Dharma talk by Sr. Dang Nghiem
Held on September 23, 2018
Dear beloved Thay, dear beloved brothers and sisters, dear friends.
Thank you for being here. Today is September 23rd 2018 and we have a day of mindfulness and I’m very happy to see all of you here.
And especially my young brothers and sisters, who was just ordained less than two weeks ago.
Two weeks now? Exactly two weeks.
Let us bloom flowers!
I remember very vividly the day that I was ordained.
My hair was long over, way below my waist and before the ceremony — sister Jewel (Vietnamese) — she and I sat in front of the meditation hall — it was in the Upper Hamlet — and she got our comb and combed my hair and braided my hair, and played with my hair for the last time.
For some reason I really remember that moment.
And in doing the ceremony when I repeated after Thay the vow to to cut off my hair shaving my head today I vowed to transform all of my afflictions:
[Vow in Vietnamese] So: “Shaving my hair completely today I vow to transform all of my afflictions and to help all living beings to transcend the path of sorrow.”
And I read very loudly and repeated very loudly and tears were streaming down. I felt that moment very deeply and even in this moment, after over 18 years now, that moment is still very alive in me And afterwards, after our hair was cut and shaven and we had a chance to take some pictures with our teacher and I knelt up next to him. And I bowed to our teacher, we call Thay, I bowed to him and said: “Respected Thay! I will do my best to practice so not to disappoint, not to betray your love and trust.”
And Thay — I was on his side and he looked over like this — and Thay said to me: “Thay trusts that you will do that and you will help many people.”
And these words, his words are still very alive in me.
And my novice years, the first three years were not very easy. I cried often. I was infamous for crying, in public and in private. I could cry anywhere: on the toilet stall, in line, sitting with the Sangha at formal meals, at night when I’m alone, so …
And when we had the first retreat for teenagers I did not want to participate in it. I would rather do something else, than to take care of the teens, because looking at them brought up sad memories of my teenage years. And so I didn’t want to work with them.
And it’s just like Thay knew his mind and thus he knew his student’s mind.
One day, Thay just said to me: “My child, practice, so that one day you’ll be able to help so many young people!“
And I remember another incident, there were Vietnamese people coming from Germany, from the United States, from many European countries, and we had a retreat for Vietnamese speaking people and I also felt a bit uncomfortable being around Vietnamese people, because my brother and I grew up in Vietnam and we were children of the Vietnam War. We were Amerasians, so there was a lot of discrimination, a lot of denigration towards mixed children. And so, to me, when I came to the US and living with foster parents, I was very happy to be away from the Vietnamese people.
But, it’s just, you know, wherever you go, there you are …
After 16 years of being in the US and getting my education, I ended up becoming a nun. And I was a student of a Vietnamese teacher and I was planted right in the midst of a Vietnamese community. But really I was not comfortable being around too many Vietnamese people. I just felt maybe it was just for me, not necessarily from them, because I think they were quite fond of me. But I just felt still that complex, that sadness, that shame of being a mixed child. And so – again – I also avoided them.
And my teacher, he just knew it and so he said to me, on one day he said:
“My child, keep practicing and you’ll be able to help many Vietnamese people one day.”
So Thay gave me many Koans (many challenges). And I have kept his words and continue to practice. And today, even sitting here, what’s most valuable for me being in the community for almost 19 years is that: Practice, practice and practice.
And what do we practice?
Very early in my novice year, maybe even the first few months or the first year, Thay went to Germany and gave a talk in a a conference for Protestants. There were 7,000 people and Thay asked me to transcribe that talk and to edit it.
And I remember that night — I felt so restless. This was my first assignment from our teacher. And I felt nervous, because I didn’t know if I could do it, because I had never transcribed a talk, never edited a talk. Even though I studied creative writing, this was something different. And it was for our teacher nonetheless and also I was at the same time filled with this sense of self-importance:
“Wow …! Thay …! Not just anybody…! Thay!!”
Entrusted this big task, you know, in me! “I’m going to transcribe this talk and have it published …!”
And that night – it was already 10 o’clock and I just couldn’t be still – I went on walking meditation around this circle garden in new Hamlet. And I just took very, very slow steps, one step at a time.
