Peace is Every Step; An Evening with Thich Nhat Hahn

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh gave this talk one evening in April, 1991 in Berkeley, California.

I was there. I sat in the fourth row behind Joan Baez.

Peace is Every Step; An Evening with Thich Nhat Hahn

© 1991 Thich Nhat Hanh 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Peace is Every Step, Plum Village, 2000. Photo Jerome Freedman

In  Out , Flower  Fresh , Mountain  Solid , Space  Free

“Dear friends, I would like to invite you to practice breathing with me.  I have a new gatha for the practice of breathing, so let us learn together.  (You cannot hear?)  Let us learn together, an excercise on breathing.  (you hear me?-good.)

“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in, breathing out,

I know that I am breathing out.”

When we breathe in, we just focus our attention on our in breath, and nothing else.  And when we breathe out, we just focus our attention on our out breath, and nothing else.

And then after that we may like to try this: “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower, breathing out, I feel fresh.”

And we can use the word “flower” as we breathe in, and we use the word “fresh” as we breathe out.

If you look at children, they look very much like flowers.  And all of us were born as flowers, but because we have not taken care of ourselves well, that is why sometimes our flower is tired, we wither a little bit.  And breathing in like that is to refresh our flower, to make it beautiful again.

So, “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower, breathing out, I feel fresh.”

I see the human body as a flower too.  Our eyes, they look like rose petals.  Our lips can be a very beautiful flower, our hands, beautiful flowers.

“Breathing in I see myself as a flower, breathing out,

I feel fresh.”

And then we might like to switch to the third breath:

“Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain, a mountain,

breathing out, I feel solid.”

If you practice Buddhist meditation, you like to sit in the lotus position, and that is a very beautiful position of the human body.  And you feel very solid, like a mountain, especially when you practice breathing in that position.

A mountain is not swayed by the wind.  And human beings, if they don’t know how to sit, to breathe, they may be swayed back and forth by their emotions, strong emotions, like winds.  And practicing this, we become more solid, like a mountain.

There are people who do not know how to handle their emotions, especially the big emotions.  And when they are overwhelmed by these emotions they don’t know what to do, and sometimes they have to commit suicide. They do not know that you are more than your emotions. So when there is a strong emotion, you just breathe, in and out, and become a mountain.  And be aware that we are more, much more than one emotion.  And we will overcome that emotion.

“Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain, breathing out, I feel solid.”

And then the next one is water: “Breathing in, I see myself as still waters…”

Let us imagine a pond on the highland, very still.  The water is so limpid and still that it reflects truthfully the color of the sky, and also the shapes of the mountains. And if you look into the water, you see your face, not distorted.

When we are still like that, we will reflect reality as it is.  We will have right perceptions.  If you are agitated, and then we cannot reflect things as they are.

Therefore, “Breathing in, I make myself still, like a pond on a mountain, and, breathing out, I reflect things as they are.”  So we use the words “water”, “reflecting”.

Many times when we listen to other people, we don’t really listen.  We listen to our prejudices, we listen to our emotion, and therefore we miss the point that the people want to make.  It is because we are not still enough, clear enough.  That is why we have a wrong perception concerning what is going on.  So this excercise is quite important.

And the last one is “space”, and “free”, space inside me and space around me, because we do need space in order to be happy.

A flower does need space in order to be happy.  If you want to arrange flowers, you know that each flower needs space around her.  So if you arrange flowers well, you don’t need a lot of flowers.  Maybe you need 1, or 2, or 3, and you give each flower a lot of space.  And we human beings, we are like that too, we need space in order to be happy.  And not only space outside, but space inside.

If we are so full of emotions, so full of anger and hatred, and fear, and then we don’t have enough space within us, we cannot be happy.  Therefore the practice is to let go, in order to have space inside, and around.  And if we love each other we should give each other enough space inside and also outside, so that that person, these people, will flower.

“Breathing in, I see myself as space, breathing out, I feel free.”  Freedom is the base of happiness.

