depression is a mental formation. It is composed of different threads and by identifying the threads that are feeding it, one by one, we can dissolve it. We can find a way through.”

“The future is not known to us, because of impermanence. And that’s good news.” 

“One of Thay’s simple teachings is to contemplate the friend or loved one that we are angry with. And in that moment of anger, ask yourself, ‘Where will they and I be 200 years from now?’ Apply this very simple lens of impermanence, this concentration of impermanence, even in the moment of great fury – because we’re often angry at the people that we love the most because we think, ‘How dare they be the ones that hurt us?’ And then Thay would say, ‘You realize right away that they will be dust. I will be dust. But in this moment, we’re both alive.’ And if we really touch the fruit of that insight, then all we want to do is hug that person and cherish the fact that, ‘Wow, in this moment we are both still alive in this human form. How wonderful that we can hug.’”

“Going through these exercises, if we found that we were sitting with a specific anger towards a specific person, applying the practice of impermanence can really help us to hold that anger. Throw it away, choose to free yourself from it, and just get on with your life. That’s a wonderful aspect of our teaching, and of Zen: to sometimes just cross to the other side of the road and keep going. We don’t need to penetrate every aspect of why we were angry or, ‘Does the other person need to do this or that?’ Choose a different channel and just proceed; let it go, leave it behind. Set yourself free. Don’t make too much fuss. Move on. Life is new in this moment. Celebrate it. Embrace it. Go forward.” 

“A little bit of growth can seem like a good idea. But now it’s become this terrible systemic mechanism that’s destroying our planet. And that’s the absolute hook. So you have to reel back. But in these [16 breathing] exercises we’re starting with ourselves, our own bodies, and our own wrong perceptions about what we think we need to be happy.”

“Monastics of 15 or 20 years of meditation might spend 30 minutes only on those first four exercises. So, listen to yourself. And one reason it’s lovely to master these 16 exercises of mindful breathing is that we then have our own internal guided meditation to follow. Because when we listen to a recorded guided meditation, we’re following the pace of the person giving the guidance. The idea with these 16 is that they’re yours; they’re yours to keep and take to heart. They’re yours to play with, to experiment with, and to take as long as you need for each step, and to feel listened to and really respond to your own body and mind.”

“Gladdening our mind is exactly that: a declaration of freedom around the mental formation, around our feelings. It’s like, ‘I have the freedom to choose, here. My anger is a seed that has manifested as a formation in my mind consciousness. But I am more than that.’ So we trust in something, we have faith. We are claiming freedom by gladdening our mind, like, ‘I am angry and I have the right to take five breaths in peace and freedom because my anger isn’t all I am in this moment.’ So I think that’s a great affirmation and freedom. And it’s not bypassing, it’s not escaping.” 

“The breath is the rope that brings our mind and our concentration back to the present.”

“Especially when we look at suffering, it can be very tempting to go down a dark hole and get lost in it. So sometimes we have to remember that we are alive right now; we’re present, breathing. And then, when you have this wonderful habit of knowing how to come back to the body and come back to the present, you can apply this in meetings, gatherings, and big crowds, or when you’re very lonely. So it becomes your friend; it’s a companion for life.” 


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


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


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


And we are delighted, thrilled, absolutely honored to have Sister True Dedication back for the second week in a row. It’s almost impossible to imagine this would have happened. Brother Phap Huu, how did we get her back?


It’s the holiday season, so this is like she’s offering us a gift.


Yes. And also for those who listened to the last episode, we asked Sister True Dedication at the end is What would bring you back? Because we want her more often here, because she is wonderful, she’s thoughtful, she’s deep, and she knows the practice so beautifully and can transmit it in such a wonderful way. And the answer was coffee. She said, If you bring loads of coffee, then I’m here. So we’re sitting around the kitchen table of Thich Nhat Hanh’s hut the silent… Sit. What’s the name of the…


The Sitting Still hut.


in Upper Hamlet. And on the table is a large cafetiere of coffee. And Sister True Dedication is on her second cup…. Oh, sorry, sorry. And I have to say they’re very small cups. They are…. It’s not like she’s on her second mug, just to be clear. So, sister, welcome.


Thank you so much.


And today is the second half of a two part series where we are deeply looking at the heart of meditation.


The way out is in.


Hello, everyone. I am Jo Confino.


I am Brother Phap Huu.


And I am Sister True Dedication.


And I have to say, before we get started, we were just sharing about, doing the sound check with Cata, who’s doing the sound engineering today. Thank you, Cata. And we were talking about what we have for breakfast. And, you know, Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings were really about the art of suffering and how to transcend it. So Brother Phap Huu said he doesn’t eat breakfast. I had a rather lovely crunchy muesli with milk and nuts and seeds, it was rather delicious. And then it came to Sister True Dedication. And Sister True Dedication, what did you have for breakfast?


Dear listeners, I was sharing that I had the last bowl of porridge in Lower Hamlet. And so this was the scrapings from the very large pot. And then Jo asked me, was it warm or cold? Well, by the time I was serving it, it was very cold.


Very cold, very congealed. And then you had cold.








Vegetable milk with it.


Cold soy milk.


So how… It’s actually a good question is because how does that feel to eat that? How does the practice help you to eat sort of the scrapings of cold porridge in the morning?


Well, I think we are happy for whatever we have. Living in community it is all about sharing. It really is about sharing. And there are those who might need warm porridge and they need to, you know, then you have the virtue of being on time for the meal. And those who are on time can have warm or hot porridge. And those of us who are perhaps the stragglers, then we might enjoy a colder food. It’s such a practice for the French people when they come here on retreats. Because often we’re waiting for each other also to eat. So I think with mindfulness, we have so much more gratitude. We live simply. We have fewer expectations. Sometimes I wish that I optimize every moment, you know, like I’m going to have the best breakfast today. Or I need all of these things. And if I don’t have these things, I can’t be happy or I can’t enjoy my breakfast. So to live in a community like this, I was so happy with my bowl of cold porridge. Like genuinely, I knew it would be good for me.


And this just proves how advanced practitioner you are because I have food anxiety. If I saw that, I would just melt and fall apart and go into deep depression for weeks. So I have a lot to learn.


Yeah. But then on the cold porridge and then I had a bit of fruit that I could put in it.


All right. Okay, whatever. That sounds delicious.


She was just showing off by then. She’s flexing her meditation game.


Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds.


Okay. Okay. Not so advanced after all. So, dear listeners, we hope you listened to the last episode because we introduced the Plum Village art of meditation. And at the heart of that are what are known as the 16 breathing exercises of full awareness. And in the first episode we covered the first eight, and this episode we are covering the remaining eight. So just as a very brief recap, the first four are about how we calm body. So how do we get in touch with our body? And the second four are how we get in touch with our feelings and how we calm our feelings. And I’m not going to tell you any more than that because what we want you to do, if you’re able, is to go back and listen to the first episode before this one. But of course, one of the things about these breathing exercises that you don’t have to do them one by one. So actually, if you don’t want to go back and you want to start here, we can also start here. So, Brother Phap Huu, do you want to just remind us of where these 16 exercises came from?


The Buddha, from his practice and his meditation of learning to cultivate presence. And in our cultivation of presence, it is so important to have the capacity to arrive at home in the body, to take care of the body, to be aware of the sensations, to know that our health has an… Our physical health has an impact on our mental health also. As well as we are a human being with a lot of emotions and a way of communication and taking care of our energy of expressing, it is so important to take care of our feelings, the good feelings to nourish them, to cultivate them, as well as to be aware of the feelings and the emotions that arise that are more challenging, but not to suppress, not to get rid, but to embrace, accept and transform.


Okay. Thank you. So why don’t we just dive straight into it today? So the way we did it last time, we will continue, which will go through each set of four. So there are four sets of four exercises and I’m going to read out the first two of each section and I’m going to do it in the original text of Thich Nhat Hanh. And one of the beauties of the Plum Village tradition is to bring things up to date. So I will read the originals and then Sister True Dedication you can sort of in a sense show how they’ve been updated and then we’ll just see what trouble we get into. So I’m going to read the first two. So which is number nine and ten. So number nine. Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations. Breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations. And number ten. Breathing in, I make my mind happy. Breathing out, I make my mind happy. Sister True Dedication, what are these about? What are we hearing?


