We are our Ancestors and
The Sutra on Measuring and Reflecting
© Thich Nhat Hanh
Today is the 26th of March and we are in the New Hamlet in the Spring Retreat.
When we hear the sound of the bell, we should open ourselves up to allow all the generations of ancestors in us to hear the bell at the same time as we do. It means we shouldn’t imprison ourselves in a shell of self – we should allow our ancestors to listen to the bell at the same time. That is our practice at that moment, because all the generations of ancestors, including our father and our mother are in us in a very concrete way - in every cell of our body. The body contains the mind – the soma contains the psyche, and we could say that the mind also contains the body. That means that the psyche contains the soma and that psyche includes feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness and we should learn to see our mental formations are made out of cells, just as the body is made out of cells. The cells of the body contain the cells of the consciousness and the cells of the consciousness contain the cells of the body.
Psyche and soma are just two sides of the same reality. There isn’t one that precedes the other, just like the particle and the wave are two aspects of the same reality. The wave contains the particle, just as the particle contains the wave. The reality of us is the reality of body and mind. We could call ourselves psyche and we could call ourselves soma, but in fact psyche and soma are two aspects manifesting from one reality. If we look into one cell of our body, or one cell of our consciousness, we recognize the presence of all the generations of ancestors in us – that is the truth. Our ancestors are not just human beings. Before human beings appeared we were other species. We have been trees, plants, grasses, minerals, squirrels and deer. We have been monkeys and one-celled animals and all these generations of ancestors are present in each cell of our body as well as our mind and we are the continuation of this stream of life. Therefore, when we hear the bell, it is not a separate "I" which is listening to the bell, but it is the stream, the vast stream of life, and this is the practice of no-self. We talk a lot about no-self. We could talk about it very fluently but we don’t practice no-self, we just talk about it. When we hear the sound of the bell and we allow all the generations of ancestors and all our descendants, which are already present in our body, to hear it also then we are experiencing the reality of no-self which the Buddha taught. No-self is not some vague idea, but it is a reality which we carry in our very person and we only need to listen properly to the bell and we can go beyond the shell of self. We can go beyond the prison of the idea of a separate self and we allow the sound of the bell to penetrate every generation of the past and the future which is in us.
We were earlier talking about guava fruit. Even when the guava fruit is not yet ripe, it has all its seeds of future trees. When we are only 4 years old we think we can only be a child 4 years old... we can only be a little brother, but in fact we are already a mother, already a father. A little novice of 12 or 13 years old plays the role of a disciple, but he already has his own disciples in his person and he has disciples of his disciples in his person already. So when he hears the sound of the bell, the young novice must open his heart so that all the generations of ancestral teachers can hear the bell at the same time, so that all the generations of his blood family can hear the bell at the same time, and so that all the generations of his future students, in him now, can hear the bell. And if he practices like that, he is practicing ‘no-self’ and he is able to see the wonder of no-self and he is giving a Dharma talk on no-self. To listen to the bell like that is to hear the bell according to the highest teachings.
When we take a step on the green grass of spring, we walk in such a way that allows all our ancestors to take a step with us. our peace, our joy, our freedom, which are in each step, penetrate each generation of our ancestors and each generation of our descendants. If we can walk like that, that is a step taken in the highest dhyana. When we take one step we see hundreds and thousands of ancestors and descendants taking a step with us, and when we take a breath we are light, at ease, calm. We breathe in such a way that all the generations of ancestors are breathing with us and all the generations of our descendants are also breathing with us... if we breathe like that, only then are we breathing according to the highest teachings. We just need a little mindfulness, a little concentration and then we can look deeply and see. At first we use the method of visualization and we see, as we walk, all the ancestors putting their foot down as we put our foot down, and gradually we don’t need to visualize any more – each step we take, we see that that step is the step of all people in the past.
When you are cooking a dish of food - something you have learnt from your mother or your father, a dish that has been handed down through generations of your family – you should look at your hand and smile because this hand is the hand of your mother, the hand of your grand-mother. Those who have made this dish are making this dish now and that is the truth! We are not the inventors of this dish, we are just continuing. We see our mothers hand, our grand-mothers hand, and the hands of all our ancestors making this dish. When we are in the kitchen cooking, we can realize the highest teachings – we don’t have to go into the meditation hall to practice this. We have so many opportunities, the problem is – do we know how to make the most of them? We have our teacher, we have our Sangha, we have our dharma teachings, we have all the conditions that are necessary to do this and we should use these opportunities. This is not a theory, this is real experience of our daily life... it is real life.
In the past, your grandfather – did he play volleyball? No, he didn’t, because in those days they didn’t have volleyball... Did your grandmother go jogging every day? Did your grand-mother have the opportunity to practice dwelling in the present moment while she was walking... while she was running? When we are running we should allow our grandmother to run in us, and it is the truth that your grandmother is running in you. She is in each cell of your body. You carry all your ancestors in you when jogging, when doing walking meditation and when you are realizing the practice of dwelling happily in the present moment. Maybe other generations didn’t have the opportunity to practice like this. Now we have the opportunity. We have received the practice as taught by our teachers and when we do that practice we bring happiness and joy to countless generations of ancestors, whether we’re practicing walking, running, or breathing.
