The Three Powers

Dharma talk by Sr. Dang Nghiem
Held on September 23, 2018
video recor­ding


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.”
“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!”

(Public laug­hing.)

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.

Thank you!

Let us sit up beau­tiful­ly and enjoy three sounds of the bell.


Dharma talk tran­scri­bed by John Gather in 2021