Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Nurturing the Beloved Community: 6 days of Mindfulness with Thich Nhat Hanh

This is a happy moment! :-)

I have just returned from a 6-day mindfulness retreat at Deer Park Monastery led by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as he is affectionately known. Since this letter writing project is about mindfulness, love and joy, I thought I would talk a bit more about mindfulness today.

Mindfulness is quite simply bringing your full awareness with the present moment to whatever you are doing, whether it is breathing, walking, sitting, doing chores, working, etc. This is often easier said than done. Our minds have a tendency to wander off into the past, or head out into the future, leaving the present moment as a forgotten place. But the present moment is the only moment – it’s our home, our address – we just have to remember where that is.

Meditation is one technique that can help us to cultivate present moment awareness. Simply by focusing on our breath, we train our minds to become tethered to the present moment, which ultimately will lead to us living more often in the present moment – and simply living more.

Why letter writing and mindfulness? The day I was writing to Mrs. Hofbauer and Aunt Ginny, I noticed my heightened present moment awareness while writing a letter. To pick out the stationery, to pick up a pen, to put the pen to the paper, to let the thoughts flow from my heart – I feel deeply connected with the present moment. And letter writing brings me great joy – not only the act of letter writing, but especially the joy that is expressed by the recipient when they receive their letter. So when I noticed this, I decided this was not a practice I should reserve for special days (which was how I’d always treated letter writing before – savoring the letters that I received, saving my response for the weekend). Rather, like yoga, sitting meditation, walking and eating meditation – it was a practice that I could do every day, yet another way I could connect to the present moment, connect to my heart, connect to love and joy. And thus, My Year of Letters was born.

Thay has infinite wisdom to convey – but he would probably tell us that that same wisdom resides in all of us, we just forget. We forget who we are, we forget our true nature, we forget to live in the present moment. We need lots of reminders. At his monasteries, there are bells that ring often – mindfulness bells – and when the bells ring, you are supposed to stop whatever you are doing, and take a deep breath, coming back to the present moment if you’ve lost it. I brought a small bell home with me to help me practice. These small reminders really make a difference in your daily practice.

The beautiful thing about what he teaches is that we don’t need to be in a monastery to practice – our practice is our life, and every moment is an opportunity, every breath. At home you can ring a bell, or you can use other reminders – a ringing phone, the doorbell – to come back to your breath. You can walk mindfully wherever you go. You have at least 3 opportunities a day to eat mindfully.

He’s a brilliant teacher, conveying messages through lovely stories and metaphors, humor, songs and poems. Every lecture began with a children’s talk, where he would usually share a story or a practice and focus on the kids. Then he would get into teacher mode, using the whiteboard to draw Chinese characters of important terms and diagrams of Buddhist concepts like the 8-fold path. More than anything, he teaches by example – he lives, breathes, and walks peace, and shows that anyone of us can do that to, if we practice, try, remember.

I took a ridiculous amount of notes, wanting to take all of his pearls of wisdom home with me. Some of my favorites:

A flower is only made of non-flower elements – demonstrates the concept of interbeing. A flower is made of water, sunshine, minerals, and many other parts that are non-flower. Put them together in this certain way, and you have a flower! He also says a Buddhist is made of only non-Buddhist elements, you are only made of non-you elements, etc.

No mud, no lotus - the beauty of a lotus flower springs forth from the mud; we have a tendency to discriminate against the mud of life (anger, fear, despair, etc) in favor of the lotuses of life (joy, happiness). Just as the lotus cannot exist without the mud, joy cannot exist without the contrast of fear, anger, etc. We simply need to learn to work skillfully with the mud in order to turn it into the lotuses of life.

This is a happy moment! Requires no further explanation J

I also had this really interesting experience of being there and having flashbacks to happy memories of childhood. In the second dharma talk, he asked us “Do you remember when you were a seed?” I don’t remember back that far, but I do remember laughing with my mom, looking at the moon with my dad on 2606 Locust Lane, and dancing with my Uncle Rad at his wedding – which came flooding back when I was taking a shower in the trailer shower (which, to get the water to flow, you had to hold a lever down up by the shower head) and I was twirling with my arm overhead. Hearing about others’ childhoods, I felt extra lucky – I really have happy memories, times of joy and happiness. When I think of being a kid, that’s what I think of. Dancing, singing, laughing, looking at the moon.

