Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on February 19, 1998 in Plum Village, France.
The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness
- Mindfulness Of Body and Feelings.
Today is the 19th of February and we are in the New Hamlet. We are studying the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. We know that the practice of awareness of the body and the mind is a very important one. Being aware of the whole body, and calming the functions of the body, is a very important practice in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, because we know there are four breathings related to the body.
Breathing in and breathing out, recognising the length of the breathing, we are aware of the whole body and calming the body. In Pali, the word for whole body is Sarvakaya; it means all the parts of the body. Therefore, "being aware of the whole body", means first of all that we are aware of our body as a collection of different parts. Secondly, we are aware of the different parts of our body. We are aware of the different parts of the body separately. When we study the Four Establishments of Mindfulness we see this more clearly.
We are aware of our body when we stand, walk, sit and lie down. When we perform actions with our body, when we look deeply at the different parts of our body, we see that the basis of our body is the four elements--earth, water, fire and air. We see the nine stages of the dissolution of the body after the death of the body. When we are aware of our body, when we embrace and look deeply into our body, we can have insight. That insight is the insight of impermanence, no self and interbeing. The insight is that this body is not me. We should not be attached to this body and identify ourselves with this body, because if we do, we shall make ourselves suffer.
When we understand that, we can see that the practice in Plum Village follows the teachings of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness Sutra; whether we stand, walk, sit, lie down, or work, we are now practising the things the Buddha taught us in the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. All the exercises in the book of guided meditation, Blooming of a Lotus, are all intended for us to practice seriously the things which the Buddha taught in the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness and the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.
Therefore, the last two breathings of the body--that is, the third and fourth breathings--are being aware of the functions of the body and calming the functions of the body. When we read the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness we understand more clearly what this means. We now know how we can be aware of the functions of our body and how we can calm the functions of our body.
In the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha doesn’t go into detail teaching us to look deeply into the interbeing nature of our body, and the different things which make our body come into being, and the 32 parts of the body. However, the exercises in the third and fourth breathings, are meant to teach us to do that, when we talk about being aware of the body’s functions and calming the body’s functions. When we are able to take hold of our body in mindfulness, we begin to master our mind, and our body becomes one with us.
If the practice of mindfulness is still weak, our body is like a wild buffalo. Therefore, mindfulness is the herdsman and our mind is the wild buffalo. The buffalo trainer comes to the buffalo, and with the practice of mindfulness, the buffalo trainer gets to know the buffalo. After that, the buffalo trainer can sit or lie on the back of the buffalo. That is the image of the Ten Buffalo Training paintings: mastering the buffalo. At first, the buffalo is a separate entity from the one who masters the buffalo. Gradually, the buffalo trainer and the buffalo become one. And in the end the buffalo trainer is sitting on the back of the buffalo and singing. He can lie on the back of the buffalo and the buffalo can go wherever he likes. But if we are not able to master our body, it is very difficult to master our mind. Therefore, the practice of the Four Establishments begins with looking, observing the body in the body, taking hold of the breathing as we are in any position--sitting, standing, walking, taking hold of our body by mindfulness when we are bending down, when we are straightening up, when we are walking forward, and when walking backwards. It is a very important practice to be able to see the different parts of the body, smile to them, enjoy ourselves with them, to be able to see the different elements which make up the body.
There are people who say "when I practice, I just practice with my mind". This is because they have not yet understood what practice means. When you practice, you have to practice with your body. Your body is the object of your practice. We know that when we are not able to grasp firmly our steps and our breathing, we are not able to grasp our mental activities. Therefore, to be able to take hold of our steps and take hold of our breathing is to be able to take hold of and understand our mind. Then we will become the buffalo, and the buffalo will become us.
