A Question of Responding to the need for activism

I recently received this question from a friend:

“I was drawn to the Plum Village tradition by Thay’s personal example of peace activism during the American War in Vietnam, rescuing the boat people, etc.. Can you reflect on Thay’s hopes for our engaged community responding to the need for activism around our current challenges?”


Dear Friend,

Thank you for your question. This is a very important question, a multilevel question to boot. I certainly am not the one to speak for Thay but as a practitioner and someone who is concerned about the suffering in the world, in our society, our communities, our own person, I do have some thoughts about your question.

First, let’s delve into what is meant by “Engaged Buddhism.” My impression is that there is some confusion or misunderstanding surrounding that term. What does Thay mean when he uses the phrase “Engaged Buddhism?” Sometimes I wonder if the term has been hijacked from its original context. I posted an article earlier from the Plum Village website called, Engaged Buddhism or Applied Buddhism?  It comes from a talk Thay gave in 2009.

In the talk, Thay gives a specific definition for both the terms. To Thay, Engaged Buddhism means

“…that you practice all day without interruption, in the midst of your family, your community, your city, and your society. The way you walk, the way you look, the way you sit inspires people to live in a way that peace, happiness, joy, and brotherhood are possible in every moment.”

In essence, and I have heard this many times over the year, Engaged Buddhism is applying the practice to one’s life, a very general statement, a very general approach. It really takes me to the notion of the traditional Zen practice of chop wood and carry water – practice is daily life wherever it takes you, however you may respond to life with its suffering, its wonderment and everything in between. Life equals practice and practice equals life. Through the practice, we learn to see, to understand, to grow, and to respond.

What is not in Thay’s description of Engaged Buddhism, and what is not in it is just as important as what is, is the specific notion of activism. Nowhere is the idea that the community is a venue for social, political, environmental activism, or any other type of “activism.” This is an important point. Being in the community for some time now, I have often gotten the impression now and then that some believe that Engaged Buddhism equals a mandate for activism, that the community has a mandate for activism. Moreover, if you are a community member that is what you are supposed to be doing. I have never thought that this was the case. Engaged Buddhism, as I interpret Thay’s teaching, refers to the basic notion of just practice, just engage the practice in your daily life, whatever you do. That is all we are supposed to do. That is what the communities are supposed to do. Just practice. It’s not about activism, not specifically. If that is what you do in your life, wonderful, it’s certainly needed, just bring your practice into it. However, there is no mandate for community activism. This is an important thing to understand because to project onto the community or community members that they are supposed to be engaged in politics or social activism, and so forth, can and I’m sure does, create suffering and disharmony which is counterproductive in the practice, one’s own and others, they are interconnected.

This idea of activism of engagement into the various realms of human endeavors, of taking the practice into the larger sphere, falls under Applied Buddhism, rather than Engaged Buddhism. Going back to the printed talk of Thay’s:

“‘Applied Buddhism’ is a continuation of Engaged Buddhism. Applied Buddhism means that Buddhism can be applied in every circumstance in order to bring understanding and solutions to problems in our world. Applied Buddhism offers concrete ways to relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness in every situation.”

Whereas Engaged Buddhism in one respect is a response to one’s surroundings, how one interprets and practice with what life throws at you. Applied Buddhism, to Thay, is more about rolling up the sleeves and taking the practice to the world. Taking the benefits, the fruit, or merit, of one’s practice and applying it to the various issues of our times. How can the teachings of Thay, the teachings of Buddhism help the world, help societies and communities, and help the individuals involved?

This is the question of our times. It is also a question of the Bodhisattva. Helping others to overcome suffering and difficulties is the path of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is active in this, a sort of spiritual activism. There is no formula for this. There is no manual for this. The expression of the Bodhisattva path has countless manifestations, ones that can be seen, ones that cannot be seen, all driven by the empathic understanding of suffering and difficulties of others and wanting to help. It does not matter if the “others” is a single individual, a community, a society, a nation, a species, or all beings. Context and relationships are paramount but so too is the heart and mind that is inspired.

In the community of practitioners, and I am not sure if it this community specifically or if this is the case in Buddhism here in the US specifically, there is an aversion for labels, definitions, specificity, probably related to the idea of inclusiveness and the idea of “freedom.” What I have seen over the years is that, yes, like everything else, inclusivity can be taken too far, to the point of community and individual suffering. This is an American thing applied to the teachings rather than the other way around. I bring this up because the Bodhisattva path is a specific thing, a specific understanding, a specific wisdom that is acted on. It’s not a “feel good” thing, although it does feel like it sometimes. In Buddhism, there are actually levels of Bodhisattva attainments all leading to Buddhahood. It all begins and is all premised on helping others. That other’s suffering and difficulties are seen as important as one’s own, and often deemed more important than one’s own. This is the realm of selflessness.

In my understanding, interbeing has within it the path of the Bodhisattva in that as we become more and more aware of the interconnectivity of all things it begins to dawn on us that the benefit and detriment of others is a benefit and detriment to oneself and that the benefit and detriment of oneself is the benefit and detriment of others. It is all interconnected and we are part of this great interconnectedness. As one looks towards the higher attainments of the Bodhisattva one sees that there is no distinction whatsoever about oneself and others. There is nothing to talk about. They just do it. No regard to the idea of oneself or other. It’s not in the vocabulary.

