The Sutra on the Middle Way
© Thich Nhat Hanh
Today is the 22nd of March 1998 and we are in the Upper Hamlet in the Spring Retreat. We have just finished our studies of the Sutra on the Middle Way, the Sutra on Interdependent Arising and the Sutra on the Great Emptiness. We know that these sutras have a very profound meaning, a wonderful meaning, and we have to discover how to apply the things we learn in the sutras to our daily lives. Only then can they be truly beneficial. When we talk about the middle way, and we talk about no-self, and we talk about interdependent arising, we may talk very fluently about them, but we should ask how can I apply these teachings in my daily life?
The other day when I was talking about the practice of shining the guiding light, offering guidance, I said that offering guidance means bringing your wisdom, your insight and your love into concrete action, so that you can look into this special case of a person, who could be a brother or sister in the Dharma. Thanks to our insight we can see the things that have made that person happy or suffer. The process of offering guidance is a method of meditation, of looking deeply, and if we donít put our whole person into it we wonít be successful. So we should sit in a very straight and stable position, as in sitting meditation, and we should give all our mind and body to the work of offering guidance. The method of offering guidance is something that needs to be practiced very seriously in order to be successful.
When you are doing sitting meditation you may be successful or not successful, according to your own self. There are times when you look and you say, that was a successful sitting meditation--I was able to develop my understanding and my love, and look deeply into my mental formations, or things outside. But there are sitting meditations when we tire, we see that we are sleepy, we are hoping that soon it will come to an end. When we practice offering guidance, we practice concentration, we practice wisdom, we practice our compassion, all working together, and we offer guidance to a brother or a sister, and if we are not successful then that brother or sister will not benefit. So we need to be successful, we need to put our whole heart into the work of offering guidance, because one day or another we will need that guidance ourselves, and if the Sangha does not put all their wisdom and all their love into offering guidance, then we wonít benefit. Therefore we should benefit with all our heart from a session of offering guidance.
We should also offer guidance based on what we have learned in the Sutra on the Middle Way, and the Sutra on the Great Emptiness, because we should see that when we look after others, when we are looking deeply into others, we are looking deeply into ourselves at the same time. If we think that the other person is someone other than us, the success and the failure of that other person has nothing to do with us, then we cannot be successful in our looking deeply. Looking deeply for that person is looking deeply into ourselves. The happiness of that person is linked to our own happiness. If we are not happy the other will not be happy, if the other is not happy the Sangha will not be happy. Remembering these things, in the session of offering guidance, we will then put our whole heart into it.
We should also remember the Dharma door called "protecting the second body." We may think that our second body is very difficult to look after, more difficult than other second bodies, but if we put our whole heart into protecting and looking after our second body then we will see that that person is not as difficult as we thought they were. And if we are successful in looking after this second body, then we will be very happy. (The practice of Ď2nd bodyí, is a practice in Plum Village where each person takes care of one other person in the Sangha, and is in turn taken care of by one other brother or sister.)
The monkey knows that the fruit with a lot of prickles is very sweet inside, and therefore he uses a stone and breaks the skin of that prickly fruit, and when it is broken he sees that inside there is a very tasty fruit. And our brother or sister is the same. We see that person is so difficult to talk to, so difficult to play with. But that is only our first experience. When we can practice understanding and loving and looking after, that person can show us their sweetness, their love, and we will be the first person to be able to enjoy that. In that relationship, whether between brothers and sisters in the Dharma, or between teacher and student, or between father and son, we may see the other person as difficult in the first place. But if we know how to look after them we see how they can manifest their talent and their wonderfulness. We are like the monkey who is able to break the tough prickly skin of the fruit, and we can enjoy the fruit inside.