And I remembered all the years I struggled so hard in Vietnam and also in the U.S. — to justify to myself and to others, that I am good enough, that I am worthy of a place in this world. I studied so, so hard. Learning English at the age of 16 and a half. I actually went to college. I actually finished medical school. I went to residency. Trust me, that was not easy. But I was filled with this ambition and the strong determine to prove that I was worthy.
So as I was doing the walking meditation around this garden, I remembered how hard I tried and still, how emptied I’d feel inside. How it was … sometimes you feel superior … and then sometimes you feel so inferior … and sometimes you feel both superior and inferior — or you try to be equal to somebody and yet, you always feel either superior or inferior.
So I just reminded myself: I didn’t make it. It didn’t bring me true happiness, out there, the 30 years that I lived out there. So I didn’t want to bring that mentality into my monastic life.
So I walked and walked and walked — for over an hour — to see that whatever I would do in my monastic life, it would not serve the purpose of proving myself, but it would be a practice – so that I can learn to love myself and accept myself — as I am.
And that was a very important experience for me. There have been many experiences in the monastic life that have really turned something in me, changed something in me, but that was a great breakthrough early in my novicehood.
And over the years, with the blessing of our teacher’s teachings and with the blessing of the practice and the support of the Sangha, I have learned about the three powers, that today I would like to share with my younger brothers and sisters and also to share with our friends.
About true power.
Not the power of money.
Not the power of sex.
Not the power of fame.
Not the power of beauty… of food … of sleep … the five sensual desires that give us power.
That we become overpowered, that we become controlled by it, become enslaved by it.
But these three powers, we practice.
Daily. Diligently. And we cultivate. And they have the capacity to bring peace to us and to help us transform bit by bit the suffering that we’ve carried inside of us. Each one of us, we suffer, to varying degrees, but we all suffer.
From the body that we have, we suffer.
From the mind that we have, we suffer.
With all the feelings and thoughts and perceptions we have, we suffer.
And they have been transmitted to us also.
From our parents, from our ancestors, from our society.
And so all this mix of suffering — everything is there in us.
(Gets up and goes to the whiteboard.)
The three powers that we cultivate in in our spiritual practice:
The first power is the power of understanding.
The second power is the power of love.
And the third power is the power of cutting off afflictions (of transforming suffering).
In Vietnamese this is called [Vietnamese] which means — the three virtues — but our teacher translated it as the three powers and that in itself carries great wisdom, because the virtues that we practice in our daily life, they become power.
In our society we are trained to be doers — you do this, you do that, you show this, you show that — in order to exert yourself, to prove yourself to be somebody, but they don’t talk about the state of non-doing. We say somebody is smart, somebody is talented, can play instruments well, can write well, can be a great speaker, but we don’t talk about virtues, such as stability … freshness … solidity … gentleness …
These are virtues in us and they will become, they will induce the way, the kind of thoughts, that we we produce in our daily life. They will result in the speech, in the words, that we we choose, when we talk to others.
These virtues will affect our behaviors, our bodily actions.
So, with the power of understanding, how do we practice, to obtain this?
It’s through our practice of meditation, through our practice of mindfulness.
We learned that meditation is like a bird with two wings: one wing is stopping and the other wing is deep looking. Meditation is like a bird with two wings: stopping and deep looking have to go in tandem, in order for it to be effective, for it to be true meditation.
Stopping means stopping our mind from running back to the past, being caught in the past.
In the complexes that we have of inferiority, superiority and equality.
Getting caught in what happened in our lives — as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult.
Getting caught in what had happened and what could have happened.
We also learn to stop from getting caught in the future: the anticipation, the anxiety, the apprehension, that we may have about the future.
We learn to stop from getting caught in the present: the projects, the ambitions that we may have. We are caught in them and we sacrifice this moment that we truly have, that we are truly alive.
And so, this capacity of stopping is very important.
So we learn there’s a very deep teaching called Interbeing.
This is from stopping and deep looking that the Buddha taught this teaching about interbeing.
And I have a bean, that is my most treasured Dharma instrument.
It’s a real bean, it’s called a yin-yang bean. Half of it is white and half of it is black.
And on the white half, there is a black dot … and on the black half, there is a white dot.