Regardless where one is on the path, Bodhisattva or not, one thing is for certain these are difficult and turbulent times we live in. It is not the first time in human history but we are here nonetheless. We are all different beings, come from different conditions, view things in different ways, and so forth. Some may look at the world today and gasp, sinking into despair. Some may see the same things but have more resiliency and cope well. Others may see the same thing and think everything is just fine. It is like the blind men and the elephant. So where is the truth of it all? This can be found only in one’s heart and mind. For, as the teachings tell us, the heart and mind are the rudders of our intentions and our actions. We can only truly know these things through our clear mind and heart not the mind and heart of confusion, self-centeredness, bitterness, retribution, grasping, and so forth. It is a matter of clear insight versus delusion and ignorance. For me, it is only through the practice that I find the clarity and insight that I make my best decisions and pure actions – or pure non-actions.

When we come home to ourselves through the clear mind and heart we have the ability to listen and understand our own heart and mind and what they tell us. Then we know. When we begin to touch our true nature we can hear our path. Then we know. I believe this is how I became a monastic. It was, as it is said, a calling, a path to enter. As I look at our society, our nation and witness the difficulties and suffering, the causes of difficulties and suffering, knowing that there is a way out, I cannot help but want to help in some way or another. I think many people share the same sediments, the same inner experience. It is a difficult challenge just in the question of how to grapple with it all. All harmful actions, be it by an individual or by a distinguishable group are based on ignorance, greed, and aversion of one kind or another. These are the three roots, or origin, of suffering. We see the tree trunk, the branches, and the leaves, but rarely do we see the roots, hence ignorance. 

But these are teachings pointing to the moon, also pointing to suffering, which you need to deal with before actually seeing the moon. What is more concrete is recognizing what in society is the origin of suffering directly. For example, the lack of access to health care, poverty, injustice, racism, authoritarianism, bad governance, political ideology over human dignity. Interrelated, there is also the wholesale degradation of the planet. These are all very tangible things and very spiritual things as well. The Bodhisattva perfection of generosity isn’t just about saying kind things or speaking to the “spiritual” things. It does include very tangible things, such as money for example. No inside, no outside. No sacred and no profane. And, just as there is a monastic calling, this too is a calling. But, as I have said, not everyone has the same calling. The expression of the practice has many manifestations and we cannot get caught in anything but rather respond to one’s own mind and heart. 

Going back to the question regarding Thay’s hope: Again, I cannot speak for Thay, but I tend to believe that it would be something to the effect of whoever you are, whatever you do or don’t do, wherever you find yourself, in good times and bad, take your practice with you because both you and the world need more wisdom and compassion no matter how it all plays out.

c phap vu


Face Everything, Let Go, and Attain Stability

This piece was written by Chan Master Hongzhi Zenji (1091-1157). Translated by Taigen Dan Leighton.

Vast and far-reaching without boundary, secluded and pure, manifesting light this spirit is without obstruction. Its brightness does not shine out but can be called empty and inherently radiant. Its brightness, inherently purifying transcends causal conditions beyond subject and object. Subtle but preserved, illuminated and vast, also it cannot be spoken of as being or nonbeing, or discussed with images or calculations. Right in here the central pivot turns, the gateway opens. You accord and respond without laboring and accomplish without hindrance. Everywhere turn around freely, not following conditions, not falling into classifications. Facing everything, let go and attain stability. Stay with that just as that. Stay with this just as this. That and this are mixed together with no discriminations as their places. So it is said that the earth lifts up the mountains without knowing the mountain’s stark steepness. A rock contains jade without knowing the jade’s flawlessness. This is how to truly to leave home, how home-leaving must be enacted.(1)


(1) Hongzhi is addressing monastic students. In the Buddhist teachings, monks and nuns were often referred to as ‘home-leavers,’ meaning that they left their home life to pursue their monastic aspirations. 

Ven. Master Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term ‘home’ to refer to the experience of what Master Hongzhi Zenji is writing about in this piece. Open, vast, non-duality, free.


Peeling Away Walking Meditation

Since the time I began practicing in the mid-’90s, I’ve always considered walking meditation an important part of my practice. I remember when I first took up the practice of Chan I would practice walking in awareness to the bus station down the busy street. I would simply walk and be aware of my breath as it is, the motion of walking as it is, and the surroundings as it is. The last part is really important if you practicing IMG_0537walking meditation in the city. I was walking in Edinburgh one day and I was not so mindful of the experiential fact that people drive in the “other” side of the road. I was abruptly made aware of that as I started to step off the curb. Close call. I wonder if this would be considered a flash of insight?

In the hall, the crack of two pieces of wood striking together would signal the start of walking meditation. In this Chan tradition walking meditation is not a matter of one step in-breath, one step out-breath that so many are familiar with. Instead, it is a full-on fast pace walking. We would walk rapidly along the perimeter of the hall swinging our arms as we walked, almost a sprint. No time to think, no time for distractions, no time to watch the breath or the feet, just respond and do. An appropriate response. Instead of bringing the attention to the breath or the feet, attention was placed on the whole experience of walking. Eventually, crack! – stopping instantly – end of session and back to the cushion. Every once in a while, as I travel around, someone would ask which is better slow walking or fast walking. Both! It’s not so much a matter of slow or fast as it is a matter of the mind. Where is it?

