Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

Wooden monkReading a brochure from the Laz-y-Boy company the other day, I came upon the claim that Laz-y-Boy, Inc. is “being mindful” with respect to the environment. I was heartened to find that reassurance, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the company was voicing an authentic concern or merely striking a fashionable attitude.

Over the past two decades, the practice of mindfulness has assumed a prominent place in American life. In the vernacular of our times, mindfulness has gone mainstream. American corporations, particularly those situated in Silicon Valley, have embraced the practice, chiefly as a means of reducing stress and increasing productivity. So have the military academies, the health-care system, the prison system, and, more gradually, public schools and higher education. Yet, as the practice has gained in acceptance, it has sometimes lost sight of its origins in Buddhist meditation, and a central component has often been left behind.

That component is the ethical dimension, especially as it pertains to the practitioner’s emotional life. In his book Living with Awareness, the Buddhist monk and scholar Sangharakshita (formerly Dennis Longwood) reminds us of this important dimension of the practice:

To be human is to inhabit a realm in which ethical responsibility is not only possible but requisite. Thus mindfulness must be understood to be more than simple concentration: we need to be as clear as we can about the nature of what we are doing and why. A murderer intent upon his victim is certainly concentrating, but that kind of single-mindedness is very different from the ethical attentiveness that characterizes a state of true mindfulness.

As these remarks suggest, “ethical attentiveness” begins with awareness of what we are doing at any given moment and the impact of our actions on the rest of the world. If, for example, we are playing loud music or talking into a cell phone in a public space, true mindfulness will remind us that we are contributing to noise pollution and diminishing the peace and well-being of other people. Merely by being present for our actions, we can recognize when we are causing harm and when we are not.

Beyond this basic social awareness, the practice of mindfulness can also awaken us to the ethical content of our feelings, thoughts, and states of mind. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutra), a core text for the practice, enjoins us to identify our present, transitory feelings (that is, sensations) as “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” or “neutral.” We are also directed to examine the “roots and fruits” of our feelings, distinguishing between “worldly,” ego-based feelings such as craving and aversion, and “unworldly” feelings such as compassion and sympathetic joy, which are grounded in selfless awareness.

By watching our feelings in this way, even as they are arising, maturing, and disappearing, we can learn to observe how pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations engender our emotions and mental states, which last much longer than feelings and often result in speech and action, whether harmful or beneficial. We can note how a spark of anger can become the flames of rage, or a tinge of melancholy spiral into depression. With practice, we can also learn to distinguish between so-called “unwholesome” mental states, such as craving, hatred, and delusion, and “wholesome” states like concentration, loving-kindness, and equanimity. By bringing awareness to our unwholesome states of mind, we decrease their potential to harm ourselves and others. Fully aware of our lust or anger, we are less likely to translate those mental states into speech or action. Conversely, by recognizing and actively contemplating our wholesome states of mind, we can strengthen their force in our daily lives. In Buddhist meditative practice, specific contemplations are devoted expressly to that purpose.

The English word mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati, which derives from a root meaning “to remember.” In part, the practice of mindfulness consists of remembering to be present for the present moment–to “keep our appointment with life,” as Thich Nhat Hanh would put it. But in its deeper, original context, the practice also consists of remembering to recognize, identify, and monitor our changing feelings, emotions, and states of mind and their influence on the conduct of our lives. “One thing you need to remember and understand, ” observes the Burmese master Sayadaw U Tejaniya, “is that you cannot leave the mind alone. It needs to be watched constantly. If you do not look after your garden, it will overgrow with weeds. If you do not watch your mind, defilements will grow and multiply. The mind does not belong to you, but you are responsible for it.”

Continuously responsible, I might add, even when you are surfing the internet–or relaxing in your Laz-y-Boy recliner.


Sangharakshita, Living with Awareness: A Guide to the Satipatthana Sutra (Windhorse, 2012), 14-15.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s comment is quoted by Joseph Goldstein in Mindfulness (Sounds True, 2013), Kindle edition, 103.

Photo: Figure of a Monk. Artist unknown. Wood. 9th-10th century. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

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ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. (more…)

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Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: (more…)

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Luca Giordano, A Cynical Philosopher

Luca Giordano, A Cynic Philosopher

“I think most people would lie to get ahead.”

“It is safer to trust nobody.”

“Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.”

If you would tend to agree with those statements, your outlook on life and human nature might fairly be described as one of cynical distrust. And while you might be well established in that outlook–and even take pride in being a curmudgeon–a recent Finnish study might give you pause. (more…)

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Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

We can throw away a soiled tissue. We can throw away Q-tips, outdated appliances, and countless other items in our everyday lives. But can we also discard our ill-founded thoughts and one-sided perceptions? Our cherished notions?

According to classical Buddhist teachings, many if not most of our perceptions are erroneous, and erroneous perceptions cause suffering. “Looking deeply into the wrong perceptions, ideas, and notions that are at the base of our suffering,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation.” And correspondingly, “the practice of throwing away our notions and views is so important. Liberation is not possible without this throwing away.” Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “it takes insight and courage to throw away an idea.” Views we have held for decades–or perhaps for a lifetime–are not so easily disposed of, especially when they appear to have served us well. (more…)

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SelfieOver the past few years the digital self-portrait has come into its own. Decried by some as a symptom of narcissism, celebrated by others as a vehicle of self-empowerment, the so-called “selfie” has assumed center stage, not only in social media but in the media at large. Ellen DeGeneres’ “group selfie,” spontaneously snapped at the Oscars, may well be the world’s most widely viewed example, but it is literally one among millions.

In another decade or two, we may find out whether the selfie was a fad, a portent of a cultural shift, or something else entirely. But from the vantage point of Zen teachings, the ubiquitous selfie, shot in a mirror or from an outstretched hand, offers what is known as a “dharma gate”: a point of entry into a deeper truth. “To study the way,” wrote the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “is to study the self.” And the phenomenon of the selfie, however superficial it may seem, provides an opportunity to do just that. (more…)

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Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.

Original calligraphy by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

“Support for NPR,” announced National Public Radio’s Sabrina Fahri during the holiday season, “comes from Pajamagram, makers of matching holiday pajamas for the whole family, including dogs and cats.” After listing several other sponsors, Ms. Fahri concluded with a single declarative sentence:          “This . . . (pause),” said she,  “is NPR.” She might have been delivering a dramatic monologue, so pronounced was her emphasis on this and so protracted the ensuing pause.

Ms. Fahri has since abandoned that mannerism, but its temporary recurrence on Morning Edition, morning after morning, brought to mind the prominence of the word this, similarly isolated, in the Zen tradition. Generally speaking, in Zen practice this refers to undifferentiated reality, prior to the imposition of conceptual thought. “Just this,” a phrase familiar to Zen students, is what we experience when we penetrate the filter created by dualistic concepts, particularly such ego-centered dualities as “self/other,” “I/they,” and “mine/not mine.” To remain in continuous contact with this, while also questioning its nature, is central to Zen practice. And to lose touch with or misconstrue the nature of this is likely to bring suffering upon oneself and others. (more…)

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