Thank you, Jo. So as we come to this third set of exercises, our kind of inner eye is opening up to our state of mind. So with the first four, we allowed ourselves to become embodied and to take care of our body, as you said. And then we felt all the feels and got in touch, first of all, intentionally with some positive feelings, and then bringing our awareness to more painful feelings. And now, with this ninth exercise, aware of the mental formations, aware of my mind, I breathe in and with the sort of gentleness and warmth perhaps even smiling to my mind, I breathe out. So what is going on in my mind? So we might have listened to the body and some anxiety or anguish or fear or we might have felt in the body. Body and mind are together. So as we keep saying, these exercises contain each other, they are flow, they are journey, and now we turn our eye inwards, our perception inwards, our awareness inwards. What is going on in my mind? So the phrase here is mental formation. And we love this, especially in our tradition of Buddhism, this term formation, because it means that everything is made of… everything is composite, it’s made of different elements. We can even, you know, our happiness is made of lots and lots of different elements that make our happiness. And the same is true of our sorrow or our depression. There are many threads to it, many elements, and that can already, that insight this just simply the word formation can help us not feel so scared or overwhelmed by our feelings. There’s an inquiry here, an investigation. What is going on in my mind? What has come to be, what has formed in my mind at the moment? And so step nine is becoming aware of our mental formation. And step ten is, as you said, to make my mind happy, I think is one translation of it. And Thay also used a phrase also coming from his translations of the Chinese text, gladdening the mind, gladdening the mind. And for me, somehow I have this feeling, I don’t know why. It was like turning on a switch, like a light switch. So there’s a kind of like, Oh, how can I activate gladness in the mind? So we’re in the dark and we’re fumbling to feel like what mental formation is there and we’re gonna name it and recognize it, and then we’ll turn on the light switch and bring a little light to it. For me, that light is always the light of sort of positivity, kindness, compassion and kind of warmth. And this is really important because if we say we recognize in our mind, we might be feeling say doubt. I have a lot of doubt. I’m lacking trust in myself or in others, or I’m having a feeling of hurt and being betrayed, or I’m feeling jealous or I’m feeling resentful or I’m feeling shame or disappointed in myself. These might all be phrases that come to mind. And in these exercises we want to generate an energy of really gentle, compassionate awareness. It’s not about any particular state of mind being right or wrong, but acknowledging and seeing and naming what is there.


Okay. Thank you. Brother Phap Huu, can you talk about the importance of naming it? So how does it help to, you know, you have a feeling that comes up, how does it help to say, well, it’s shame or it’s doubt or… how does that help?


Clarity. I, thanks to the practice of meditation and sitting still and learning to come inwards, having the capacity to truly just look inside of us. First of all, there’s courage there. A lot of our society is based on running away from what is inside through consumption or through just busyness. And we are unable to truly be present for ourself. And a lot of times we may find ourselves, like, agitated or annoyed and having a bunch of different reactions either in the body or even a restlessness. And it’s so important, the practice of mindfulness is to be aware of. And so being aware of something offers us clarity. And a good friend of ours, she always says clarity is kindness. So to have clarity, you’re offering yourself a kind of kindness because you can call it by its name. And our teacher has that poem, Call Me by My True Name. So this is like a practice for each and every one of us to truly have the capacity to just recognize and to name it, to articulate it so that we have clarity of the formations that are present in us. And when we are able to call it by its name, it’s like having agency, it’s like you have… you’re learning to truly take care of yourself. You know, sometimes Thay says when you have an emotion that manifests and that emotion sometimes we feel is bigger than us and we get really afraid of it. And the practice of the mantras that we talked about, sometimes we can apply it with our mental formation, such as, Hello, my loneliness, I know you are there. I am here for you. And so by calling it by its name, identifying it, it’s already an act of kindness. It is like we’re not pushing it away. We are learning to see it, accept it. And a complex… A mental formation that offers us complex, it can make us feel very small, inferior, and therefore we can hide away from the present moment. So by being able to have the courage to smile to it, to call its name, it’s also the practice of presence, presence for oneself, loving oneself. This is an act of kindness to oneself. And by looking deeply into the mental formations we start to understand ourself by gladdening, by looking at it I think sometimes Thay says, just by accepting, embracing it is already an act of warmth and kindness. Like when a baby is crying like your mental formation is calling you and it can manifest through your body, it can manifest through your energies. And by just accepting, embracing, there is a warmth that is there. There is a kind of tenderness that you’re offering to yourself. And to have that ability to just embrace it, then you start to know what is the cause of this mental formation to be present. And like our sister has shared, if it is like doubt, we can ask, are we sure? You know? Is it true that my perception is correct? And to just start to meditate even on the doubt itself. Sometimes we may have doubt without even knowing where it comes from. And there are a lot of mental formations that has also been passed on to us from generational transmission, like fear of not having enough is one that I had to work with. And by being able to recognize it, call it by its name and being with it, I can go, Aha! Hello, this mental formation. I know you come from the time of a war in Vietnam, for my parents never having enough food. So that feeling and that fear that they have cultivated have been transmitted to me. And in that moment of recognizing, calling it by its name and taking care of it, I feel I’m transforming for myself and I am transforming for my parents this awareness of mental formation, which becomes a habit, becomes our attitude towards life.


And of course, there are many positive mental formations. So not all of life is suffering, as we know. So if you’re sitting and something wonderful has happened, is it the same process actually with a positive mental formation that actually we want to know the root of that and where it comes from and how to maintain it and generate it. Is that the same? Sister?


Yeah. We might feel, Oh, I feel fulfilled today. I’m excited. I feel, yeah, something I’m doing is rewarding or this kind of thing. And I feel well today, I’m happy to be alive today. And so just becoming aware. Ah, that is the sort of predominant state of mind, awake, alive, manifesting in me right now. And then we name it, we smile to it, ah, that’s why I’m feeling so good. Or I had such a nourishing time with friends and family over the weekend. I’m feeling that nourishment of friendship, companionship, togetherness, and that is super helpful to be able to recognize it, because then we know I have to make an effort to prioritize this in my life. This is important for my well-being, relaxing time with family and friends, and I need to prioritize it. So even recognizing a positive thing is very happy. And then the gladdening of the mind step is then a moment of celebration. I’m enjoying this kind of positive feeling. And what’s happening is we’re coming to this ninth and 10th exercise. We could call this like the third, we’re in this third set of exercises. It’s the third foundation. We’ve established ourselves in our body. We’ve kind of become familiar and calm with our feelings, even the more painful ones. We’ve sort of tempered them, you know. And so this step is very connected to the previous two. We don’t jump directly to the mind, but grounded in the body and our feelings and in that flow of our breathing coming in and out. So the step preceding these two, we’ve been embracing a painful feeling that is in the body. And in this ninth and 10th step, we’re investigating a little bit behind that painful feeling. Did it start in the mind? So if we’re feeling anger in the body, then to ask what was the mental formation? Then we realize, oh, there was hurt or disappointment or a feeling of frustration or being let down. And so it’s as though we’re stepping behind the feelings into the mind. What has given rise to the feeling, right, that’s in the mind? And if we’ve been able in the first eight exercises to establish quite a calm presence, this ninth exercise, aware of the mental formation, is like curiosity. What’s going on? Some of us, we may have developed a habit of just being quite at ease on the cushion. But it can be that a certain habit of numbness has established itself in us. And this exercise really challenges is to ask. What’s going on? What’s really going on? And one time when I was really going deeply into these 16 exercises in a silent retreat with Sister Jina, and we did sessions of 45 minutes of sitting at a time. And so we… I had plenty of time to go through each of these phases of the set of 16 exercises. I just couldn’t hear myself. I was sitting on the cushion and I was like, Well, I don’t know, what is my state of mind? My mind is mind. I just I’m sitting here. I can hear a bit of the pipes and the radiator… I can hear the cars go by. Like, what is my state of mind? I realized, Oh, I have to… It’s like kind of like a cat approaching a mouse really gently. I have to be so kind with myself. So then I kind of use my childhood nickname and…


Which is?