Since those days, coming into the Plum Village tradition, of course, I’ve had to slow down quite a bit. Especially in the hall: One step in-breath, one step out-breath. I remember when I first took up this slower method of walking. Overall it went well. But I did have what I call a momentary dilemma, to where I almost totally froze up during a walking session. As I was bringing my attention to my walking, I got stuck on the question, Should I focus on my feet or focus on my breath? Does the breath lead the step or does the step lead the walk? For some reason it seemed like they were the most important questions in the world and that I had to get it right, and get it right, right there and then. It seemed like a short panic attack. A couple of moments into it, as I passed the Buddha statue on the alter I came to my senses – oh yeah, just walk, don’t worry about it. Thanks, Buddha.

These days I look at walking meditation as a way to peel away, both in technique and experience. One’s technique is important. If you want to take your practice deeper you need to have a solid technique. It is like how a painter uses a brush and paint to create a masterpiece. In general, you want to find a technique that works for you and then you should stick with it until you have spent some time with it, thoroughly explore it, see where it takes you. Master it. If the method works, wonderful, keep at it. If it doesn’t, move on and find one that does.

There are many different techniques, different methods of walking meditation. As I sharing earlier there is a fast-paced method and there are very slow paced methods. If you think one step in-breath and one step out-breath is slow, well, there are slower techniques. In this technique, however, I stick with the one step in-breath and one step out-breath. So, where does the peeling come in?

Walking meditation is like sitting meditation in that there needs to be a bit of preparation practice. Before walking stand for a moment and bring your attention to the experience of what you are doing. As it says in the sutras, put mindfulness before you. It can be challenging going from a busy day to a practice session. Be sure your mind is there with you. Take some breaths. Observe the experience of the breath and the body. Just remind yourself, if needed, whatever you may need to do or don’t do, this period of time is for your practice. Then you want to make sure there is no tension in your body. Are your shoulders relaxed? Is your face relaxed? You can even check this while you begin to walk.

When you are ready to start walking make your first step with an in-breath or an out-breath. It doesn’t matter which one you begin with as long as the steps are in sync with your breath. Here, you are beginning to bring together in oneness your body, breath, and steps. Just continue to walk one step in-breath, one step out-breath. If you are doing this practice for the first time it may seem mechanical. This is because there is tenseness. Just keep going and relax into the technique, relax into the experience. You want a fluid, relaxed, natural movement as you walk and breathe.

As you find your cadence bring your attention to the sensation of your feet on the floor. Here you are letting go of the breath and directing your attention to your feet. The breath is still there in the periphery, part of the experience but your attention now goes to the feet. Once you start walking in a relaxed way it really does become automatic. There are many points of your step you can to bring your attention to in walking meditation. This one, however, the attention goes to the rear foot as it comes off the floor before it moves forward. The rear foot “peels” away from the floor to move forward. More succinctly, align your in-breath or out-breath with your rear foot as it peels away from from the floor. This does take quite a bit of attention. From the heel starting to lift off the floor to the tip of your toes before they lift is a full in-breath or a full out-breath. Basically, your legs are moving forward is the space, the pause, between the in-breath and out-breath. As you continue to walk try to notice all the experiential subtle nuances of your foot peeling away from the floor. Now, stay with it.

In terms of experience, as we are solidly in our walking practice things begin to peel away. Actually, the peeling away has already begun. When we have the intention of starting the practice of walking meditation we are already peeling away our schedule and busy-ness. Then as we continue we need to put some effort, or non-effort, into training our minds to not be carried away by distractions. When you walk, where are your eyes? Are you looking out a window while you are walking? The painting on the wall? I can always tell the quality of someones walking when they walk by the alter in the hall. So often, people who are are not fully into the practice look at the altar as they walk by. Keep your eyes forward as you walk, relax into the walk, and note the desire and sometimes craving to go eye shopping. As you do this you are peeling away sense desires, peeling away distractions. It is the same for the mind. The mind is never happy unless it is looking for mind-candy, the things to “occupy” our mind. Just as in sitting meditation, as you become aware of your mind wandering just gently bring your attention back to your rear foot as it peels off the floor.

Walking meditation becomes quite powerful when the growing concentration matures and the distractions are fewer and fewer. Through this practice, we peel away the distraction of the sense desires and peel away the busy mind. As we continue walking, a great expansiveness or spaciousness begins to emerge. This is our true home, a manifestation of our true nature. Try to cultivate and maintain this sensation, this experience. It’s a tremendous experience. This is when a smile just automatically manifests on my face. At this point, I peel away my attention from my feet to the whole-body experience of walking. Just walking. The body knows what to do, the breath knows what to do, the feet know what to do – and I am just taking it all in.

Engaged Buddhism or Applied Buddhism?

As I have traveled around, the concept of Engaged Buddhism, what it is, what it isn’t, has been a topic of conversations. Over the years there have been misunderstandings and misinterpretations of what is meant by “Engaged Buddhism.” To more fully understand something we really it often helps to put it in historical context. When I speak on the Buddhist teachings on mind, aka, Buddhist psychology, I try to stress the historical context of rebirth. You really can’t fully understand the teachings on mind without understanding the historical motivations behind the teachings. Part of the Buddha’s journey and many other seekers of the time was about how not to be reborn, to escape the wheel of samsara.

