interconnectedness

Reflections on the death of my mother

Photo from a photobooth, from 1961, showing a young woman with glasses holding a baby. She's smiling, while he's looking startled and overawed by the experience.

It’s my birthday today, and it’s unlike any I can remember from my now 63 years on this planet.

It’s the first birthday I’ve had since my mother* passed away on Christmas Eve, just 11 days ago.

My younger sister died just over a year ago, and I wrote then about how my practice helped me with the grief I felt. I’m not going to write about grief today, mainly because my primary emotions have been of relief and gratitude that she didn’t suffer longer. Her last days were pretty grim as she struggled to breathe, and things were only going to get worse. Today I want to look in a different direction.

Also see:

On previous birthdays my focus has usually been on myself: I am a year older. I have completed another cycle around the sun. Happy Birthday to me!

Now I’m more aware of the “birth” part of birthday. Today is the anniversary of the day that my mother gave birth to me. So today seems more about her than it is about me.

She carried me inside her body for more than nine months (I was fashionably late). I grew from a single cell into a baby nourished entirely by her; her body became my body.

Today I very much have a sense that I am a part of her that has, in a way, budded off and continues her existence in the world, even though she is no longer here. My life is a continuation of her life.

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River, parts of our mother often live on within us.

During gestation…

[C]ells from your mother’s body can cross the placental barrier and infiltrate your own body, in a process called “microchimerism.” These maternal cells can settle down anywhere in the body, including the blood, heart, liver, and thymus gland … These cellular interlopers have been shown to live within the offspring’s body for decades, and they may be with us for life. You are not just you, you’re your mother too.

These cells have been found in the pancreases of diabetic individuals, pumping out the insulin that the person can’t manufacture themselves. They’ve been found in damaged heart tissue, and are thought to be trying to repair it.

My mother may still be within me, trying to keep me healthy. (Admittedly, though, some autoimmune disease is believed to be a reaction to the presence of certain material cells.)

My brain and mind were profoundly shaped by her. My first experience of love was her love. We know from the horrible experiments done by Harry Harlow on baby rhesus monkeys how maternal deprivation destroys children. As one description of Harlow’s work says,

[T]he monkeys showed disturbed behavior, staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation. When the isolated infants were re-introduced to the group, they were unsure of how to interact — many stayed separate from the group, and some even died after refusing to eat.

Harlow’s experiment also proves the converse: the gift of love creates our humanity. Not our biological, chromosomal humanity, but our sense of ourselves as thinking, feeling beings connected in love with other thinking, feeling beings.

This was one of my mother’s gifts to me.

A child initially learns most of its language from its mother. The fact that I’m using language to communicate with you now is me passing that particular gift from her.

There are many character traits I picked up from her as well, not through conscious imitation but through unconscious imprinting. Some of those traits are helpful and some less so, but the point is that here too my life is a continuation of her life.

She inherited character traits from her parents, and they from theirs. As with the presence of maternal cells in our bodies, this is by no means all positive. Perhaps my task in life is to take the best of what has been passed on to me and amplify it, and to take the worst and eradicate it. And thus I can pass on the best of my mother to the world — not just through my children, but through all my contacts with other human beings.

My mother died on Christmas Eve. So I’ve now gone through one Christmas, New Year, and birthday without her. There’s a certain amount of grief been present, and there may be more to come — perhaps especially when those celebrations come around again — but that will fade. The love and gratitude, however, will remain.

*Her name was Eleanor Dorothy Stephen. She was born 16th March, 1938. Her birth certificate lists her family name as Tragheim, but she always went by Tragham, my grandad having begun to adopt a less German-sounding last name during the war.

Read More

To be happier, think beyond yourself

It’s natural to assume that the more we focus on ourselves and our own problems, the happier we’ll be. But consider this: in a study of language used by poets, it was found that those who used the words I, me, my, and mine were much more likely to commit suicide than those who used we, us, our, and ours.

In fact, poets who killed themselves used self-referential words more and more often as they approached their premature deaths, while those who lived long lives used we-words more and more often.

This relates to the problem of rumination, where our own thinking acts to amplify our suffering. Many of our thoughts containing I, me, my, and mine are connected with feelings of distress: I’m worried about this, I don’t like that. No one cares about me or considers my feelings. And so on.

“I” thoughts reinforce our sense of aloneness. We see ourselves as broken, as worse than others, and therefore separate from them.