I knew, as soon as I said that. I knew. Okay. Well, so, okay, well, one of my nicknames, so it’s what my grandfather called me was Tashi. Tashi. So it became very soft. And I was like, So, Tashi, what’s going on? How are you? How are you? And it took a while to say that in such a way in spaciously, kindly enough, gently enough. How are you doing, Tashi? How are you? Really to my inner child, to my inner self, and in that moment, boom, the mental formation presented itself. And it actually builds on what Brother Phap Huu just shared. And suddenly it was clear as a bell. Just… I mean, it’s funny that, I mean, it was a feeling, but it was able to find itself clothed with words. And the words were I am so lonely. And it was as though something had sort of emerged into the light, something that was in me that I hadn’t been able to name. So when you asked, Jo, why is it important to be able to name it is because we are actually living with these feelings like day in, day out, every moment, every hour, and we don’t actually know like what we’re feeling. And somehow some part of me was like, Of course I’m not lonely. I live with all these people. I’ve chosen to live with these people. I’m surrounded by lots of inspiring, great people I want to learn from it. Somehow it just didn’t seem possible to me that that could actually be the feeling. And so to have that openness and curiosity in this ninth exercise. Am I aware of my mind? Like, really what is there? And so this also gets super interesting in terms of Buddhist psychology, because our mind has different layers and different depths. So we can be carrying a feeling in our mind without knowing that we’re kind of carrying it. And I would really say my loneliness, it’s a feeling, yes. And it’s partly in the body, but largely in the mind. And also because of how my mind was processing my daily life. So unconsciously I’m processing my daily life, and perhaps even without words, non-verbally, I’m experiencing all sorts of moments as lonely moments. And I didn’t know. And so I’m feeding the seed of loneliness in myself without even knowing it. And so it was such a breakthrough for me. So I guess after that experience I now feel, when my practice of the 16 exercises is working well, is when I can turn inwards, ask a real question of myself. What is coming up right now? What is alive in me? And get a real answer. And in a way, I guess the more unexpected it is, the more real I kind of know it is one. Or just the more honest it is, even if it’s something I might be ashamed of feeling and to allow it to be there like that. And I’m breathing in, aware of the loneliness. Breathing out, embracing my loneliness. Breathing in, Tashi, you’re lonely. Breathing out, I’m here for you in that recognition that you feel lonely… So this is how we are applying this practice. And we may want to stay with this step for quite some minutes. We could stay quite easily with this step being rooted in our body, rooted in the feelings that then might, a bit like fireworks… Loads of feelings may be around whatever we’re hearing is the mental formation that’s predominant in us at that moment. So it might be shame, it might be disappointment, it might be denial, it might be all sorts of things may be going on. And with our breathing allowing all of that to be there, calming it and keeping a concentration and a focus on what our consciousness had revealed to us. So ah, loneliness, just being with it, following my breathing. And it’s interesting because there’s a way to have both. So there’s the awareness of the breath because we really establish this full body awareness. The breath is flowing in and out, and we are seeing and feeling that mental formation kind of in our consciousness. And that can happen all at the same time. And the awareness of the breath coming in and out is accompanying the awareness and recognition of that feeling. So we’re sort of welcoming it. Thay would sometimes say like having a… inviting a friend to tea in your sitting room. So it’s like, ah, loneliness has come out of the cupboard. And is now sitting and having… We’re having a cup of tea. We’re sitting here breathing and being together. So for me, I think the spirit of, yeah, curiosity, openness, kindness, nonjudgment and then spending some time with whatever mental formation we have recognized.




And can I also add that sometimes in meditation, practicing this step, it also offers me a moment to reflect on an emotion that I had earlier also. Like the way I reacted. And I have a time to investigate also. How did that make me feel now? So is also this practice on the ninth is giving us an opportunity to investigate our day or the moments we’ve had that we may view in a particular way in this moment. There was a moment that I, within the monk’s community, I was very vulnerable and I was even hurt. And I express in a way that to share that I was hurt. And later on, that sensation, that feeling still stayed with me. And I had to be present for the feeling that I’m feeling now. But it allowed me to understand why I overreacted at a particular moment, which was now in the past. And it just gave me clarity. Oh, it’s because I was so overwhelmed. If I wasn’t overwhelmed and if I had more space in my heart and in my schedule, I wouldn’t have reacted that way. And I had to be honest with myself, because by reacting in that way towards a community that I truly love and I’ve given like my soul to, I had a bitter taste afterward, and it stayed with me for a while. And to just name it, call it and investigate and offer yourself clarity to the sensation and feelings that you had. And even hurt. Because I felt I had to say something because I didn’t feel understood. And that not being understood was very hurtful. So this ninth practice of becoming aware of the mental formations it can be present mental formations, but sometimes just to have time to reflect on a mental formation that was very alive to us, maybe towards a loved one or towards a community or towards a situation and organizing team and so on and so on. So giving us that time to investigate and to understand deeply. And I remember one time a monk asked Thay, Thay, is meditation just following your breathing the whole time? Is so boring. And Thay’s like, Are you really practicing to 16 exercises of mindful breathing? Like, are you studying your past and present? Are you examining how you’re taking care of yourself, how you are taking care of the community? So what sister shared, like curiosity, and for us, investigation is a factor. One of the factors to enlightenment.


So there’s a question forming in my mind, which hasn’t got clarity to it, but it feels important because what I hear you both talking about is what we’re really doing is getting to know ourselves better. We’re starting to recognize actually the feeling is not a feeling outside of us, but a feeling inside of ourselves. So Thay talks about sort of experiencing the body in the body and the feelings in the feeling, and the mind in the mind. And that’s something I sort of I hover around it and I understand it, and then it sort of escapes my grasp, is a terrible word to use in Buddhism, but I wasn’t grasping at it, honestly. But sister can you just talk about the sense of owning who we are rather than thinking that I’m thinking about someone else? It almost feels like it’s a collapse in terms of subcontracting, I think it’s someone else who’s thinking these things.


Yes, a bit like just what comes to mind, let’s say the feeling of hunger. You know, like, who is feeling the feeling of hunger, right? The whole body is feeling it and we call it hunger, but only the body can know that it feels hungry. But then also the mind is somehow getting involved, right? And then saying, Oh, that’s hunger. So I think the same is true when we’re being aware of the mind from within the mind. And this is where fantastic teachings from our kind of lineage of Buddhism, which includes what we call the manifestation only school of Buddhism, the Yogachara School of Buddhist psychology. We know the world through only through our mind. There is no kind of external reality. And as we turn inwards for our mind to feel our own mind, so it can… sometimes we describe it as a more subtle form of awareness. Right? Whereas the body is a more gross, you know, gross in a kind of technical term. The body’s tangible, that’s why that is the first foundation. We can feel the body, we know what’s going on there. We can feel the tension. And if we want, we can lift up our hand and massage where the area of tension is. Then moving into the feelings, it gets a little bit more subtle, over the feelings and the feelings. And then coming to the mind is much more delicate. And sometimes our quality of presence, if we’re coming in with a maybe an aggressive energy or a dominating energy, like, okay, I’m gonna clean up my mind today and I gonna have a clear mind by the end of the sitting. We may bring the wrong kind of energy and that will already affect the state of our mind. Then the state of our mind does exactly become the battlefield, the struggle zone that we don’t want it to be. So this is why the quality of our practice in the first two foundations with our body and feelings is so important. And also our way of relating to ourselves in our daily life is so important. If we brush our teeth like we’re fighting with our teeth with so much force holding the toothbrush. If we wash the dishes with the force and aggression just to get them done, then it’s only natural that that same kind of force will come to this question when we ask the mind, what is my state of mind? And we will not have that sort of openness and ease. And so in my own practice of this, I felt like like I mean, I have to kind of confess, like even the practice of following my breathing, I really came slow to. Because, again, it was this cat and mouse thing. I felt every time I tried to find my breath, it disappeared like it’s like, oh my gosh, how hard can this be? But it seemed that my awareness, my determination to find my breath was so strong I scared it away the whole time. So I never felt like I was meeting my breath like kind of… The image that came to me was like two birds just to come and find each other in the sky and fly beautifully together. And I had to find that way of being with my breath to be able to meet my breath without changing it in any way, to come to it so non aggressively, so gently with such friendship and non harming and curiosity. And because I was coming to it with a sense of there’s a right and wrong way to breathe. And I think the same is true here where we get this very subtle question of the mind, allowing our mind to be however it is, and exploring, I think to bring a spirit of play to these exercises is very important. Play, curiosity, questioning. There are some wonderful lists of mental formations, 51 mental formations. And then Thay added a few. And so we can find these on the Plum Village website. I’m sure we can find them in the show notes. And we can kind of go through like, do any of these speak to me right now? Would I rewrite them or what would be my own words from my state of mind right now? To feel that light and playfulness and without the tension that I think can change… Like the tension itself will change your state of mind and then we can’t perceive it anymore. I don’t know if that answers your question.