In this little gem Thich Nhat Hanh, Thay, briefly explains the historical context of the manifestation of Engaged Buddhism and how it was a product of its time in Vietnam. Thay continues, explaining Applied Buddhism and how it differs from Engaged Buddhism, or rather, how it is an extension of Engaged Buddhism.

As the political-social climate over the past two years has heated up, up-ended the norms, and set forth much into motion, the question of the definition and practice of Engaged Buddhism has certainly come to the forefront. In my own view, it should. There is nothing like practical application to flesh out meaning. Moreover, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of all creations. Community members across the USA struggle, debate, share, explore and investigate how to be in these days, what to do, what not to do, how to do, and so forth. No doubt, these are certainly uncertain times – and there very few easy answers. Hopeful, this article will help clarify by bringing a new framework, a la, Thay and Plum Village, for the MahaCommunity to digest. 


Thich Nhat Hanh on the Term [Applied Buddhism] From a Dharma Talk given June 21, 2009 in Plum Village

First we had the term “Engaged Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism means that you practice all day without interruption, in the midst of your family, your community, your city, and your society. The way you walk, the way you look, the way you sit inspires people to live in a way that peace, happiness, joy and brotherhood are possible in every moment.

The term Engaged Buddhism was born when the war in Vietnam was very intense. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on, and what was happening then was bombs falling, people being wounded and dying: suffering and the destruction of life. You want to help relieve the suffering, so you sit and walk in the midst of people running from bombs. You learn how to practice mindful breathing while you help care for a wounded child. If you don’t practice while you serve, you will lose yourself and you will burn out.

When you are alone, walking, sitting, drinking your tea or making breakfast, that is also Engaged Buddhism, because you are doing it not only for yourself, but in order to help preserve the world. This is interbeing. Engaged Buddhism is practice that penetrates into every aspect of our world.

“Applied Buddhism” is a continuation of Engaged Buddhism. Applied Buddhism means that Buddhism can be applied in every circumstance in order to bring understanding and solutions to problems in our world. Applied Buddhism offers concrete ways to relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness in every situation.

When President Obama gave a talk at the University of Cairo, he used loving speech in order to ease tension between America and the Islamic world. He was using the Buddhist practice of loving speech: speaking humbly, recognizing the values of Islam, recognizing the good will on the part of Islamic people, and identifying terrorists as a small number of people who exploit tension and misunderstanding between people.

The practice of relieving tension in the body is Applied Buddhism because the tension accumulated in our body will bring about sickness and disease. The sutra on mindful breathing, Anapanasati, presented in sixteen exercises, is Applied Buddhism.* We should be able to apply the teaching of mindful breathing everywhere—in our family, in our school, in the hospital, and so on. Buddhism is not just for Buddhists. Buddhism is made up of non-Buddhist elements.

Reprinted from EIAB Newsletter, June 2010

Mindfulness Bell  #68 Winter/Spring 2015



Q & A: The Work of Our Times

This is the Q & A from the Talk I gave in Nashville on Morality & Ethics. The content of the Q & A expanded it, getting into the nitty-gritty of it all. I thought it deserved its own title.

Opportunity for dana:   www.paypal.me/dharmapathways

Morality & Ethics

This is a talk I gave to the sangha in Nashville and is about the placement of the Trainings in our lives.

Opportunity for dana:   www.paypal.me/dharmapathways

The Year’s Journey

Dear Friends on the Path, and to Those Who Aren’t But Are Reading This Anyways,

It is mid-November here at Rose Apple in Vermont. There is a thin layer of snow blanketing the landscape outside my windows. It is slowly melting. Not quite winter, not quite fall. For some unknown reason, I appreciate and enjoy winters here. I grew up and spent most of my life in Southern California and lived a few years in Tucson. These are places people go to get away from the snowy winters. That is the reason that catapulted my family’s migration from our hometown, Chicago. So where did this affinity for snow, winter, and coldness come from? Perhaps it comes from a past life. Perhaps it speaks to my northern European roots. Perhaps I just like snowy winters. No, this isn’t something I contemplate much – I am happy just to go with it.

This year has been a very special year for me. Some of you may already know, but I decided it was time to take some time away from the monastery life this past March. It’s a way to get to know Phap Vu a little more. I don’t want to go into great details, I’ll save that for my “best-selling autobiography.” It has been, an enriching time for me: Coming into contact with the difficult, the perplexing, the wondrous, and the OK-ness of it all. Quite often one would think that the only way to get to know ourselves better is to go into full retreat mode. I  think that lone, quiet, retreats are beneficial, but is it the only way to get to know oneself. I don’t think so. I most definitely learn a lot about myself in day to day life as well. Life in the monastery has shown me this. How do we know what our path is if we don’t journey on? In my sabbatical, I have tried to incorporate both, retreat and engagement have served me well. A few days ago I returned from the last of my travels for this year and am getting ready to embrace the snow, the winter, and the contemplative spirit that it invokes. Time for my retreat.