We have produced Plum Village in order to be able to do these things, because in the town, in the society, we don’t have the right conditions to be able to walk like we do, to be able to breathe, to smile like we do, to wash clothes and to cook like we do in Plum Village. An environment where we can feel at ease, where we can do these things in a very leisurely way, in order to practice dwelling happily in the present moment. We know that many people have supported, and have brought time and energy to give us an environment where we can take steps at ease, where we can breathe in and out like this... where we can cook like this... where we can practice like this. And when we practice like this, we are doing it for all times – for the past and for the future. Thanks to our taking steps like this, and breathing and smiling and sitting like this, we are able to liberate so many generations. We liberate them by getting out of the shell of our separate self.
Western psycho-therapy aims at healing and bringing us a self which is stable and wholesome, but the psycho-therapy in the West is still caught in the idea of ‘self’. Psycho-therapy in the West can bring about a little transformation, a little healing, but it cannot go very far because Western psycho-therapy is still caught in the idea of a ‘self’. According to Western psycho-therapy, the family can bring about ease and peace and joy; but because of misfortune our family has not been able to bring about that. So now, how can our practice take us out of this misfortune so that we can, once again, bring back happiness and peace in our lives. Western psychology is based on the idea that we had a self that was happy and at peace and joy and we have to revive and restore that state of peace, happiness and joy that we had before. But in the light of the practice of Buddhism, for as long as we are caught in the idea of a separate self, ignorance is still in us – in our body and in our mind. Therefore, the practice of no-self is the most wonderful way to heal. Practicing no-self is to get out of the narrow idea of the self, to see the intimate relation between what is self and what is not-self. That way, ignorance is healed and all the suffering, the anger, the jealousy, and the fear, will disappear, and the fruit which is achieved is a thousand times greater than the healing which is based on the idea of a separate self.
We are people who have problems... psychological problems, and we ask ourselves questions like – "Who am I? When my mother and father came together, did they want me to come into this world or did they just come together and I was the result... rather like a misfortune, an accident... Did they want to have me or did I just appear as an accident? My mother and father came together in a thoughtless way and because of that I came into this world..." If I think like that, I will suffer. There are people who say, "When I came into this life did my parents want to keep me or did they want to destroy me – did they want to have an abortion?" Many people suffer when they think that their parents may have wanted to have an abortion. "Who am I? Was I wanted? What is the meaning of my life?" We are inclined to ask questions like that and when we try and answer those questions we suffer because we are caught in an idea of a separate self. When a young child grows up and if he knows that in the past, his mother had wanted to have an abortion, that child will suffer a lot. He knows that his parents didn’t want to have that child and it was an accident that the child was born and if the child knows that, he will suffer very much and that suffering will bring about illnesses. How will the psycho-therapist be able to help that child? "Does my life have a meaning? Where do I come from? Who am I?" These questions can be the source of abnormalities, of sufferings in the life of a person, but if we look deeply, according to the way the Buddha taught, we can see the reality of no-self and we will no longer ask questions like that. This is one of the essential points which we learn in the Sutra on the Middle Way. First of all we see that we are a continuation of a stream of life. Whether our parents wanted us or not is not so important. Maybe our father and mother didn’t want us, or didn’t want us yet, but our grandparents and our ancestors wanted us to come into life and that is the truth. The truth is that our ancestors, our grandparents, always want a continuation. If it’s not this generation, it will be the next generation. There are always generations who want us to be their continuation and if we can answer that way, then the child will not suffer from thinking their parents didn’t want them, because any parents have their ups and downs – their good moments and their not-so-good moments. Sometimes they are full of love and sometimes they are full of anger, and this love and anger is not the only thing that they have. It is not only from them, but from all generations and when we can see that their love and their anger comes from all generations, we no longer blame our parents. We see that our parents have good things as well as very unwholesome things.
In the East, we are forced to someone to marry someone we hate and we say, "Why do our parents make us marry this person we don’t like?" But after we have lived with this person for two or three years, we discover that the person they made us marry is very likeable and we thank our parents – we see that our parents had a certain wisdom in judging that person to be a good husband and they had a good reason to allow this coming together to happen. We all have friends, who in the beginning we didn’t like at all - we hated them! When we saw that person we hated them so much, but after a while we discover that person is a very good friend and therefore that moment of hatred is not everything. It is just a moment; it is not eternal and after that moment of hatred there are moments of great love and therefore hatred and love are just on the surface. Deeper than that is something else and when we can see that, we are not sad and we don’t say things like – "Do my father and mother love me or not?", because maybe, at one point during the pregnancy, they didn’t want me, but after I was born they loved me very much and they are very happy I was born. So we see we are our father and mother. We see we are our grandparents and when we get out of the shell of self we are no longer made to suffer by the question "Was I wanted?" Therefore, when we study Buddhism and practice according to the no-self teachings of Buddhism, we are able to liberate ourselves and also liberate numberless generations of ancestors and descendants in us.