There are brothers and sisters who we think havenít any love, havenít any compassion. But we shouldnít be sure that we are correct. We see that person as severe, not generous, not able to embrace and accept us. However, there may be a great deal of love and compassion in that person, but it is obscured by habit energies. If we can break that shell of habit energies we will enjoy the sweetness of the love which is inside. That person is obstructed by something, and if we donít look deeply we cannot see what it is that is obstructing that person, and therefore we cannot help them. Each one of us is caught to a larger or a smaller extent, in our emotions, in our suffering, in our experiences of suffering in the past, and if we are not able to undo that knot, we cannot be successful. We have this habit energy of reacting--whenever circumstances are like that, we always react like that. We have a reaction which is always the same, which is uniform. Next time, we tell ourselves, if that happens we will not react like that, we will react in a different way. We are very determined with ourselves, and we promise our brothers and our sisters that next time, if that thing happens again, we will react in a different way. Although we promise like that, when that thing happens again, we still react in the old way - as we did two hundred years ago.
So why do we keep repeating this way of behaving? Every time we behave like this we make the other suffer and we make ourselves suffer. "Why did I repeat it a thousand times?" Because of habit energy. So when we practice mindfulness we have to recognize our habit energies. Whenever they arise we have to accept them, we have to recognize them, and then they wonít push us to go somewhere. "I will look after you, habit energy, I will discover what your root is." And that energy of mindfulness is the best energy to help us embrace our habit energy, and transform it.
Psychoanalysts believe that in the past we have been traumatized, and at the time we received that trauma we began to react in the way that we are reacting now. Therefore, psychoanalysts want to help us to remember what happened when we were children, especially in the stage when we were traumatized, whether in a physical or a psychological way. And there are psychoanalysts who say that our suffering comes from the time when we had to leave our parents. Before that we were with our parents as one, but there came a certain time when our parents pushed us aside in order to look after our younger siblings, and at that point we felt that we had been abandoned. Before, we were all our parents had to look after, and then they had someone else to look after. They say that is the most difficult stage for a young person and all the despair, all the jealousy, all the afflictions come from that. So that leads to the way we behave in our daily life later on.
There are people who say that the time when we are three to six years old is the stage when the Oedipus complex arises, and we begin to develop sexual energy. When this sexual energy begins to develop, between the ages of three and six years. We suck at the breast of our mother, our hand touches the flesh of our mother, and people say that at that stage our mother is our loved one, and we start to feel jealousy of our father, whom our mother also loves. This all happens in our unconscious, out of our conscious awareness. And a girl has a kind of emotional attachment to her father, and a boy has an emotional attachment to his mother. And the younger brother or the younger sister becomes the object of our jealousy, since it is because of them that our mother cannot give all her attention to us, and we feel that our mother has betrayed us. We are no longer the unique object of our motherís love. Psychoanalysts say all this happens in the unconscious level of the mind and can produce habit energies in later life.
There are people who have an Oedipus complex. Oedipus was a Greek king. When he was born it was prophesied that he would kill his father and that he would rape his mother. So his father was very afraid, and he abandoned his child on the mountain for the wild animals to eat, because he was afraid that his son, according to the prophecy, would kill him and would sleep with his mother. And when the child was left on the mountains, some goatherds saved him. Oedipus became the adopted child of a king, and then he went in search of his roots, his native land. He met a man on the road, and the two of them got into an argument and Oedipus killed the other. He did not know that the man was his father, because he had no idea who his father and mother were, since he had been abandoned on the mountain. Then he became king of that country and he married the wife of the king, the queen, and they had four children. Then he learned that he had married his mother, and after that he felt terrible shame and he plucked out his eyes. This story was made into a play by Sophocles. Oedipus had committed the crimes of sleeping with his mother and killing his father. According to the Freudian psychoanalysts, everyone of us has the tendency of Oedipus: weíre all jealous and we all love our mother in a sexual way. We have seeds like that, and they bring about conflicts in our mind which we are not able to see consciously. So if we do not go to the root, to re-live these beginning moments of despair, of jealousy, of fear, we will not be able to overcome the power of these energies. We have to reveal these energies for the light of awareness to shine on them, and then we can put an end to the habit energies which arise from them.
