Nhất Hạnh, Thích (1998). The heart of the Buddha’s teaching: transforming suffering into peace, joy & liberation: the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, and other basic Buddhist teachings. Parallax Press. Chapter 11
Right Mindfulness (samyak smriti) is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. Traditionally, Right Mindfulness is the seventh on the path of eight right practices, but it is presented here third to emphasize its great importance. When Right Mindfulness is present, the Four Noble Truths and the seven other elements of the Eightfold Path are also present. When we are mindful, our thinking is Right Thinking, our speech is Right Speech, and so on. Right Mindfulness is the energy that brings us back to the present moment. To cultivate mindfulness in ourselves is to cultivate the Buddha within, to cultivate the Holy Spirit.
According to Buddhist psychology (abhidharma, “super Dharma”), the trait “attention” (manaskara) is “universal,” which means we are always giving our attention to something. Our attention may be “appropriate” (yoniso manaskara), as when we dwell fully in the present moment, or inappropriate (ayoniso manaskara), as when we are attentive to something that takes us away from being here and now. A good gardener knows the way to grow flowers from compost. Right Mindfulness accepts everything without judging or reacting. It is inclusive and loving. The practice is to find ways to sustain appropriate attention throughout the day.
The Sanskrit word for mindfulness, smriti, means “remember.” Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. The character the Chinese use for “mindfulness” has two parts: the upper part means “now,” and the lower part means “mind” or “heart.” The First Miracle of Mindfulness is to be present and able to touch deeply the blue sky, the flower, and the smile of our child.
The Second Miracle of Mindfulness is to make the other — the sky, the flower, our child — present, also. In the Vietnamese epic poem Tale of Kieu, Kieu returns to the apartment of her beloved, Kim Trong, and finds him fast asleep at his desk, his head resting on a pile of books. Kim Trong hears Kieu’s footsteps, but, not quite awake, he asks, “Are you really there, or am I dreaming?” Kieu replies, “Now we have the opportunity to see each other clearly. But if we do not live deeply this moment, it will be only a dream.” You and your loved one are here together. You have the chance to see each other deeply. But if you are not fully present, everything will be like a dream.
The Third Miracle of Mindfulness is to nourish the object of your attention. When was the last time you looked into the eyes of your beloved and asked, “Who are you, my darling?” Don’t be satisfied by a superficial answer. Ask again: “Who are you who has taken my suffering as your suffering, my happiness as your happiness, my life and death as your life and death? My love, why aren’t you a dewdrop, a butterfly, a bird?” Ask with your whole being. If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing. When you are in the car together, if you are lost in your thoughts, assuming you already know everything about her, she will slowly die. But with mindfulness, your attention will water the wilting flower. “I know you are here, beside me, and it makes me very happy.” With attention, you will be able to discover many new and wonderful things — her joys, her hidden talents, her deepest aspirations. If you do not practice appropriate attention, how can you say you love her?
The Fourth Miracle of Mindfulness is to relieve the other’s suffering. “I know you are suffering. That is why I am here for you.” You can say this with words or just by the way you look at her. If you are not truly present, if you are thinking about other things, the miracle of relieving suffering cannot be realized. In difficult moments, if you have a friend who can be truly present with you, you know you are blessed. To love means to nourish the other with appropriate attention. When you practice Right Mindfulness, you make yourself and the other person present at the same time. “Darling, I know you are there. Your presence is precious to me.” If you do not express this while you are together, when she passes away or has an accident, you will only cry, because before the accident happened, you did not know how to be truly happy together.
When someone is about to die, if you sit with him stably and solidly, that alone may be enough to help him leave this life with ease. Your presence is like a mantra, sacred speech that has a transforming effect. When your body, speech, and mind are in perfect oneness, that mantra will have an effect even before you utter a word. The first four miracles of mindfulness belong to the first aspect of meditation, shamatha — stopping, calming, resting, and healing. Once you have calmed yourself and stopped being dispersed, your mind will be one-pointed and you will be ready to begin looking deeply.
The Fifth Miracle of Mindfulness is looking deeply (vipashyana), which is also the second aspect of meditation. Because you are calm and concentrated, you are really there for deep looking. You shine the light of mindfulness on the object of your attention, and at the same time you shine the light of mindfulness on yourself. You observe the object of your attention and you also see your own storehouse full of precious gems.