Yeah, it does answer my question. And there’s one more question I have on these two. Brother, maybe you can answer it. It is, you know, the gladdening of the mind. Because what was coming up, as you were describing this, is that a lot of people feel power in their negative mental formations. You know, if you’re feeling angry or you’re feeling jealous or whatever the feeling is, sometimes we feel that gives us power. And actually to gladden the mind at that point feels like it’s just being disloyal to our negative feelings. And so it feels like quite a rebellious act to have a strong negative feeling and then to gladden one’s mind or bring happiness at that moment when actually we want to be righteous often and we want to believe that actually that feeling is who we are and is justified.


You speak of someone who is addicted to their suffering. And I think a lot of us have those moments when we only identify as our suffering. And that includes myself also. And by gladdening the mind, our teacher would use the image of a CD player. And I’m not sure if the newer generation would even know what that is.


I knew cassette machines, brother.


I know. I know. Well, I think our language today would be like changing the track.




And it’s in a way, like, sometimes we have a channel that we always play and we like that channel, even if that channel brings us to a very moody, emotional, dramatic place in our hearts, in our body, in our sensation. And if we have practiced to this moment, which we have established, this foundation of awareness of the body, awareness of the feelings, and knowing that caring for the body is caring for oneself, taking care of the feelings is taking care of oneself and of others because our feelings, our emotions have an impact not to just oneself, but to our loved ones, to our community, our environment. So the practice of gladdening the mind, which is right diligence in the eight noble path is having the ability to know how we are cultivating our mental formations, our state of mind. Meditation is a cultivation of the mind like Sister True Dedication just shared, a lot of Zen masters have said that the world is how we cultivate our minds, like what we paint in our image becomes what we paint in our mind becomes the world that we want to interact with so if we have an evil thought, that evil thought can become our speech, can become our action. But if we have a kind thought, that kindness would then become our kind action, our kind speech, our kind attitude. So coming home to the mind, it takes a lot of courage and sometimes it takes… you become a warrior to have the capacity to change your own channels, to step away from the nutriments that are unwholesome. And the power of meditation is to identify its mindfulness, to look deeply and to ask ourself Is this really nourishing myself and the world? And sometimes the answer is no. And to have the capacity and the courage to change that lifestyle is very difficult, but if we are able to do it, we can be walking down a path of peace, a path of happiness, a path of freedom. And so gladdening the mind is the training of oneself in order to truly learn to nourish oneself as a gardener. When you are a good gardener, you will recognize other weeds are there. I have to have attention and time to get my hands a little bit dirty in the soil, removing the weeds, continue to give it the right compost, give it the right water, make sure it has enough sunshine, enough happiness. Just for an example, and I do this a lot and I’m sure all of us who work with computers or in meetings, in offices, after a meeting we are overwhelmed with a lot of emotions. And my practice of gladdening my mind is just to go for a walk. You want to change the energies around you. Right? And we know that nature is a very safe refuge for us to refresh oneself, as well as to let nature take care of ourselves. So gladdening the mind can be physically like in the body where we choose where do we go, listen to the sound of the waves, listen to the rains. We’ve been having a lot of rain and some of us just enjoy walking under the rain in an umbrella. That can be a practice of gladdening the mind. Or sometimes it is to intentionally just sit and do nothing. And you asked me like, what has sitting meditation helped me in the last episode. And I think what I wasn’t able to answer is sitting meditation has allowed me to truly just sit there and learn to do nothing. And just to be with the breath and to really just let the breath become the rhythm that that guides me in not becoming anxious, Be careful, my worry. So worriedness is a channel that I play a lot. So accompanying it and giving it another channel for it to take refuge in is also a practice of gladdening. And by taking care of our wholesome mind, there is healing in that moment, there’s transformation in that moment. You’re giving yourself confidence and faith that you are able to have different states of mind and you’re able to cultivate wonderful mental formations in our daily life.


Thank you. Is there anything else that we want to say about these two? Sister?


Yeah. I always follow up on what Brother Phap Huu just shared, and this gladdening our mind is exactly that… It’s kind of a declaration of freedom around the mental formation, around our feelings. It’s like I have the freedom to choose here. I’ve seen I’m angry, I know I’m angry, and I know I’m more than my anger. And my anger is a seed. And that is a seed that has manifested as a formation in my mind consciousness. But I am more than that. So I think there’s something very affirming. And like you said, we trust in something. We have faith. We are claiming a freedom in this step of gladening our mind, which is like I am angry and I have the right to take five breaths in peace and freedom because my anger isn’t all who I am in this moment. I’m so much more. So I think there’s a great kind of affirmation and freedom. And it’s not bypassing, it’s not escaping. It’s saying both and.


And sister, you know, when we look at the way society is at the moment, as soon as people feel an anger or a strong emotion, what they want to do is express that and they want to sort of act on it and they want sort of normally to blame someone else. And what I heard and what you said, Brother Phap Huu, is that we think of being a warrior, you know, warrior is fighting energy. But actually to be a true warrior is to actually be able to handle those emotions and to not actually go out and act on them. And I’ve heard you talk quite a lot about this in different Dharma talks, you know, what is it to be a rebel these days? You know, what is it to be… ? What is true strength?


What is true strength and how not to let our emotions get the better of us, you know, and erode, erode us and burn us from inside. And I think these practices of mindful breathing, seeing it, naming it, being with that feeling and then zooming out, you know, creating space around it and being that and I am more than this. And then you can choose. You know, we’re then master of our anger, and then there may be a moment when we need a flash of it. With mindfulness, with awareness, boom. And then we are not a victim of it. We’re not swept away, we’re not burnt up, and our relationships aren’t burnt up by it. So I think this gladdening our mind has a lot to do with yes, spaciousness to have true agency so that when we resist, we are master of every step of our resistance, we’re not resisting while being lost in our despair. We’re not resisting while being lost in our anger. But we’re resisting with like clear eyes, far seeing eyes, deep eyes. We see the whole picture and that kind of righteous indignation, if you like, we can activate it when needed, but not so much that it becomes a toxin in us. There is… There are… We can draw on these sources of energy as the master of those keeping our sovereignty and freedom.


Beautiful. Thank you. So let’s go on to number 11 and number 12. So again, I will read out the two and then Sister True Dedication you can sort of see if that’s… if they are as they are now, if they’ve been updated and then we can discuss them. So number 11. Breathing in, I concentrate my mind. Breathing out, I concentrate my mind. And then number 12. Breathing in, I liberate my mind. Breathing out, I liberate my mind. Sister?


I laugh at these because I’m going to think how on earth are we meant to practice with this. So I, at one point I became fascinated by these 16 exercises and I listened to many Dharma talks by our teacher on them. And I love the version of these two which… a little bit more flowing. So he calls number 11, Concentrating the mind. And number 12, sometimes, he says, even Will liberate the mind. And the most meaningful and helpful for me teachings on this, I’ve come to understand it that in this 11th one it’s a kind of checking in, Am I still concentrated? And most of the time my quality of concentration has become really fragmented and dispersed by the mental formation and then creating some kind of gladness. And I’ve sort of reached wider and broader. My awareness has broadened open with the exercise of gladdening the mind. And I have found that my quality of concentration has kind of loosened a bit at this point. So for me, I am then following my inbreath and outbreath and restoring a kind of stability to my presence, to my concentration. And we always sort of say to be mindful is mindful of something and to concentrate is also to concentrate on something. So in the most simplest sense for me, I begin again, I return to my breathing, and my breathing at this point is carrying all the insights I’ve had in these exercises until now. So being with the breath is being with everything I’ve been feeling and perceiving and becoming aware of. And then with this sort of stability, it becomes clear to… the stability of my concentration it becomes clear to me what am I going to look into? So it might be the loneliness that I had felt the beginning of this, becoming aware of my state of mind, or it might be a sense of craving or grasping which I’ve also really… I want to say subjected to these 16 exercises that I have when I’ve had things that are troubling me. And it’s kind of like a bit like a hook or a knot that I can’t kind of shake off to apply these exercises to something very particular. And so in this process of concentrating, we’re generating an energy of concentration with our body and our breathing and then an object of concentration. So we need to be clear what we’re concentrating on. And Thay, when he taught these two exercises, he often said, well, there are many kinds of concentration in Buddhism. Take your pick. Right? And so actually what starts to happen in from here on to the 16th exercise, these are really objects of concentration, ways that we can concentrate. And we are trusting and we’re knowing that when we apply these concentrations that will liberate the mind. So we start to kind of the 16 exercises start to become a bit more formless from this point on, it’s kind of slightly less sequential, though, as we will see in the last set of four, there’s still some power to the sequence. And Thay said there’s three concentrations that are available in every school of Buddhism. Some of the listeners may have heard these Dharma talks and they are the three doors of liberation, emptiness, signlessness and aimlessness. And these are concentrations to concentrate on emptiness or interbeing. To concentrate on a signlessness, to concentrate on aimlessness. So there is then we become an artist in our meditation at this point. If it’s our loneliness, if it’s our anger, if it’s our craving, if it’s our doubt or jealousy, what is the appropriate concentration that we can apply to this formation in our mind to help it dissolve and so we can get awakened about it, so we can get liberated, so we can kind of set ourselves free and touch peace. So we’re truly applying investigation for awakening in these exercises. And for those who want to learn more about the three doors of liberation, I think there’s already a podcast on it.