As I said, it has been a special year for me especially due to my travels and visits with various sanghas. Earlier this year, my first journey of the year, I went to spend some time in London and Scotland. This was in June. I have been to England and Scotland, several times but I’ve never been to London before. Airport layovers don’t count here. I was in London to attend something called the Mindful Living Show, held in the center of London. I had never heard of this before. When I first read the email I thought, “Was this some kind of theatrical performance?” Out of ignorance and into the knowing – no. Actually, it was a type of convention-exhibition-symposium kind of event. The event was about all the aspects of mindfulness offered through the secular realm. Because it was a mindful event, the local OI members thought it would be appropriate to have a booth with Thay’s books and representatives of our tradition. Walking around, I soon discovered that I was the only monk there. The reason I was at the event was to give a talk on mindfulness one day and a guided meditation the next day. Both went well and everyone seemed to be engaged in what I was offering. I have to say, it was the first time I received a resounding applause for a guided meditation. It was a bit surreal in an enjoyable kind of way.

From London, I took a train to Edinburgh. My destination was Wiston Lodge, located near Biggar, several miles, I mean kilometers, southwest of Edinburgh. I have been to both Edinburgh and Wiston Lodge several times before and have gotten to know some of the sangha members over the past few years. Wiston Lodge is an old hunting lodge transformed into a facility similar to a YMCA. It also doubles as a retreat center. Hence my presence. What makes Wiston Lodge, or I should say, the folks at Wiston Lodge so special is that they focus on at-risk kids. A wonderful environment for kids to discover the wonderment of life. While I was in Scotland I facilitated Mindful Lunchtime, which is in the heart of Edinburgh, near the castle. What a great concept. Anyone can take a break and enjoy a mindful lunch practice – in the heart of a city.

After the UK, from late June to mid-July I was in the Boston area visiting the various sanghas. Again, like in the UK, some folks in Boston I have gotten to know over the years. Most there, however, I was meeting for the first time.  I visited about seven sanghas or so while I was there. I also gave a public talk in Newton. Typically, I would join the regular activities of the weekly sangha gatherings. I am happy to follow along and enjoy being part of the experience. More often than not, because there is a monastic in the midst, a Q & A would manifest. Usually, I would receive the questions but I also ask questions as well – who said I had to do all the answering in this life. There were also luncheons and dinners and just sitting around talking. Love it.

From Boston, I went down to the Washington D.C. area and was there from mid-June to early August. Actually, I wasn’t in Washington D.C. except for a few tourist excursions. I tried to get into the new African American Museum. It’s so popular that you need advanced tickets to get in. Advanced meaning months. Next time, perhaps. I actually stayed in Silver Spring which is a few stops off the metro from Washington D.C. Terrific place. Kind of urban, kind of suburb with a strong Ethiopian community. This is a real plus for myself because I enjoy Ethiopian food. In any event, there is a multitude of sanghas that span the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area. Again, there are some folks there I have gotten to know over the years but most I didn’t know.

While I was there in the BWDC area I attended a plethora of sangha events. I attended a tea to celebrate Scott Schang’s receiving the Lamp Transmission. You’re in it now Scott. I also attended a 14 mindfulness training recitation. This was the first time I recited the Trainings with an all Lay group. I also taught at a Day of Mindfulness and a mahasangha gathering in Baltimore and, oh yes, I went to prison. No, really, I went to prison – as a guest. Tim Mccormick facilitates a prison sangha and he asked me if I would join him one day. I said, yes, of course. It was a terrific experience and I am looking forward to going back. There was also a visit to the Sackler Gallery to see an exhibit on Buddhism. This was a sangha event and we had a good size group and had to break up into two or three groups for a guided tour. Our tour guide did a pretty good job and seemed to know her stuff although she seemed very nervous for some reason.

This past October I spent the good part of the month in Connecticut. I was at Bruce Nichol’s house, another new Dharma Teacher. I’ve known Bruce some time but I’ve never been to his neck of the woods before. Here my visit took on a new aspect. In addition to joining the sangha gatherings, I began to do private consultations. This is an aspect of my monastic life that I have consistently felt a sense of fulfillment. Dharma talks and Q & As are beneficial but there is nothing like a one on one, connecting on another level. Sometimes they are about something simple and straightforward, like how to practice. Sometimes they are about deep-seated pain and suffering. It’s not that I have the answers to one’s life-problems and challenges, I don’t. Rather, how can I help them find their own answers? How can I help them have their a-ha moment? This is the role of practice – their practice, my practice.

My final leg of my journey this year took me to Nashville earlier this month for about a week-long visit. This was my first time experiencing Nashville and the sangha there. I didn’t know anyone there except for Rhonda who I had only met briefly. The story goes, Rhonda was at the mahasangha gathering in Baltimore, the one I had participated in. She was in Baltimore, her hometown, visiting her family. I don’t recall seeing her there but it was a large group and there were a good number of people there that I don’t recall. In any event, I’m at the airport to head back to Rose Apple getting a cup of coffee when Rhonda came up to me to say hi. We began talking and the next thing you know she asked me if I would come to Nashville. I said yes. Not much of a compelling story but there it is and there I was.

And, here I am. I have to say that this year certainly has been one of the highlights of my monastic life. Yes, it has been a wonderful journey this year in which I was invited into so many sanghas and so many homes. So much to discover, many people to meet and get to know. Offering support while myself being supported. This is the reciprocal relationship that’s not a reciprocal relationship. A reciprocal relationship is based on two when in fact we are all in this together, one big stream. No giving and no taking, just the sense and the actuality of being beyond our borders.