There are psychoanalysts who want to go further, who say that the stage when we are born is the most difficult stage. Until birth we were safe inside our motherís womb. The first three hours of our life we were very afraid. We suffered much from fear, so they say that these moments just after we are born give us internal formations, and we are wounded at these moments. When our mother is giving birth to us, she is full of pain and fear, and because she cannot breathe normally there is not enough oxygen in her brain. We donít have enough oxygen because our mother cannot breathe normally, and we suffer as the baby being born. So both the mother and the baby being born suffer a lot, and we can suffer from trauma from that time on. So how can we re-live that moment, to be aware that our suffering comes from that moment, and then be healed of it? There is a kind of therapy now called "birth therapy" that tries to re-live that stage of being born with all its fear, with all its suffering, and sometimes birth therapists use violent ways to help the person return to that stage.
Then there are psychoanalysts who say that the causes of our psychological suffering happened when we were in the womb of our mother, because when we are in the womb there are many ups and downs according to the happiness, the suffering and the despair of the mother. Any unkind speech or attitude of the father influences the mother a lot, and the suffering and despair of the mother penetrates the fetus. When the mother breathes, the child breathes. When the mother eats, the child is nourished. When the mother can smile, then the child can receive that. But if the mother does not how to breathe properly, eat properly, live properly, then the fetus is already beginning to suffer before it is born. Therefore our habit energies, our suffering, our reactions, our behavior can begin at the time we were a fetus. We have a habit energy to get angry, to oppress, etc. It is not only after we are born that we have these habit energies, we have them before that. At first we think that living in the motherís womb everything is safe, we donít need to worry about eating, drinking, paying the electricity bill, buying petrol, driving the car--mother does everything for us. We donít have to turn on the light, donít have to turn on the heating. Everything is done by mother, everything is safe. We may think this is a kind of paradise, where the child is in the palace of the womb. But is it truly like that? Or as the child suffers through the ups and downs, goes through the birth and death that the mother is going through, then couldnít the fetus also be in hell when the mother is in hell? So we have to go farther in order to see that our suffering may have roots a long way back.
When the Buddha said that ignorance gives rise to impulses, ignorance means that we donít understand what is happening, we behave in this way, we suffer, we are happy, we are hopeful, and we despair. All these things depend on our samskaras, (energies in us), and those energies follow ignorance. We are not able to see them, we cannot see the truth, and that is why we do what we do. If we were able to see clearly we wouldnít do this, we wouldnít say this, we wouldnít behave like this.
There was a day I was practicing like this, and I hope that you will also try this practice. I was lying on my bed. I was lying as you would lay if you were lying in the womb. That is, you have your body curved, with your arms and your hands up, and I was breathing very lightly, like a baby. I was thinking that when I was in the womb my mother was breathing for me, and now, I was thinking, I am breathing for my mother. I was thinking that if my mother wasn't breathing normally she would lack oxygen, so I was thinking, well, never mind, my mother neednít worry about not being able to breathe because I can breathe for her. So I was saying, donít worry mother, you are safe. I can breathe for you. Mother and I are practicing together. If you want to do that you have to know how to breathe, you have to have mastered mindful breathing. Breathing in and out in a very relaxed and enjoyable way, you lay in the position of the fetus, that is with the knees brought up to the chest, and the hands near the face.
We have all gone through this stage, and as a result we may have suffering, and worries. Donít think that our mother has passed away, that our mother is somewhere else. The umbilical cord which connected us to our mother has been cut, but our mother is still connected to us by another umbilical cord, because our mother is living in us. We are the continuation of our mother, and that umbilical cord has never been cut. Mother isnít just outside of us, mother is also in us, and we have the duty to continue our mother. If we can smile, our mother can smile, and if we can breathe mindfully, our mother can breathe mindfully. We have to know how to love our mother and then we know how to love ourselves. If we love ourselves, we love our mother. So, sitting or lying in the fetal position, re-livingthose moments with our practice, we say, "Mother, breathe, I am breathing with you mother, donít be worried. I will be born without any worry."