In our childhood we may have been through stages of great difficulties. We have been wounded, we have had traumas and we generally do not want to remember those stages of suffering. In us there is a protective defense mechanism, we want to defend ourselves against our suffering. Every time we are in touch with the experience of suffering, we cannot bear it and therefore the thing called "defense mechanism" tries to hide these things deep down in our unconscious mind and when someone comes along and digs up these sufferings, we cry, we weep, we are sorrowful and we cannot eat for a couple of days. But running away from our suffering is not the best way to deal with it. Therefore, in Buddhism we are taught that we should practice mindfulness. We should produce the energy of mindfulness and return and embrace the young child who is wounded in us. That young child can have been very heavily wounded – very severely wounded, but because, for many decades, we haven’t had the strength to deal with it, we have tried to run away from that suffering. We have not dared to face it and therefore the wounded child in us continues to suffer and is asking for care and love, but we do the opposite – we run away. We are always running away, because we are afraid of suffering and therefore the method of Buddhism is to practice in such a way that we produce the energy of mindfulness and with the energy of mindfulness we are no longer afraid. We are able to return and we are able to recognize that child in us. We are able to embrace that child in us and we are able to talk to that child in us. When we have the energy of mindfulness we have the capacity to embrace that child like we would embrace a young brother or sister who has been wounded and we say, "I have, in the past, left you alone – I have gone away from you... now I am very sorry. I am going to embrace you.." We have to embrace that child and, if necessary, we have to cry together with that child perhaps while we are doing sitting meditation. We have to talk to that child with the language of love... We can go into the forest and do that. We can call that child a little sister or little brother.
Among us there are people who have practiced this and after a period of practice there has been a diminution of their suffering and a transformation. After that, the relationship between that person and their brothers and sisters and friends become much easier, because they have come back to themselves and healed the wounded child in themselves. The people around us, our brothers and sisters, may also have a severely wounded child in them and we can help them if we have managed to help ourselves. And therefore, after we have healed ourselves, we see the relationship between ourselves and others has become much better, much easier. We see more peace, more love in us. In Buddhism, we see that that wounded child is not just us... not only us. It may also be our mother, because our mother has suffered throughout her life. Our father has suffered, and our mother and father did not meet the Dharma in order to be able to look after the wounded child in themselves and therefore, that wounded child in us is our mother who has been wounded as a child. So when we are embracing the wounded child in us, we are embracing all our mothers of generations in the past – all the wounded children of our past generations. This practice is not a practice for ourselves alone, but it is a practice for numberless generations of ancestors and descendants. Therefore, when we are able to embrace the child who has been wounded in us, we are able to embrace our mother and our father. Maybe our father and our mother had suffered and the baby, the child, in them has not yet been looked after, not yet been healed, and so we heal the wounded child in us for our father, for our mother, and for our grandparents. If we don’t do it now, when will we do it? Now we have our teacher. Now we have our friends. Now we have our Sangha... and we don’t do it, so when will we do it? The years and months we spend in Plum Village are not to give us knowledge, to form us in Buddhist studies, because Plum Village is not a university for us to come and receive the heap of knowledge which, later on, we will take with us in order to get a job or in order to teach to others. Plum Village is a place where we are able to practice embracing and transforming the wounded child in us. In us, the wounded child is always there, is always waiting, and we have abandoned it. Now we have to return to her and recognize her; accept her presence, embrace her, weep with her, and with the energy of mindfulness, heal her. And in the light of the Sutra on the Middle Way, we know that this child, who has been wounded, is not just us, but it is also the child of other generations. It is the wounded child of our mother, the wounded child of our father, the wounded child of our grandparents and when we practice, we practice for all our ancestors.
Where is that child? That child is lying in each cell of our body. There is no cell of our body which does not have that wounded child in it. The cells of our consciousness and the cells of our body. Our consciousness is made of cells and in each cell of our consciousness, of our mental formations, that wounded child is there – abandoned, severely wounded. We don’t have to look for that child a long way away in the past... 3 million years ago. We don’t have to look for that child in our childhood or in the time of our great-grandparents because all the truth of that wounded child, all the suffering of that wounded child is lying, right now, in the present moment, in each cell of our body and our consciousness. We just have to go back to ourselves and be in touch and we will see all of this. You are inscribed in each cell of your body and your mind. You don’t have to go back to the past, that child lies in the present. The wounds, the suffering, the sadness... it is present in every cell of your body just as the awakened wisdom of your ancestors, of the Buddha, the happiness of the Buddha, is also present in every cell of your body. You should know how to return to it and make use of it – these elements of happiness, of awakened wisdom, in order to produce the energy of mindfulness and embrace the child who has been wounded. The wounds, as well as the happiness, are in each and every one of your cells. The Buddha, the ancestors, and the teachers have handed down this awakened wisdom that is lying in each cell of your body. You just need to return, with your breathing and your steps to produce the energy of mindfulness and wisdom and that energy will embrace and heal you, and it will heal the wounded child in you.