Settling in for a winter’s retreat,
texts, tea, and cushion.
The snow falls and the cold wind howls,
yet, there is enough warmth to share.

– cpv

The Breaking of Avalokiteshvara


This talk was given October 4, 2018, in New York City through Buddhist Insights.

So, what happens when Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara out of despair and discouragement about the immense and never-ending suffering of the world falls apart – literally.

Opportunity for dana   Wandering Monk    

The Seven Factors of Awakening

This talk was given October 13, 2018, for the south-western Connecticut Day of Mindfulness at the wonderful Christ Church in Easton.  The Day of Mindfulness was organized by our new Dharma Teacher Bruce Nichols of the Harmony Sangha



Opportunity for supporting Phap Vu on his path:         Wandering Monk Dana


Practicing Compassionate Political Speech Through Deep Looking

Hello dear readers,

If you haven’t noticed it has been a while since I posted. For the past several weeks I have been visiting Sanghas in the Boston area as well as the Washington D.C. – Baltimore area. It has been nothing less than phenomenal from beginning to end to beyond. Throughout the whole time, I felt so supported and I hope that everyone felt supported by me. The reciprical nature of the relationship between the monastic and the lay community has often been talked about. I don’t think I ever experienced that relationship so deep and concrete, so directly, as I had during the trip. Thank you all who helped make the journey possible. 

On to the blogging –

This piece I came across on the Order of Interbeing website homepage, dated June 13, 2017. It was written by Matt Williams from the Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Chicago, the city of my very birthplace, Thank you, thank you, thank you, my cone-hat off to you with deep gratitude for your insight – and skilfulness in approaching a tender but much-needed topic. Buddhist, even monks, are allowed to delve into the political discussion regarding the issues of our times. Do I think we should separate children from their parents and cage them up just because the parents want a better life for them? I think there are better ways, a more humane approach to the issues of immigration. Morality is a very important factor of the path, personal and societal. 

During the Obama administration (sigh), I had the opportunity to go to the White House for the first-ever Buddhist-White House gathering. One of the most impactful statements made by the administration’s representatives was that they hear from the Christian communities, they hear from the Jewish and Muslim communities. What they didn’t hear were the voices from the Buddhist communities. Some things to contemplate. 



Practicing Compassionate Political Speech Through Deep Looking 


Because of its emotionally charged nature, it is difficult to engage in political speech in a mindful, compassionate way. I often ask myself, How do I remain compassionate when criticizing others? Can we criticize others without disparaging or demonizing them, especially when we speak of them perpetuating injustices and other forms of harm to others? On a number of occasions, in sangha and on retreats and days of mindfulness, I have talked with other practitioners about these difficulties. On the one hand, some have told me that they deal with these challenges by simply not speaking of such contentious topics at all. While this may be appropriate for some people at some points in their practice, if none of us speak to these issues–to say nothing of working actively around them–changes for the better will not occur. On the other hand, I have talked to some practitioners who I felt were seeking for a Buddhist rationalization for speech that is not just angry but laced with ill-will by, for instance, making a distinction between anger and outrage, with the former to be avoided but the latter to be embraced as a mindful, positive reaction.

Here, I would like to reflect on my own attempts to find a middle way between these extremes. For me, the practice of looking deeply and then incorporating the insights gained from looking deeply into my own political speech has been very helpful.

This challenge has been central to my personal practice by virtue of my profession–I teach sociology and global studies at the college level, which means I am continually speaking about and facilitating conversations on major social issues with classrooms of students I cannot assume share my views on these issues. But it is not always easy to see what the path towards mindful, compassionate speech is in such contexts. For instance, the consensus among sociologists who study racism and sexism is that these forms of discrimination remain pervasive and institutionalized–the only debate is around just how bad these things remain, how difficult these problems will be to overcome and the best means to do so. So how do I respectfully engage with students who believe these things are largely a matter of the past and are resistant to considering that these problems still persist? Again, there is a good deal of evidence that conservative welfare reforms are driven–sometimes intentionally, sometimes subconsciously–in part by racist, sexist and classist stereotypes. But how do I talk about these things without demonizing conservatives? Or, even if I’m not doing so in my own head, speak about these issues in a way that doesn’t make conservative students nonetheless feel like I am?

Thay teaches us that an essential element of cultivating our compassion is looking deeply—trying to gain insight and understanding into the causes and conditions shaping people’s actions. Once we gain this understanding, it is easier to develop a sense of compassion for people whose actions we find repellant. In Western Buddhism, when we engage in the practice of looking deeply, we have a tendency to focus on people’s individual mental formations–their psychology. This is consistent with the individualism of Western culture, but sits uncomfortably with Thay’s emphasis on examining the interbeing of all phenomena. I want to suggest that trying to understand the social causes and conditions of people’s behavior, and not just the psychological ones, will allow us to look even more deeply, understanding people not in isolation but in the ways we are all socially interconnected with each other.