You know that in our time they can make a difficult birth become very easy, but you should know that in former times the time of birth was terribly dangerous for a mother and a child. So at the time of birth, mother was very afraid and in a great deal of pain. Your mother might already have given birth to eight children before you, but when she gives birth to the ninth child she still suffers from a lot of fear, because of her experience of the previous births. Our head should emerge from the womb first, but sometimes the head doesnít emerge first, and this is a true cause of worry. Our mother becomes very anxious, our father is very anxious, and we too, the one being born, are anxious. And if our mother cannot breathe normally, and we in the womb cannot get enough oxygen, all the worry of the mother penetrates us. We have lived through stages like that, and now we can re-live them, using the method that has been transmitted to us by our spiritual teacher, so that we do not fear. "Mother, do not be afraid, I am breathing for you." Therefore we are able to transform the fear in our mother, and we are able to transform the worry, the fear, and the suffering of ourselves. You can put yourself in the position of a fetus about to be born, and you can re-live that time with a smile and conscious breathing. Although they were very difficult moments, every time you breathe like that it transforms the sufferings you and your mother went through in the past. I remember there was a night when I was practicing like that, and I saw myself embrace my mother as I embrace a child.
When we suck at our motherís breast, we cling to our motherís breast. That is just to nourish ourselves, but there is some sexual energy in that , so that sometimes the young child bites the breast of the mother, although it doesnít have teeth. That makes the mother suffer, that the child wants to eat the mother, wants to devour the mother, and also wants the mother to devour the child. In a dream I saw that I was embracing my mother at her waist, and my mother was very young. And at that moment my mindfulness arose and I said, mother, you are my mother, you are not the object of my sexual desire, and at that moment I was liberated by my mindfulness. I overcame the Oedipus complex. "Mother, you are my mother, you are me, I am you, you are not the object of my sexual desire, of my craving." We all have that kind of conflict within us, and we have to shine the light of mindfulness into it. That person is our father, and sometimes we think that person is the object of our sexual desire, our lover. That person is our son, and sometimes we see that person as our lover. And the relationship between us and our children sometimes has an unconscious tendency in it. Sometimes we look at our teacher and see him as our father, and all our anger against our father is directed against our teacher.
All these things in western psychoanalysis have been explored, and if we look into Buddhist psychology we see that the Buddha also gave Dharma talks and shone a great deal of light on our ignorance, which leads to our impulses, to contact. Our craving is a craving based in ignorance.
We think we only have one mother, but that isnít necessarily true. In the teachings of the Buddha we have many, many mothers, and when we breathe with our mother, we become one with our mother. We say mother, you and I are one. I am breathing for you as you breathe for me, I am smiling for you, and we touch our mother deeply in ourselves. We see that the idea that mother is one thing and child is another disappears. We see that mother and we are one reality. I am the continuation of my mother and my mother is a continuation of me. As far as time is concerned, I am a continuation of my mother, from the past till now.
I am also a mother. Even though I have not had children, I have not had students. My children, or my students, are already in me, and therefore I am a mother. In every fruit there are seeds; even in fruit that are not ripe there are seeds. We are the same. Even when we are still young, we are already mothers. Therefore in each of us there is a mother, and there are children. So ourselves, our mother and our children are one thing. If we can see things like that we no longer have pride of self. That is the teaching of the Sutra on the Middle Way. And if we can see that, we can see that out mother is us, and we are our mother. We are our children and our children are us. We do not ask the question, in the past was I there? If I was in there, what was I, how was I? We wouldnít ask questions like that, because we know that we are the river of life. We do not ask, "In the future will I be there, and if I am there who will I be, and what will I be like?" And in the present we wonít need to ask, "Who am I and where am I going?" We will see that we are the immense river of life and we will not be caught in the discriminatory and isolated idea of self. We have to study the Sutra like this in order to be able to understand the real meaning of what the Buddha said, and apply it in our life. So when we breathe we have to say things like, "mother, Iím breathing for you; mother, do not be afraid, thereís nothing to worry about, thereís no birth and death, and if weíre not successful now weíll be successful next time. Thereís nothing to be afraid of."