And it’s called a yin-yang bean. In the white, there’s the black. In the black, there’s the white.
I call it an interbean. An interbean.
And it demonstrates to the teaching of interbeing.
The teaching of interbeing points us to right view of how we are.
In us there are our mother, our father, our ancestors, our society, our education, our upbringing, social circumstances …
In the one, that’s the all. The one contains the all.
In stopping there is deep looking. In deep looking there is stopping.
That is the nature of interbeing.
So in our tradition we practice a lot with mindful breathing.
You will hear again and again, but it is the most basic practice, the most fundamental practice for us — whether you are here for the second time or you are here for 30 years or for our teacher, who has been among us for over 75 years.
That is our fundamental practice: mindfulness of breathing.
You are aware of the in-breath as it’s flowing in, you’re aware of the out-breath as it’s flowing out.
And because we learn to bring the mind to the breath, the mind stops wandering aimlessly to the past, to the present … The mind stops being caught in whatever that is happening. It brings itself back to the breath, to the body.
That is a very deep practice of stopping.
So let us practice that together.
Come back to your in-breath.
Recognize it as it is: in-breath.
Recognize it as it is: out-breath.
In-breath … Out-breath …
Being able to stop is a great power in itself.
I’m sure you have been in situations, when you really don’t want to think those thoughts anymore, but you keep thinking them.
You don’t want to say those words, you know that will destroy your relationships, what you’ve worked so hard for, and yet you still say them.
You don’t want to walk away, and yet you walk away.
To be able to stop is a great power … and it is something we must cultivate in our daily life.
To come back to our breath and release … that thought with an out-breath, release … that word with an out-breath, release… that gesture: just relax the body with the out-breath.
And so — daily — we train ourselves a capacity to release, to let go, to relax the thoughts, to relax that feeling, to relax that tension in the body and in the perception.
That is stopping.
Aware of the in-breath, aware of the out-breath: that is a practice of stopping.
That is a practice of releasing, of letting go.
That is a practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness means to remember: to know, what is.
The Chinese character for mindfulness — the upper case is [Gim] — means NOW, the lower case is [thumb], which means HEART or MIND.
So mindfulness means: the MIND that is in the NOW, in the HERE.
Or in short: mindfulness is the NOW-MIND.
The NOW-MIND is able to not hold on to the past or to get caught in the future.
It can observe what is, what was, what will be — with equanimity, but it’s not enslaved by it.
That is the NOW-MIND.
The second exercise that we practice with our breathing is to follow … the in-breath all the way through and to follow the out-breath all the way through.
When we first practice … when I first practiced … … a whole day passed by and I wasn’t aware of even just one breath.
Even when the bell was invited … I just like closed my eyes, you know, and thought my own private thoughts. And waited for it to be over with.
So I would just tense up or hold my breath, with the sound of the bell.
But slowly, slowly I learned to savor the breath, the breathing, the breath. To enjoy the in-breath … to enjoy the out-breath … to enjoy a moment of respite from my own suffering.
To just taste peace, to taste lightness, to taste space.
It a great kindness to ourselves.
And slowly — one breath here — one mindful breath there — one mindful breath some other time — we learn to be more and more aware of the breath. Not only that we become more aware of our breathing, but we also learn to follow our breathing.
In-breath … you follow it all the way through.
There’s a space like a plateau.
And then the out-breath … you follow it all the way through
And there’s a space, a pause.
And a new in-breath will arise … and you follow it all the way through.
There’s a plateau, you rest, you smile and release the tension.
And then you follow the out-breath all the way through.
It sounds incredibly simple, but it is incredibly challenging.
If you ever practice, you will know, you are not able to follow even just five breaths in a row, without seeing your mind jumping to some other thing — “Oh! What’s next? What?“
Or some thoughts, some feelings — something will stir up in your mind.
So: this is a simple, but effective practice to just say: “Come back … come back … come back …”
And to follow in-breath and out-breath all the way through is to train ourselves with concentration.
Mindfulness — strung together bit by bit — and it becomes concentration.
And bit by bit that concentration helps us to have insights into ourselves, into our suffering and happiness, into the suffering and happiness of others.