Therefore the Buddha often teaches us that his teachings are to master body and mind. We have to follow correctly the method of mastery, and then we can make peace with our body and with our mind. Once there was a horse trainer who had practiced for a while with the Buddha. One day at tea meditation, the Buddha asked him, "How do you master horses, how do you train them? Please tell me." And the horse trainer said, "Some horses like sweet things and so I give them what is sweet to eat; and there are some horses that like salty food and needed to be firm with, so I use strong methods. And with some horses you need to use both the sweet and the strong, there are three different ways." The Buddha smiled, and he said, "In the case that there is a horse to which you have applied these three methods already and have not been successful, what do you do? What if spoiling them doesn’t help and being strong with them doesn’t help, either?"
The horse trainer said, "In that case, I kill the horse. Because if I leave him in the herd with the other horses, he will influence the other horses, and that is dangerous." The horse trainer turned to the Buddha, and he said, "Lord Buddha, what do you do, how do you master your disciples? Because I see that in your community there are disciples who are easy to teach, and there are those who are difficult."
The Buddha replied, "I do the same as you do. There are disciples who I can be successful with by being sweet to them, and there are disciples who I need to be strong with, and there are disciples who need both."
Then the horse trainer said, "What if you are not successful with those three methods? What do you do with the disciple then?" The world-honoured one said, "I do the same as you." Then the horse trainer said, "What do you mean by that?" And the Buddha said, "That means I kill that disciple." "But, Lord Buddha, you practice the precept of no killing. How can you kill your disciple?"
The Buddha said, "Killing doesn’t mean killing with a sword. It means not allowing them to stay in the community anymore. If they cannot stay in the community, they cannot live their life as a monk or a nun, they are finished. So if having used the methods of being sweet and being strong, and being both sweet and strong, we are not successful, we have to ask the disciple to leave the community." And then the horse trainer understood what the Buddha meant by the word kill here. If you cannot be in the Sanghakaya anymore, if we have to leave the Sanghakaya, our life as a monk or a nun, our ideal as a monk or a nun, cannot be realised, and that is equivalent to being dead.
Naturally, in the Sanghakaya, there is compassion, love, and care. There is embracing, and the Sangha practices inclusiveness, not asking people to leave. But if the Sangha has done everything it can, and the monk or the nun has not done their best, then there is no other method but to ask them to leave. However, the energy of the Buddha and the Sangha is very great. According to the experience of the Buddha, if you can tame the most difficult horse, it will become a very good horse, the best horse.
It is the same with elephants. If you can tame an elephant, then that elephant will be able to go to war and do very well. So good elephant trainers and good horse trainers know what to do. Sometimes they have to use iron, sometimes they have to use a hammer, but that is not to punish the horse. It is to break the habit energy of the horse or of the elephant from when they were in the forest. With skillfulness, with lightness and with spoiling, the trainer can also master that elephant or that horse. Once they have been mastered, they will become very important elements in the Sangha.
If the horse trainer is determined, he will be patient and he will use all his methods in order to master this horse. To master does not mean to punish. It means to help that horse leave aside its wild habit energies.
It does not mean that the horse trainer is cruel when he has to use the hammer sometimes. The important thing for the horse trainer is not discipline, the important thing is patience, love and compassion. Wherever there is patience, there is love. If we are lacking in patience, then our love is not very solid yet. So as far as a difficult horse is concerned, we need more time for it. And when we are successful, that success will be very great. According to the Buddha, if we have patience, then we will be successful in nearly everything.
The Bamboo Forest master had many disciples. His best disciple was Phap Loa who was the second patriarch of the Bamboo Forest School. There was another disciple called Bao Phac, who was very loved by the Bamboo Forest master. Master Bao Phac was the teacher of the princess Nguyen Tran. He helped her to become a nun and to practice. Bao Phac was also often the attendant of the Bamboo Forest master, and he was there on the night when the Bamboo Forest master passed away.
The night when the Bamboo Forest master passed away on the mountain, there were only a couple of monks present. One was call Dharma Lamp, and the Bamboo Forest master told Dharma Lamp to go and find Master Bao Phac, because he knew he might not survive the night. When master Bao Phac was about to go, he had to cross a stream. But there had been a big storm, so he couldn’t cross the stream. He had to spend the night by the stream. Only when the water went down the next day could he cross and arrive in the Sleeping Clouds Hermitage. When he arrived, the Bamboo Forest master was still alive. Master Bao Phac was asked, "Why did you come late?"