The Sixth Miracle of Mindfulness is understanding. When we understand something, often we say, “I see.” We see something we hadn’t seen before. Seeing and understanding come from within us. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. Understanding is the very foundation of love. When you understand someone, you cannot help but love him or her.
The Seventh Miracle of Mindfulness is transformation. When we practice Right Mindfulness, we touch the healing and refreshing elements of life and begin to transform our own suffering and the suffering of the world. We want to overcome a habit, such as smoking, for the health of our body and mind. When we begin the practice, our habit energy is still stronger than our mindfulness, so we don’t expect to stop smoking overnight. We only have to know that we are smoking when we are smoking. As we continue to practice, looking deeply and seeing the effects that smoking has on our body, mind, family, and community, we become determined to stop. It is not easy, but the practice of mindfulness helps us see the desire and the effects clearly, and eventually we will find a way to stop. Sangha is important. One man who came to Plum Village had been trying to stop smoking for years, but he couldn’t. At Plum Village, he stopped his first day, because the group energy was so strong. “No one is smoking here. Why should I?” It can take years to transform a habit energy, but when we do, we stop the wheel of samsara, the vicious cycle of suffering and confusion that has gone on for so many lifetimes.
Practicing the Seven Miracles of Mindfulness helps us lead a happy and healthy life, transforming suffering and bringing forth peace, joy, and freedom.
In the Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta),1 the Buddha offers four objects for our mindfulness practice: our body, our feelings, our mind, and the objects of our mind. Monks and nuns in many Buddhist countries memorize this discourse, and it is the text that is read to them as they leave this life. It is helpful to read the Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness at least once a week, along with the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing2 and the Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone.3 You might like to keep these three books by your bedside and take them with you when you travel.
The Four Establishments of Mindfulness are the foundation of our dwelling place. Without them, our house is abandoned; no one is sweeping, dusting, or tidying up. Our body becomes unkempt, our feelings full of suffering, and our mind a heap of afflictions. When we are truly home, our body, mind, and feelings will be a place of refuge for ourselves and others.
The first establishment is “mindfulness of the body in the body.” Many people hate their bodies. They feel their body is an obstacle, and they want to mistreat it. When Sister Jina, a nun at Plum Village, teaches yoga, she always begins by saying, “Let us be aware of our bodies. Breathing in, I know I am standing here in my body. Breathing out, I smile to my body.” Practicing this way, we renew our acquaintance with our body and make peace with it. In the Kayagatasati Sutta, the Buddha offers methods to help us know what is happening in our body.4 We observe nondualistically, fully in our body even as we observe it. We begin by noting all of our body’s positions and movements. When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we stand, walk, or lie down we know we are standing, walking, or lying down. When we practice this way, mindfulness is there. This practice is called “mere recognition.”
The second way the Buddha taught us to practice mindfulness of the body in the body is to recognize all of our body’s parts, from the top of our head to the soles of our feet. If we have blonde hair, we recognize and smile to that. If we have gray hair, we recognize and smile to that. We observe whether our forehead is relaxed and whether it has wrinkles. With our mindfulness, we touch our nose, mouth, arms, heart, lungs, blood, and so on. The Buddha described the practice of recognizing thirty-two parts of our body as being like a farmer who goes up to his loft; brings down a large bag of beans, grains, and seeds; puts the bag on the ground; opens it; and, as the contents fall onto the floor, recognizes rice as rice, beans as beans, sesame as sesame, and so on. In this way, we recognize our eyes as our eyes and our lungs as our lungs. We can practice this during sitting meditation or while lying down. Scanning our body with our mindfulness in this way might take half an hour. As we observe each part of our body, we smile to it. The love and care of this meditation can do the work of healing.
The third method the Buddha offered for practicing mindfulness of the body in the body is to see the elements that it is made of: earth, water, fire, and air. “Breathing in, I see the earth element in me. Breathing out, I smile to the earth element in me.” “Earth element” refers to things that are solid. When we see the earth element inside and outside of us, we realize that there is really no boundary between us and the rest of the universe. Next, we recognize the water element inside and outside of us. “Breathing in, I am aware of the element of water in my body.” We meditate on the fact that our body is more than seventy percent water. After that, we recognize the fire element, which means heat, inside and outside of us. For life to be possible, there must be heat. Practicing this, we see over and over that the elements inside and outside our body belong to the same reality, and we are no longer confined by our body. We are everywhere.