Thoughts of “we” connect us, reminding us of our common humanity. Our individual sufferings are seen as being shared by others, and as being part of the difficulties we all have in being human. Our sufferings are not a sign of us being broken, but of us belonging to a greater whole. Our sufferings connect us with others, rather than pushing us into a sense of separateness.

Cultivating compassion is one way of moving from I-thinking to we-thinking, and research in fact shows that compassionately considering and responding to the sufferings of others brings us many benefits, including becoming happier, healthier, more self-confident, less self-critical, and more emotionally resilient.

If it seems paradoxical that taking on board others’ sufferings can make us healthier and happier, this is simply a reflection of the fact that we forget that we are intrinsically social beings, that we are therefore more fulfilled when we connect with others, and that we also gain a sense of meaning and purpose from helping others.

Compassion can be cultivated. And it’s a simple thing: compassion is simply kindness meeting suffering. In compassion meditation we first connect in a kindly way with ourselves, and then extend our concern to others.

Practicing in this way trains us to take into account not just our own well-being, but that of others, too. This has the effect of reducing the amount of self-focused rumination we do, decreasing our tendency to freak out, and increasing our happiness.

Read More

The great mystery of being

Wildmind’s online course, The Great Mystery of Being: A Practical Introduction to the Experience of Non-Self, begins on Wednesday, September 20th.

The greatest insights that the Buddha had are that our sense of self is a burden that we drag around with us, and that it’s possible to lay down that burden.

The six element practice is a beautiful and poetic reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness — and especially non-self.

The practice encourages us to examine everything that we take to be “us” and “ours” and teaches us to see that nothing in the mind or body truly belongs to us.

In fact the concept of there being an “us” that anything can belong to is subjected to close analysis.

It does this by examining each of the “elements” that constitutes the body and mind:

  1. Earth — everything solid within the body
  2. Water — everything liquid within the body
  3. Fire — all energy within the body
  4. Air — anything gaseous within the body
  5. Space — our sense of separateness
  6. Consciousness — our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings

Over the course of six weeks we’ll explore each of these elements in turn, and see how everything that we take to be “us” is in fact merely “borrowed” from the outside world.

In time, our illusion of having a separate and permanent self can be seen through. No longer do we have to worry about whether the “self” we thought we had is good enough, worthy enough, capable of becoming awakened, etc. Instead we come to a direct perception of the thoroughgoing nature of impermanence, so that our “self” is nothing more than a dance of ever changing experiences. Accompanying this is a profound sense of release, relief, and confidence.

There’s no promise that these six weeks will take you all the way to awakening, but you’ll certainly experience a shift in how you perceive yourself. You’ll at least experience a taste of liberation.

Register today to explore the great mystery of being!

Read More

Accept Dependence

Galaxy-unsplash

Want to try a little experiment?

Stop breathing. Really. For a few seconds, maybe a few dozen seconds, and see how it feels.

For me, this experiment is an intimate way to experience a deep truth, that we live dependently, relying on 10,000 things for physical survival, happiness, love, and success.

For example, within half a minute of no air, most people are uncomfortable, after one minute, they’re panicking, and after four minutes, they’re brain-dead or severely damaged. Second by second, your life and mind require oxygen, the plants that “exhale” it, the sun that drives photosynthesis, and other stars blowing up billions of years ago to make every atom of oxygen in the next breath you take. Or think about the people you rely on – the touches, attention, and caring – or the medicines, wisdom teachings, civil society, technologies, or your own good efforts last year that you profit from today.

It’s kind of freaky and frightening to know that we live dangled by 10,000 vulnerable threads, many of which could be cut at any moment. On the other hand, opening to this truth can silence the lies of unwarranted self-criticism. Of course we need others, of course the underlying causes and conditions have to be present to succeed at anything, of course we can’t grow roses in a parking lot. We are frail, soft, vulnerable, hurt by little things, and hungry for love. When you let this in, you’re not so hard on yourself – or others.

Accepting dependence brings you into harmony with the way it actually is. All things, from gophers to galaxies, arise and pass away in dependence on all other things. Dependence is nothing to be ashamed of, in spite of our culture’s hyper-emphasis on independence. Hearing the voice of someone you love, eating a strawberry, or taking a breath, realizing your dependence brings you into an almost ecstatic gratitude when you see that the 10,000 vulnerabilities are actually 10,000 gifts.

