Many of us believe that happiness is only possible when we have achieved certain objectives: a partner, a job, status, a new car, a holiday. This is not the way to happiness. Happiness can be achieved directly, in any circumstances, right now. It is not an objective that you reach after long endurance, but rather a process that you participate in here and now. The essence of the teachings is the joy and ease that come from being completely present in the Here and Now. The simplicity of just being, from which peace and happiness arise.
These teachings do not imply that it is possible to be happy all the time. Even the most skilled gardener cannot keep flowers blooming all the time. At some stage we have to go through a composting period. This understanding allows us to accept periods of dullness and depression and not give any another significance to them other than that they are our composting periods. Thewinter of our discontent is a natural part of the cycle.
The Buddhist Path
Insight (prajna), concentration (samadhi) and the Mindfulness Trainings (sila) are the threefold trainings that the Buddha passed on to his lay students. The practice of each of these trainings is equally important. Practising the Mindfulness Trainings (ethics) brings about concentration, and concentration is needed for insight.
If we look deeply into the nature of our universe we can see all things as profoundly interdependent. At the heart of this understanding is the realisation that we have no separate self, that everything is empty of a separate self in a universe which is in a constant state of flux and change. We use the term interbeing, meaning connected to everything.
If the above sounds theoretical and abstract, just look out of the window and gaze at the view. Breathe, and bring yourself wholly into the present moment. It is possible that you may experience yourself as part of a continuum, part of the natural world. You may lose your usual sense of any separate self. It is this experience which is wisdom. It is a wisdom grounded in everyday experience.
When we see all beings as simply one rather than many, the need to be angry or to punish vanishes and all that exists at that point is peace.
Imagine waves on the sea. If the waves had consciousness they might look at themselves and compare themselves with other waves, saying: “I am more (or less) beautiful than that wave”, or, “I am higher (or lower) than that other wave,” and develop a sense of importance or of low self-esteem. As the waves approach the shore the self-important wave might see the waves ahead dashing themselves against the shore and become filled with fear. This is because it considers itself to have a separate existence. It does not realise that it is only a manifestation of the water and in a process of continual metamorphosis or transformation. Once it realises this, liberation occurs and it is freed from fear, particularly the fear of death. It has realised that its ultimate nature is water.
We can apply this teaching to ourselves once we realise that there is nothing identifiable in us which is separate. When we look deeply at a wave we see the water, and when we look deeply at the water we see the possibility of the wave.
So human beings are not separate from the universe in which they find themselves, but deeply and intrinsically connected throughout space and time. When we realise our interbeing nature, we are freed from the fear of death and can live in peace.
Our liberation is dependent simply on realising our interbeing-nature. If we continue to see ourselves as separate, we are not awake. Peace will elude us. Once we perceive the interconnected nature of our existence we rest in the heart of understanding.
We have a right hand and a left hand. The right hand is different to the left hand: it serves a different purpose. But the right hand is not better than the left hand. Neither hand is superior to the other. If the right hand is injured, the left hand naturally and instinctively moves to protect and comfort and support it. Each is dependent on the other for certain functions like clapping or carrying heavy objects.
In this example the left hand has non-discriminating wisdom: it does not say: “Aha, I see you are hurt. I will help you but you must be grateful! I will feel fulfilled! I will do it as a favour!” It knows that the other hand’s pain is its own pain and acts instinctively to help, just as a parent responds to the pain of a child.
Non-discriminating wisdom is a natural outcome of realising the truth of interbeing, perceiving that everything is part of everything else, that nothing is separate. It is the insight that comes from directly experiencing reality without passing through concepts, and is the fruit of meditation. There is no judgement in this wisdom: things are as they are.
Historical and ultimate dimensions
The wave which sees itself as separate is in samsara, in the historical dimension, but the wave which sees itself as water is liberated, is in the ultimate dimension and has entered nirvana. The wave exists in both the historical and the ultimate dimensions. So do we.
By definition nirvana defies any attempt at description because it is the direct experience of the ultimate dimension of reality, where everything has interbeing with everything else. When we understand that nothing is born, nothing dies, there is no birth and no death, that nothing is created and nothing destroyed, that nothing is immaculate and nothing defiled, that brings the peace that nirvana attempts to describe.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something: mindfulness of breathing means paying attention to and being aware of the rise and fall of the breath. Mindfulness of eating is paying full attention to the texture, taste and origin of what we are eating at that moment.
The mind can be thought of as having two sections: an upper, or mind-consciousness, which is equivalent to the Western conscious mind and which contains those things of which we are aware; and a lower, store-consciousness which contains those things of which we are unaware.
Within the store consciousness are the seeds of every state of mind that we can imagine: seeds of happiness, anxiety, joy, anger, love, compassion, fear etc. We are born with all of these seeds, some stronger than others. Their growth, and how often they manifest in the conscious mind, create habit energies which depend on how often they have been watered – some by our family and culture, and some by our own experience.