The fourth element of our body is air. The best way to experience the air element is the practice of mindful breathing. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” After saying these sentences, we can abbreviate them by saying “In” as we breath in, and “Out” as we breath out. We don’t try to control our breathing. Whether our in-breath is long or short, deep or shallow, we just breathe naturally and shine the light of mindfulness on it. When we do this, we notice that, in fact, our breathing does become slower and deeper naturally. “Breathing in, my in-breath has become deep. Breathing out, my out-breath has become slow.” Now we can practice, “Deep/slow.” We don’t have to make an effort. It just becomes deeper and slower by itself, and we recognize that.
Later on, you will notice that you have become calmer and more at ease. “Breathing in, I feel calm. Breathing out, I feel at ease. I am not struggling anymore. Calm/ease.” And then, “Breathing in, I smile. Breathing out, I release all my worries and anxieties. Smile/release.” We are able to smile to ourselves and release all our worries. There are more than three hundred muscles in our face, and when we know how to breath in and smile, these muscles can relax. This is “mouth yoga.” We smile and we are able to release all of our feelings and emotions. The last practice is, “Breathing in, I dwell deeply in the present moment. Breathing out, I know this is a wonderful moment. Present moment/wonderful moment.” Nothing is more precious than being in the present moment, fully alive and fully aware.
Present moment, wonderful moment
If you use this poem during sitting or walking meditation, it can be very nourishing and healing. Practice each line for as long as you wish.
Another practice to help us be aware of our breathing is counting. As you breathe in, count “one,” and as you breathe out, count “one” again. Then “Two/two,” “Three/three,” until you arrive at ten. After that, go back in the other direction: “Ten/ten,” “Nine/nine,” and so on, until you arrive back at one. If you don’t get lost, you know that you have good concentration. If you do get lost, go back to “one,” and begin again. Relax. It’s only a game. When you succeed in counting, you can drop the numbers if you like and just say “in” and “out.” Conscious breathing is a joy. When I discovered the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing, I felt I was the happiest person on Earth. These exercises have been transmitted to us by a community that has been practicing them for 2,600 years.5
The second establishment is mindfulness of the feelings in the feelings. The Abhidharma authors listed fifty-one kinds of mental formations. Feelings (vedana) is one of them. In us, there is a river of feelings in which every drop of water is a different feeling. To observe our feelings, we just sit on the riverbank and identify each feeling as it flows by and disappears. Feelings are either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
When we have a pleasant feeling, we may have a tendency to cling to it, and when we have an unpleasant feeling, we may be inclined to chase it away. But it is more effective in both cases to return to our breathing and simply observe the feeling, identifying it silently: “Breathing in, I know a pleasant (or unpleasant) feeling is in me. Breathing out, I know there is a pleasant (or unpleasant) feeling in me.” Calling a feeling by its name, such as “joy,” “happiness,” “anger,” or “sorrow,” helps us identify and see it deeply. Within a fraction of a second, many feelings can arise.
If our breathing is light and calm — a natural result of conscious breathing — our mind and body will slowly become light, calm, and clear, and our feelings also. Our feelings are not separate from us or caused just by something outside of us. Our feelings are us, and, for that moment, we are those feelings. We needn’t be intoxicated or terrorized by them, nor do we need to reject them. The practice of not clinging to or rejecting feelings is an important part of meditation. If we face our feelings with care, affection, and nonviolence, we can transform them into a kind of energy that is healthy and nourishing. When a feeling arises, Right Mindfulness identifies it, simply recognizes what is there and whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Right Mindfulness is like a mother. When her child is sweet, she loves him, and when her child is crying, she still loves him. Everything that takes place in our body and our mind needs to be looked after equally. We don’t fight. We say hello to our feeling so we can get to know each other better. Then, the next time that feeling arises, we will be able to greet it even more calmly.