I know that before I was born my mother had given birth to another child who was miscarried, and maybe that child was me, maybe that child didnít want to be born yet. On the day when the elder sister of Phuc-Nghiem had a baby, but the baby died, I said she should call me. And I said, maybe the baby wasnít ready to live yet, so donít worry; itíll be born at another time. And when she heard that, she was able to smile. Our mother is us, we are our mother, we are our children. All of us, we all have children, our children lie in us, they are there in us. But we will nourish our children with the milk of the Dharma, and they will suffer less than we did, and they will have a greater opportunity than we had.
In the Buddha Dharma thereís a method of looking deeply called buddhanusmrti samadhi. We are in touch with the Buddha. We practice anusmrti, that is mindfulness of the Buddha. We see our relationship with the Buddha, and we meditate on it. Maybe Buddha Shakyamuni, or Buddha Amitabha. We are able to see the relationship between us and that Buddha, just as when we establish our relationship with our mother. Because we are the children of the Buddha, and when we are in touch with the Buddha we can be in touch with all Buddhas, as numberless as the sands of the Ganges. It is true, when you pick up a leaf, if you look deeply into that leaf, you are in touch with the whole universe in the leaf. There is the sun, there are the clouds, there is snow. And when you can be in touch with the Buddha deeply, you can be in touch with all Buddhas in the world.
I do this, Iím in touch with my mother deeply. And when Iím in touch with my mother deeply, Iím in touch with all my other mothers. Our grandmother is also our mother, sheís still a mother. Great-grandmother is still another mother. And all our mothers have gone through these stages of anxiety and worry like our own mother. Theyíve all had to go through that stage of giving birth, that stage of great difficulty, full of fear. When we can be in touch with one mother, we can be in touch with all mothers. When we can be in touch with the difficulties, the fears and the sufferings, of one mother, we can be touch with all mothers and we know that we are one with all mothers. And when we say, "Mother, breathe with me, smile with me, because I know you have suffered", that is no longer our individual mother, that is the universal mother, the numberless mothers.
We have been born so many times already. We have been born as our mother, we have been born as our self, and we are born as our children. We have been through so many births. Modern psychology says we are only born once, but that is a very narrow way of looking. In the teachings of the Buddha we see we have been born millions of times. Sometimes we have been born as an amoeba, and we cannot deny our ancestors called amoebae, or our ancestors; the birds, the monkeys, the fish. Those beings have also gone through suffering, so when I am breathing I am breathing for them all--they are all my ancestors--and former lives. And today itís the same. When a single-celled being begins to be born, there is something that happens in that cell to make it into two cells. It is not a birth that takes place from the womb, or takes place from the egg. Before we were one cell, and now we have to accept being two. There must be suffering in that for the amoeba, because it thought, "Oh, we were only one, and now we have to be two. We have to go through a separation, a division from the other, from myself, this other me. Why do I have to be separated from what is myself?" Millions of years ago we began to suffer like that, suffer because of separation. And all this suffering comes from the idea of self. Maybe the mind of an amoeba is different, but it still has the idea of self deep in its consciousness.
When our mother put us aside in order to look after our younger brother or sister, we had jealousy, we had suffering, we felt abandoned. And when we were an amoeba our body shook in order to make two bodies, and then we suffered. From beginningless time we have suffered so much because of ignorance, being born and dying without end. That is our history, but we have everything, we have all the insight as well. So when I breathe and I am aware that I have been born and died so many times, that I have so many mothers, I see that all my mothers can smile, and I am able to liberate them all. And also I can do the same for all my fathers, because I am not only the continuation of my mother, I am the mother of numberless future generations. The same is true of my father. You monks and nuns think that you are young, only twenty years old, twenty-five years old, thirty years old, but in fact you are carrying in you all the generations of ancestors, including the birds, the fish, the trees, and the one-celled beings. You are also carrying within you all the future generations. You are a seed full of seeds, and being your father, being your mother, you have to play the role of your father and mother properly. You have to bring the wisdom of the Buddha into yourself, into your person so you can play the role of mother and father deeply. And if you do not have the light of wisdom, of understanding, if you do not have the insight which can open up the love of the mother and father, you will not play the role of father and mother correctly. Youíre already a father, youíre already a mother of so many generations, and the suffering, the happiness of all the children in the future depend on this moment in the present. Can you open your heart, can you shine the light of the Buddha onto this situation? Are you able to put an end to the ignorance concerning our separate self? What is our self? Who are we? Are we all our ancestors and all our descendants? When we can see the no-self nature of ourselves in the future, that is something very important.