We are people who have ignorance in each cell of our body and our mind. That ignorance is called Avidya– lack of clarity. It means the "inability to see" things which are just lying there, we don’t know that they’re there. Avidya– no seeing, no clarity. This term is in Buddhism, it means lack of light, lack of insight, lack of seeing... That wounded child is lying there and we don’t even know the wounded child is there. The wounded child in us is a reality, but we can not see it and that inability to see it is called ignorance. This child has been severely wounded. It really needs us to return to it and accept it, to embrace it, but we don’t know that it’s there and we are running away from it. That attitude – if you don’t want to use ‘ignorance’... what do you call it? We are looking to make money, making profit, but at the same time we are not aware of what is really happening in us, and that ignorance brings about energies that make us sick. In each cell of our body, each cell of our consciousness, there is this ignorance. It is like a drop of ink in a glass of water. That ignorance is in each cell of our body. It stops us from seeing reality and it pushes us in the direction of darkness so that we do things which are foolish and which make us suffer even more and which makes the wounded child in us even more wounded. That energy of darkness is called ‘impulse’ and everyday our impulses push us to do things, to say things, which are ignorant because the basis of our impulses is ignorance. We are sad, we are angry, we blame, we are jealous... all these things are the energy of impulse and the basis of that is ignorance. These impulses – we do not see them. They lie in our consciousness. Our consciousness is ‘wrong’ consciousness. It is full of ignorance and impulse.
Buddhist psychology has two parts. One we talk about is ‘mind consciousness’ and the other is ‘store consciousness’. In Western terms we talk about the ‘unconscious’ and the ‘subconscious’ and in Buddhism these two things are contained in the Alaya consciousness, the store consciousness. We push our severely wounded child down into those regions. The deeper, the better. The child is calling, crying out for help from those places, but we don’t hear and all this is ignorance and therefore, ignorance has brought about our present consciousness. In each cell of our body and in every cell of our consciousness, we have the subconscious and the unconscious, and the energy of them pushes us to live our daily life superficially and foolishly, bringing about more and more suffering for ourselves and those who live around us. Therefore, what we are learning in the practice is - from ignorance, to make clarity. How can we have light in the darkness? We are walking in the dark, so we do things opposite to what we want to do and we know that we want light. Light means being able to light up a lamp and we have to take that light out of our body and our consciousness. Because, in our body and our consciousness, not only is there ignorance and impulses, but there is also awakened understanding because we have been handed down the seeds of understanding by our ancestors. The thing is... we never use them! Buddha has handed them down to us; our teacher has handed down to us; we receive them and we hide them away. We store them away and we don’t use them. It is like we have a lamp which we never light up and that lamp is called mindfulness and the oil of that lamp is our breathing, our steps, our smile, our working in mindfulness. We have to light up that lamp. Light up the lamp of mindfulness and the light will shine out and the darkness will cease, will dissipate.
When light is there, there will not be ignorance and when ignorance retreats, these impulses are no longer produced because clarity brings about a different energy which is called ‘bodhicitta’. The great aspiration – the ‘mind of love’ - it is also energy, just like impulses are energy, but this is an energy with light in it and impulses are full of darkness. When we have lit up the lamp, we have a different energy than when we are in darkness. That is the energy of understanding, of bodhicitta, and when we have the energy of bodhicitta already, our consciousness is illumined and so it’s called ‘prajna’, ‘wisdom’. Wisdom and consciousness have the same basis, but we can talk about consciousness only when it has ignorance in it, but when consciousness is lit up by bodhicitta, we no longer call it ‘consciousness’, we call it wisdom, prajna, understanding. If we have the wisdom of bodhicitta in each cell of our body and of our consciousness, there is happiness. We have a ‘manifestation’ body – Nirmanakaya. We still have eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body, but in each cell there is love, there is bodhicitta, there is wisdom and understanding. Therefore, the key of the practice is to light up the lamp. We have a gatha which is very good... whenever we turn on the light, we say, "Lighting up the candle, I make an offering to all the Buddhas, the numberless Buddhas, to lighten up the face of the earth." Before I light the lamp, I breathe and I say this gatha. I see that the ignorance of my mind gives way to the light of my mind. In our mind, there is the light of understanding and in the room, there is the light of the lamp. It is not enough just to turn on the light, because if you just turn on the light, or light the candle, that is only an outer light. We have to turn on the inner light, the light of mindfulness. So when the young novice has just become a monk, he has to learn these poems so that every time he lights the lamp, he can light up understanding in his heart as well. If he doesn’t do that, however many times he turns on the light in the room, he will never change the darkness in his mind into the light of his mind.