We’ve had done one episode, but let’s for those, since we’re in this moment, it would be good to have a brief is a sort of a brief description of these vast teachings.


So for me, I find I loved Thay’s phrase, you know, there’s no such thing really as being empty. We’re only empty of one thing. We are full of the cosmos and empty of only one thing, a separate self. Okay.


Okay. That will work.


So for me, the concentration on emptiness is also a concentration on fullness. Right? So how can I, what is the sense of self that I’ve brought into things that I need to remove and where is the fullness there? So actually, for me, this became a really helpful concentration for my loneliness. So it was… What are all the ways? Like is it true… Well, the way the question came to me, is it true that I’m lonely in the light of interbeing and fullness? Like I’m not like the Earth is here providing me with perfect warmth, perfect gravity, air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat. Like there’s no way in which I’m lonely in relation to the Earth. My sisters are sitting on my left and right in silence, fully supporting me. Like… My family, my friends, you know, they’re all loving at me even if I struggle to receive that love and kind of take it in. And that then becomes a different problem, right? So then it’s… I was sort of interrogating my loneliness in the light of the teachings on fullness and interbeing. And signlessness, the second concentration, is to not be caught in the form. And I started to realize that I’ve been living all these moments as an individual. But that was a mistake, a misvision, a misperception of actually all these moments that I wasn’t lonely at all, like I was living kind of in community, but also that I wasn’t seeing the ways in which connection was being offered to me or coming to me. And I was kind of, you know, we always say about how lonely we can be in a crowd, but it’s up to our mind whether we’re lonely in a crowd or not, right? Because the person on our right and left could become our friend if only we open up to them. So the signlessness thing became very interesting as a lens through which to look at my loneliness. Like, am I sure? Am I sure that things are as they seem? Signlessness is also a super powerful concentration when we’ve lost someone we love, we have the impression that they are no longer present, that we can’t see them anymore. Like the sign of that person, the form of that person has gone. And so signlessness is a wonderful concentration if the feeling that is arising in us is grief and loss to take a few breaths and whether it’s 10 minutes, a half an hour, to breathe in and out and investigate all that new sign ways that that person is continuing in us through their thinking, through their speech, through their actions, through what they’ve given us, through the memories, through what they’ve taught us, through what they’ve realized in their life, how these ripples continue out in the world. That is a concentration on signlessness to help bring awakening to the mental formation of grief and loss. And the third contemplation on aimlessness is wonderful when we are caught in craving, right? So there’s something we’re grasping. It can be any kind of addictive behavior that we have that we are trying to kind of break out, break free from, and aimlessness, the teaching on aimlessness does not put something in front of us and then kind of chase after it. That something can be a person. I want more of that person in my life. It can be an achievement like a job or a diploma or a promotion. You know, for some people it might be the security of a house or a car. Yeah, even the feeling like we have to know what our career should be or we have to know and direction we’re going in, right? We somehow think there’s going to be something. We’ve got to have this object of seeking, and then we orient ourselves towards that. And that can create in us mental formations of craving, of grasping, of feeling that we lack, of feeling that we need to get more of that thing. And like, say, I don’t know, say you, we would like to have a partner, and then you suddenly think, Oh, don’t you need to be more beautiful or go more to the gym. Or you know, you can have all these kind of things that then kind of come up into so I can be the person that can get that thing that I need. And we can lose our present moment, lose our happiness, lose our sense of kind of fulfillment. And so whatever it is the mental formation that’s troubling us, like the feeling of not being good enough, we, under the lens of aimlessness, we then say, What is it I think I would need? Like, what is the story I’m telling myself about what I would need or who I would need in order to be happy? And that idea of happiness is standing in the way of my happiness. That is applying the concentration on aimlessness. You identify the aim and then you kind of free yourself from it. Is it true? Is it true that only when I find that perfect partner, I can be happy? Is it true that only when I get that mortgage can I be happy? Is it true that only when I know the purpose of my life, you know, and the direction I need to go? You know, I get that perfect job that I can be happy. And we have all the deep teachings of Buddhism in many wise people around the world who can enrich our understanding of what we need to be happy. So this would be some examples of how we can apply the three doors of liberation. That can sound like a really intimidating teaching, but actually there are very simple and powerful lenses to bring to a particular mental formation that is getting in the way of our freedom. And by applying these lenses, we can engage in an inquiry into our mind and our beliefs, if you like, and then set ourselves free. And then that is the 12th step with liberating the mind, liberating ourselves.




That’s enlightenment, what our sister just explained.


Everyone’s like, Wow, who’s she?


She’s a Zen master.


A Zen mistress. Brother is anything you want to add? Because…


It’s clear and complete what our sister shared. I want to hear more.


Yeah. Get the coffee brewing. So, but brother, one thing I’d like to ask you around that is what sister is saying is, in a sense, by letting go of the craving, by letting, you know, by really understanding what is arising in our mind and being able to calm it and to then really concentrate on what is it that’s happening, we can liberate ourselves. So I’d love you to maybe just talk a bit more about liberation, about, you know, about what it, what does it feel like? I mean, because, you know, you are the Abbot of Upper Hamlet and you are, of course, have all your history and your generational pain, so, you know, you’re not free of it, but you do get a chance to do this exercise. And I’m just wondering how you might describe liberation in the moments you have experienced it. What does liberation feel like? And I thought I’d ask you the easy question.


Very good question, Jo. I’m trying to remember and how to articulate I do have a feeling that I shared some of my liberating moments in different podcasts. But I think liberation is also a cultivation. And I can always arrive at a new moment of liberation. And I think liberating is also to not be caught in the past liberation and just to be open to the direct experience. And I think, okay, something that happened in this Rains Retreat was… I was feeling very overwhelmed entering into this Rains Retreat by just, I think the whole year of 2023, like myself, Sister True Dedication, and a few others, we’ve been a part of some amazing retreats and amazing teams and curation and offerings. And we’re also limited. And I think entering into the Rains Retreat I felt quite depleted in energy and I felt there was no more Phap Huu to give. But I felt that there was still energy of wanting to consume me or consume my sister, consume my community. And entering into the Rains Retreat, I started to recognize like, why is my attention span so much shorter now? Why am I hiding away from folks in my community? And all of these little habits that were starting to manifest. And the practice on the third category is coming home to the mind in the mind, like recognizing all your mental formations. And I was able to just say, Phap Huu, you are so overwhelmed, your cup is so full. You can’t receive any more, even love, like even feedback, like good feedback. And that moment of just recognizing, oh my goodness, I just, I just need to ask for support, to ask my community to have some compassion on me, to give me a little bit of space. And that moment of just accepting that is also accepting that I’m limited and my pride wanted more, my ego has a higher aim, and my responsibility that I felt I was holding was goal orientated. And just coming home to the present moment and recognizing that I wasn’t serving from the heart. And that’s why we took a pause in the podcast, because I didn’t want to be fake on explaining things and offering, because is very vulnerable this podcast, these moments that we create together is Iike, suddenly, Sister True Dedication is sharing to the world her nickname that was…


And what she had for breakfast.