We can embrace all of our feelings, even difficult ones like anger. Anger is a fire burning inside us, filling our whole being with smoke. When we are angry, we need to calm ourselves: “Breathing in, I calm my anger. Breathing out, I take care of my anger.” As soon as a mother takes her crying baby into her arms, the baby already feels some relief. When we embrace our anger with Right Mindfulness, we suffer less right away.
We all have difficult emotions, but if we allow them to dominate us, we will become depleted. Emotions become strong when we do not know how to look after them. When our feelings are stronger than our mindfulness, we suffer. But if we practice conscious breathing day after day, mindfulness will become a habit. Don’t wait to begin to practice until you are overwhelmed by a feeling. It may be too late.
The third establishment is mindfulness of the mind (chitta) in the mind. To be aware of the mind is to be aware of the mental formations (chitta samskara). “Formations” (samskara) is a technical term in Buddhism. Anything that is “formed,” anything that is made of something else, is a formation. A flower is a formation. Our anger is a formation, a mental formation. Some mental formations are present all the time and are called “universal” (contact, attention, feeling, perception, and volition). Some arise only under particular circumstances (zeal, determination, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom). Some are uplifting and help us transform our suffering (wholesome, or beneficial, mental formations), and others are heavy and imprison us in our suffering (unwholesome, or unbeneficial, mental formations).
There are mental formations that are sometimes wholesome and sometimes unwholesome, such as sleepiness, regret, initial thinking, and developing thought. When our body and mind need rest, sleep is wholesome. But if we sleep all the time, it can be unwholesome. If we hurt someone and regret it, that regret is wholesome. But if our regret leads to a guilt complex that colors whatever we do in the future, that regret can be called unwholesome. When our thinking helps us see clearly, it is beneficial. But if our mind is scattered in all directions, that thinking is unbeneficial.
There are many beautiful aspects of our consciousness, like faith, humility, self-respect, non-craving, non-anger, non-ignorance, diligence, ease, care, equanimity, and nonviolence. Unwholesome mental formations, on the other hand, are like a tangled ball of string. When we try to untangle it, we only wind it around ourselves until we cannot move. These mental formations are sometimes called afflictions (kleshas), because they bring pain to ourselves and others. Sometimes they are called obscurations because they confuse us and make us lose our way. Sometimes they are called leaks or setbacks (ashrava), because they are like a cracked vase. The basic unwholesome mental formations are greed, hatred, ignorance, pride, doubt, and views. The secondary unwholesome mental formations, arising from the basic ones, are anger, malice, hypocrisy, malevolence, jealousy, selfishness, deception, guile, unwholesome excitement, the wish to harm, immodesty, arrogance, dullness, agitation, lack of faith, indolence, carelessness, forgetfulness, distraction, and lack of attention. According to the Vijñanavada School of Buddhism, altogether there are fifty-one kinds of mental formations, including feelings. Since feelings is, by itself, the second establishment of mindfulness, the other fifty fall into the category of the third establishment of mindfulness.
Every time a mental formation arises, we can practice mere recognition. When we are agitated, we just say, “I am agitated,” and mindfulness is already there. Until we recognize agitation as agitation, it will push us around and we will not know what is going on or why. To practice mindfulness of the mind does not mean not to be agitated. It means that when we are agitated, we know that we are agitated. Our agitation has a good friend in us, and that is mindfulness.
Even before agitation manifests in our mind consciousness, it is already in our store consciousness in the form of a seed. All mental formations lie in our store consciousness in the form of seeds. Something someone does may water the seed of agitation, and then agitation manifests in our mind consciousness. Every mental formation that manifests needs to be recognized. If it is wholesome, mindfulness will cultivate it. If it is unwholesome, mindfulness will encourage it to return to our store consciousness and remain there, dormant.
We may think that our agitation is ours alone, but if we look carefully, we’ll see that it is our inheritance from our whole society and many generations of our ancestors. Individual consciousness is made of the collective consciousness, and the collective consciousness is made of individual consciousnesses. They cannot be separated. Looking deeply into our individual consciousness, we touch the collective consciousness. Our ideas of beauty, goodness, and happiness, for example, are also the ideas of our society. Every winter, fashion designers show us the fashions for the coming spring, and we look at their creations through the lens of our collective consciousness. When we buy a fashionable dress, it is because we see with the eyes of the collective consciousness. Someone who lives deep in the upper Amazon would not spend that amount of money to buy such a dress. She would not see it as beautiful at all. When we produce a literary work, we produce it with both our collective consciousness and our individual consciousness.