Some of the resistance to engaging in such a social analysis may be that, while Buddhism has a rich tradition of psychological analysis, it is much weaker when it comes to social analysis. Because Buddhism itself has few such resources, to develop a rich understanding of how social causes and conditions shape our behavior, we have to turn outside of Buddhism to Western traditions of critical social theory (anarchism, feminism, Marxism, post-structuralism, etc.). In some cases, approaches that rely primarily on Buddhist psychological analysis seem to be the result of a lack of familiarity with critical social theory, but in other cases, this narrow approach seems to be rooted in the idea that Buddhism must have all the resources necessary to engage in such an analysis. But Buddhism has borrowed from other traditions like Hinduism, Daoism and Confucianism throughout its history and, in the first three of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, Thay urges us not to set Buddhist beliefs up on a pedestal as an idol, but to be open to different sources of insight.

Part of my inspiration on how to approach these questions comes from Thay’s poem “Please Call Me By My True Names,” where he attempts, among other things, to understand the pirates who attacked, raped and killed boat people. He looks at the grinding poverty the pirates grew up in and acknowledges that if he grew up in such conditions, it is possible he might have become such a pirate as well.

Another, non-Buddhist source of inspiration for me that has been the book More Power Than We Know (1975) by David Dellinger, one of the main leaders of the US New Left of the 1960s and who described himself as a revolutionary pacifist. He was one of the Chicago 8, a disparate group of left-wing activists charged by the US government with inciting the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (A Congressional investigation later concluded the riot was largely instigated by the police.) More Power Than We Know describes, among other things, the trial of the Chicago 8, in which the judge, Julius Hoffman, openly sided with the government’s efforts to frame the defendants and send them to prison. I was struck when I read this book by the way Dellinger always remained respectful of others like Judge Hoffman who were openly hostile to him and the principles he stood for. Dellinger maintained his compassionate and non-judgmental attitude by always trying to understand what social forces had molded Hoffman and other members of the elite to act the way they did and believe what they did. (I have actually known two people who knew Dellinger personally when he was politically active–one was a close friend of Dellinger’s, the other new him more casually. Both said that he was like this in person as well, for which reason he was one of the few people all the factions on the US left of the 1960s trusted.) In this, his approach was very similar to Thay in “Call Me By My True Names.” While Thay looks down at those who are oppressed and how such oppression can lead one to harm others, Dellinger looked up at those in power and how having power can also lead one to harm others. It is not actually unusual for progressives to do the former, at least at a superficial level, but it is unusual for us to do the latter, cultivating compassion for the oppressor as well as the oppressed.

There are a number of tools I have developed over the years in the classroom, at protests and elsewhere, things I zero in on when engaging in the process of deep looking at social causes and conditions, in order to better understand why people take the actions they do that harm others.

One important aspect of this is to be aware of how other people make sense of things differently than we do, that is to try to look deeply into their culture or worldview, the system of meaning through which we make sense of the world and decide how to act. Many elements of our worldview we take for granted without being consciously aware of them, seeing them as “common sense” (a word that sets off alarm bells for any good social scientist). But people who have radically different worldviews than ours make radically different assumptions about how reality works. This means that beliefs and actions that can seem crazy or vindictively cruel to us make sense to the people who hold these beliefs and act on them. We need to be willing to step out of our worldview and to try to make sense of how other people’s actions make sense to them. For instance, if you are a Christian fundamentalist and start from the assumption that the Bible is the literal word of God and that God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sexual practices was an actual, historical event, then fearing that legalizing gay marriage will bring catastrophe to the country is perfectly rational. We need not agree with such beliefs, but we need to understand why they make sense on their own terms to those who believe them. When we do this, we can develop more compassion for those who act on these beliefs in ways that harm others, such as trying to restrict the rights of or even demonizing LGBT people–even as we act to stop them from doing such harm.

Related to this are issues of confirmation bias and stereotyping. Psychologists have documented what they call confirmation bias–we tend to take in information that fits with our existing worldview and filter out information that doesn’t, dismissing it as implausible, an exception to the norm, or the like. (And some evidence shows that liberals are just as prone to doing this as conservatives–it’s easy to see when those we disagree with filter out information that supports our point of view, but harder to see when we or people of similar beliefs are doing it ourselves.) One way this manifests is in how we stereotype various groups of people. Our stereotypes are shaped by our worldview and our confirmation biases reinforce them. Contrary to popular belief, meeting people from groups we are prejudiced does not normally reduce the degree to which we stereotype them. Indeed, our stereotypes may even be reinforced as our confirmation bias leads us to focus only on those aspects of what they say and do that fit with what we already believe–and to dismiss anything that clashes with our biases as an anomaly. Thus, part of looking deeply into someone else’s worldview is understanding how deeply resilient that worldview can be to those who believe it, however obviously flawed it may seem to us. And these can help us understand why people discriminate against others–because what they see is not a full person, but something filtered through their preconceptions. And the fact that we all do this should make us a little more humble in our criticisms of others for stereotyping (though hopefully our mindfulness practice makes it easier for us to see past our preconceptions–but we should not fool ourselves that are immune).