You just don’t know what’s going to happen in front of these microphones. And it comes from the heart, right? That’s why I feel this podcast is so nourishing for us who are sharing. But when I start to recognize that there was no more aspiration and motivation, I just take a step back and to look and to accept, that it’s liberating. And to accept in order to then know what to do and what not to do. And sometimes it’s as simple as just sharing to your beloved ones, you know, I need a little bit of space. And sometimes I think like my own ego, my own pride, doesn’t allow me to say that because I have a sign, a view about myself that I have to project always toward my brothers, my sisters, my community, the world. And what Sister True Dedication was saying, this concentration is to really just look at what is blocking us from freedom so we can have freedom. It sounds very simple, just like it’s right there in front of us, but the barrier most of the times is our own pride. And that’s why in Zen, the emptiness is always the emptiness of a self. But if we know that we’re full of everything, and you just open your heart and you allow yourself to be vulnerable for two months, it’s okay. Nothing’s going to stop you from still being love. Because sometimes I feel like if I show this side, then people won’t see me anymore, right? We create our own perception. So a moment of liberation is calling our mental formation by its name and then investigating it, saying, Aha, my cup is to full. And then, in our schedule it’s quite packed, but then there are moments like, Oh, you know, I’m just going to take some time off in these little pockets in the week in order to nourish oneself and to give permission for that so you can act on your insight. And that liberation touches interbeing, because if I care for myself, if I’m free for myself, then I can offer freedom to my brothers, my sisters, my community.


That’s beautiful, brother. And the word, and it’s a very overused word, but in this context, it feels true, what I hear in that is through this process, liberation or freedom, is to be yourself, is to be authentic, is to show up fully with your wounds and with your joys, and to say, actually, this is who I am, this is where I am at this moment, and that’s who I am. I’m not going to pretend to be someone else, because, as you say, that that is the source of so many problems in the world. And it reminds me of just one experience I had was when my first marriage broke up and I had been coaching people and I had been taught this or had heard this phrase, which was Korean, I was told it was Korean proverb. It said, Even if the sky were to fall in, there would be, there’s a way out, there would be a way out. So whenever I was coaching people and, you know, they reached rock bottom, I would tell this metaphor. And then I hit rock bottom and I couldn’t find a way out at that moment. And I just stopped coaching people because I realizeed I can’t… If I can’t live by what I’ve been saying… how can I be there for someone else and just say something that I can’t fully stand behind. And it was only when I found a way through that I was able to sort of come back to that. So it feels like it’s allowing ourselves to be tender and allowing ourselves to be human. Maybe liberation is about being human. Sister, anything else before we move on?


I think that’s beautiful. And I feel the sweet taste of that freedom. Yeah. The freedom to be ourselves, just as we are. The freedom to relax and open up to the moment as it presents itself in us and around us.


Thank you. So we’re onto the last set of four. So let me read the next two, 13 and 14. So 13. Breathing in, I observe the impermanent nature of all dharmas. Breathing out, I observe the impermanent nature of all dharmas. And number 14. Breathing in, I observe the disappearance of desire. Breathing out, I observe the disappearance of desire. Sister, has there been an update on… Were those words updated by Thay?


Yeah. Thank you so much, Jo. So for our listeners, the word dharmas is here is not Dharma with a capital D, meaning the teachings, but it’s dharma with a small D meaning phenomena. So all that is. So the exercise 13 is contemplating the impermanent nature of all that is. And then what’s interesting here and actually maybe we could probably take all four of these so we’ll do these two and then the next two and take the whole four of this set together. Because Thay was very curious to change the order of them. And so to have letting go of desire…


So should I read the last two now?


That would be wonderful. And then we will do the rejig.


So in the original traditional it was number 15 was Breathing in, I observe cessation. Breathing out, I observe cessation. And number 16. Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go. So those are the last four.


Oh, wow. Thay has really updated them.


Absolutely. So in the translation that Jo was just reading from, that’s from the […] Parley canon. And as we were sharing before, we also have access through Thay’s mastery of classical Chinese, to the Chinese canon. And Thay said to us that the order in the Chinese canon kind of makes a little bit more sense, and the order in the Chinese canon is contemplating impermanence of all phenomena, then contemplating letting go. So letting go would come second. So to release. Thanks, we’ll get to that in a moment. And then the third, to be contemplating. Sometimes you could say abandoning desire but Thay just said contemplating non craving. Very interesting, very accessible. We can play with this in a moment. And then the final one, we have the word cessation in the traditional language. And for Thay this is nirvana, the peace and the freedom of nirvana or the ultimate. So this last set of four, traditionally we’d say this is the set where we’re exploring the objects of mind, the phenomenal world. And so they go in this order, contemplating impermanence, contemplating letting go, contemplating non craving, and then contemplating or touching the ultimate, the peace of nirvana, the peace of freedom, the peace of awakening, the peace of needing, having nothing to do and nowhere to go. So this set of four is really another set of four concentrations. So we had the first set of three concentrations of the three doors of liberation and this set of four concentrations, impermanence letting go, non craving, and nirvana or the ultimate. And in the very last months of Thay’s teaching, he said that these seven concentrations are more than enough for a lifetime of practice. And so here we have like seven beautiful doorways to freedom. Take your pick. Choose your happiness here. And these are very, very kind of powerful teachings. And so maybe I will pass to Brother Phap Huu, and we can start this concentration on impermanence and how that can set us free, set us free from even particular moments of anger, but also moments of yeah, kind of attachment to wanting things to be in a certain way.


And I would say in the last set of four it has the three dharma seals, which are of the Buddha’s teaching, originated from the Buddhist time and should be very accessible in all Buddhist tradition. So we have the three doors of liberation and here we have the three dharma seals. So impermanence is one of the dharma seals, and that is to nourished the gratitude of life that we are a part of, knowing that our life is also impermanent. But here is also the impermanence of phenomena, which is take your pick, as a concentration of meditation. We, I think, as a community have practiced the impermanent nature of our teacher. But to see the continuation body of impermanence in each and every one of us in the community, the trees that he has planted, the energy that we can be in touch with by sitting in this hut, the stillness that he has transmitted. These teachings are not ours alone, but it is a continuous stream. And thanks to impermanence, they are transmitted to us, they are revised, they are renewed. They bear new fruits through the ripening of the times. So impermanence allows us to have freedom. And we know that when we are caught in a view, a perception and emotion, we will have a very narrow attitude. And that narrow attitude may allow us to not truly be the true, the freest version of ourself, which we are transmitted of all of these wonderful talents and seeds that are in us. And we just need to be a gardener to care for it, nourish it, and identify the goodness that is in us. A teaching that when I was coming to Plum Village as a teenager that I would never forget was when Thay said, Dear young people, teenagers, you are much more than your emotions. Never die because of one emotion. And I was a young teenager, and I remember Thay teaching that. And sometimes we feel like the emotions we have are permanent and this is the only reality that we are in. It is a reality we are in, but we know that the past and the present and the future is a thread that continues. And if we’re so caught within just that emotion, we may make a decision that will create suffering for oneself and suffering for so many. So to be aware that our emotions come and go and that we can have freedom of knowing that because that we have an emotion that is present, but it will also cease to exist and a new emotion will come. So to have a more open view. And of course, impermanence of life, and Sister True Dedication just mentioned on the concentration of signlessness. And thanks to impermanence, new life has an opportunity to manifest, to come. And I think meditating on nature can teach us a lot about impermanence. And we have to know that these contemplations is to help us be more free, be more liberating. So is an object of mind, maybe it is an emotion, maybe it is a situation that we are in, a relationship that we are having and is very toxic or very bad at the moment. And we think that it will always be like this. But impermanence teaches us that there is space for it to change because we come and we go, our emotion comes and goes. And we’re also always changing.


And if you really understand impermanence, then you are letting go, aren’t you? Because if you believe that something is fixed, you’re going to keep, you’re going to grasp it. But if you know it’s going to change then to try and grasp it is like trying to, you know, it’s like watching sand go through your fingers. You know, you can’t hold on to impermanence. So you are, in a sense, already letting go of things.


And I think letting go is also a power in Buddhism. There’s so many dharmas just within the 16 exercises a mindful breathing. And I remember one time Thay said, Thay can just keep teaching the 16 exercises of all of mindful breathing and bring in all of the Buddha’s teaching. And I think letting go, especially for practitioners, of meditators, is very important. I have some friends who are part of our 90 day retreat, and one of them is so attached to his first experience in Plum Village, which was at a retreat three years ago. And he arrives and he was very disappointed in the first month because he doesn’t feel that that experience is present anymore. And in our conversation, and I said, A-ha, my dear friend, I think you are very attached to that first visit. But we can only visit Plum Village for the first time once. And those emotions, those excitements, that honeymoon season only exists one time. And you have to let go of that experience to be in touch with the moment that you are here right now. And if you are just attached to that experience, you’re not living this moment. And it was very challenging for him. And I do believe that he was able to let go of it. But even in our experience of meditation, of peace, of, let’s say, a blissful moment, and I’ve heard this a lot of retreatants and practitioners of having that moment of bliss and is gone. How do I get it back? Oh, that is in attachment, because the experience that we are in touch with we can reflect on it as an experience that we have had so we can grow trust and faith to bring that inner peace, that stability, but to let go of the past so that we can be in touch with the present. There may be peaceful and blissful moment right here, right now, but if we are just attached to the past experience, we are not allowing ourself to really touch life in the here and now.