We usually describe mind consciousness and store consciousness as two different things, but store consciousness is just mind consciousness at a deeper level. If we look carefully at our mental formations, we can see their roots in our store consciousness. Mindfulness helps us look deeply into the depths of our consciousness. Every time one of the fifty-one mental formations arises, we acknowledge its presence, look deeply into it, and see its nature of impermanence and interbeing. When we practice this, we are liberated from fear, sorrow, and the fires burning inside us. When mindfulness embraces our joy, our sadness, and all our other mental formations, sooner or later we will see their deep roots. With every mindful step and every mindful breath, we see the roots of our mental formations. Mindfulness shines its light upon them and helps them to transform.
The fourth establishment is mindfulness of phenomena (dharmas) in phenomena. “Phenomena” means “the objects of our mind.” Each of our mental formations has to have an object. If you are angry, you have to be angry at someone or something, and that person or thing can be called the object of your mind. When you remember someone or something, that is the object of your mind. There are fifty-one kinds of mental formations, so there are fifty-one kinds of objects of mind.
When we are attentive to a bird singing, that sound is the object of our mind. When our eyes see the blue sky, this is the object of our mind. When we look at a candle, an idea or image of the candle arises in our mind. That object of perception is a sign (lakshana). In Chinese, the character for perception is composed of the ideograms for sign and mind. A perception is a sign, an image in our mind.
“Investigation of dharmas” (dharma-pravichaya) is one of the Seven Factors of Awakening (bodhyanga).6 When observing dharmas, five kinds of meditation can help us calm our minds: (1) counting the breath, (2) observing interdependent arising, (3) observing impurity, (4) observing with love and compassion,7 and (5) observing the different realms.
What are the different realms? First, there are the Eighteen Elements (dhatus): eyes, forms (the objects of our vision), and the consciousness that makes sight possible, which we can call eye-consciousness; ears, sound, and the consciousness connected with hearing; nose, smell, and the consciousness connected with smelling; tongue, taste, and the consciousness connected with tasting; body, touch, and the consciousness connected with touching; mind, the object of mind, and mind-consciousness. These Eighteen Elements make the existence of the universe possible. If we look deeply into the Eighteen Elements and see their substance and their source, we will be able to go beyond ignorance and fears.
In the Discourse on the Many Realms (Bahudhatuka Sutta),8 the Buddha taught that all our anxieties and difficulties come from our inability to see the true face, or true sign of things, which means that although we see their appearance, we fail to recognize their impermanent and interbeing nature. If we are afraid or insecure, at the root of our fear or insecurity is that we have not yet seen the true face of all dharmas. If we investigate and look deeply into the Eighteen Elements, we can transform our ignorance and overcome fear and insecurity.
One day during sitting meditation, the Venerable Ananda realized that all anxieties, fears, and misfortunes arise because we do not understand the true nature of physical and psychological phenomena. Later, he asked the Buddha if this was correct, and the Buddha said yes, first explaining the need to penetrate the Eighteen Elements.
Ananda then asked, “Is it possible to penetrate the Eighteen Elements in another way?” and the Buddha replied, “Yes, we can say that there are Six Elements.” These are the Four Great Elements (mahabhuta) of earth, water, fire, and air, plus space and consciousness. All physical phenomena are made up of these Six Elements. If we observe these Six Elements inside us and around us, we see that we are not separate from the universe. This insight frees us from the idea of birth and death.
The Buddha then taught Ananda the Six Realms — happiness (sukha), suffering (dukkha), joy (mudita), anxiety (Pali: domanassa), letting go (upeksha), and ignorance (avidya). Happiness can be true happiness or deception, so we have to look into its substance and go beyond attachment. True happiness will be of benefit and nourish ourselves and others. Deceptive happiness brings temporary pleasure and helps us forget our suffering, but is not of lasting benefit and can actually be harmful, like a cigarette or a glass of wine. When something causes us to suffer, if we look deeply into it, we may see that it is exactly what we need to restore our happiness. In fact, suffering is essential for happiness. We have to know the suffering of being too cold to enjoy and appreciate being warm. If we look deeply into the realm of joy, we can see whether it is authentic or whether it is just covering up our suffering and anxiety. Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.