So these exercises you might practice like this:

In –  out
flower  –  fresh
mountain  –  solid
water  –  reflecting
space  –  free

And then, if you want, you just practice one, like “flower, fresh”, for 3 times, or, “mountain, solid”, for three times.  And we shall do that every time we hear the bell, we practice peace as a community, as a sangha.  Let us try.

And enjoy your breathing.

(Bell)

I would like to say one more thing concerning the last exercise, “space”, “freedom”.  I would like to tell you a story that I saw in the sutras.  I think it is in the Samuta Nikaya.   One day the Buddah was sitting with a number of monks, in the wood, near the city of Vajali.  Suddenly one person came by.  He looked very unhappy.  He was a farmer.

He asked the Buddha whether he had seen his cows, passing by.  The Buddha asked, “What cows?”  He said that he had twelve cows, and they have all run away.  “Monk, I am the most unhappy person on earth.  I think I am going to die.    I only have twelve cows, and they have gone, all of them.

And I also have two pieces of land where I cultivate sesame seed plants, and they are all eaten up by insects.  So I think I will die.”  The Buddha said he didn’t see any cows, and he suggested that the farmer go in the other direction in order to look for his cows.

And after the farmer was gone, the Buddha turned to his monks and said this:  “Monks, you are very lucky, you don’t have any cows.”

So, if we have any cows, either inside and outside, let them go.  Our happiness, our freedom, our peace depends very much on our capacity to release our cows.

(Bell)

I have said that every time we are overwhelmed by the emotions, we can hardly be ourselves.  We are like a tree, when there are strong winds blowing.  The top of the tree sways very much.  And we have the impression, if we look at the top of the tree, that the tree is not very solid.   It can be broken.  But if we go down, to the trunk of the tree, and if you are more aware of the roots of the trees, deep in the soil, you will have another feeling, the tree is much more solid.

So we are a kind of tree.  Our emotions are on this level, but if we know how to bring our attention to this level, the level of our navel, and then this is the trunk of the tree.  So every time you are possessed by one strong emotion, try to hold your attention here, a little bit below the navel, and breathe according to this gatha; “in, out”, “mountain, solid”, and so on.  And you will find that you are much more solid.

Pay attention to the movement of your abdomen.  Help your abdomen to do the work of pumping the air, and after a few minutes you’ll feel much better.  So this method may save your life in the future.  If you know how to practice it in your daily life, and when you face a danger, a big danger, you will know how to breathe in and out in order to regain your control, and your solidity.

Of course, when we practice like this there is something present in us.  That something is called mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the capacity to be there, in the present moment; solid, calmer, more lucid.  And that is the fruit of the practice of mindfulness.  You need only to practice breathing in and out like that in order for mindfulness to be present.  And mindfulness will bring you many good things; solidity, freshness, calmness, clearsightedness, and freedom.

When you breathe in and out, and release things, you become a freer person.  And this practice should be done everyday, by yourself, and by the people you love, and by the community.  We practice as an individual, and we practice as a community.  This is the practice of peace.

Mindfulness has the capacity of transforming.  It can transform a neutral feeling into a wonderful, pleasant feeling.  When you look at the sky, the blue sky with mindfulness, the sky becomes more beautiful.

“Breathing in, I am aware of the blue sky, breathing out,

I feel so happy.”

When you contemplate a beautiful sunset, and if you know how to breathe in and out with mindfulness, you enjoy the beautiful sunset much more than if you are possessed by the past or future, or by a feeling like anger, or fear.

When you contemplate a flower in mindfulness, the flower will reveal herself to you deeply.  When you eat a tangerine in mindfulness, the tangerine will reveal itself to you deeply.  If you breathe in and out, and look deeply at the tangerine, you will see that the whole cosmos has come together in order to make the tangerine possible.  Looking deeply at the tangerine we can see the sunshine, the rain, the earth, and many more things.  And looking at the tangerine like that, and seeing the tangerine like that, you will eat it in a very different way.  Your encounter with the tangerine will be very deep.