When we can say that we have forgotten the wounded child in ourselves, we feel great compassion for that child. We see how we have to practice our breathing and our mindful walking in order to be able to be stable enough to embrace that child, to comfort and heal that child. If the light of mindfulness is great, if it is clear, if it is sufficient, we will see that that child is not just ourselves, but it is also our mother, our father. Our mother and our father have suffered and they have not had the opportunity to embrace the child in them, so we are doing it for them. Because the wounded child in us is also our father, is also our mother... ask yourself – is there any understanding that is greater than that understanding? We talk a lot about understanding, but is any understanding higher than the understanding of Buddhism? When we can smile, we know we are smiling for our mother and our father, we know we are liberating our mother and our father. If we practice like that then the questions which make people suffer – "Who am I? Did my mother really want me? Did my father really want me? What meaning does my life have?" - all those questions become meaningless. In the Sutra on the Middle Way, the Sutra on Interdependent Arising, and the Sutra on Great Emptiness, we will see that if we can only practice, we will be able to go beyond these questions which make people suffer so much–.– We don’t need those sufferings any more.
We don’t need to go to Ireland or go to China to find our roots. We don’t need to go back to the old native land. We just need to be in touch with every cell in our body. We can find out it’s because of father, mother and all of our ancestors who are present in a very real way in each cell of our body. Even the bacteria are our ancestors, and the awakened understanding has been transmitted to us from all generations and all the sentient beings, but also insentient beings – so-called beings without feelings – have their own wisdom. Scientists today talk about life as matter which is inert. Before there was life this world, this universe, was a kind of... in the West we call it ‘primordial soup’... from which everything came. All the neutrons, electrons, the inert matter, became living matter. It began to be a fungi, an amoeba, and then fish. They always use the word matter, because they have been influenced into thinking that in the beginning there was just matter, there was just soma. They don’t see that matter contains spirit. Object of perception is also perception. The thing which they call matter - the object of our perception - is also perception, so it is also mind. So mind contains matter and matter contains mind. They are two faces of the same reality, sometimes something manifests as matter and sometimes something manifests as mind. The elementary particle can be called a wave or it can also be called a particle, because sometimes it appears as a wave and sometimes it appears as a particle, it is both things. You would say "Something cannot be both form – both particle and wave – those two things... how can they be one?", but in fact, these two things are one. We are both father and child, sometimes we manifest as father and sometimes we manifest as child... or mother. As soon as the guava fruit is born, it has guava seeds in it, so it is already a mother or a father.
So this is ‘thinking matter’, they say that human beings are ‘thinking matter’. The matter now has thinking in it or thinking manifests from matter. Scientists say that there was a stage when human beings first stood up, they no longer crawled along, and they call the human species at that time ‘homo erectus’. Then afterwards they had a kind of man called ‘homo habilis’, and then ‘homo sapien’, and ‘homo sapien’ is the thinking matter. Now we have another expression, ‘homo conscious’, which means the human being who is aware, who is mindful. A human being who knows – "I will get sick... I will grow old... I will die...", that is a person who is aware and because of that awareness, that person suffers more. That awareness brings about anxiety and fear, called ‘anguish’, and this brings about ill health. People ask, "Do other species have less awareness and therefore do not have the suffering of thinking ‘Oh, I will get old, I will die’ ", If other species do have that awareness it is a slight awareness. if they get sick, they get sick and they don’t have to worry about getting sick. But because human beings have this ‘anguish’, we have questions of philosophy, like "Who am I? What will happen to me?", we have the kind of questions that people sometimes asked, as recorded in the Sutras, "Did I exist in the past? If I did exist in the past, what kind of animal was I? Was it a beautiful animal? Was it an ugly animal.... Was I a frog? Will I exist in the future, and if I exist in the future, what kind of animal will I be? Will I have a beautiful face? Will I have a long tail?" All these questions that we ask come from this anguish and it brings about a lot of illness.
Did my parents want me? Was it an accident that I was born? Does anybody love me? All those questions make us suffer so much! And they come from our thinking - from this anguish, but the capacity to be aware – that is, the human being who is mindful – that is what will save us. That awareness will help us to know that the environment of this planet belongs to all species and will help us to realize that the human species is destroying the environment. When people are aware of these sufferings... they have come from political oppression... have witnessed injustice in society... When people can really see these things, they have the capacity to stop what they are doing and to help others to stop in order to go in a different direction which will not destroy our planet. Our awareness brings about our anxiety and our anguish, but if we know how to use that awareness, that mindfulness, we will be able to see the state we are in and we know what we should do and what we should not do in order to be able to transform and bring about peace and happiness and life for the future. The Buddha was one of the most beautiful people of the human species who we call ‘homo conscious’. We have the homo erectus; the homo habilis (the skillful man), and we have the homo sapiens – (the thinking man). But now we have the expression ‘homo conscious’, (the aware man). It is an expression which has been used by people – it was not invented by me.