That is the power of understanding that is cultivated. And it manifests in our daily life with our practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating, with everything that we do, when we raise our hands, we learn to be aware — when we turn, we learn to be aware — when we sit down or stand up, we learn to be aware of our bodily movements.
So in that moment, the mind is with the body — and there’s not this schism, this split: Mind is elsewhere, while the body is left here, all by itself … … to do things automatically.
To not live our life … and then one moment we say: “What has happened, how is it that I have grown old?”
Or: “How is it that now I’m so weak?” “I’m so sick, that I’m about to die … and I have not lived my life.”
I have learned the people who are afraid of death — they’re severely frightened about their death — most likely. it’s because they have not lived their lives. If you live your life, if you are aware of your breath, of your body and you take care of yourself in your daily life, you will not be so frightened by death, because in practicing, you do see:
For an out-breath to take place, you have to let go of that in-breath.
And for the next in-breath to take place, you have to let go of the out-breath.
And you see this constant flux and change.
You see this nature of impermanence, that is there in our breathing, in our walking, in our thoughts, in our feelings, in our perceptions — it’s never, never the same.
And so we learn to be familiar with life and we learn to be familiar with death — in our daily life.
And the insight of interbeing is a great power.
This power of understanding will help us to touch that love in us and to transform our afflictions.
Our teacher has written calligraphies:
Understanding is Love.
Love cannot be without Understanding.
Understanding is Love.
Let us enjoy a sound of the bell.
Love — first of all — is to learn to be aware of ourselves, of our body.
In the sixteen exercises of mindful breathing — which is the very crucial, essential discourse in our practice so I surely hope the novices will memorize these 16 exercises by heart and that you practice them in your daily life
So the first exercise is to be aware of the in-breath, to be aware of the out-breath. The second exercise is to follow the in-breath all the way through to follow the out-breath all the way through
The third exercise is to be aware that we have a body.
Breathing in, I’m aware that I have a body.
Breathing out, I am aware that I have a body.
Many of us — we can go through our daily life, without being very aware of our body.
I remember, when I was doing my residency at a hospital and one night I was on call, to go to see a patient. He was there for some reasons, but he also had a history of a mental illness. And the nurse suspected that he had some kind of bowel obstruction, because his abdomen kept expanding, expanding … and it was very expanded.
And so we we did an abdominal x‑ray and we saw just a lot of air and actually a lot of fecal matter, a lot of it. So, what I learned to do was to evacuate his bowel — his … manually. It’s a euphemism for … it’s just a nice way of saying: you put in your index finger through the anus, you just turn it and you stimulate it, and you evacuate the feces out.
Many people with severe mental illness, actually, they become numb to their bodies. They’re not aware of their bodies, they don’t have the awareness of the need to empty their bowels, to empty their bladders. And therefore it just shut down, kept inside. That is an extreme example.
But I think many of us also suffer this. When we sit at a computer for hours, we’re not aware of our bodily needs, right? And maybe after two or three hours, then the message get’s through and you’re like: “I need to go to the restroom.” The next message you sent to your mind is: “Wait. Let me finish this!” Right?
So you will suppress that need. And you work a little more and the message gets through half an hour later or five minutes later. And you suppress that message again and again, you try to block it, to suppress it, until you cannot hold off anymore. That’s what we do.
But in a spiritual practice, we learn to be aware of our body.
Breathing in, I’m aware of my body.
I’m grateful for my body.
Thank you for carrying the pain of my life.
Are you aware of which parts of your body carry your sadness?
Carry your anger?
Carry your stress?
Your insecurity, your confusion, your despair?
Some of us carry our stress in our head. We have these restless thoughts, that we cannot stop, that we suffer from insomnia, from headaches.
Some of us carry it in our throat, we feel choked, suffocated, we can’t breathe.
Some of us carry it in our chest, we feel it’s heavy, it’s painful.
We feel this, it’s tightening in our chest, this palpitation.
Or some of us may carry it in our abdomen, abdominal organs. To have painful menstruation, to have diarrhea, irregular bowels, diarrhea, constipation. So …
Or on our skin, we may have a flair, when stress is there. We have some kind of skin disorder and a flair, that takes place.