Sister, would you like to add anything to that? Because as you were speaking, brother, it also reminded me of the, you know, the five remembrances which are letting go. You know, I’m of the nature to get old. I will get old. I’m of the nature to get sick. I’m of the nature to die, of the nature to be separated from everything that I have loved. And all I can count on is my thoughts, speech and actions, which actually is coming back to the present moment, isn’t it? Saying, actually, if I have to let go of everything, then the present moment is pretty much the best place to be. Did I say something useful? Sister?


Thank you. Jo. And I think what we… It’s really important to also keep in mind what we’re letting go of here. So we’re letting go of the things that are stand in the way of our happiness. The things that stand in the way of our freedom or we’re letting go of, yeah, those states of mind, those perceptions that are kind of haunting us, that have sort of instilled themselves in our mind and are kind of creating a block in how we see people, how we see a situation. And there’s this really lovely image that Thay introduced when he was sometimes teaching these steps in the 16 exercises. He said that the letting go has been taught by Zen Master Tang Hoi, who was the first Zen master that brought Zen into China from Vietnam. So our kind of original patriarch, master in Vietnamese Zen. And Master Tang Hoi in his describing of letting go and breaking free of notions. He used the word throwing away, and I remember in this Dharma talk Thay lifting up his arm like he was kind of a cricket bowler or something. Right? And really saying you have to throw it away. And it was such a vivid image to see Thay moving his arm so like dynamically in this Dharma talk. And it taught me something about how in this practice we’ve developed our concentration, we’ve developed our presence, we’re still following our breathing flowing in and flowing out. We’ve identified that thing, that thought, that belief, that view that is getting in the way of our happiness and freedom. And metaphorically you hold it in your hand, you look at it, you see it, you say, I see you, I see you, and you are getting in the way. And I declare my freedom. I throw you away like a cricket ball or whatever kind of ball we all want to throw. And for me, this is very, very powerful that we have to use our resolve, our determination. It’s very dynamic, is very energetic. This is not like, oh, letting go. Oh, it’s sort of let it kind of drift away. It’s like, no, you have to be determined. Do you want to set yourself free? Set yourself free. Throw it away. Say, tell yourself, have this dialog with ourselves. I don’t want to think like that anymore. And so this has really helped me a lot also with objects of our craving. Super helpful as a metaphor, I see that thing that has caught me in its talons that has entangled me, and we have this language in Buddhism of like fetters, you know, something’s tangled you up, bound you up in chains and are you going to set yourself free? And so that’s really in this exercise, it’s giving rise to a resolve, a determination. You identify the thing and you throw it away, you let it go. So there’s quite some energy and dynamism in this. And for impermanence, I also love the teaching on impermanence. It was my favorite quote for a while.


We are allowed to have favorite practices.


Yeah, I had it on my desk and then both my study desk and then where I was working. And there’s a wonderful phrase from Nagarjuna, a great Buddhist master. He said, thanks to impermanence everything is possible. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. And for me, that is my like torch of hope in the face of climate crisis, social injustice, social breakdown, environmental destruction, political injustice…




War, violence, the refugee crisis. I mean, everything can change. And the direction of change if the will is there, if the insight is there and the compassion is there, that direction of change, the impermanence can go in a positive direction. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. We may feel completely stuck in the depths of the ocean of our despair and depression, but thanks to impermanence that depression can have a day when it will no longer be there. That depression is surviving because it has sources of food. That depression is a mental formation. It is composed of different threads and one by one, identifying, finding the threads that are feeding our depression we can dissolve our depression. We can find a way through. And thanks to that impermanence, everything is possible. The future is not known to us because of impermanence. And that’s good news. So for me, I really enjoy the teachings on impermanence. And they actually have really helped me in moments of anger. And I would just say one thing about this, which is such a simple teaching that Thay has given, which is to contemplate the friend or loved one that we are angry with. And in that moment of anger, ask yourself, Where will they and I be 200 years from now? And applying this very simple, just lens of impermanence, this concentration of impermanence, right even in the moment of great fury, you know, because we’re often angry at people that we love the most because how dare they be the ones that hurt us so often we’re angry with people quite close to us. And then Thay would say, applying this concentration, you realize right away they will be dust. I will be dust. But in this moment, we’re both alive. And if we really touch the fruit of that insight, then all we want to do is hug that person. And to hold them and just to cherish the fact, Wow, in this moment we are both still alive in this human form. How wonderful that we can kind of hug. So if, as we went through our body and our feelings and our mind in these exercises, if we found that we were really sitting with a specific anger to a specific person, then applying this practice of impermanence can really help us hold that anger. You know? Throw it away, choose to free ourselves from it, and just get on with our life. And I think there’s a wonderful aspect of our teaching and Zen, which is sometimes just cross to the other side of the road and keep going. Like, you know, we don’t… It doesn’t mean we need to penetrate every aspect of why I was angry or do they need to do this or that. It’s just like, just choose a different channel and just proceed. Let it go, leave it behind. Set yourself free. Don’t make too much fuss. Move on. Life is new in this moment. And celebrate it. Embrace it. Go forward.


Totally agree.


And before we go on, I often think visually and I had this sense of Thay throwing it away and then a dog picking it up and get back… And waited patiently for you to pick it up. Because in a sense, that is a part of our nature… We throw it away, but then part of us wants to bring it back. But then actually there’s a playfulness in that, isn’t it? It’s recognize that we throw it away but impermanence means at some point it’s likely to come back. But if we know how to throw it… we can actually throw it again. It’s like…


An exercise.


It doesn’t have to be thought of like a… We can play with this too, rather than just see it as a sort of that we’re sucking lemons while we’re doing this.


Absolutely. And the reason why the dog goes and gets it back is because they’re convinced you want it back, You know? So there’s a part of this that hasn’t yet down, fully downloaded and integrated the insight that we do want to be free from it. And that’s the part of us that keeps kind of bringing it back.


That’s the craving.


That’s the craving.


That’s the manas.


So let’s talk about, because you’ve talked about in a sense the first two of those we talked about it as a flow. So let’s flow into the next two. Brother, do you want to start our journey?


No. I like it when sister starts the journey.


Yes, so do I. Sister, take us to the finishing line. There’s no finishing line, but…


So the 15th exercise is contemplating in Thay’s rendering is contemplating non craving. And then the 16th, touching the ultimate, the coolness and peace of nirvana, of being free. And when Thay would teach about non craving, so assume, let’s assume we were in our meditation looking into something we were addicted to. So we’ve been aware of that in our body, some kind of feeling of tension and craving in the body itself, being aware of that in our feelings. We’ve embraced the pain around it. We’ve calm that painful feeling, we’ve come to the mind. We’ve seen the ideas we have about why we are kind of hooked on that thing. We’ve tried to gladden the mind, get a bit of space around it, but it’s still there. It’s still the object of our concentration. And in this exercise, we bring the lens of kind of understanding how craving operates. And Thay said it is like a hook. And we are like the fish that’s happily swimming in the lake or the river or the ocean. And there’s a fisherman with the fishing line and a lovely bait on the end of the hook, that delicious squirming worm or whatever it is. And we are the fish and somehow we are only seeing the bait and we are not seeing the hook in the object of our craving. And so in this exercise, we are kind of asking ourself the question, What is the hook? What is the hook that I haven’t named, that I haven’t seen, that I haven’t acknowledged truthfully to myself. Whether that craving is coming to us through the fridge, through our screens, through our way of working, maybe it could be we are a workaholic. It could be any kind of craving that is expressing itself in a way that we’re losing our freedom from it. So we sit, we make the resolve, we sit, we breathe, we are looking deeply and we say, I won’t get up until I’ve seen the hook. What is the hook? The craving could be a person that we’re deeply attached to. What is the hook here? What freedoms is this taking away from me and taking away from them? So we sit until we can really see the hook. And I had quite some fruits of this practice one time, and I suddenly I was like, Oh my goodness. I saw like five, six, seven, eight ways in which there was a hook hidden in this thing that seemed so delicious, so appealing, so wonderful, So kind of like, yes, there are some sensations that are very lovely and the body likes them, the mind likes them, our habits like them. And here is where we use our clear sight to say that is the hook. I know it, and I’m not going to deny it to myself. I’m going to be kind of radically honest with myself in this moment. This is how it is corroding me. This is how it’s draining my energy. This is how it’s becoming a toxin for me. This is how I’m losing my freedom.