And he said to Bamboo Forest master, "Because, the stream was so high I couldn’t cross." Then the Bamboo Forest master said, "If you have anything to ask, then ask it."
Master Bao Phac was the attendant of the Bamboo Forest master that night, and in the middle of the night, the Bamboo Forest master wanted to look out at the sky. That is what he wanted most of all--to look at the sky with the moon and the stars. Master Bao Phac opened the door of the Sleeping Clouds Hermitage, and when he opened the door, Bamboo Forest master looked and saw the sky with so many stars, and he asked, "What is the time?" Master Bao Phac said, "It is the midnight hour." Then the Bamboo Forest master said, "Then it is the time I have to go." Master Bao Phac asked, "Where are you going, late at night like this? Where do you want to go?" And the Bamboo Forest Master said, "All things are without birth; all things are without death. If you are able to understand this, all the Buddhas of the three times are with you. Nothing is born; nothing dies. If you can see that, then all the Buddhas are present before you, not coming from anywhere and not going anywhere." This means we go, but we don’t really go and we don’t really come. And having said that, he passed into nirvana. So Bao Phac was alongside the Bamboo Forest master when he passed into nirvana, and he was a very precious disciple--a loved disciple--of the Bamboo Forest master.
Tue Trung Tuong Si was the master of Tran Yung Tong. Bao Phac wrote a gatha for Tran Yung Tong, and this gatha shows he was already a monk of deep understanding. (Thay read this gatha in Chinese) This gatha was written in a book by Master Bao Phac to praise Tue Trung. The first two words mean 'the Vulture Peak', the next word means 'a person'. It means that the eminent master had made the ear of the Buddha his own, because here Vulture Peak means the Buddha. It means that the eminent master Tue Trung had been able to listen to and understand the Buddha--had the ear of the Buddha. The first word in the second line means, to swallow. "Ho" means Indian, the Chinese refer to Indian people as "ho". "Noh" means no hair on your head, and that means Bodhidharma, the Indian who had no hair. "Ti" means brain, to be able to eat the brain of Bodhidharma, Tue Trung was able to swallow the brain of Bodhidharma.
Tue Trung had the opportunity to have the ear of the Buddha and he was able to swallow the brain of Bodhidharma. That is the praising gatha of Master Bao Phac. The next line says after he had eaten until he was full, he handed it on to his descendants. When he was able to receive this very nourishing food, all the foxes were able to turn into lions. So animals like the fox they become lions. This is to praise Master Tue Trung. He has the ear of the Buddha and is able to swallow the brain of Bodhidharma. And he was full with theses things he gave them to his descendants, so that the foxes are able to become lions.
When he had the opportunity, in his own way, he would be silent or speak. He would speak out or be silent when the time was right. He knew whether he should speak out or be silent. The moon smiles in the autumn river. This is how I translated it into Vietnamese. If anybody wants to translate it again, they can:
The ear of the Buddha he holds in his palm
The brain of Bodhidharma he chews in his mouth
When he is full, he hands it on to his descendants
The foxes turn into lions straight away.
He speaks or is silent according to the circumstances.
The reflection of the moon fills the autumn river
I like this gatha because of the foxes becoming lions. Thanks to the Dharma and the Vinaya of the Buddha, all the wild horses and the mad elephants can become very valuable elements. And if we have the ears of the Buddha, and the brain of Bodhidharma, then we are able to transform difficult situations; we don’t give up. If we have heavy habit energies, bad habit energies, we make destructive things in our family, in our daily life, we should not give up. We should not lose our faith. With the teachings of the Buddha, with the precepts, the Vinaya of the Buddha, if we take refuge, if we receive, accept and turn back in order to submit ourselves to these teachings, we will become a Dharma instrument of the Buddha, without fear. That is the meaning of the foxes become lions.