Consider some of the many things you depend on. Imagine that for the next year you leave all your doors unlocked, give up a favorite food, and don’t speak with any friends or family. Let it sink in that you use or need many people and things each day. Try to have a matter-of-fact attitude about this, knowing that this is true for everybody, not just you.

Then look in the other direction, and recognize how so many others depend on you. They’re affected by how you smile, your tone of voice, and whether you pick up milk on the way home tonight. When I see this myself, it makes me feel good: I’m connected rather than isolated, and someone who makes a difference. It also makes me feel more tender and kindly toward others.

Much as people depend on you, you depend on you. The you that you are today has been gifted in thousands of ways, large and small, by previous versions of yourself. Like runners in a great relay race, you hand the baton each day to the you who wakes up the next morning. Think of some of the many things that earlier you’s have contributed to your life: problems solved, goals accomplished, dishes done, relationships nurtured, lessons learned. It’s simple and powerful: silently thank them. How does this feel?

Looking forward, consider how your future you depends on what you do today. Not as pressure, but tenderly, let it land that your future you is counting on you, right now. What will be important to this being that you will become? What could you do this year, this day, that would set up this future person – in his or her middle age or old age – to live with safety, health, happiness, and ease?

Last, be honest with yourself about your own needs, and the things that make a difference for you. What would be good to nourish or shore up? Paradoxically, the more open you are to the humility of dependence, the more straightforward you are about watering your personal fruit tree.

Read More

You are the child of all beings

A well-known Buddhist teaching explains that all (or at least most) beings have, at one time or another in the inconceivable past, been close family members:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration [saṃsāra]. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating and wandering on [literally “saṃsāra-ing”]. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find. [Māta sutta]

A millennium or so later this was elaborated by Buddhaghosa into a reflective practice, so that we contemplate in detail how any person we’re feeling resentful of has, at some point in the past, as our mother, carried us in her womb, given birth to us, suckled us, and taken care of us. And as our father, this being has previously worked tirelessly and took great risks to provide for us, and even went to war to protect us.

The point of this practice is to eliminate ill will. Recognizing the debt we owe to others, we can think, “It is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that hinge upon a belief in rebirth, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each moment we die and are reborn.

This is what I think the Buddha had in mind, rather than literal rebirth, when he said in the Dhatu-Vibhanga Sutta:

Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long?

If there’s only a constant process of death and rebirth, moment by moment, then there’s no “thing” that can be born, age, or die. Thus there’s nothing to mourn or fear, or to long for.

If we look closely at our own moments of death and rebirth, we see that ultimately each one of them takes place not with us as an isolated unit, but as an inextricable part of a greater whole. Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth.

Each perception is the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, or even think of someone, a new experience arises and we change; in a sense, we die and are reborn with every contact we have with another being.

Right now, as you read these words, my thoughts are echoing in your mind, evoking new experiences. Each word gives birth to a new you that didn’t exist a moment before.

And since the constellation of experiences that is me arises in dependence upon many other beings, your reading this article right now connects you to everyone who has ever been in my life, everyone who has been in those people’s lives, and ultimately all beings who are or have existed.

And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers and fathers.

Read More

Kindness to you is kindness to me; kindness to me is kindness to you

PartnershipI usually describe a practice as something to do: get on your own side, see the being behind the eyes, take in the good, etc. This practice is different: it’s something to recognize. From this recognition, appropriate action will follow. Let me explain.

Some years ago I was invited to give a keynote at a conference with the largest audience I’d ever faced. It was a big step up for me. Legendary psychologists were giving the other talks, and I feared I wouldn’t measure up. I was nervous. Real nervous.

I sat in the back waiting my turn, worrying about how people would see me. I thought about how to look impressive and get approval. My mind fixed on me, me, me. I was miserable.

Then I began reading an interview with the Dalai Lama. He spoke about the happiness in wishing others well. A wave of relief and calming swept through me as I recognized that the kindest thing I could do for myself was to stop obsessing about “me” and instead try to be helpful to others.

So I gave my talk, and stayed focused on what could be useful to people rather than how I was coming across. I felt much more relaxed and at peace – and received a standing ovation. I laughed to myself at the ironies: to get approval, stop seeking it; to take care of yourself, take care of others.

