I’ve been reflecting on how to summarize what I learned from the 21-Day retreat — there were so many themes in the dharma talks, so many little “aha” moments, and so many precious encounters outside of the talks. Now, ten days later, three lessons especially come to mind.
1. Don’t think so much.
The heart of mindfulness practice is developing our capacity for direct experience, especially of sensations, feelings, emotions, mind states, and phenomena. Of course, logical and associative thinking has a place in life. However, most of us are out of balance, spending almost all of each day with our thoughts, or the thoughts of others, running through our heads.
Years ago, at the beginning of a 21-Day retreat, Sr. Jina said to a group of us: “When I sit in a Dharma talk with Thich Nhat Hanh, I don’t say to myself, “Do I know this?” I say, “Do I do this?”
I have been attending retreats at Plum Village since 1991. This year I am aware of how much more at ease I am with myself than when I first came, how much more settled I am in my life and in my practice of mindfulness. But still . . . .
The retreat has helped me see places and ways I could be more present.
There is a phrase Thich Nhat Hanh used several times in the retreat that stays in my mind: “Lean on store.” Store, or “store consciousness,” is our individual and collective subconscious that holds and preserves the energies of the world. In store, the world is just as it is, without dualistic notions, such as being and non-being, life and death, sameness and otherness, that constrain our understanding and bring doubt and fear into our lives.
“Lean on store” is for me a reminder to just be with my breath, my steps, and the full experience of this moment.
2. The corn seed and corn plant and not the same, and they are not different.
Among the participants in the 21-day retreat were corn seeds that the sisters and brothers had planted several weeks before the retreat. Often they sat in little pots on the podium next to Thich Nhat Hanh. From time to time, Thich Nhat Hanh would have a conversation with them: “Dear little corn plant, do you remember when you were a seed? Are you the same as that seed? Are you different from that seed?”
Then he would answer: “You are both the same and different. You are the continuation of the seed. You are the seed in new form.”
And then he would extend the insight, “It is the same with the parent and the child. With Jesus and his followers, with the cloud and the rain.” They are all the same and different.
Toward the end of the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh offered a short answer to the question “What happens when we die?
“We don’t die!”
If we can see the corn seed in the corn plant, then we can see our continuations in other forms. It is an insight that releases us from many fears and forms of sufferings. Rather than thinking in terms of being and non-being, birth and death, it helps if we use phrases such as manifestation and continuation to remind ourselves of the corn seed and the corn plant.
3. The insight of emptiness is a bridge.
The tradition of mindfulness practice teaches that there are two dimensions or ways of looking at the world.
- In the conventional dimension things exist separately and we make sense of the world through naming the separate entities and using dualistic language, such as being and non-being. It is the perspective of the waves that explain their existence in terms of birth and death, same and other. Everything is outside of other things. The conventional world includes the Dharmadhatu, all the phenomena of the world: mental, physical, and physiological. It includes all of God’s creations.
- In the ultimate dimension everything exist in dependence on everything else. Trees, clouds, humans, and everything else arises from conditions. They are empty of separate selves. It is the waves seen from the perspective of the constantly changing water. In Buddhist language it is the world of suchness, “reality just as it is.” In Western religious terms, it is the realm of God.
Ease, fearlessness, and release from suffering grow in us when we can begin, bit by bit, to experience our lives in terms of the ultimate dimension. During the 21-Day Retreat Thich Nhat Hanh taught several times that a wonderful way of bringing the ultimate into our lives is through the insight of “emptiness” or “interbeing” — throughout each day, to remind ourselves not to be caught by the forms of things. The corn plant is not separate from the corn seed, and also not separate from the water, the sun, and the soil. The child is not separate from the father, the mother, the ancestors, and his or her environment. The mud is not separate from the lotus. Your suffering and happiness are not separate from my suffering and happiness.