Tonight’s talk is about bringing the dharma into everyday activities. The great suffering caused by Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine reminds us how crucial it is to practice non-harming in our actions. Thubten Chodron, founder and Abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Spokane, WA, studied Tibetan Buddhism with the Dalai Lama for many years. Her book The Path to Happiness describes how Buddhist practice infuses her daily life. Instead of trying to transcend mundane experiences to access spirituality in ethereal realms, she says, “Being a spiritual person means becoming a real human being.”
Thubten reminisces about disappointing some children who asked, “Can you bend spoons with your mind?” She replied that, for her, psychic powers are useless without a caring heart and that it is miraculous to become a kind human being.
To cultivate a kind heart, we must go beyond thinking that we should be nice and feeling guilty when we fail. When we understand that ego-centered thinking leads to suffering, we become motivated to train the mind to incline towards kindness. Thubten encourages us to set a worthy intention as soon as we wake up in the morning, when the mind is in a subtle and delicate state: For instance, “Today as much as possible, I will not harm anyone. I’ll try to be of service and benefit to others.” Establishing a positive motivation at the moment of waking up increases the likelihood that it will have a lasting influence throughout the day.
At the end of January, we honored the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who died at the age of 95. As a survivor of the Vietnam war and a debilitating stroke, Thay was no stranger to suffering. Yet among his many books is Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, a collection of mindfulness verses for daily living. He recommended starting each day with these words:
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
Even though this vow may be impossible to fulfill, it helps to incline the heart and mind in a wholesome way. Once we have a clear intention, there’s another verse to accompany the moment when we get out of bed and our feet touch the floor:
Walking on the earth
Is a miracle!
Each mindful step reveals
The wondrous Dharmakaya.
The Dharmakaya connotes “the essence of all that exists.” In Thay’s words, “All phenomena—the song of a bird, the warm rays of the sun, a cup of hot tea—are manifestations of the Dharmakaya. We, too, are of the same nature as these wonders of the universe.”
Thay’s steps were so precise and careful, and at the same time so light and free that he inspired all who witnessed him walking. He taught, “We do not have to walk in space or on water to experience a miracle. The real miracle is to be awake in the present moment.” Every step we take is an opportunity to be grateful for our mobility and for the support of the earth. During walking meditation, whenever we’re lost in thoughts, we practice waking up and returning to sense the contact of our feet on the ground.
After we take the first mindful steps of the day, Thay’s next verse encourages us to be grateful for the world outside:
Opening the window,
I look out on the Dharmakaya.
How wondrous is life!
Attentive to each moment,
My mind is clear like a calm river.
His verse about getting dressed acknowledges the source of our clothing and our good fortune to have choices in what we wear:
Putting on these clothes,
I am grateful to those who made them
And to the materials from which they were made.
I wish everyone could have enough to wear.
Thay even has a verse for using the toilet.
Defiled or immaculate,
Increasing or decreasing—
These concepts exist only in our minds.
The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.
Thay taught that the existence of each thing is interconnected with every other thing. Using the toilet can be as sacred as lighting incense, as long as the mind is calm and clear. Once we understand the truth of our “interbeing,” we stop discriminating between seeming opposites such as defilement and purity, gain and loss, and life and death. We learn to accept the fullness of our lives with nothing left out. We see that there are peace-loving people in Russia as well as in Ukraine.
My own morning routine includes Qigong and metta practices to connect me with body, breath and loved ones around the world. I like to dedicate the merit of my practice to the benefit of all beings everywhere.
Thay’s verses help me not to take anything for granted. When I drink a glass of water or turn on a faucet, his words jolt me out of conditioned habits:
Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us
And sustains all life.
Only when I’m mindful do I appreciate that over 70% of my body consists of water. Thay’s verse about handwashing (or dishwashing) reminds me that without water, plants and animals die, and people cannot grow and harvest enough food to survive:
Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
To preserve our precious planet.
Thubten agrees with Thay that an essential part of daily dharma practice is to be mindful of how we interact with the natural environment. In our interdependent world, when we pollute our environment, we harm ourselves and other living beings. Our intention to be kind includes recycling paper, cans, plastic, and glass and being mindful of how much water and electricity we use. Thubten imagines that if the Buddha were alive today, he would establish vows to recycle resources.
When she hears complaints that there’s not enough time in the day to meditate, Thubten replies that we have time to shop, cook, eat, converse, work, exercise, read, and watch TV. Once we recognize that we need nourishment spiritually as well as physically and mentally, daily meditation practice becomes a priority. Many people prefer early morning sits before engaging in daily interactions. For me, it works best to meditate each evening after the busyness of the day. Our dog Amanda has learned to lie down quietly, while Mark and I sit together in silence. As I pause and tune in to the natural rhythm of the breath, discursive thoughts and worries subside.
Thubten suggests that we incorporate dharma practice into our daily work routines by using a frequent event as a trigger to recall our intention. For example, each time I respond to an e-mail or text message, I can remember, “I want to treat others kindly.” With this motivation, I’m less likely to space out, perform tasks on automatic pilot or relate to others in reactive ways.
On a daily basis, it helps to be aware of ethical values so that we can live according to them. In Thubten’s words, “If we are mindful, … we might notice that we are upset, irritated [or] angry…. [If so,] we can come back to the breath and our kind heart, instead of [spreading] our negative energy in the world.”
In conflicts, we can consider that our adversaries want to be happy, and that when they are not, they may act unskillfully. This kind of reflection helps us be compassionate with people whose behavior annoys us.
Mealtimes are opportunities to incorporate dharma practice. Before each meal, Mark and I recite a prayer, “We venerate the three treasures. We give thanks for this food, the work of many people, and the offering of other forms of life. May this food nourish us in body, mind, and spirit. And may all beings be healthy, happy, and free from suffering.” When I am aware of the many labors of growing, harvesting, transporting and preparing food, I eat more mindfully and gratefully.
Thubten’s Tibetan Buddhist practice is to offer her meals to the Buddha. She imagines the food to be a delicious nectar that increases bliss and wisdom. Then she visualizes a small Buddha made of light in her heart. As she eats, she offers this nectar to the Buddha, who radiates light that fills her up. Her eating is slow and relaxed and dignified.
Just before bedtime, Thubten reviews the day, sitting quietly to reflect about what happened. She asks herself, “What went well? Did I act with a kind heart?” She recalls instances when she acted compassionately and rejoices, dedicating the merit to herself and others. And she recalls moments when her attitude, speech or actions may have reflected anger, jealousy or greed. Thubten acknowledges regret, forgives herself, and releases negative energy.
In this way, she purifies herself emotionally and resolves uncomfortable feelings or misdirected actions that occurred during the day. She sleeps peacefully, imagining that the Buddha is sitting on her pillow and that she is laying her head in his lap. From dawn to dusk, the dharma can become part of our life in an organic way. Thubten concludes, “By transforming our attitude in the midst of daily activities, our life becomes very meaningful.”