Among the Jataka Tales of the Buddha--that is stories of the former lives of the Buddha--there is a story which I read when I was a young child, and which moved me deeply. That is when the Buddha was a yaksha, in the Hell Realms, and the king of the Hell Realms was mistreating him. And then he saw the guardian of the Hell Realms mistreating another person, and in his heart, there was a feeling of compassion. He looked up and he said, "Why are you beating him? Why are you stabbing him? Why are you mistreating him like that?" And then the yaksha of the Hell Realms took a knife and stabbed the spirit that was the Buddha. So we see that that spirit, when the Buddha himself was a yaksha in Hell Realms, he had compassion for the other people in the Hell Realms who were being mistreated. He was not afraid to speak out, and so his life changed, and he was able to go out always in an upward direction, because as a yaksha in the Hell Realms he had hit the bottom. He could not go any lower.
I read that story when I was young, and I liked it very much. When we come to the very bottom, the very deepest place of suffering, we can still go up and up until becoming a fully awakened Buddha. Holding the Buddhas ear in his hand, chewing the brain of Bodhidharma in his mouth, he is able to hand this on to his descendants, and the foxes turn into lions.
The Buddha taught Master Rahula, the child and the disciple of the Buddha, very carefully. There was one day when Master Rahula was only seven or eight years old; he was afraid of being punished so he told a lie to Sariputra. And the Buddha said that to tell a lie is to break the precepts. The reason he told the lie was that he was afraid of being reprimanded, but once he told one lie, he had to tell another, because you have to find a way to hide what you have done. And so the Buddha once called Rahula to him, and he said to Rahula, "Bring a basin of water to me to wash my feet."
The Buddha did not wash his feet, but he took the basin of water and he poured almost all the water out leaving behind only a quarter of it. Then the Buddha said, "Rahula, someone who tells a lie loses all their wholesome roots." Then he turned the basin completely upside-down, and he said to Rahula, "Do you see that there is not another drop of water in this basin?" And then the Buddha said, "If we tell lies--we break the precepts--then there are no more good roots left in us, just as there is no water left in this basin. So even for fun, you should never tell a lie." After that Rahula didn’t tell any more lies, and he became one of the highest disciples of the Buddha.
The Buddha taught his disciples very carefully like that. When we are loved by our teacher and have our teacher’s trust, then we are happy, when we see our brothers and sisters we are very happy. Even though we have many favorable conditions, if our brothers and sisters do not have trust in us and our teacher does not have trust in us, then we cannot be happy. Because our brothers and sisters want to have faith in us, our teacher wants to have faith in us, but because we have not been careful, we have lost that faith, and we have to regain it in whatever way we can. When we have regained it, we will be happy again. Everybody in the Sangha knows that we feel very happy when we have the faith and trust of our brothers and sisters.
I don’t know about other places, but here, the Sangha is prepared to support and show love to us. And if we try for 20 days, we can reconstruct what we have destroyed, and we can regain the faith and trust of the Sangha. We have to earn that trust by our practice.
How does the practitioner remain established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings? Now we are in the field of the feelings. Whenever the practitioner has a pleasant feeling, he is aware: "I am experiencing a pleasant feeling." The practitioner practices like this for all the feelings whether they are pleasant, painful or neutral, observing when they belong to the body and when they belong to the mind. When there is a painful feeling, we know there is a painful
feeling. When there is a neutral feeling, we know there is a neutral feeling. Neutral is neither painful nor pleasant.
These three kinds of feelings can belong either to the material or to the spiritual--that is, either to the body or the mind. This means that a feeling can be physical or mental. It can be a pleasant feeling, a happy feeling, a pleasant physical feeling or, if it’s a pleasant feeling in the mind, we call it a pleasant mental feeling. And when we have feelings of pain, discomfort or neutral feelings, we should recognize whether they belong to the body or whether they belong to the mind.
