Sunday, November 16, 2014

For Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the greatest living teachers of the Dharma for more than 50 years, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage on November 11, while being hospitalized near his Plum Village monastery in France. The latest word is that, at this time, there are signs he may recover.

In this moment, countless individuals in the world are sending thoughts of loving kindness and compassion to Thay, as he affectionately known. These individuals comprise the "sangha," or as Thay has called it, "the community of persons practicing the Way of Awakening, those who travel this path together." He is referring to one of the Three Refuges of the Dharma, the other two being the Buddha (the ability each person has within them to awaken), and the Dharma (the teachings that lead to that awakening).

Thay wrote a beautifully poetic biography of the Buddha, Old Path White Clouds (1991), in which he describes a time when the Buddha himself became gravely ill near the end of his life, but later recovered. After the Buddha was well again, his beloved follower, Ananda, told him of his despair that their teacher might be leaving them to fend for themselves. The Buddha replied:

"Ananda, the teaching is the true refuge. Every person must make the teaching his own refuge. Live according to the teaching. Every person should be a lamp unto himself. Ananda, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are present in everyone. The capacity for enlightenment is the Buddha, the teaching is the Dharma, the community of support is the Sangha. No one can take a way the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha within you." (p. 548)
Another world-renowned Dharma teacher, Sharon Salzberg, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post, "when I heard he was gravely ill, along with concern and sorrow, I had the reaction I have had on the passing of my teachers. [It is] time for me to try to be better than I was yesterday, to practice and try to serve, to up my game so to speak. I think that's something for all of us to reflect on."

It has been my privilege to have walked and practiced with Thay. His very presence has touched and changed thousands of people, and when you hear him speak, you know you are experiencing the Dharma as authentically as it can be taught in our time. He is a man of peace; a gentle soul, who walks lightly on the earth. He also teaches that his time here is impermanent, as all things are. Thay quotes the last words of the dying Buddha as being:

"Dharmas are impermanent. If there is birth, there is death. Be diligent in your efforts to attain liberation!"


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Taking Refuge

Refuge: Shelter or protection from danger or distress; a place that provides shelter or protection; something to which one has recourse in difficulty.

     The theme of this past Sunday's Dharma talk at the inaugural "First Sunday Sangha" was the Three Refuges, also known as the Three Jewels or the Triple Gem of the Dharma.

The Three Refuges are:
The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

"I take refuge in the Buddha -- the capacity within each of us to awaken."

     Taking refuge in the Buddha does not mean that we try to be like the person named Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become "the Buddha." It means that we recognize that right now, within each of us, there is the capacity to see the world clearly for what it is, and to accept this experience of the world being the way it is. In our moments of being awake, we are liberated from ignorance and suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, "If we practice the way of awareness, our Buddha-nature will shine more brightly every day" (Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha, 1991, p. 185).
     Buddha simply means "awakened one," and the capability of awakening fully to the present moment exists in each of us at all times. As Jack Kornfield is fond of saying, "It is a half-a-breath a way."

"I take refuge in the Dharma -- the teachings and the truth of the way things are."

     The Dharma, or the truths about the world that the Buddha discovered during his own practice, and then taught throughout his lifetime, comprise the path that leads to awakening. Each teaching, or Dharma, is a refuge from difficulties. 
     For example, in the Dharma of the Four Noble Truths, the first Truth helps us to see clearly the nature of dissatisfaction and suffering in our own lives. In the Pali language of the Buddha's time, the word for suffering was "dukkha," which means "wanting things to be different from the way they are." When our Buddha-nature awakens to the present moment, and perceives that we are suffering, we are said to have "penetrated" the Dharma of the First Noble Truth. 
     The second Noble Truth describes the origins of this dissatisfaction, or dukkha: clinging to what we want, and aversion toward what we don't want. 
     The third Noble Truth tells us that when we abandon the origins of our suffering (mainly by releasing the clinging fist of attachment to wanting things to be different), there is a cessation of our suffering in that moment, and we are free.
     The Eightfold Path of the fourth Noble Truth offers us specific ways of living our life in order to know this experience of liberation more consistently. The steps on the Eightfold Path are Wise Understanding, Wise Thought or Intention, Wise Speech, Wise Action, Wise Livelihood, Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, and Wise Concentration. (For more on the Four Noble Truths -- or as I refer to them, the Four Knowable Truths, see my blogs on 7/18/10 - 7/21/10 and 7/23/10.)
     When we take refuge in this particular Dharma, we learn how to deal more skillfully and mindfully with the difficulties in our lives so that our reactions to these difficulties don't cause us even more suffering. (See the blogs about the Parable of the Second Arrow on 10/31/09, 1/16/10, and 1/22/11.)

"I take refuge in the Sangha -- the community practicing the way of awakening."

     In Pali, "Sangha" means "community." It describes we who are, in this moment, traveling this path together. The Sangha is is not just within a room. Like the Buddha and the Dharma, it exists within each person, so we carry the Sangha with us wherever we go.
     We can experience the refuge of the Sangha anywhere. Our families can be a Sangha. Our relationships. Our work. Our schools. Your local Starbucks is a Sangha. If we allow the Sangha to be within us through our own diligent practice, the Sangha is wherever we are in every part of our lives.
     Many students have remarked to me over the years about how different it feels to practice in a group rather than alone. It's true: there is an energy that is very discernible within the group experience. There is a smart phone app called "Insight Timer" which allows you to set the length of  your meditation practice, and begin and end it with pleasant sounding bells. Afterward, you can pull up a screen where you can see who else in the world was meditation with you during your practice. The Sangha in a smart phone!
     On my way to teach one morning last week, I found myself in a brief bit of gridlock at an intersection. As I looked around at the drivers causing the gridlock, and at those of us who were stuck because of it, I thought, "We're all in this together." In that moment, in that gridlocked intersection, I had evoked and invoked the Sangha, and my refuge from annoyance and anxiety was my ability to see all humankind around me as suffering in a small way. When we realize that we all share the same human condition -- that condition of suffering; of wanting things to be different -- then we truly realize that we are all in this together. As a result, the weight of our suffering diminishes, and we also open ourselves up to the possibility of some compassion for ourselves, and for others.
     In that moment, as well, we are invoking and evoking the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha within us. We invoke and evoke the Buddha by awakening to the situation as it is, and seeing it clearly. We invoke and evoke the Dharma by understanding the truth of the human condition, and by using skillful means of releasing attachment to having that moment be some other way, thereby experiencing liberation in that moment. We invoke and evoke the Sangha by affirming our essential place in the community of personhood and humankind. Like the Sangha, we are sharing this moment on the path with each other. We are all in this together.