So when we are having a meal, we should eat in such a way that allows leisure, ease and happiness, because it is really a deep practice to eat together. Just as with your breathing and working, eat in such a way that your ancestors can eat with you. Your father eats with you, your grandfather and grandmother eat with you. Sit at ease, like someone who has no problems, no anxiety. The Buddha taught us that when we eat we should not allow ourselves to be lost in meaningless thinking and conversation. We should dwell in the present moment to be deeply in touch with the food and the Sangha around us. Eat in such a way that we are happy, at ease, that we have peace, so that each of our ancestors and descendants in us can benefit. In former times, when I was 4 or 5 years old, every time my mother went to the market, she brought me back a cake made of bean paste. Before my mother came back, I would be playing in the garden with the snails and the pebbles, and when my mother came back I was very happy to see her and I took the cake that she gave me and I went off to eat it in the garden. I knew I mustn’t eat it quickly. I wanted to eat it slowly - the slower, the better. I’d just chew a little bit off the edge to allow the sweetness of the biscuit to go into my mouth and I’d look up at the blue sky. I’d look down at the dog. I’d look at the cat. That is how I ate the cake and it took me half an hour to eat it. I had no worries... I wasn’t worried about fame, honour, about profit... so that cake of my childhood is a souvenir. All of us have lived moments like that, when we are not craving for anything, not regretting anything. We are not asking ourselves philosophical questions like "Who am I?" Are we able to eat a cake like that now? Drink a cup of tea like that? Enjoy ourselves in our environment? We come to Plum Village to learn to do these things again, the things which we thought we could no longer do. We have come to learn how to walk again. To walk solidly, like a free person, without spirits chasing after us. We have come here to learn how to sit. To sit at ease as if we are sitting on a lotus flower, not sitting on hot coals. Sitting on hot coals, we just jump up and down the whole time – we lose all our peace. Here, we learn how to breathe, how to smile; we learn how to cook. Our mother taught us how to eat, how to drink, how to stand up, how to walk, how to speak... everything! Now we have to learn these things over again. We have to be born again in the light of the true Dharma, the true teachings of the Buddha.
We are going to study the Sutra on Shining the Light. This is not a Sutra spoken by the Buddha, it is a Sutra spoken by Mahamoggallana. It is in the canon and in the canon we see there are sutras not only spoken by the Buddha, but also spoken by the disciples of the Buddha. We are very happy about this, because we see the continuation of the Buddha right in the life time of the Buddha. Often after his disciples had given teachings, the Buddha would praise them and say, "If I had spoken, I would have said exactly the same...", so we see how the Buddha supported and encouraged his students and we see how the continuation of the Buddha was there, even in the lifetime of the Buddha. The original name of this sutra; was Anumana , which means ‘Measuring and Reflecting’, it is very necessary for monks and nuns. In the Chinese canon, it is called the Sutra on Inviting. Besides Shariputra, Mahamoggallana, Ananda and Katyayana, there are nuns, such as Dharmadhina, who gave talks. These talks by nuns have also been recorded in the Sutras.
SUTRA ON MEASURING AND REFLECTING: (Wednesday Evening)
Thus have I heard. At one time the Venerable Mahamoggallana was staying with the Bhagga people in Sumsumaragira, in the Deer Park in the Bhesakala grove. The Venerable Mahamoggallana addressed the bhikkhus: "Dharma friends." "Yes friend", they replied to the Venerable Mahamoggallana. The Venerable Mahamoggallana spoke as follows:
"It is possible that a monk should make the following request: "Speak to me, Reverend Monks." If he is difficult to speak to, endowed with qualities which make him difficult to deal with, intolerant, not good at grasping what is taught, then those who practice the path of sublime conduct with him will think he is not one to be spoken to, he is not one to be instructed, he is not someone we can have confidence in. What are the qualities which make someone difficult to approach?
We should know that Mahamoggallana was one of those who had a part in building the Sangha. Shariputra and Mahamoggallana were given the role of building Sangha, so that the Sangha would have happiness. Of course, there were other monks beside Shariputra and Mahamoggallana who also practiced Sangha-building. However, we know that these were the two monks who played that role most of all. We know that when Shariputra passed away, Ananda could not stand up because the passing away of Shariputra left a huge gap in the Sangha. When we study the sutra, we see how, in the time of Buddha, there were monks in the Sangha who did not go along with the Sangha. There were people whose behaviour did not allow other monks to approach them and to help them, so these people lived like a drop of oil in a bowl of water. They could not make progress and they could not bring happiness to themselves or the Sangha and, aware of this, Mahamoggallana gave this teaching, so that everyone in the Sangha could practice. When we live in the Sangha and there is harmony, we can enjoy ourselves, we can talk to anybody in the Sangha and be happy, and we can also make others happy. But if we are not able to communicate with other members of the Sangha, if nobody wants to be close to us, then we are isolated and when we are isolated we cannot be happy and we cannot make the Sangha happy.