There is something which we should remember regarding neutral feelings. Both in the Sutra and in the Sastra, the commentaries, the ancestral teachers say the painful, unpleasant feelings are easier to recognize than the neutral feelings. But in fact, neutral feelings are also easy to recognize. They are not suffering feelings and they are not happy feelings. And I have taught already that in us there is a river of feelings, and every drop of water in that river is either a suffering feeling or a happy feeling or a neutral feeling. Sometimes we have a neutral feeling and we could think we don’t have a feeling at all. But a neutral feeling is a feeling; it doesn’t mean the non-existence of feeling. Just as when we have a toothache, we have a feeling of pain, and when the toothache is no longer there, we think we don’t have a feeling anymore. But in fact when we don’t have a toothache, we have a neutral feeling. It is not a painful feeling, so it must be either a neutral feeling or a pleasant feeling. The feeling which manifests when we don’t have a toothache, we can call either a neutral feeling or a pleasant feeling. Actually, it can be a pleasant feeling. When we have a very strong toothache, we really wish that this toothache would stop. And we know that if we have a feeling once the toothache stopped, that would be very pleasant. So the thing we want here is a pleasant feeling; that is the end of the toothache. Therefore, a non-toothache is a pleasant feeling. To call it a neutral feeling is okay. It’s also correct to call it a pleasant feeling. In Plum Village, we usually say someone who practices mindfulness can change all neutral feelings into pleasant feelings. And in fact neutral feelings are the majority of our feelings.
For example: A father and son are sitting on the lawn in the spring. And the father is practicing mindful breathing, and he sees, How wonderful it is to sit on the lawn with the yellow flowers coming up, the birds singing, feeling fresh and happy, so he has pleasant feelings. But the child is bored. Therefore, he doesn’t want to sit with his father; he is in exactly the same environment as his father. The child has a neutral feeling to begin with, and at one point, that neutral feeling becomes an unpleasant feeling, a feeling of boredom, because he doesn’t know how to deal with this neutral feeling, therefore the neutral feeling becomes an unpleasant feeling. So he stands up and runs in the house to turn on the television. But his father is feeling very content sitting in that environment. That environment was not able to bring happiness to the son. Therefore, his neutral feeling became an unpleasant feeling, and then he wanted to run away from his unpleasant feeling. So he went into the house to turn on the television.
We are the same. When we don’t have a pleasant feeling and don’t have an unpleasant feeling, naturally we have a neutral feeling. But if we don’t know how to deal with or manage our neutral feeling, it will turn into an unpleasant feeling. However, if we know how to manage it, it will become a pleasant feeling. A pleasant feeling means a feeling of well being. When we have a very bad toothache, we will do anything to change that toothache feeling into a non-toothache feeling. And the non-toothache feeling would not be a neutral feeling in that case. Therefore, we should know that every neutral feeling, when held in mindfulness, will become a pleasant feeling.
As far as I am concerned, dwelling happily in the present moment is the most important practice. If we are skillful and clever, all of these neutral feelings will be turned into pleasant feelings--the birds singing, the flowers opening, the blue sky, and the eyes of a lover shining. Do not be disinherited and always going looking, searching for things. Come home and receive your heritage. To come home and receive your heritage means to light up the lamp of mindfulness so that the happiness and joy around you can nourish you. We only need to practice dwelling happily in the present moment and we have enough resources to benefit others. If we can live 24 hours a day in peace and happiness. We can do this anywhere, wherever we are.
Today we can live in happiness if we apply the practice of dwelling peacefully and happily in the present moment. We can say in the language of a merchant, that we have to have capital for ourselves, and then we can bring about profit for others as well. So when we have a neutral feeling, a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling, we need to use mindfulness to shine light on it. Because our mindfulness will embrace that feeling and we’ll be able to find out the basis of that feeling. In the Sutra it says we have to look deeply to see where our feeling comes from. Does it come from our body or from our mind? Whether it’s a pleasant or a painful feeling or a neutral feeling, they all have their foundation--their physical foundation, their psychological foundation or their sociological foundation. And when can look into our feeling we should be able to see the foundation, physical, psychological, or sociological. Looking further, we see what the conditions are which have given rise to this feeling. Naturally, this feeling could come from our physiology, from our psychology or our society. But if it did not have favorable conditions, this feeling would not have arisen.