So in that way, we have to learn to see, to be, to check in with our bodies more often and to recognize — in this moment the body is at ease, is relaxed or in this moment, the body is tensing up … if the body is in pain …
And to recognize: Why is it tensing up? — Why is it in pain? — Which feeling is it carrying, is it manifesting? — And breathe with it.
Breathing in, I’m aware that there’s pain in my chest.
Breathing out, thank you for carrying the burden of my pain. I’m here for you.
Help me to take good care of you.
Help me to be there for you, the way you have been there for me.
Let us practice with that and identify the places in your body that carry your pain.
The fourth exercise of mindful breathing:
Breathing in, I relax the tension, release the tension in my body.
Breathing out, I relax, release the tension in my body.
With my smile, with my mindful breathing, with my love, with my affection.
I learned to hold and to relax it.
There’s a word, that is very profound.
When I learned about this word … I felt something changed in my life.
We all have heard of the word soulmate.
And invariably — every time I ask children or young people or the adults:
“What do you think, what is the soulmate?”
They always say a soul mate is somebody who understands them, who accepts them, unconditionally, who loves them.
But in Vietnamese the word soulmate is [Dschikei]
And our Vietnamese people also believe that a soulmate is someone outside of us.
But when I learned some Chinese characters, I learned that [Dschi] means to remember — to know — to master. And [kei] means oneself.
So a soulmate is someone, who remembers, who knows, who masters herself.
Is one, who remembers, who knows, who masters himself.
This is a soulmate.
So in our practice, when we learn to come back to our in-breath and out-breath, we learn to be a soulmate to our breathing and to realize: when we are angry — our breathing pattern is different.
When we are sad or in despair — our breathing pattern is different.
When we are sick and when we are dying — we breathe differently.
We breathe differently in different situations.
Our breathing reflects our mind.
We may not know very well our mind, but if we learn to befriend with our body, we will know our mind.
This is to be a soulmate of our breathing.
We learn to be a soulmate of our body, to know where it carries the pain and sadness and the trauma … and to embrace it and to relax it, to care for it. We learn to be a soulmate — gradually — of our feelings and thoughts, which are the next exercises of mindful breathing:
To embrace the feelings … and to care for the perceptions …
And this is the power of true Love.
With Understanding … Love arises.
In Understanding … there is Love.
And we learn to be our own soulmate.
The third power is the power of cutting off afflictions.
I remember, one time I was doing sitting meditation in new Hamlet, in Plum Village. That’s where our teacher established a center after he was in exile. He became exiled from Vietnam, and he lived in France and he established this center in Southern France, near Bordeaux. And our hamlet, the meditation hall, had been sort of like a warehouse. I don’t know if they stored grains or they kept cows, but these walls were made of stones, blocks of stone stacked on each other. And one evening, as we were doing sitting meditation, I was staring at this wall and just a question arose:
“How has this wall arisen in me?”
“How is it that I’m so walled off …? So cut off by myself …? From myself … and from others …?”
Outwardly, sure, I was smiling and talking … Outwardly, sure, everything seemed to be okay … Except when I kept crying … but really, inwardly, I didn’t even know who I was. I didn’t know how to care for myself.
And this wall, I kept staring at it, following my breathing, relaxing my body and looking at this wall … and after a while — an insight arose: “If I could just remove one small pebble, lashed in between those blocks of stones. I can already see the light on the other side of the wall, just a small pebble.“
So I continued to follow my breathing … continued to relax my body … and another thought arose:
“When that pebble is removed, it would be easier … to remove the block of stone next to it and then the one next to it … and the one next to it.”
And slowly, these insights came to me:
“I don’t have to remove all the stones, in order to be free.“
I can already step over to the other side, if only a few stones are removed.”
“And the stones themselves, they will collapse on themselves, after a while.”
“I don’t have to remove one block of stone after another … they will collapse on themselves, because they have built on a foundation … of wrong views and wrong thinking, of separateness … of individuality … of me versus others …”
Many of us suffer in our life … from traumas … abuse – physical abuse … emotional abuse … verbal abuse … sexual abuse …
And as we become victims, we continue to victimize ourselves.
All of us would assert, that we don’t want to suffer. We want to be happy, we want to be free.