In the past, there was a practice of silence... that is, it is like ‘putting into Coventry’, to ‘isolate’. We don’t talk to that person at all, and in the temple they practiced that. They used the method of isolating that person, as that person causes suffering to happen in the Sangha. Everybody is silent with regard to that person; they don’t talk to that person. But in the practice of Plum Village, we have never needed to use the practice of isolation as we have other methods. When we isolate someone, it is as if we have given up hope in that person. We feel we cannot teach that person any more. In the beginning, people try their best to help the person, but after a while they give up hope. They say that there is no benefit for that person to stay here and there is no benefit for us for that person to stay here and so they use the final practice they can use, and that is to isolate that person. So we know that practice is the final effort and it really shows that the Sangha has failed and the person who was isolated has failed as well. Isolation means we have failed, we are defeated, we have no capacity to intervene in order to help that person and to help the Sangha.
In the past they didn’t talk about ‘shining the guiding light’, which is what we practice today. But, in fact, the practice of shining the guiding light did exist in the time of the Buddha. In the practice of the Parivarana ceremony, the monks would shine lights on each others practice, but in Plum Village we practice shining light in the practice throughout the year, not just once a year. Before someone receives the precepts, before someone becomes a dharmacharya, during retreats and at the end of retreats, we practice ‘shining the guiding light’. If we’ve practiced this ‘shining the guiding light’ it means that we haven’t given up and that we intervene with the strength of the Sangha in order to help. If one person shines light, it is not enough to help that person transform, but if the whole Sangha shines the light, it is. Imagine there is someone in the Sangha who is isolated and will not listen to anyone else and nobody likes to come to that person and help them. If we allow that situation to continue a long time, until we have no other way but to practice isolation - it is a great shame. It is a great shame for the Sangha and a great shame for the person who is isolated, so we need to have another method to use and that is ‘shining guiding light’.
In the sutra, Mahamoggallana suggests methods – not just for one person, but for everyone in the Sangha to use. Because we do not want to become a part of the Sangha which no one dares to approach, because we haven’t got the capacity to listen deeply, because we have very heavy habit energies which we follow without knowing that we’re making others suffer. When we live in a Sangha, we take refuge in that Sangha and we make use of that Sangha to encourage us, to support us and teach us. If we isolate ourselves, if we don’t know how to obey, if we are not easy to speak to, even though our brothers and sisters want to help us, they cannot and finally we have to leave our Sangha. It is a great shame for us, and a great shame for our Sangha. So, when we read the Sutra, we can learn from Mahamoggallana and we can apply what we learn in our daily life. At the same time, we are able to see the methods which, in the time of the Buddha, Mahamoggallana taught and which, today, we are still practicing in Plum Village and which we can contribute to future generations for their practice, without having to use the method called isolation. Mahamoggallana brings up the reasons which make it impossible for us to be able to talk to someone set apart in the Sangha. If he has wrong desires and is controlled by his wrong desires, that is the reason which makes it difficult for us to talk to him. In the most recent English version it says; A bhikkhu has evil wishes and is dominated by evil wishes... I have translated ‘evil wishes’ as ‘wrong desires’. In Chinese, it means some sort of infatuation - some sort of attachment.
When a part of a Sangha is overwhelmed by an attachment and it stops the rest of the Sangha from being able to approach that person, we don’t want anybody to mention to us that we are attached. We have some kind of attachment to another person in the Sangha or a person outside the Sangha and the Sangha knows about it. Some people may have come and have pointed it out to us, but we always try to avoid it, we don’t want the help of the Sangha. This attachment is the first reason that Mahamoggallana gives as a reason which makes it impossible for the Sangha to be able to approach us and talk to us. This brother, this sister, is caught in their attachment and therefore the Sangha cannot approach them and help them. Are we in that situation? Do we have some wrong desire, some wrong attachment that is going to isolate us, just as it has isolated the other person in the Sangha? That is called ‘looking in the mirror’ - we see that others who have been attached have been isolated, and they cannot accept whenever anybody comes to encourage them to do differently. So the first thing which makes it difficult for the Sangha to approach us and talk to us is when we are caught in a wrong attachment. It means that our attachment is unwholesome. It is an attachment with another person in the Sangha, or somebody outside the Sangha.
The second reason is that he only knows how to praise himself and criticize others. The bhikkhu who praises himself and despises others is difficult to approach. There are people who only want their self-pride to be protected and they haven’t the capacity to praise anybody else in the Sangha, except themselves. They can only talk about the weaknesses of other people. They have no capacity to praise others in the Sangha. That has happened - it happens in all of the hamlets. There are people who have never opened their mouth to praise one of their brothers or sisters. They only wait until their brothers and sisters have some weakness or short-coming and then they talk about it, and if somebody can’t see our good points and praise our good points, then we cannot bear it. We don’t have the capacity to praise anyone else, we don’t have the capacity to ‘water the flowers’ of others, and we cannot speak well of others. Standing before that person we cannot talk about their positive things, and we cannot talk about their positive things to other people either, if we are like that then we will be isolated in our Sangha. This is someone who really wants to be praised. Everybody has positive and negative points, but some people only want to talk about the negative things of other people, they’re very stingy, very mean. We know that the other person has short-comings and they have to transform those short-comings, but we have to be able to see the positive things in that person too. Sometimes we just see the unwholesome things and they blind us to the wholesome things in that person. The other person has made us suffer one time and when we look at that person, all we see is that one time they made us suffer. We are unable to see all the goodness and sweetness they have contributed to the Sangha. We are never able to open our mouth to praise people.