So we have to look into the conditioned arising of a feeling and see the impermanent nature of our feeling. Even if it is a pleasant feeling, we should see its impermanence. And when we have seen the impermanent nature of this pleasant feeling, we will not be attached or caught in it. We will say, "Here is a pleasant feeling, but this pleasant feeling is impermanent." We should also be aware of the impermanence of an unpleasant feeling so as to not be caught in it. If it is an unpleasant feeling, we should see the physical, the psychological or the sociological root of this feeling--see the conditions which have given rise to this feeling. We say that this feeling is impermanent; and therefore, we are not attached to it. It’s only a feeling, and all feelings are impermanent. So do not be a slave to a feeling, because it will pass. If we know how to practice, we will be able to transform that feeling so we are not caught in it and we are not averse to it. It is the same with a pleasant feeling: we are not caught in it and we are not averse to that pleasant feeling. When we are eating a tangerine, we see that it is sweet and tasty, and we have a pleasant feeling, but we know that that pleasant feeling is impermanent. So if we have a tangerine, that is good, but if there is not a tangerine, it doesn’t matter. We can have pleasant feelings as we eat a tangerine, and we can have pleasant feelings when we are not eating a tangerine. So we are not caught in the pleasant feeling arising from eating a tangerine. We should not be afraid of pleasant feelings. Being afraid that, "Oh, today I have a tangerine to eat, but I don’t know. Tomorrow, will I have a tangerine?" If we have that kind of fear, then we are already caught in the pleasant feelings.
Some people say that you should not eat a tangerine if it gives you a pleasant feeling; you should be afraid of that pleasant feeling because it will make you suffer. We have to avoid both of these attitudes—not daring to have a pleasant feeling on the one hand, and being caught in a pleasant feeling on the other hand. On the one hand, we are caught in our pleasant feeling and on the other hand, we are afraid of our pleasant feeling. It is the same as far as unpleasant feelings are concerned,. On the one hand we are caught in our painful feeling, and on the other hand we are afraid of our painful feelings. We have to let go of both of these attitudes in order to be free. There are people who are attached to unpleasant feelings, maybe intentionally. When we see we are angry, sad or missing someone, we feel happy to have those kinds of feelings. That means we are caught in an unpleasant feeling. We look in order to see the impermanent nature of feelings, the interbeing nature of feelings, in order not to be caught in our feelings and not running away from our feelings. Then we are not afraid.
And that is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings, observation of the feelings from inside of the feelings or outside of the feelings. This means we look at our own feelings, but we can also look at the feelings of others. We look at our feelings in our feelings, and we look at our feelings and the conditions which have led to our feelings, whether those conditions are near or far, whether they come from our body, our mind, or our society. In the observation of the feelings from both the inside and the outside, the practitioner remains established in the observation of the process of coming to be of the feelings, of the process of dissolution in the feelings-- or both in the process of coming to be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, "There is a feeling here. Here is a feeling." That is what I call 'mere recognition'. The Sutra doesn’t use this term, but this is what it means--mere recognition. It means we are not caught in it and we’re not pushing it away. Or he is mindful that there is a feeling here, until understanding and full awareness come about. He just recognizes; he doesn’t go any further, so as to be caught or to push away that feeling. And so he remains established in the observation free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. That is the most important thing—the freedom of the practitioner--freedom as far as feelings are concerned, freedom as far as pleasant feelings are concerned. We are not caught in it, we are not afraid of it. If we look with clear vision, we will not be caught in a pleasant feeling; and we have the right to transform that feeling.
As far as the other is concerned, the other person may not see how wonderful this thing is; they may have a neutral feeling. But we are able to change that neutral feeling into a pleasant feeling. We breathe one time; we look at the blue sky. Others may feel this is not exciting, nothing very special, but for us it can become a very nourishing, pleasant feeling.