If we are imprisoned in the idea of self, we are not able to put an end to our fears, our mass of suffering and our despair, and then we will not be able to heal ourselves. When we meditate that we are our mother, that we are our maternal grandmother, that we are our descendants, that we are our ancestors, we are able to break the shell of the separate self, and when we can do that we can heal ourselves, and we can look with eyes of loving-kindness. We are able to embrace our brother, our sister, although that person has ignorantly made us suffer. That is called Buddhist therapy, and it is very deep, because the wisdom of the Buddha is very deep. We do not do as the psychotherapist does, we just return and remember when our life began. We donít think as the psychotherapist does, that my life began at a particular point. We see that our life does not have a beginning, it is beginningless, and our suffering is the same. When we can look deeply to see our true nature, then we can break through the shell of the idea of a separate self, and only then can real healing happen. Then we wonít have any hatred, we wonít have any despair, we wonít have any anger, because we have seen that that other person is us.
Letís use this example, this is a cycle of Samsara. There are daughters-in-law who are bullied by their mothers-in-law. They suffer a lot and sometimes they want to kill themselves. Sometimes a daughter-in-law cannot bear it anymore and so she runs away and returns to her own parents. And her parents allow her to stay two or three days, for the suffering to diminish, and then they bring her back to her husbandís home. She has to say sheís sorry. And her parents say, you have already married, you have to stay with your husband. That happened in Vietnam, because when a woman takes a husband that is a commitment between two families: the family of the bride and family of the groom. So a marriage isnít a matter of two people, but of two families. When thereís a problem, the whole family of the wife has to discover a way to resolve it. The parents know that their daughter is suffering, but they know thereís only one way to overcome it, to practice in order to transform it. So the maximum the parents can do is allow their daughter to come back to them for two or three days, and look after her, and after four days they give her her outside clothes to put on and tell her to go back to her husband. Sheís like a sort of refugee, going back to her parents. Sometimes it works, but sometimes itís not successful, and if it doesnít work the daughter will jump into the river and kill herself. And when a mother-in-law oppresses a daughter-in-law this can carry on from generation to generation, and if we donít practice we cannot put an end to this cycle of Samsara. And if we donít put an end to it our children will continue it. That means that our child will become a difficult mother-in-law herself if we donít overcome it, and we will treat our daughter-in-law as we have been treated by our mother-in-law. Some children see; sometimes children will make a decision that when they grow up they will be completely different from their parents, but when they grow up and they are parents they behave in exactly the same way to their children as their parents did to them. And so their own children suffer in exactly the same way as they suffered when they were children, and that is called the cycle of rebirth, or Samsara. It is the carrying on of habit energy from one generation to another, and without the light of mindfulness we cannot put an end to this cycle of suffering.
