Building a sangha is like planting a sunflower. We need to be aware of which conditions will support the flower’s growth and which conditions will obstruct its growth. We need healthy seeds, skilled gardeners, and plenty of sunshine and room to grow. When we engage in sangha building, the most important thing to remember is that we are doing it together. The more we embrace the sangha, the more we can let go of the feeling of a separate self. We can relax into the collective wisdom and insights of the sangha. We can see clearly that the sangha eyes and hands and heart are greater than those of any individual member of the sangha.
By participating in sangha activities and contributing our energy and insights, we have the opportunity to help build our sangha in every moment. To sustain our own practice when we leave the practice center, we need to be active in establishing connections with those around us by sharing our practice as well as seeking the support and guidance of our fellow practitioners. Thich Nhat Hanh (Thầy) instructs us to be energetic in the practice of mindfulness. The past is finished and the future is uncertain; only in the present can we discover the miracle of life. Living in this spirit, we are already valuable members of our sangha. We will know how to engage in the continuous process of building a refuge for many beings.
Thay encourages us all to be sangha builders, following in the footsteps of the Buddha, who was a great sangha builder. When we are able to live and practice in harmony in a small community, we can then share this harmony with the larger sangha, our family and friends, our co-workers, and our co-practitioners. When there is joy in the practice of sangha building, then we know that we doing it correctly.
Everyone who comes to practice is a member of the sangha. Our presence and our practice can contribute to the vitality and harmony of the sangha.
In society, much of our suffering comes from feeling disconnected from one another. We often don’t feel a real connection even with people we live close to, such as our neighbors, our co-workers and even our family members. Each person lives separately, cut off from the support of the community. Being with the Sangha can heal these feelings of isolation and separation.
Thay often says that the sangha is a garden, full of many varieties of trees and flowers. When we can look at ourselves and at others as beautiful, unique flowers and trees we can truly grow to understand and love one another. One flower may bloom early in the spring and another flower may bloom in late summer. One tree may bear many fruits and another tree may offer cool shade. No one plant is greater, or lesser, or the same as any other plant in the garden. Each member of the sangha also has unique gifts to offer to the community. We each have areas that need attention as well. When we can appreciate each member’s contribution and see our weaknesses as potential for growth we can learn to live together harmoniously. Our practice is to see that we are a flower or a tree, and we are the whole garden as well, all interconnected.
Our breathing is a stable solid ground that we can take refuge in. Regardless of our internal weather- our thoughts, emotions and perceptions- our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, or sunken in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and projects, we return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.
We feel the flow of air coming in and going out of our nose. We feel how light and natural, how calm and peaceful our breathing functions. At any time, while we are walking, gardening, or typing, we can return to this peaceful source of life.
We may like to recite:
“Breathing in I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out I know that I am breathing out.”
We do not need to control our breath. Feel the breath as it actually is. It may be long or short, deep or shallow. With our awareness it will naturally become slower and deeper. Conscious breathing is the key to uniting body and mind and bringing the energy of mindfulness into each moment of our life.
Sitting meditation is like returning home to give full attention to and care for our self. Like the peaceful image of the Buddha on the altar, we too can radiate peace and stability. We sit upright with dignity, and return to our breathing. We bring our full attention to what is within and around us. We let our mind become spacious and our heart soft and kind.
Sitting meditation is very healing. We realize we can just be with whatever is within us- our pain, anger, and irritation, or our joy, love, and peace. We are with whatever is there without being carried away by it. Let it come, let it stay, then let it go. No need to push, to oppress, or to pretend our thoughts are not there. Observe the thoughts and images of our mind with an accepting and loving eye. We are free to be still and calm despite the storms that might arise in us.
If our legs or feet fall asleep or begin to hurt during the sitting, we are free to adjust our position quietly. We can maintain our concentration by following our breathing and slowly, and attentively change our posture.
We should arrive five minutes before the meditation period starts so that everyone is comfortably seated before the bell is invited to formally begin the session.
Listening to a Dharma Teaching
Please listen to the talks with an open mind and a receptive heart. If we listen only with our intellect, comparing and judging what is said to what we already think we know or what we have heard others say, we may miss the chance to truly receive the message that is being transmitted.
The Dharma is like rain. Let it penetrate deeply into our consciousness, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already there. Absorb the talk openly, like the earth receiving a refreshing spring rain. The talk might be just the condition our tree needs to flower and bear the fruits of understanding and love.
Dharma sharing is an opportunity to benefit from each other’s insights and experience of the practice. It is a special time for us to share our experiences, our joys, our difficulties and our questions relating to the practice of mindfulness. By practicing deep listening while others are speaking, we help create a calm and receptive environment. By learning to speak out about our happiness and our difficulties in the practice, we contribute to the collective insight and understanding of the Sangha.
Please base our sharing on our own experience of the practice rather than about abstract ideas and theoretical topics. We may realize that many of us share similar difficulties and aspirations. Sitting, listening and sharing together, we recognize our true connections to one another.
Please remember that whatever is shared during the Dharma discussion time is confidential. If a friend shares about a difficulty he or she is facing, respect that he or she may or may not wish to talk about this individually outside of the Dharma discussion time.