Letting go is an ongoing practice, one that can bring us a lot of happiness. When a Vietnamese woman who escaped her country by boat was robbed on the high seas of all her gold, she was so distraught that she contemplated suicide. But on shore, she met a man who had been robbed of even his clothes, and it helped her very much to see him smiling. He had truly let go. Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything — anger, anxiety, or possessions — we cannot be free.
The Buddha taught another list of Six Realms: craving (kama), freedom from craving (nekkhama),9 anger (vyapada), absence of anger (avyapada), harming (vihimsa), and nonharming (avihimsa or ahimsa). If we look deeply into our craving, we see that we already have what we crave, because everything is already a part of everything else. This insight can take us from the realm of craving into the realm of freedom. The fire of anger burns in us day and night and causes us to suffer — even more than the one at whom we are angry. When anger is absent, we feel light and free. To live in the realm of non-harming is to love. Our world is full of hatred and violence, because we do not take the time to nourish the love and compassion that are already in our hearts. Nonharming is an important practice.
There are three further realms: the desire realm, the form realm, and the formless realm. The form and formless realms describe certain states of meditative concentration. In the form realm, material things are somewhat subtle. In the formless realm, they are very subtle. In the desire realm, material things are present in their grossest form, and human beings do not meditate there. These three realms are produced by our mind. If our mind has craving, anger, and harming, we are like a house on fire. If craving, anger, and harming are absent from our minds, we produce a cool, clear lotus lake.10 Every time we practice Right Mindfulness, it is like jumping into that cool lake. If we are standing, we only have to know that we are standing. If we are sitting, we only have to know that we are sitting. We don’t have to add or take away anything. We only need to be aware.
Finally, the Buddha taught the meditation on the Two Realms — the realm of the conditioned (samskrita) and the realm of the unconditioned (asamskrita). In the conditioned realm, there is birth, death, before, after, inner, outer, small, and large. In the world of the unconditioned, we are no longer subject to birth and death, coming or going, before or after. The conditioned realm belongs to the historical dimension. It is the wave. The unconditioned realm belongs to the ultimate dimension. It is the water. These two realms are not separate.
To arrive at liberation from narrow views and to obtain fearlessness and great compassion, practice the contemplations on interdependence, impermanence, and compassion. Sitting in meditation, direct your concentration onto the interdependent nature of certain objects. Remember that the subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. To see is to see something. To hear is to hear something. To be angry is to be angry about something. Hope is hope for something. Thinking is thinking about something. When the object of knowledge is not present, there can be no subject. Meditate and see the interbeing of the subject and the object. When you practice mindfulness of breathing, then the breathing is mind. When you practice mindfulness of the body, then your body is mind. When you practice mindfulness of objects outside yourself, these objects are mind. Therefore, the contemplation of the interbeing of subject and object is also the contemplation of the mind. Every object of the mind is itself mind. In Buddhism, we call the objects of mind the dharmas.
Contemplation on interdependence is a deep looking into all dharmas in order to pierce through to their real nature, in order to see them as part of the great body of reality and in order to see that the great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.
The object of our mind can be a mountain, a rose, the full moon, or the person standing in front of us. We believe these things exist outside of us as separate entities, but these objects of our perceptions are us. This includes our feeling. When we hate someone, we also hate ourself. The object of our mindfulness is actually the whole cosmos. Mindfulness is mindfulness of the body, feelings, perceptions, any of the mental formations, and all of the seeds in our consciousness. The Four Establishments of Mindfulness contain everything in the cosmos. Everything in the cosmos is the object of our perception, and, as such, it does not exist only outside of us but also within us.
If we look deeply at the bud on the tree, we will see its nature. It may be very small, but it is also like the earth, because the leaf in the bud will become part of the earth. If we see the truth of one thing in the cosmos, we see the nature of the cosmos. Because of our mindfulness, our deep looking, the nature of the cosmos will reveal itself. It is not a matter of imposing our ideas on the nature of the cosmos.