As with the cycle of suffering between mother-in-law and daughterĖin-law, we are the victims of suffering. And we say we will never treat our own daughter-in-law as our mother-in-law treated us, but even though we say that, we will in fact deal with our future daughter-in-law in the same way. Itís not because we lack love and sweetness; there are times when we prove that we have sweetness and love. But that sweetness is surrounded by a shell of habit energy, which stops us being able to express our love. We have not been able to break that shell, and therefore our love is still imprisoned within it. So we need the monkey to come with a stone and break that shell. We think it will hurt us, but it will just break the shell, and when the shell is broken all the love will emerge. And if we have a child, a mother, a student, an elder brother, or a younger sister, we should not say that person has no capacity to love and understand. That person has a shell of habit energy, which is imprisoning their love. And we have to help them break that shell of habit energy, and then we will be able to enjoy the sweetness of the fruit inside, just as the monkey does. Dharma talks are not enough to break this hard shell. There are people among us, who thanks to Dharma talks, can break the shell, so the shell falls away. They hear the Dharma, and it breaks their shell. But there are people amongst us who arenít as lucky as that: the rain of the Dharma falls down but it cannot penetrate, and itís like it falls on cement, they resist the teachings. We know that this is good for us, but we are very afraid of it. Itís strange. Sometimes our wisdom tells us, you need this medicine, but we feel we cannot take it and we run away. We know that this medicine will help us get better, but we are determined we wonít drink it. Therefore our habit energies can be very harmful. We see in Africa there are many places where it hasnít rained for a long time, and the earth has become like cement. We know that the earth needs rain so much, yet when the rain falls that earth is too hard to receive it. And an hour later, after the heavy rain has fallen, the earth is still hard like cement, as the earth is not able to absorb the rain. Actually that earth needs a very light rain that continues twenty-four hours a day, and then the earth will begin to receive the rain. If we are afraid of the rain and cannot accept the rain, then we donít have a chance.
There are people who are afraid of listening to Dharma talks because it touches seeds of suffering in them, so they donít feel happy sitting in a Dharma talk. Theyíre sitting in a Dharma festival, but they have a resistance, and therefore the Dharma rain cannot penetrate them. In the Dharma assembly of the Buddha the same thing happened. There were people who were afraid, and they felt that the only way they could survive was by resisting the words of the Buddha that they heard. So we have to find a way to help a person like that, we need a great deal of love. Love here is expressed in terms of patience, because without patience we cannot love. We have to give the other person a chance to transform. There has to be an effort on both sides, the one who needs to transform and the Sangha. And in the future that hard shell will break open and the Sangha will be able to enjoy so much love from that person.
We don't want to deal with the situation in the way we do. We hate our habit energy, which we have inherited from our mother-in-law, and we have to go back to look again at the time when we were suffering, the time when we were wounded or hurt. When we are the daughter-in-law being hurt by the mother-in-law we have to go back and look at all the suffering we got, all the unkind things she has said to us, or said about us. She has made us suffer so much in the past, and we cannot transform this mass of internal formations. So that now, whatever anybody says, we feel that they are saying that to reprimand us and make us suffer, when it fact it isnít so.
Maybe in a Dharma talk I may tell a story, and this story makes some people very happy, but we may feel that Thay is talking about us, Thay is blaming us. "There is somebody who doesnít practice, who just goes from festival to festival, in different temples, from memorial service to memorial service. He doesnít organize ceremonies in his own temple, but when he sees other temples celebrating, he goes to them. And he stays there all day." I tell the story of a monk like that, and Iím just telling the story for fun, but somebody thinks that I am reprimanding him or her by telling that story. I have no intention of directing what Iím saying to that person, but because they have that habit energy they receive the story like an arrow, wounding them. When we suffer we make those around us suffer, and then we think we are the only person who is suffering, but in fact we are making others suffer. In the September retreat last year one of the meditation students wrote to me and said: "I feel very secure in this retreat. Iíve never felt so happy and secure as in this retreat, because nobodyís allowed to talk. So I knew nobody would come and say things which would hurt me, so that is why I felt secure, because I knew nobody would say anything unkind to me or about me." When heard that I thought this person must have suffered a lot in the past. I felt compassion for them; probably people in their family had said things to them that hurt them very badly. ĎNobody is going to shout at me in this retreat, nobody is going to reprimand me in this retreat." So I felt great compassion. I wanted to weep because I know how much this person must have suffered. So we have to look back at our suffering, and see how, when we donít practice, we suffer and we make others suffer. And in the present, it may be that because of someoneís clumsiness or lack of mindfulness we suffer, but maybe we do the same to others. Only when the light of mindfulness can be shone on what theyíre saying will we be able to see clearly what we are doing, and be able to take steps which are in lightness, at ease, and in freedom. And I want someone else who has suffered to be able to walk with me at that time.