When we recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings or chant the sutras, we practice taking refuge in the three jewels. We practice Touching the Earth to also show our gratitude to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Taking refuge is the recognition and the determination to head towards what is most beautiful, truthful, and good. Taking refuge is also the awareness that one has the capacity to understand and love.
To Bow or Not to Bow
Thay has often said to his students, “To bow or not to bow is not the question. The important thing is to be mindful.” When we greet someone with a bow, we have the chance to be present with that person and with the nature of awake-ness, of Buddhahood within us and within the other person. We do not bow just to be polite or diplomatic, but to recognize the miracle of being alive.
Touching the Earth
The practice of Touching the Earth is to return to the Earth, to our roots, to our ancestors, and to recognize that we are not alone but connected to a whole stream of spiritual and blood ancestors. We are their continuation and with them, will continue into the future generations. We touch the earth to let go of the idea that we are separate and to remind us that we are the Earth and part of Life.
When we touch the Earth we become small, with the humility and simplicity of a young child. When we touch the Earth we become great, like an ancient tree sending her roots deep into the earth, drinking from the source of all waters. When we touch the Earth, we breathe in all the strength and stability of the Earth, and breathe out our suffering- our feelings of anger, hatred, fear, inadequacy and grief.
Our hands join to form a lotus bud and we gently lower ourselves to the ground so that all four limbs and our forehead are resting comfortably on the floor. While we are Touching the Earth we turn our palms face up, showing our openness to the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. After one or two times practicing Touching the Earth (Three Touchings or Five Touchings), we can already release a lot of our suffering and feeling of alienation and reconcile with our ancestors, parents, children, or friends.
Be Mindful in Daily Life
Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present and at one with those around you and with what you are doing. We bring our body and mind into harmony while we wash the dishes, drive the car or take our morning shower. We learn to do activities with mindfulness, with an awareness that we are doing it.
In practicing together as a Sangha, as a community, our practice of mindfulness becomes more joyful, relaxed and steady. We are bells of mindfulness for each other, supporting and reminding each other along the path of practice. With the support of the community, we can practice to cultivate peace and joy within and around us, as a gift for all of those whom we love and care for. We can cultivate our solidity and freedom – solid in our deepest aspiration and free from our fears, misunderstandings and our suffering.
Knowing when to rest is a deep practice. Sometimes, we try too hard in our practice or we work too much without mindfulness; thus we become tired very easily. The practice of mindfulness should not be tiring but rather, it should be energizing. But when we recognize that we are tired, we should find every means possible to rest. Ask for help from the Sangha. Practicing with a tired body and mind does not help; it can cause more problems. To take care of yourself is to take care of the whole Sangha. Resting may mean to stop what you are doing and take a five-minute walk outside, or to go on a fast for a day or two, or it may mean to practice Noble Silence for a period. There are many ways for us to rest, so please pay attention to the rhythm of our body and mind for the benefit of all. Total Relaxation is a practice of resting. Mindful breathing whether in the sitting or in the lying position is the practice of resting. Let us learn the art of resting and allow our body and our mind to restore themselves. Not thinking and not doing anything is an art of resting and healing.
Gathas are short verses that help us practice mindfulness in our daily activities. A gatha can open and deepen our experience of simple acts which we often take for granted. When we focus our mind on a gatha, we return to ourselves and become more aware of each action. When the gatha ends, we continue our activity with heightened awareness.
As we turn on the water faucet we can look deeply and see how precious the water is. We remember not to waste a single drop because there are so many people in the world who don’t even have enough to drink. While brushing our teeth we can make a vow to use loving speech. Before turning on the engine of our car, we can prepare for a safe journey by reciting the gatha for starting the car:
Before starting the car
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one,
if the car goes fast, I go fast.
The gatha brings our mind and body together. With a calm and clear mind, fully aware of the activities of our body, we are less likely to get into a car accident. Gathas are nourishment for our mind, giving us peace, calmness and joy which we can share with others. They help us to bring the uninterrupted practice of meditation into every part of our day. There are many gathas available in the Chanting Book.
Taking Care of Anger
Thay often compares our anger to a small child, crying out to his mother. When the child cries the mother takes him gently in her arms and listens and observes carefully to find out what is wrong. The loving action of holding her child with her tenderness, already soothes the baby’s suffering. Likewise, we can take our anger in our loving arms and right away we will feel a relief. We don’t need to reject our anger. It is a part of us that needs our love and deep listening just as a baby does.
After the baby has calmed down, the mother can feel if the baby has a fever or needs a change of diaper. When we feel calm and cool, we too can look deeply at our anger and see clearly the conditions allowing our anger to rise.
When we feel angry it is best to refrain from saying or doing anything. We may like to withdraw our attention from the person or situation, which is watering the seed of anger in us. We should take this time to come back to ourselves. We can practice conscious breathing and outdoor walking meditation to calm and refresh our mind and body. After we feel calmer and more relaxed we can begin to look deeply at ourselves and at the person and situation causing anger to arise in us. Often, when we have a difficulty with a particular person, he or she may have a characteristic that reflects a weakness of our own which is difficult to accept. As we grow to love and accept ourselves this will naturally spread to those around us.
These mindfulness teachings are from the Blue Cliff Monastery website. You can find even more information on practices such as waking up and eating if you visit their website, or any of the websites of Thich Nhat Hanh’s monasteries.