Sitting and watching our breath is a wonderful practice, but it is not enough. For transformation to take place, we have to practice mindfulness all day long, not just on our meditation cushion. Mindfulness is the Buddha. Just as vegetation is sensitive to sunlight, mental formations are sensitive to mindfulness. Mindfulness is the energy that can embrace and transform all mental formations. Mindfulness helps us leave behind “upside-down perceptions,” and wakes us up to what is happening. When Thich Quang Duc made himself into a human torch, people all over the world had to recognize that Vietnam was a land on fire, and they had to do something about it. When we practice mindfulness, we are in contact with life, and we can offer our love and compassion to lessen the suffering and bring about joy and happiness.
Do not lose yourself in the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. Do not get caught in your anger, worries, or fears. Come back to the present moment, and touch life deeply. This is mindfulness. We cannot be mindful of everything at the same time, so we have to choose what we find most interesting to be the object of our mindfulness. The blue sky is wonderful, but the beautiful face of a child is also wonderful. What is essential is to be alive and present to all the wonders of life that are available.
In many talks, the Buddha spoke about the Threefold Training of precepts, concentration, and insight. The practice of the precepts (shila) is the practice of Right Mindfulness. If we don’t practice the precepts, we aren’t practicing mindfulness. I know some Zen students who think that they can practice meditation without practicing precepts, but that is not correct. The heart of Buddhist meditation is the practice of mindfulness, and mindfulness is the practice of the precepts. You cannot meditate without practicing the precepts.11
When we practice mindfulness, we generate the energy of the Buddha within us and around us, and this is the energy that can save the world. A Buddha is someone who is mindful all day long. We are only part-time Buddhas. We breathe in and use our Buddha eyes to see with the energy of mindfulness. When we listen with our Buddha ears, we are able to restore communication and relieve a lot of suffering. When we put the energy of mindfulness into our hands, our Buddha hands will protect the safety and integrity of those we love.
Look deeply into your hand, and see if the Buddha eye is in it. In Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese temples, there is a bodhisattva with one thousand arms — it takes that many arms to help others — and in the palm of each hand there is an eye. The hand represents action, and the eye represents insight and understanding. Without understanding, our actions might cause others to suffer. We may be motivated by the desire to make others happy, but if we do not have understanding, the more we do, the more trouble we may create. Unless our love is made of understanding, it is not true love. Mindfulness is the energy that brings the eyes of a Buddha into our hand. With mindfulness, we can change the world and bring happiness to many people. This is not abstract. It is possible for every one of us to generate the energy of mindfulness in each moment of our daily life.
1 Majjhima Nikaya 10. In Chinese, Madhyama Agama 98. See Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990).
2 Anapanasati Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 118. See Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1996). The Anapanasati Sutta was available in Vietnam as early as the third century. Dhyana master Tang Hôi, the first Dhyana patriarch of Vietnam, wrote a preface to this sutra that is still available in the Chinese Canon.
3 Bhaddekaratta Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 131. See Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: The Buddha’s Teaching on Living in the Present (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990).
4 Majjhima Nikaya 119.
5 See Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You Are Alive.
6 The Seven Factors of Awakening are mindfulness, investigation of phenomena, diligence, joy, ease, concentration, and letting go. See this page.
7 The Pure Land School replaces this meditation with contemplating Amida Buddha. In fact, when we contemplate Amida Buddha, we are observing with love and compassion, because any Buddha is an embodiment of love and compassion. What does it mean to recite the name of the Buddha? It means to invite someone precious to come into our living room. Every moment that the Buddha seed is in our mind consciousness, it plants seeds of love and understanding. If we invite Mara in, it will not plant those seeds. Mindfulness means, above all, remembering the Buddha nature that is in us.
8 Majjhima Nikaya 115.
9 Nekkhama is Pali, and there is no Sanskrit equivalent for it. We do not know what word was used in the original Sanskrit texts, since they have been lost.
10 In the “Universal Door” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, it is said that the mindfulness of the Bodhisattva of Compassion can transform the fires that are about to burn us into a cool, clear lotus lake.
11 See Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future To Be Possible. See also this page.