On Friday we took a dawn hike up the mountain for walking and sitting meditation. It finally was cooling off, after the blistering triple-digit temperatures of the previous 3 days. The clouds settled in at the base of the mountain covering Escondido, and we were up above, sitting on rocks, mindfully eating our breakfast of peanut butter and jelly, and meditating. As we walked up, I noticed how we were all different shapes, sizes, colors, creeds, nationalities, ethnicities – I felt we were a microcosm of humanity, and if we could walk up this mountain together in peace, can’t all of humanity? It gave me great hope, that if this group of 900 people – 900 people! – could do this, then we call could do it, if we try.

Another particularly moving part was when Thay talked about his experience of being exiled from Vietnam and his experience with Martin Luther King. The title of the retreat was “Nurturing the Beloved Community,” which was a phrase of Dr. King’s. Thay urged us to continue his work of community building.

He told us that he was in New York when he got the news of Dr. King’s assassination, and it was very sad. He had left Vietnam on a 3-month speaking tour of the West, calling for an end of the violence. But when the 3 month tour ended, he was not allowed to return – an exile that lasted 40 years. As I write that, I imagine the pain that he must have felt. Imagine being banned from your home for 40 years! But he didn’t allow that pain to stop him. He tried to continue his work for peace and community building in North America and Europe, and after Dr. King died, he said he stepped up his efforts. And he said “those who want to save the planet and restore peace need to know that sangha (community) is important.” He said this community building doesn’t need to be Buddhist, but it needs to be grounded in friendship (brotherhood and sisterhood), compassion, and mindfulness.

In researching, I found that Thay was the person who convinced Martin Luther King to publicly denounce the violence in Vietnam, which was a major step for the US peace movement and led King to nominate Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

On the final day, Sunday, September 11, 2011, I, along with many other practitioners, received the 5 mindfulness trainings (also known as the 5 precepts in other traditions) in a ceremony led by Thay. I’ve committed to practicing reverence for live, true happiness, true love, loving speech and deep listening, and nourishment and healing. It seemed like a logical step – I already try to do these things, but I could do better. They will serve as guideposts in my efforts to promote peace in the world, deepening my commitment and my efforts, I hope. And along the lines of hope, I was given the dharma name Radiant Aspiration of the Heart (all receivers of the trainings can be given a dharma name), a name that really does pull at my heartstrings.

It seemed like a perfect thing to do be doing on this day, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks which so profoundly changed the world we live in. The anniversary is a reminder of the deep healing and understanding needed in the world, and as we did a chant for compassion, I could feel the suffering of the world penetrating my heart. It was heavy, and tears flowed down my cheeks. But I took comfort knowing that I was in a community that was making and effort and taking strides to promote peace in themselves, in their relationships, in their communities, in the world. As a small sliver of humanity, a microcosm, I do believe that if we can create at Deer Park, there is hope that we can do it out in the world. The wars go on, and Thay reminded everyone that bombs do not stop terrorists. We need more leaders like him calling for an end to the violence.

In the last dharma talk, we talked about the alignment of our thoughts, speech, and actions. He said that the answer to the question “Who am I?” is quite simple: your actions. We are our actions. We are what we think, say and do, and these are our legacy – they do not stop existing. He quoted Jean-Paul Sartre: “L’homme est la somme de ses actes.” If we are what we think, say and do, it really makes you think about who you want to be – and what you want to think, say and do.

Well, I want to be peace, joy, compassion, and love, and through mindfulness practice, I will set my intention to promote these aspects in my life - "water the seeds," as Thay would say. I left with a renewed sense of responsibility – to work for a global community, to work for peace, in the spirit of Thay and Dr. King, and a renewed sense that mindfulness practice is a way to take care of myself and increase my ability to be peaceful, compassionate, and joyful.

Who do you want to be?

For more information on Thich Nhat Hanh, please visit:


  1. Wow, the retreat sounds like a wonderful and profound experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and Thay's insights.

  2. Thanks Rachel! Just got your letter today - still waiting for a quite moment so I can open it with mindfulness :) Will save the rest for my reply!