So to have the energy of mindfulness is very important. And the best thing is that we can keep our freedom whatever kind of feelings we have--neutral, pleasant, or unpleasant, we keep our feeling. That is how the practitioner remains established in the observation free--not caught up in any worldly consideration. He is mindful of the fact there is a feeling here. There is just a feeling here. We shouldn’t give too much importance to a feeling; we shouldn’t die because of a feeling. It is only a feeling. Why should it make us so afraid? Why should it make us so agitated? Why should it make us so infatuated? So he remains established in the observation free, not caught up in any worldly consideration. This is the most valuable thing for a practitioner--to keep our freedom. We cannot compare this freedom to anything else. It is the most valuable thing of a practitioner.
This section is also in the part which talks about the body. It also uses the same words. This is how the practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body--observation of the body from the inside of the body or outside of the body, or observation of the body from both the inside and the outside. We can see within our body and we can also see outside of our body. That is, we can see the earth, the fire, the air and the water within our body and we can also see them outside our body. The practitioner remains established in the observation of the process of coming to be in the body and the process of dissolution in the body, or both the process of coming to be and the process of dissolution. Or he is mindful of the fact, "Here is body," until understanding and full awareness come about. He remains established in the observation free, not caught up in any worldly consideration.
The monks learn this by heart, and they understand it and they bring it into their daily life. This practice is to nourish our freedom and to protect our freedom, because that freedom is the foundation of our happiness. That freedom is liberation--muksha. When we have a strong emotion like despair, fear, and hatred--these emotions burn us like flames of fire, and we think we will die. We cannot bear it. Like when there is a big storm blowing past, the trees feel and the grasses feel they will be blown down. When you have a great emotion, which shakes you, you suffer infinitely. That is an unpleasant feeling.
Look at the trunk of the tree, standing in the storm. If you look up at the top of the tree, you see the branches and the leaves tossing back and forth, and you know that at any moment they could be broken and fall. When we have a strong emotion, we are like a tree in a big storm. We think that maybe the best thing for us would be to die, and that would put an end to our painful feeling. Many young people commit suicide because they do not know how to deal with their feelings. They throw themselves under a train or into a river, or they take a gun and shoot into their heart, because they have no other method for dealing with those strong emotions than putting an end to their life.
I heard that the number of people who killed themselves in Europe--especially young people--is more than people who die from car accidents. Therefore we have to practice the method of grasping firmly, managing and dealing with our feelings, and share this with young people because there are young people who are in the storm of feelings. They tremble and suffer so much that they cannot continue to live. They think that the only way to put an end to their pain is to kill themselves.
The method of the Buddha is like this. We say, "This is only a feeling--only an emotion." Any emotion is impermanent: it comes, it endures and it passes. When we can see the impermanent nature of our emotion, then we are free. Pleasant feelings are the same; neutral feelings are the same. Whether because of body, society, or mind the storm has come. So we have to look at our feeling outside of our feeling. How has our body come about? How has our mind come about? What are the things outside of us, which have made this feeling, come about? That is what looking at our feelings from the inside and looking at our feelings from the outside means. We practice according to this in order to be able to see the conditions near and far which have given rise to them; and also to be able to say, "This is only a feeling."
Or he is mindful of the fact, "Here is feeling"; here is an emotion. So that feeling does not sweep him away or he doesn’t become a slave of that feeling. Because we are not only a feeling; we are much more than our feelings or emotions. Our emotions are only a small part of us, so why should we die because of that feeling? That feeling is born and exists with us for some time, so why should we die because of it? We should prepare our body and our mind so that when strong emotions come, we know how to deal with them. If we cannot bear it, it’s because we have not really practiced. We have not really undertaken the necessary training in the practice.
The method of Plum Village is that whenever we look at a tree, which is swaying around in the wind, we should not be too attentive to the top of the tree. Bring your eyes down to the trunk of the tree, and you feel more secure. Because when we look at the trunk of the tree, we see that it is being held by roots which go down very deep; it is very solid. And we feel differently; we feel the tree will be all right. But if we look up at the branches, we feel that they can be broken at any time.