But if we learn to stop and look deeply, we will see – it’s the opposite:
We are very addicted to our suffering … very addicted.
There is suffering!
But the suffering does not does not transform with time, because of the addiction of suffering.
The addiction to suffering is so strong.
When you are angry, what kind of nutriments do you feed yourself?
You listen to very harsh music, you get in a car you drive fast, you say things, that will cause more anger in your own body, in your own mind … and cause people to stay away from you, to fear you.
You see, the emotion hormone only has a half-life of 69 seconds. How is it that we can be angry for days? … and for our whole life … ? What feeds our anger, what feeds our despair ?!
It’s our thoughts, it’s our own self-victimization.
“Poor me! I’m just a victim!”
“Look, they’re looking at me differently.”
“They’re treating me, like I’m not worthy.”
We do that to ourselves, even now when we are no longer children. Even though now we are already adults. And yet we continue to speak poorly towards ourselves… to think poorly about ourselves and others …
That is addiction to suffering.
And we also need to practice to stop and to look deeply, to see that we are not just victims. We are perpetrators. Daily! To ourselves … and we are also perpetrators to others as well …
Very seldomly one of us will say:
“I have hurt others.”
“I have betrayed others.”
“I have abused somebody in my life.”
In our spiritual life, we learn to claim this power. This power of understanding — to see really — that we are capable: In the victim, there is the perpetrator. In the perpetrator, there is the victim. We learn to look at it squarely, honestly and to say:
“I’m sorry that I have caused pain to myself.”
“I’m sorry that I have hurt you.”
Only then can we be slowly free of our self-victimization. Only then we learn to feed ourselves with more positive thoughts, speech, and behaviors towards ourselves and others.
Let us breathe with a sound of the bell.
Just come back … and breathe … and send yourself that message:
“I’m here for you.”
“Thank you for having been there for me all these years …”
“Help me to love you, to care for you.”
“I am sorry, I’ve neglected you.”
“I’ve abused you.”
“I am sorry for all the pain I have caused … towards myself and others.”
The power we cultivate in our spiritual life is different from the power outside.
Out there, you learn to be important. In the way, that you get to say: You are the first one to say something. You’re the last one to say something. You are the doers, the makers. It causes us this need to compete, to compare. To put somebody down, so that we can feel a little better about ourselves.
And this — it takes place in our monastic life as well. Because after all, we wear the rope of a monastic, but inside us, we carry all the suffering, of our ancestors, of our parents, of the life that we have lived out there for so many years. And of the negative habit energies, that we continue to feed in our monastic life. To me, I think it is a great misfortune, for those of us, who have found a path or made commitment to the path.
But if we do not diligently practice … mindfulness of our breathing … mindfulness of our body … mindfulness of our feelings and perceptions … day after day …, then we are just a hollow vessel. A big tin can … it makes noise … but it doesn’t have anything inside.
We’re just as insecure as ever before or worse! Because with time we become older … and weaker. And we’ll see the young ones coming and we compare ourselves with them and we see:
“Oh, I’m not as strong as them.”
“I cannot do the work that I used to do anymore.”
“Now my younger brother or my younger sister is better than me.”
Therefore I feel bad about myself. Therefore I want to use my authority or power to intimidate
them. To make them feel bad about themselves, because I feel bad and insecure about myself. That’s what happens everywhere.
So daily, I ask myself — when I do something, when I say something:
“What is my real intention? Really!”
“Is it because I feel insecure, I need to do something to prove that I am worthy of a place … in the community … or in this world?”
“Is it because I want somebody to look bad, so that I can feel better about myself?”
It’s good, it’s painful to ask yourself those questions. But ask them often, because they will bring us this power of understanding and of true love. To be a soulmate to ourselves is to just look squarely at what arises and not to be afraid, not to say:
“Oh no, I’m better than that.”
“Oh my gosh! How is it that I’m capable of thinking such thoughts!”
You know? Say:
“YES! — I am capable of that … and more!”
People will say to me: “Sister Day, you smile all the time, you must be very happy!”
And I would reply: “Yes, I am happy, some of the time. – But most of the time, I smile to my crooked thoughts!”
Humor is a great thing!
If you cannot be honest with anybody else … please make sure to be honest with yourself.