This principle holds in everyday life, not just in conferences. If you get a sense of other people and find compassion for them, you’ll feel better yourself. In a relationship, one of the best ways to get your own needs met is to take maximum reasonable responsibility (these words are carefully chosen) for meeting the needs of the other person. Besides being benevolent – which feels good in its own right – it’s your best odds strategy for getting treated better by others. This approach is the opposite of being a doormat; it puts you in a stronger position.

Flip it the other way, and it is also true: kindness to yourself is kindness to others. As your own well-being increases, you’re more able and likely to be patient, supportive, forgiving, and loving. To take care of them, you’ve got to take care of yourself; otherwise you start running on empty. As you grow happiness and other inner strengths inside yourself, you’ve got more to offer to others.

Kindness to you is kindness to me; kindness to me is kindness to you. It’s a genuine – and beautiful – two-way street.

The kindness to others and to yourself that I’m talking about here is authentic and proportionate, not overblown or inappropriate.

In ordinary situations, take a moment here and there to recognize that if you open to appropriate compassion, decency, tolerance, respect, support, friendliness, or even love for others . . . . it’s good for you as well.

See the consequences of little things. For example, earlier today, in an airport, I saw a bag on the ground and didn’t know if it had been left by someone. Thinking about this practice, it was natural for there to be some friendliness in my face when I asked the man in front of me if it was his bag. He was startled at first and it seemed like he felt criticized, then he looked more closely at me, relaxed a bit, and said that the bag was his friend’s. His response to my friendliness made me feel at ease instead of awkward or tense.

Imagine what the other person’s concerns or wants might be, and do what you can – usually easily and naturally – to take them into account. Then see how this turns out for you. Probably better than it would have been.

Also see how taking care of yourself has good ripple effects for others. Deliberately do a small thing that feeds you – a little rest, some exercise, some time for yourself – and then notice how this affects your relationships. Notice how healthy boundaries in relationships helps prevent you from getting used up or angry and eventually needing to withdraw.

In effect, you are running little experiments and letting the results really sink in. That’s the important part: letting it really land inside you that we are deeply connected with each other. Helping others helps you; helping yourself helps others. Similarly, harming others harms you; harming yourself harms others.

It’s as if we are connected in a vast web. For better or worse, what you do to others ripples back to you; what you do to yourself ripples out to others.

Recognizing this in your belly and bones will change your life for the better. And change the lives of others for the better as well.

Read More

Six Element Practice: Guided Meditation MP3

aryaloka Buddhist center

Here’s another guided meditation from the retreat I’m co-leading with Sunada at Aryaloka. This one’s the Six Element Practice, which is a reflection on non-self.

The quality of the recording is not great, and the only editing I’ve done is to increase the volume and to remove a cough or too. You’ll hear the building creaking, and people shuffling (and no doubt some coughs that I missed).

Still, I hope it’s of benefit:

Here’s an audio-only version:

Read More

“Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

On New Year’s Day, many of us will resolve to lose weight. But before we finalise our weight loss plans, writer Mandy Sutter recommends taking a look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s interesting new book, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.

For millions of us, overweight is a seemingly intractable problem. We start diets and exercise programmes with good intentions, and may succeed in losing weight. But our new, low weight is hard to sustain and the pounds creep back on, sometimes gradually, sometimes indecently quickly.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr Lilian Cheung, authors of Savor, our difficulties aren’t entirely of our own making. The ‘obesigenic society’ we live in makes it tricky to live in a healthy, balanced way. There’s a proven link, for example, between the rise in obesity and the rise in TV watching. And food manufacturers are generally more concerned with turning in a good profit than with safeguarding people’s health.

A significant part of Savor is devoted to observations like these, backed up by intelligent discussion and reference to up-to-date scientific studies. The emphasis on interconnectedness is no accident (we Buddhists tend to bang on about such things) and marks the book out as more than just another book on weight loss. It takes the sting out of one’s own struggle too, and relieves the self-blame that strikes as one reaches for another chocolate in front of the afternoon film.

But having put our problems into context, the authors don’t let us rest on our laurels. The book is stuffed – perhaps a little surprisingly – with practical advice on eating and exercise.

A seasoned dieter will have seen much of this before, but what’s different about Savor is that the benefit of following the advice is described not just in terms of the self but also the wider community. Interconnectedness again. For example, it’s pointed out that riding a bike to work will not only help you lose weight but safeguard the clean air in your town, as will your next step: trying to persuade local government to build cycle paths.