Now, when we see somebody like that in the Sangha, we come back to ourselves and we ask ourselves – "Am I like that? Am I someone who just sees the faults of others and am I not able to see or talk about the good points in other people?" And when someone just wants to be praised and wants to despise others, we see that person and we ask ourselves, "Am I like that? Do I want to be isolated because I’m like that?" If we have some prejudice about one of our brothers or sisters, we have to practice and ask ourselves the question: "Besides the weaknesses I see in that person, have they any strengths?" And we have to number those strengths. When I talk to another person about that person, can I talk about the good points of that person to others, and if I can’t then I’m isolating myself. Or, in the case of a person who is easily angered... A bhikkhu who is angry and who is mastered by his anger is difficult to approach. Maybe we don’t have a very cruel nature, but we may get angry very easily. People get tired of that and they don’t want to get near us, they don’t dare talk to us. They don’t want to have a conversation with us because we get angry so easily. We are easily mastered by our anger and that means we cannot be master of ourselves when we are in that state. When somebody gets angry easily and cannot be master of themselves, they are easily isolated and other parts of the Sangha don’t dare come near that person, to converse with them, to help them. But we have to ask ourselves – if somebody else in the Sangha is like that, am I like that too? Do I easily get angry? Am I easily mastered by my anger?
The fourth reason is the bhikkhu who is angry and because of his anger he bears a grudge and is difficult to approach. There’s some people who, once they have gotten angry, forget everything... they are not angry anymore. But there are the people who get angry and then they bear a grudge afterwards and the light of their eyes and their words and their way of behavior makes us want to go and sit somewhere else. Because he holds a grudge, we avoid that person as if he were a leper. He doesn’t manifest his anger in an expressive way, but holds that grudge and that grudge influences his way of speech, his way of thinking and his actions. When we bear a grudge like that the Sangha will not want to talk to us. A bhikkhu is angry and because of his anger he talks unkindly and people don’t dare come near him because of this and so he’s isolated. He gets angry and it shows on his face and in his speech that he is angry and when we speak in an angry way, people don’t dare come near us.
A bhikkhu who, when corrected, corrects in turn the one who has corrected him, is difficult to approach. Instead of saying "Thank you for having pointed out my fault to me", he corrects that person in return. When you say "You think you are better than me, do you?", or "I know I didn’t close the door in mindfulness, but your lack of mindfulness is even greater than mine"... if we say something like that then that person won’t correct us any more. If two or three people correct us and we act like that then nobody will want to correct us any more and we will be isolated. We have to look and see if we’re like that because we must not become an element of the Sangha like that. A bhikkhu, who, when corrected, disparages the one who corrected him is difficult to approach. Disparages means, "Your practice is so bad already and you don’t look after your own practice... all you think about is other peoples faults..."
The ninth thing is – a bhikkhu who, when corrected, retorts, is difficult to approach. We see that the person is trying to help us, but we also want to blame them in return... so the advice of the others is not received by us and no-one will dare to approach us. Sometimes the other person doesn’t really show us the mistake we have made. They are talking about something else, but because we have an internal formation, thinking that people are going to criticize us, when they say something we think they are criticizing us even when they’re not. So we disparage that other person, we retort to that other person, even though that person isn’t even trying to correct us. We think that people are taking a devious route in order to criticize us, when in fact they are not even talking about us at all.
The tenth thing is a bhikkhu who, when corrected, evades the question by asking another or changes the subject. He evades the question by asking other questions. There are people like that. So, a bhikkhu, who, when corrected, evades the question by asking another changes the subject. He acts in a ‘gross’ way... somebody whose actions are ‘gross’ has evil intention and nobody wants to come near him. Someone who is jealous and sulky may make people afraid of them and if we have these characteristics they will avoid us. A person who is jealous does not know how to share the merit and cannot practice no-self. When they see the other person is happy... the other person is loved and valued, they cannot bear it. They ask "Why am I not valued? Why am I not loved? The other person is loved, is valued... has that person done something such as saying unkind things about me behind my back which has made them valued and made me not valued?" But if we see there are people around us who are loved and valued, it should make us happy because that person is my brother, my sister, and when they are happy I can share their happiness. Being able to do that makes me light and fresh and we know that when another is light and fresh, we are also. When we are light and fresh, we are loved and we are valued, but if we are jealous then we lose all our fresh-ness and all our light-ness and therefore we are not able to enjoy or profit from the good qualities of others. Therefore, jealousy can destroy our happiness and the happiness of the Sangha and make it impossible for others to be able to approach us. That kind of person is unmindful...
Dear Friends,These dharma talk transcriptions are of teachings given by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village or in various retreats around the world. The teachings traverse all areas of concern to practitioners, from dealing with difficult emotions, to realizing the interbeing nature of ourselves and all things, and many more.
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