When you look at the tangerine with your mindfulness, the tangerine will become a very wonderful thing.  And you, the one who eats the tangerine, will become a wonderful person; awake, deep, solid.  And the encounter between you and the tangerine will be a deep one.  Life is present in that moment.

The same thing is true when you hold your baby.  Your child is coming like a flower, smiling, sparkling eyes, and if you are not there, well, you sit there, but you are not really there, your mind is on something else, then you will not be available to your child.  But if you know how to breathe in and out, and go back to the present moment, you receive the child deeply.  At that moment you become available to him, you open your arms, and you hug your child.

“Breathing in, my child is in my arms, breathing out, I feel happy.”  And if you feel happy, the child will feel happy at the same time.

So mindfulness, present, will improve the situation, will transform the situation, will reveal to you the marvel, the wonders of life that are in you and around you.

Suppose you touch your eyes and breathe in,

“Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes, breathing out, I smile to my eyes.”

And then your eyes will reveal themselves to you as wonderful things.  You know of course that your eyes are very important.  You need only to open them in order to see the blue sky, the beautiful trees, your beloved ones.

And, you know that the people who cannot see things, they suffer.  They say that if they can recover their eyesight they would be like in paradise.  It means that all of us who have eyes, we are in paradise, but we are not aware of that.

So breathing in and out may bring us to paradise.  We need only to open our eyes in order to see all kinds of forms and colors.  And we enter into the pure land, the land of bliss, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God.

One time in a church, I said something like this:

“You don’t have to die in order to enter the kingdom of God, in fact you have to be alive in order to do so.”

The kingdom of God is available only in the present moment.  So breathe in and out, smile, and you see that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of peace and happiness, is available to you.  Just make one step and enter the kingdom of God with mindfulness.

And if we know how to get in touch with the refreshing, healing things in us, like our eyes, like the beautiful sunset, a little child, the beautiful rivers, the air we breathe, well, we will get nourished by these things, and peace is available in the present moment to some extent. And we have to profit from it.

So the first function of mindfulness is to help you to get in touch with the refreshing and healing elements in you and around you so that you may be nourished.  And that is the practice of peace itself.  Because if you are not healthy, you are not peaceful, you cannot do anything to help anyone, including your beloved ones.

I think a tree can look happy.  When you look at a tree you can see if a tree is happy or not.  A tree is happy when it is a real tree; solid, fresh.  And we human beings, we are like that too.  If we practice we become more fresh, more solid, truly a human being, and then we are happy.  And before we do anything in order to help other people, we already help.  I think that the best thing that a tree can do for us is to be a tree, to be a real tree, a healthy, happy tree.  Because if a tree is less than a tree, then all of us will be in trouble.

The same thing is true with a human being.  So a human being should be a real, a true human being.  And if a human being is less than a human being, then the whole cosmos will suffer, will be in trouble.  And that is why we need to be ourselves; refreshing, solid, peaceful.

(Bell)

When we are not happy, we try to escape ourselves.  We try to think that our happiness is in the future, and that we should run to the future.  But we know that running to the future means to deny the present moment.  But life can only be found in the present moment.  If you do not want to miss your appointment with life, you have to go back to the present moment. Everything you look for, peace, happiness, calm, buddha, kingdom of God, they are all in the present moment.

If you are running to the future it means that you are not happy in the present moment.  If someone takes refuge in the drugs and alcohol, it means that she is not happy, he is not happy and peaceful.  And if someone is taking refuge in action, even peace action, he is not peaceful and happy.

If someone is doing a lot of things to protect the environment, to protest the war, it may be that that someone is not happy, and they take refuge in the action in order to forget their unhappiness.  But if they do things like that, they do things in that situation, they will not help, because their happiness, their solidity should be the base for the action.  So action should be based on non-action, it means based on being.  And the quality of our being determines the quality of our action.  And therfore, let us not take refuge in action in order to escape being.


Peace Is Every Step-Meditation In Action: The Life and Work of Thich Nhat Hanh
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