Another way of looking at this is to imagine the conscious mind as your living room, and the store consciousness as a dark cellar. In the floor of your living room is a trap-door which allows the seeds to come up from the cellar. One of the aims of the practice is to become aware of what is going on in your living room, because what happens there waters the seeds in the store consciousness.
This allows you to decide which seeds will manifest, giving you the tools to deal with strong unwanted seeds down in the store consciousness, and not allowing them to surface unwanted.
For example, every time we are angry, a seed of anger is watered, and sprouts upwards into the mind-consciousness. When that seed returns to the store consciousness (that is, when we are not angry), it is stronger than it was before. In the future, a quite trivial event might trigger that seed of anger. We begin to lose autonomy: anger is more in control than we are and begins to become habitual. These habits are sometimes referred to as internal knots or internal formations.
Stopping the mind, “calm abiding”
The primary purpose of mindfulness practice is to stop the chatter of the mind. Once stopping has been achieved, peacefulness and joy arise spontaneously. For the mind to become clear we don’t have to do anything. We only have to allow what is already happening to stop.
If you do not have enough concentration, you can not be strong enough to break through, to have a breakthrough into a subject of your meditation. Therefore breathing, walking, sitting, and other practices are primarily for you to realize some de gree of concentration. This is called Stop. Stop, in or der to concentrate. Just as the lamp shade stops the light from dispersing so you can read your book more easily, the first step of meditation is stopping, stop ping the dispersion, concentrating on one subject. The best subject, the most available subject is your breathing. Breathing is wonderful. It unites body and mind. Whether you count breaths or just follow them, it is for stopping.
Stopping and seeing are very close. As soon as you stop, the words on the page become clear, the problem of our son becomes clear. Stop and look, that’s meditation, insight meditation. Insight means you have a vision, an insight into reality. Stopping is also to see, and seeing helps to stop. The two are one. We do so much, we run so quickly, the situation is difficult, and many people say, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” But doing more things may make the situation worse. So you should say, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Sit there, stop, be yourself first, and begin from there. That is the meaning of meditation. When you sit in the meditation hall or at home or wherever you are, you can do that. But you have to really sit. Just sitting is not enough. Sit and be. Sitting without being is not sitting. Be stopping and seeing.
Looking deeply, insight
Once the chatter of the mind is quietened, it is then possible for us to bring the mind’s focus on to a problem or issue with which we need to deal. With the conscious mind stilled, we can see and understand more clearly and insight can arise.
Mindful speaking and listening
Mindful speech is a variation on stopping: we often speak in reaction, without pausing to think. You can make your speech mindful by inhibiting your habitual reaction: pause and reflect before you speak. For example, mindful listening similarly involves inhibiting our habitual responses such as judgements, allowing ourselves to truly hear what the other person is saying, and giving them the space to finish without interruption.
Whenever we are unhappy we will see that our mind is either focused on regrets about the past (if-onlys), or in worries about the future (what-ifs). The mind is often caught up in cycles of these negatives. By practising arriving in the present moment, we are released from these negative cycles.
“I think it is because we do not have the capacity to stop and live deeply each moment of our daily life, that therefore we cannot see the true nature of our own self, the nature of interbeing.
The practice of meditation is first of all the practice of being there, being here, deeply in the here and now. To meditate is to be in the present and it is here that you can touch life in depth and know that your neighbor is a part of life –your beloved, your son, your daughter, your partner are all a part of life.”
Interview to Thich Nhat Hanh by Rajiv Mehrotra, published in the book “The Mind of the Guru”.
“To meditate is not to achieve, but to be. Just smile, and be yourself,” says Thây. It is important that we do not become goal-oriented in meditation. “We walk in order to walk.” Although peace and happiness are consequences of the practice, if we strive for happiness, it eludes us. “Peace is every step”: the practice itself leads to happiness. It is not something we attain, not a goal to strive towards, it is inherent in the practice, and also something we are, here and now. The practice is unlike so much of our lives, which is about getting somewhere, doing something. The practice is about stopping, about being rather than doing. We discover that we already are what we want to become.
Breathe, you are alive
Body and mind are united through mindfulness of breathing. Focusing on our breath we bring to consciousness the wonder and joy of life, its mysteries and beauty. We engage in the present moment. You can meditate for twenty-four hours a day just by being mindful, being wholly present in everything you do. This positive approach builds joy and self-confidence.
While walking along – at any speed – if we breathe in and out consciously, connecting our breath to the rhythm of the steps, we observe the world around us more clearly in the full consciousness of what we are doing in the present moment.