It would be a great misfortune, if we fool ourselves.
One night — about a few years ago — I had a dream. And this was after I contracted Lyme disease. And I saw the many cognitive dysfunctions that took place in me. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t understand what I was reading. I couldn’t recall what I was going to do, what I was going to say. It affected my speech, my pronunciation was very unclear. And I also I misused words.
This was very, very frightening, because I tried so hard all my life to study and to be a good student, to be a successful person – and here everything I worked so hard for was slipping right through my my fingers.
And so, in this dream I had, I walked into a room full of people and they were much older than me. They were very well-dressed, they were talking very comfortably with each other.
And I thought to myself: “How can I teach these people?” — “They’re all professionals, they’re all older than me, what do I have to teach them?” So I felt a bit insecure, hesitant about that.
And then — a few moments later — it came to me: “I can always talk to them about suffering and how to transform their suffering, because surely every one of them has suffering within.”
And with that insight I was imbued with confidence and I said to them:
“Dear friends, please sit upright!”
And they all sat up right.
And then I woke up from the dream.
In our monastic life, when people come and request for a retreat like for health professionals or for business people or for politicians – a lot of time we think, you know:
“How can we teach these people?”
Especially my siblings: “I’m so young, I don’t know anything.” — “I didn’t finish college or I didn’t study medicine.” Or: “I didn’t study politics or business.” — “How can I teach these people?“
So we feel uncertain, we feel anxious.
But the truth is that our monastic life is there to help us understand our suffering, our addiction to suffering — and to learn to hold it — to transform it — and to heal it … and that’s what we teach others.
You don’t need a degree to do that. Many people have high degrees — but they suffer. They suffer seriously and they don’t know a way out.
So the power that we have, the power of understanding … the power of love … the power of cutting off afflictions – they are potential energies in each one of us. And with our daily practice of mindfulness, we become stronger. And we are not so afraid of what people think about us. We care about others. We want to make a positive difference. But if they think poorly of us, if they treat us poorly – don’t self-victimize yourself. Just know, that they suffer, that they are insecure. And therefore, they mistreat you. That is deep compassion for yourself, not to bring upon yourself the suffering of others. If they say — “You are unworthy. You are bad.” — just breathe and smile — and be your own soulmate.
To me, to be able to be with who I am, to be able to be there with what was, what is and what will be – that is the greatest power, that is the greatest happiness.
And I don’t have to prove, I don’t have to show, it’s just simply being there.
Recently, I went through this suitcase that I’ve been keeping since I ordained. A suitcase — for, to … actually, a suitcase and two bags full of letters – love letters (laughs) many of them. Letters from young people in prison. Literally, I had hundreds of letters, that I’ve kept over the years. And articles and photographs.
And because we cannot keep everything in our room, because we have only one bed box. In a monastic quarter, each one of us has just a bed box. So I’ve had some lay friends to keep this suitcase and these bags for me over the years.
But this time I looked over them and I decided to throw away most of it. It was the most painful thing I did. To tear these letters, tear them up! Or to just throw them away whole. That was … I couldn’t do it … for the last 19 years … but I did it! Less than a month ago.
It was most painful, but most liberating.
And what I learned again and again, was that:
Live your life.
Live your life beautifully, meaningfully.
Your mementos, what means so much to you …
Your brother, he doesn’t even want to look at.
Your niece, she doesn’t want to look at.
It doesn’t mean a thing to your brothers or sisters, but it means everything to you.
But you have to let them go.
And yet nothing is lost, because it’s all there – in your life, in your way of being.
Not the physical things that you keep outside to prove that you have existed, that you have been important to somebody, that you’ve been loved by this person or that person, it’s not. It’s not.
It’s in every way of your being, in your thought, speech in your body, in every cell.
That’s what’s important.
And the rest, it becomes recycling matters, materials. Okay?
They become recycling materials … or just garbage.
So my dear ones, thank you so much for being here today.
And I hope that you will continue to take refuge in the community, continue to take refuge in this very basic practices, so that you truly touch these great powers in you and to make a difference in your life and in the lives of others.
Let us sit up beautifully and enjoy three sounds of the bell.
Dharma talk transcribed by John Gather in 2021