Another thing that marks Savor out is the meditation exercises peppered throughout, the reference to Buddhist sutras, and gems like ‘the 7 practices of a mindful eater’. The exercises and references to Buddhist texts are well explained and justified within the weight-loss context, and therefore accessible to non-Buddhists.

I do wonder, however, if exhorting us to recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Mindfulness Trainings once a week (pg 209) isn’t a bridge too far for the non-Buddhist reader (at whom the book seems to be aimed).

And although the book’s approach will fall like manna from Nirvana to some, it will alienate others (including Buddhists fat and thin alike) who don’t buy the idea that our society is in a bad way or even that our planet is in need of saving. Very occasionally the text degenerates into hectoring, as if one is attending a very right-on party and has been trapped (on the other side of the room from the food and drinks table) by an earnest bore.

But these slips are minor ones in a book that’s thoughtful, concerned, well researched and pleasingly wide-ranging.

Ignore the blurb on the cover, which makes mindfulness sound like the new ‘fix’ to help people lose weight. In fact, the book gets it the other (right) way round: our problems with weight offer us a golden opportunity to learn to live more mindfully.

Read More

Rainer Maria Rilke: “Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

To many people, the word “mindfulness” excludes the imagination, but, as Bodhipaksa explains, there are powerful insight practices that involve mindfully imagining our connection to the wider world.

For many years I’ve been practicing a meditation known as the Six Element Practice.

The Six Element Practice is an insight meditation involving reflection on our own impermanence and interconnectedness.

For some practitioners of the most common form of “insight meditation” — that taught by S. N. Goenka, and by various teachers of the Insight Meditation Society — the notion of reflecting on our experience in the way that we do in the Six Element practice can seem odd, and even contradictory to what they understand of meditation and of mindfulness.

In the form of meditation they practice, thoughts and images may come up, but they are to be observed without interference and allowed to pass. The impermanence of thoughts and images is noted but thoughts and images themselves are not actively cultivated. S. N. Goenka states in one of his books, “Vipassana uses no imagination,” and the variations of the phrase “no imagination is involved” are scattered throughout his teachings. In the Six Element practice, in contrast to Goenka-style vipassana, we do in fact consciously cultivate the arising of thoughts and images. We mindfully reflect and imagine.

Images spring into my mind, evoked by the words I’m speaking

In the Earth Element reflection, for example, we call to mind everything solid within the body. This includes some aspects of the body that we can directly sense, such as the mass of the muscles, the hardness of the teeth, and the resistance offered by some of the bones. But being aware of what is solid in the body goes far beyond what we can directly sense, and takes us into an awareness, for example, of the internal organs, the bone marrow, and even the contents of the stomach and the bowels—all things we are asked to become aware of in the traditional descriptions of the practice. These are things we can’t perceive directly, and so we have to imagine them. In the Buddha’s day people would be familiar with anatomy from seeing animals butchered, and from seeing bodies in charnel grounds. Nowadays we can picture those organs in the mind’s eye by drawing our experience of illustrations we may have seen in books, magazines, or on television programs.

See also:

Similarly, in the Earth Element reflection we call to mind the solid matter in the outside world. When I’m leading others through the practice I usually draw attention to some examples: the solid floor that supports us and the building covering us, the ground below, rocks and boulders, the distant mountains, the trees and other plants in our environment, buildings, vehicles, the bodies of people and animals, etc. As I say these things out loud for the benefit of students, I find that images spring into my mind, evoked by the words I’m speaking. Sometimes, in order to cultivate a sense of the solidity of the external Earth Element I’ll recall or imagine grasping a handful of soil, or hefting a stone in my hand, or pushing against the rough bark of a tree trunk.

Einstein once referred to our sense of separateness being a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.

Imagination allows us to see aspects of reality that aren’t immediately obvious to the unaided senses. Our senses end up fooling us because they’re unable to directly perceive process. When I become mindful of my body, aware only of what is available to my raw senses, I can be fooled into thinking that my body is more static and separate than it is in reality. Einstein once referred to our sense of separateness being a kind of “optical delusion of consciousness.” He was using the words “optical delusion” as a metaphor, but the metaphor is actually very accurate. When I look at my body I see a boundary separating self from other. I also see something that is relatively unchanging. This is what my senses present to me—the body as a “thing.” And yet in my imagination I can recall the way in which my body has come into being by ingesting nourishment and how what constitutes my body is constantly changing from being “self” to being “other.” By recollecting in my mind’s eye the various ways in which the elements flow through my body, I find I can have a truer perception of what the body is: something that is not separate and not static.