Another important thing to be aware of is the ways in which our place in the larger social structure can limit our perspective and our choices. In terms of perspective, we tend to think of things in terms of our own reference group, which usually consists of people that are like us. Thus, a CEO of a company is likely to consider things from the perspective of other members of the economic and political elite, but is unlikely to take into account the perspective of others, even people he or she may encounter every day, such as his or her administrative assistant. And progressive activists will tend to take into account the perspective of other progressive activists, but not those of the economic and political elite. This is what President Trump was doing when he advocated repealing financial regulations because they did not allow business friends of his to get loans they wanted. While perhaps more blatant than usual, almost all of us do this to some extent. It becomes particularly dangerous when the people doing this are in positions of power and are incapable of–or don’t bother to–put themselves in the shoes of others affected by their decisions. Thus they will focus on the benefits to other people like them, while remaining unaware to harm it may cause more vulnerable parts of the population. They may also hold beliefs that reinforce this narrow perspective, such as the belief that what is good for business is ultimately good for society as a whole. One of the goals of our practice is to increasingly be able to put ourselves in the shoes of those unlike us, ultimately encompassing all sentient beings.

Our place in the social structure can limit not only our perspectives but our choices. It is easy to see this in the case of people lower down in the social hierarchy. Someone who is poor and has little education is unlikely to have many choices about how they make their livelihood, perhaps working in a weapons-factory because they cannot find another job. But people in power often find that, while they may have access to more resources and more options, social structures nonetheless make it easier to make some decisions than others. Take, for instance, your typical factory-owner in the apparel industry. Chances are, they have little choice but to run the factory as a sweatshop if they wish to stay in business. In the apparel industry, the major firms own few or no factories of their own. All the money is to be made in marketing and retail, so they outsource the less profitable manufacturing to contractors, some of which are large, transnational operations themselves, but most of which are smaller in scale, with the owners often possessing only one or two factories. To get the contracts to produce the apparel for the major firms, these contractors are in a bidding war with each other, where they must promise to be able to maintain a certain level of quality and meet certain timetables, while keeping costs are low as possible. This means, if they want those contracts and to stay in business, they have to cut costs on the backs of their workers, meaning they must run their factories as sweatshops.

One could certainly imagine a sweatshop owner with a troubled conscience getting out of the business–but if they left, others would replace them. The problem is not a few bad apples abusing their power, but one of how the social structure is organized–the very inequalities in power themselves. Because the problem is systemic, it is not something that can be changed by individuals making different choices in isolation. This is not to say that the system cannot be changed–but it would require people working collectively at the global level to develop a new set of rules and organizing principles for the industry–something that both the lead firms and sweatshop owners have refused to do. While we can fault them morally for not supporting such changes, looking at the pressures they are under to make certain decisions and not others, combined with understanding how their place in the social structure narrows their perspective, can help us develop compassion for them. And speaking about these issues in terms of structural problems can get away from language that focuses on morally condemning them, which can all too easily fall into demonizing them.

In practicing mindful political speech based on these principles, teaching sociology and global studies has been very good practice for me. I am supportive of gay marriage, but I have on more than one occasion pushed a classroom full of students, all of whom could not understand why someone would oppose gay marriage, to try to develop such understanding. I would encourage to get them to move beyond ideas such as “they’re crazy” to see why some groups of people might find gay marriage threatening. And, because I am urging them to do so, I must do so myself.

One thing that helped push me to take this approach myself was the realization that I needed to be mindful in my own speech because I never know who I have in my classroom and who my own words might hurt. In one class, I explained to my students some of the problems with the World Economic Forum (WEF), a non-profit organization that holds annual conferences at which the world’s political, business, and philanthropic elite meet to network and informally, off the record discuss what social policies they want to pursue–something that gives this group great power and influence. As I walked around the class after the lecture, stopping to listen to and engage with the small discussion groups, one young woman simply said to me, in a somewhat distressed tone, “But my mother works for the World Economic Forum.” This really pushed me to find a way to critique the WEF that was not disparaging, but mindful and compassionate, something that would help her understand the criticisms without making her feel like she was betraying her mother. I explained to her that the problem was not necessarily the motives of those at the WEF–that many of them might be well intentioned, but that they represented a very narrow range of social groups, material interests, values, and life experiences. They might be trying to solve social problems, but their ability to do so was hobbled by their own limited perceptions. I don’t know what impact this conversation had on the student, but trying to mindfully choose the most compassionate, understanding wording has a big impact on me.

As I have practiced such mindful speech in the classroom, I find it begins to extend into other areas of my life. When I am readings the news and begin to become outraged by what I read, I am more likely to pause and breath, and then to mindfully try to understand why the people I am outraged by are doing what they are doing and thereby begin to feel some compassion for them. This is not to say that I always manage to practice mindful speech, especially when I am angry. After the most recent election, I found myself using very harsh speech for those I blamed for the election of Trump–not only those who voted for him, but also liberals and leaders of the Democratic Party who I saw as engaging in a style of politics that had also laid the foundation for Trump’s election. After some time, I realized what I was doing and stopped myself, looking for more mindful ways to express the concerns I had about the political strategy of many liberals and progressives. There are also cases where it is simply hard to find ways to articulate a particular point that does not sound like it is demonizing those I speak of. As I mention above, I still wrestle with how to make the case that the rollback of the welfare system in the US is rooted, at least in part, in racist, sexist and classist attitudes without sounding disparaging of those who support such policies. In such cases, I continue to reflect on what it is I want to say and how else I might say it to make the compassion I am trying to cultivate for those I criticize more manifest in my words. As with everything else in the practice, this involves an on-going process of experimentation.

Matt Williams
Truly Holding Peace
Lakeside Buddha Sangha
Chicago IL, USA