As with my mother, I can breathe normally and I enjoy my breathing, and I can breathe for my mother at the same time. If I am a daughter-in-law suffering from my mother-in-law, I can do the same for my mother-in-law. The most concrete thing is the suffering and the habit energies which have been handed on to us by our mother-in-law, and if we can liberate ourselves in this way then we can embrace our mother-in-law and all others: our mother, our father, or brothers and sisters, our teacher.
What role can our Sangha play in helping us to put an end to this habit energy of suffering? All the things I am saying are very deeply related to the Sutra on the Middle Way. Only when we can get out of the stiff shell of the self can we see that our suffering in the present is the suffering of our descendants and the suffering our ancestors. Because we are already our mother, and our children are already in us, suffering with us. Our children, our students, are like seeds of the fruit that are in us, so we should not waste a moment or a day of our practice. Every day we can practice in the Sangha is a great opportunity for us to practice liberation, liberating our ancestors in us, and liberating our descendants in us, who are imprisoned in their own suffering. We have to go for refuge in the Sangha, we have to receive the Dharma rain, and then we will be successful. We have to re-live the moments of our life that have been full of fear and suffering. Just as I have done by putting myself in the position of the fetus, saying to my mother, "Please breathe with me if you lack oxygen in your brain, I am still breathing for you to have enough oxygen." When I say "you and I", "mother and child", I am talking to countless mothers, because I have been a child countless times, I have been father and mother countless times. So when I am breathing, Iím not breathing for one mother and one child, but for many mothers and many children. Breathing like that for ten minutes can bring liberation if we practice properly, and the insight we use in our practice is the insight of the Sutra on the Middle Way.
Our suffering, our lack of success, which we have borne in the past, is immeasurable. Today our suffering is very small compared with our suffering of the past. Why do we continue to make each other suffer? In the great ocean the big fish are eating the little fish. A fish is swimming along and suddenly a huge fish comes up behind, opens up its mouth, and the baby fish finds itself dead inside the big fish. The little fish was only a few months old, and became the food of the big fish. And we are swimming like a fish, and when we come to the surface of the water a bird flies down and picks us up in its beak and eats us. There are bears that go down to the river when they are hungry and catch the fish in their paws and eat them. "Why arenít the other fish caught and eaten? Why am I caught and eaten today?" A duckling is following its mother, and while the mother duck is eating worms, one of the baby ducklings is snatched up by a bird. This is the kind of suffering we have been through in the past. We are that duckling; we are that fish. Sometimes the mother hen sees the danger and puts out her wings to protect her baby chicks, so that the large bird doesnít sweep down and take them away. Sometimes we have wanted to protect our children, but we have not succeeded. And these sufferings take place in life all the time. We have suffered so much as birds, as fish, as trees, and all those sufferings have become a great mass of suffering within us. Only the energies of great insight, great love, and great compassion, can liberate us from these sufferings, and help us to hand on to the future generations enough insight and love to be able to take them through life without suffering like this. In order to do this, we have to practice according to the Sutra on the Middle Way.
We have been transmitted the methods of mindful breathing, of mindful walking, of dwelling happily in the present moment. We should master these methods and practice them. When we are jogging, or doing walking meditation on the small path, we have to dwell in the present moment. We have to say, "Mother, you are with me; father, you are with me; grandmother, you are with me; and children, you are with me," because we all have children. We have to live in happiness in the present moment, and every moment we walk in the present moment, we are living a moment of liberation. If we continue to be imprisoned by the past, we will never liberate ourselves, nor can we liberate the thousands of generations of ancestors and descendants in us. Every step can liberate us. To put an end to the hell realms, we have to live moments of freedom, peace and joy like that, and then we will be liberated. If we know how to breathe when we are lying down, like a fetus or normally, or if we are sitting, we can liberate ourselves by our breathing. At the same time we liberate countless generations of ancestors and descendants, and then we are practicing what the Buddha has taught. Only then can we look at those around us with the eyes of love, because we can look at ourselves with the eyes of love.
(3 bells )
End of Dharma Talk
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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