And sister, before we just… Would you like to give us an example of that? Just to bring it into a sort of practical… So it could be just like eating a donut. The hook and the donut is our health. It’s our distraction. It’s our thinking. It will take us away from a moment of pain rather than actually feeling to our pain. I mean, it can be anything.


Yeah, it could be a donut. It could be a great TV series. You know, that is… You see, at the beginning, these things can be medicine. I just want to laugh at that comedy show. You know… At the beginning, it’s medicine. And then at a certain point, it shifts from being medicine to being an addiction and to being a habit into being a hook. And then before we know it, we’re losing sleep. We are losing our time for our family and friends. Like many of us, I think we feel we don’t have time for our family and friends. But how are we spending our time? What are all the hooks that are pulling us in all these different directions? So this also has something to do, yeah, with the also practices around moderation. So it’s not that of itself. I guess this is the thing. It’s not that of itself something is necessarily toxic, but it can become. Like we may really care for someone and in the beginning it’s good, but then we become obsessed with them. We want to stop managing their life or, you know, controlling their behavior and wanting them to be a certain way and so on. And so what starts well can shift into something else. We want that other person to transform in this or that way, and we think we can’t be happy until they do that. We’re kind of craving for them to be different than they are, and we may then set expectations and then our demands on them become a kind of hook, tearing the relationship apart. So, yeah, this is very, this is just anything that’s really getting in the way of our peace and freedom and seeing people as they are in their true nature or seeing a thing as it is. So like money, like, of course we all need a certain amount of money to survive. Right? But then in the pursuit of money, we can kind of intoxicate ourselves, but also delude ourselves that our success, our worth, our security depends on that money. And there’s a kind of hook in it. And I guess this can also, you know, apply it, you know, societal and national levels. Also, there are things that, you know, endless economic growth, you know, a little bit of growth at some point seem like a really good idea. And now it’s become this sort of terrible systemic mechanism that’s destroying our planet. And that is like, that’s the absolute hook. And so you have to kind of reel back. But in these exercises we’re really starting with ourselves, our own body, our own tendencies and habits around wrong perceptions we have about what we think we need to be happy.


Great. So I’m just freeing myself at this moment from coming up with such a particularly stupid example of a donut when you’re talking about, you know, the future of the entire planet. But I will spend the rest of this podcast freeing myself from my feelings. So that takes us into, so if we are able to free ourselves from our cravings, so if I’m able, then we head into a rather beautiful space, don’t we?


We have our capacity to touch the ultimate, to touch the deep dimension of reality, of our true nature, which is beyond an idea of being a separate self, but really to touch the way in which we are deeply connected with all that is across time, across space, that we are beyond the sign of this body. We are beyond the form of this body that we are so much more than we think. And the image Thay often had for touching nirvana or touching the ultimate is the wave and the water. And I really love this image. And sometimes Thay would say that we think we’re waves, you know, not popping up and down. We think we are waves rising and falling on the surface of the ocean. And we are very excited to be rising. And we might have even some fear about falling and we may compare ourselves to the other waves. And we have the sense that we’re a wave on a journey. But in that moment when we realize that we are water, we are of the nature of water that is like resting in God. We rest in our ultimate kind of nature, and that is the sort of experience or feeling of touching this piece of nirvana. Nirvana here simply means sort of cooling of the flames, the deep, cool peace of touching our true nature. And that is what we arrive at. That is what we can realize when we can free ourselves from the wrong perceptions, the strong feelings and everything that was kind of getting away, getting in the way of us touching our true nature. So that is the fruit, if you like, of the 16 exercises of mindful breathing.


Brother Phap Huu, you know, we talked about authenticity. And the reason we’re all sitting here around Thay’s kitchen table is because of Thay and because he was such a living example of the teachings. And I just wonder if you can share a bit about how, you know, this was expressed in his life, you know, in terms of the, as sister said, the fruits of the practice. You know, how did that show up in your experience of Thay?


You know, one of the four Dharma seals of Plum Village, is Go as a river. And going as a river is like to be free and to interbe with everyone, everything that is present. And I never… with Thay, I never felt that he was trying to be more than any of his students. And it allowed, I’m speaking for myself because everybody has a different relationship with Thay. And I just felt because he was so free in his presence, not running after anything. Of course, Thay has a deep aspiration to transmit, to support, to guide. But he was teaching from a place of love and freedom and allowing his students to have the right time and space to grow. And I think as a young person coming into the community who, I was growing up with a lot of pressure to be very successful, to live up to the sacrifices of my parents. And so I was coming in with a burden. And then I translated it into a spiritual life, which is to be worthy enough. And I feel that that kind of pressured I was able to touch freedom when I was with Thay, because Thay was in Nirvana, I would say he was just present. He was just sitting there enjoying a cup of tea. It sounds really simple and like it doesn’t sound special, but when in that moment you’re with somebody who is not trying to consume you, who’s not trying to like tell you what to do and just allows you to be exactly who you are and then trust you, look at you in a way that is loving, is encouraging, there’s freedom there. So the little wave can see the big wave, but see that it is also the essence of water. And now that Sister True Dedication just mentioned that story, I feel so lucky that I can recall moments where I was able to be in presence of Nirvana. And I dare say in those moments, I don’t think, I’m just present with Thay. And saying that gives me a little bit of goosebumps right now, and I feel like that that is a piece that comes from within. And Thay has said like there is no way to peace, peace is a way. So that cultivation of nirvana, that cultivation of freedom becomes the freedom that you offer everywhere you go. That mind of love, that mind of openness, that ultimate, which is interbeing. And it’s so hard to put into words these sensations and this experience, and I’m trying my best right now. But I felt that the heart of service that Thay was able to offer himself to the world was there’s no craving behind that. He’s not doing this to become a superstar. And that’s probably why not many people knew of Thay. Like you have said, right, Jo? Like he’s the famous Zen master that you’ve never heard about.


Most famous no one’s ever heard of…




But everyone knows about him.


Right. But he wasn’t, that wasn’t his aim. His aim was just to offer the teachings because it has transformed him. It has offered him solidity, transformation, peace, and a way through, a way out. And being with him and in his presence, the walking the talk was real. And him embracing like he is the water. And to show all of us the little waves around him, that you’re also of the nature of water. Don’t ever forget that. And I think that is a guidance that is not through just words, but through real presence.


Thank you both. So I want to bring this conversation… As we’ve been talking, I was thinking about someone in a city who’s living a very busy life who maybe two or three times a week, grabs 10 minutes when they wake up to meditate or to sit quietly. And for someone like that, I’m just wondering whether, you know, these 16 exercises can feel like quite overwhelming. Right? Well, I’ve got 10 minutes, do you want me to do what? Are you serious? So I’d like to just bring the conversation before we close, just to the practical application of this. Because the purpose of the 16 exercise is not to scare people off, but to support people. And we talked very briefly in the first episode that, of course, you don’t have to do all 16. You don’t have to do them in order. You could just choose one and really focus on it. But it is also a path, the 16. So I’m just wondering if we could just sort of share a bit so that people feel that they can actually take these and genuinely integrate it into their practice rather than thinking, use it as a whip to beat themselves with that. Oh my God, I only got through three today and actually I got stuck on five or, you know, that we use it as, in a sense, to weaponize against ourselves. So I’m just wondering if you can, in a sense, bring that, with that person in mind, how could I integrate this in a meaningful way? Recognizing it’s a journey. And, you know, this is a a practice that will lengthen, deepen over the years.


Very good question, Jo.


That’s a career of questions. I don’t have to answer them. I’ve got to ask them. Shall I like with Phap Huu [..]? I ask the questions, he answers them. We’re both happy.


Okay. So we’re in the city. And I think, first of all, what we have to do is to really feel that we can internalize these steps. So there’s really a… It’s just about like memorizing them, having them on a piece of paper and I think will create a little image for you. I did this as a novice. I wrote them on a little card, and I still have that somewhere. So, for example, those first four, identifying our breathing, following our breathing, aware of our body, calming our body. For me, I’d actually say we do this, we can