Our person is the same as far as our body and our mind--we have roots going down deep. If we just look at our emotions, we feel very feeble, frail. But if we can come back to our roots, we will no longer be the victims of the storm. This solid part of our body is below our navel. When we feel a very strong emotion, we shouldn’t dwell in the area of our brain or our heart. We should not sway around in our thinking or our feeling. When we have a strong emotion, we should bring our attention down below our navel and dwell in that place. We should breathe in and breathe out, being aware of the rising and falling of our abdomen. Sitting, we are aware of our abdomen rising. Sitting, we are aware of our abdomen falling. We practice like this because the abdomen is the root of our body. At the same time, it is the root of our mind. The root of our mind is not the mind consciousness, but the deeper levels of the store consciousness.
So we should not allow this feeling to blow us around from on top. Instead we should come down to the trunk of our being, which is lower down. If we know how to sit solidly for 15 minutes, breathing in and out, and being aware of the rising and falling of the abdomen, that emotion will pass. We will be able to live again. We will smile and be able to say, "It was just a storm. And I was skilful in that storm, I was able to return to my root."
However if we drift around in our brain and feelings, we will die. Every storm has an eye. If we are swept into the eye of the storm, we shall die. We should not be in the center of the storm. We should breathe and go down into our body. We know that we have freedom; we have solidity; we have the energy of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas in us. This teaching on returning to the island of one’s self is very good. When we have agitation in body or mind, when we feel that we are frail and we can easily be broken, we have to take refuge in the island of ourselves.
The Buddha is mindfulness, shining light near and far. The Dharma is the breathing, guarding body and mind. Sangha is the five skandhas working together harmoniously. We have to take refuge in the Three Jewels, and then we are protected. If we allow ourselves to drift around on the surface of our thinking and our feeling, then we will die. We have to come back down into our body and take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life. I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and love. I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in mindfulness. Every day, we practice taking refuge in these three so that whenever we feel suffering, isolation or loneliness we can return to that. I, in my life, have been through many storms, and I have always used this method. Because of that, no harm has come to me. These very strong emotions from our mind, from our feelings, like despair, cannot touch us because they are impermanent. They have their root, whether physiological, psychological or sociological. But in our body, we have the point below our navel. In our society, we have the Sangha. And in our mind, we have the practice. Therefore, there is nothing for us to fear.
That is the method to deal with the storms of life--a method called sitting in the lotus position and breathing into your abdomen. This method has saved many people. You only need to breathe 20 minutes or 30 minutes, and the storm will pass. You can continue as normal after that. But don’t wait until the storm comes to practice, because if you do, you won’t remember to practice, and you will die. You will be swept away. You should practice every day one time--20 or 30 minutes. If you can practice for 21 days, the practice will become natural. Then when the storm arises, you will have faith in the practice and you will be able to sit and practice without fear of being swept away. Your faith in the method of practice will be very solid once you see that it works. The more you practice it and it works, the more faith you will have.
If you have a niece, a nephew, a brother or sister, you can help them by saying: "Sit down with me. Give me your hand. See how you breathe in and your abdomen rises; you breathe out and your abdomen falls. Don’t be aware your feelings or your thoughts." Maybe that younger person’s mindfulness is not as strong as ours is but the strength of our mindfulness will help them, and after five or ten minutes they will be able to smile.
Let us sit together, mother and child, and breathe together. We should teach the child maybe two or three times. Then that young person will no longer do like the other young people who killed themselves when they have strong emotions. The reason they killed themselves is because they don’t know how to deal with their feelings. Therefore, we have to grasp firmly the practice in order to help people around us, especially the young people.
Therefore, this acupuncture-point below the navel is very important. We should know that this is the place where you can be rescued. You should return to that place. To practice taking refuge in the island of yourself every day is very precious. In sitting meditation or in walking meditation--you should practice this. When the waves of the ocean are very big, you should practice this. Especially we should know that our Sangha is the boat, the raft, the lifeboat. If we lose our Sangha, it would be a great misfortune in our life. By being with the Sangha, we have that security for our life. So we need our Sangha, we need our point below the navel, and we need our practice every day.