Imagination helps us to see truths that our unaided senses cannot detect.

All this, however, rather goes against a certain idea of mindfulness, which is that it involves being aware only of what arises in our present moment experience, such as the sensations being presented to our bodies and any thoughts and feelings that arise naturally. In the Buddhist tradition, however, the mind is considered to be a sixth sense, so that when we reflect on our internal organs or on the solidity of the earth we are simply paying attention to the present moment experience of our visual and tactile imagination. Mindfulness can include these things.

And imagination can be a valuable gateway into insight. It allows us to, in Rilke’s words, go into ourselves and see how deep is the place from which our lives flow. Imagination helps us to make the invisible visible, and to see truths that our unaided senses cannot detect.

Read More

Thich Nhat Hanh, “Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment”

Buddha mind, buddha body, Thich Nhat HanhThich Nhah Hanh’s spiritual genius shines through this new book, despite some poor organization and quirky translations.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment offers instructions on dwelling in the body and mind, on metta (or universal lovingkindness), and on Thich Nhat Hanh’s distinctive teaching on “interbeing.” The book includes–as bookends, teachings on walking meditation–but many other practices are discussed in between. The book is in fact quite a collection of Dharma teachings.

Title: Buddha Mind, Buddha Body
Author: Thich Nhat Hanh
Publisher: Parallax
ISBN: 978-1888375-75-6
Available from: Amazon.com and Parallax.

Buddha Mind, Buddha Body is based on The Verses on the Characteristics of the Eight Consciousnesses by Master Hsuan-Tsang (ca. 596-664), though the connection to that text is not readily apparent, and nowhere does the author explicitly state he’s discussing Hsuan-Tsang’s work.

Sometimes Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanations neatly encapsulate major struggles from my own practice and remind me of why I seek the freedom that mindfulness brings:

“Dispersion is when you allow yourself to be carried away by emotions. When we feel out of control of our lives, as if we don’t have any sovereignty, that’s mind consciousness in dispersion. You think and speak and do things that you cannot control. We don’t want to be full of hate and anger and discrimination, but sometimes the habit energy feels so strong we don’t know how to change it. There’s no loving kindness, understanding, or compassion in your thinking, because you are less than your better self … you say things and do thing you wouldn’t say or do if you were concentrated. You lose your sovereignty.” (page 77)

In these flashes of clarity, I wonder: where did this guy come from? Who is he? Thich Nhat Hanh started practicing when he was 16 in Vietnam, in a tradition that draws heavily from Zen, although Thich Nhat Hanh seems to value the whole Buddhist tradition.

Conditionality is a key idea in Buddhism, and is always present in one form or another in this book, mostly in his emphasis on “interbeing.” Conditionality is the idea that we, and everything, are predicated on conditions. Being separate is a mistake and a delusion.

I found the lack of footnotes confusing. I like a Dharma book that notes exactly where a particular story comes from in the vast tradition, so I can look it up and reinforce what I’m learning, or see if I agree with an author’s interpretation of a text.

Also his translations are sometimes different from standard definitions. Instead of the usual translation of “patience” for kshanti, he translates it as “inclusiveness.” He likens it more to growing larger, so that little things do not bug you. He translates sila as “mindfulness”, though usually it’s considered “ethics.” Not that ethics doesn’t require mindfulness, but we have the tradition of the precepts to guide us here. Virya isn’t translated as “energy” but “diligence.”

Thich Nhat Hanh uses the language of theism when he says, “a kingdom of God or Pure Land.” This language might be helpful to some, and unhelpful to others. It’s pretty clear that the Buddha said questions about God’s existence, is not pragmatic on the path to Enlightenment, it’s a red herring. But Buddhism isn’t a stickler for dogma. What ever practically helps you on the path to enlightenment. If thoughts of god help you, then well it doesn’t matter what the Buddha said. Of course because the Buddha has said something, according to the tradition, there’s a good reason to look into it and take it seriously.

The last chapter of the book is a guided walking meditation, derived from past books, and then there are appendices, which leads to a clunky kind of ending, a mishmash of information that is not well strung together. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the book over all, and look forward to reading more from him. He’s clearly a spiritual genius, a star Buddhist in a great sky of wonderful Buddhist stars, and well worth your notice.

Read More
Menu

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.

X