The Island of Self
As we practise mindful breathing, and observe the rise and fall of the abdomen, we get a sense of there being a place inside us from which that feeling of autonomy and joy arises. This is our true home. This is the place we return to when we come back to ourselves. We can imagine this to be an island, and continue to develop the vision of self-sufficiency.
“Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love.”
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p 159.
Happiness is not an individual matter
Our own happiness cannot be pursued in isolation: it is dependent on the happiness of those around us. To nurture the happiness of others creates the conditions for our own happiness.
Conflicts which arise in relationships are among the most common forms of unhappiness: learning how to deal with these is a precondition for happiness. When we live in community; we do not have much private space and it is when we are in contact with others that our own negative energies often arise. The other person acts as a mirror, showing us our habit-energies. This is one important aspect of Sangha, community: it can be a safe place to become aware of our negative habit energies and to look deeply into these. It provides a context in which conflict resolution becomes easier. We are forced to face up to our problems but are given support in doing so.
“We might be inclined to think that our happiness is the most important thing. But in the light of interbeing, we realize that happiness is not dividable matter. If the other person is not happy, then there will be no way for us to be happy. When the father suffers there is no way a son can be happy, so looking for individual happiness is not a very realistic perspective. If the father tries to understand the son and make the son smile, both will have happiness at the same time. That is also the nature of the interbeing of happiness.”
Interview to Thich Nhat Hanh by Rajiv Mehrotra, published in the book “The Mind of the Guru”.
Understanding is the very foundation of love. Once we have understood the true nature of the other person, it is then that we are able to accept them, and to see the reason why they act the way they do. Although we may still want them to change, it is no longer a requirement, simply a preference. We would like the other person to act a different way, but we don’t need them to. We don’t love our children any the less simply because their behaviour doesn’t fit in with our preconceptions. When a baby cries in the night we may not like it, but we don’t love the baby any the less because we understand that it is in its nature to wake up and cry in the night. Real love is always based on understanding.
In order to understand someth ing, you have to be one with that something
“The Buddha said that in order to understand, you have to be one with what you want to understand. To understand something is to take that thing up and to be one with it.
The Indi ans have a wonderful example. If a grain of salt would like to measure the degree of saltiness of the ocean, to have a perception of the saltiness of the ocean, it drops itself into the ocean and becomes one with it, and the perception is perfect.
Nowadays, nuclear physicists have begun to feel the same way. When they get deeply into the world of subatomic particles, they see their mind in it. Modem physicists think that the wordobserver is no longer valid, because an observer is distinct from the object he observes. So they have proposed the word participant. You are not an observer, you are a participant. The speaker and the people who listen must become one in order for right perception to take place.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, the basic manual on meditation from the time of the Buddha, it is recorded, “The practitioner will have to contemplate body in the body, feelings in the feelings, mind in the mind, objects of mind in the objects of mind.” The words are clear. The repetition, “body in the body,” is not just to underline the importance of it. Contem plating body in the body means that you do not stand outside of something to contemplate it. You must be one with it, with no distinction between the contemplator and the contemplated. Contemplating body in the body means that you should not look on your body as the object of your contemplation. You have to be one with it. The message is clear. Non-duality is the key word for meditation.”
Thich Nhat Hanh from Feelings and Perceptions from the book “Being Peace”
“Suppose we have a son who becomes an unbearable young man. It may be hard for us to love him. That is natural. In order to be loved, a person should be lov able. If our son has become difficult to love, we will be very unhappy. We wish we could love him, but the only way we can is to understand him, to under stand his situation. We have to take our son as the subject of our meditation.
First we need to stop the invasion of feelings and thoughts, which deplete our strength in meditation, and cultivate the capacity, the power of concentra tion. For a child to do his homework he has to stop chewing gum and stop listening to the radio, so he can concentrate on the homework. If we want to understand our son, we have to learn to stop the things that divert our attention. Concentration, mindfulness, is the first practice of meditation.
With that power of concentration, we can look deeply into the problem. This is insight meditation. First we are aware of the problem, focusing all our attention on the problem, and then we look deeply into it in order to understand its real nature, in this case the nature of our son’s unhappiness.
We don’t blame our son. We just want to under stand why he has become like that. Through this method of meditation, we find out all the causes, near and far, that have led to our son’s present state of being. The more we see, the more we understand. The more we understand, the easier it is for us to have compassion and love. Understanding is the source of love. Understanding is love itself. Under standing is another name for love; love is another name for understanding. When we practice, it is helpful to practice in this way.
When you grow a tree, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the tree. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. You may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the tree, yet we blame our son. If we know how to take care of him, he will grow well, like a tree. Blaming has no effect at all. Never blame, never try to persuade using reason and arguments. They never lead to any pos itive effect. That is my experience. No argument, no reasoning, no blame, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”
Thich Nhat Hanh from Meditation in daily life from the book “Being Peace”