Monday, June 25, 2012

Nourishing Concentration (Right Concentration)

Nourishing Concentration (Right Concentration) is about cultivating the ability to focus your mind.  According to Thich Nhat Hanh, there are two types of concentration.
  1. Active Concentration
  2. Selective Concentration
In the practice of active concentration, the purpose is to cultivate the ability to focus on the now.  Staying present, you focus on what is happening as it happens and then release it as it fades away.  TNH uses buddhist poetry to show this.  One describes how a lake reflects the sky, showing an image of a bird that flies by, and then how it again reflects only the sky.  The lake is an example of excellent Nourishing Active Concentration.

Nourishing Effort (Right Diligence)

Nourishing Effort (Right Diligence) is all about quality and intent.  The focus for this leg of the Eightfold path is on making sure that your efforts are both coming from the right intention and being efficiently enacted.  So one cannot reach enlightenment by simply chanting a mantra the correct number of times.  Our efforts cannot be based on equations or on rote actions we are using to perform spirituality.  We must be deeply engaged in the path we are walking and using our time and attention with consideration.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains that Nourishing Effort is effort that is initiated with interest and joy.  "If your practice does not bring you joy, you are not practicing correctly."  Practices that cause pain to your physical body are also not Nourishing Effort.  The person who diligently and intently meditates but is focused on the action itself instead of its purpose is not on the path towards enlightenment.  She is just sitting quietly on a rock.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nourishing Work (Right Livelihood)

"To practice RIght Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion."  This is how Thich Nhat Hanh starts off this section of his book.  The act of working towards Nourishing Work (Right Livelihood) involves avoiding jobs that support the suffering of people, animals, plants, or the earth.  There are many jobs that contribute to suffering and according to TNH, if you are in a job that contributes to suffeirng in the world, the work you do will have an impact on your meditations and your work to follow the Eightfold path.

However, he is very clear about understanding the challenges that we can face in balancing our spiritual path and the economic realities of our lives.  He says that in times when jobs are scarce, we can be forced to take or stay in jobs that contribute to suffering.  But we must strive to move towards work that is truly nourishing and supportive of our beliefs.  He gives several examples and I will share two that I feel are particularly helpful.

Nourishing Action (Right Action)

Nourishing Action (Right Action) is about the actions we take with our bodies.  It speaks to the way we stay mindful, cultivate love, prevent harm, and practice nonviolence on ourselves and others.  TNH connects Nourishing Action to four of The Five Mindfulness Trainings.  These trainings were written by TNH himself and reflect some of his direct teachings.  When looking online, I discovered a great deal of dialogue around the different versions of these, as people took them as templates and worked them around Buddhist traditions that reflected their own beliefs.  So I present them here with my own notes about how I would want to change or adjust them for the person I am right now.  I am sure that over time these could easily be adjusted to fit new habits, pattens, and beliefs.
Note: The fourth of the trainings is relevant to the section on Nourishing Speech.

Nourishing Speech (Right Speech)

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.  Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speack truthfully, with words that inspire self-conf idence, joy, and hope.  I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure.  I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break.  I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conf licts, however small."

This is the fourth Mindfulness Training, written by Thich Nhat Hahn, and reflects rather succinctly the basis for Nourishing Speech (Right Speech).  The rest of the Mindfulness Trainings are listed in the section on Nourishing Action.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Nourishing Thinking (Right Thinking)

"Thinking is the speech of our mind."  Nourishing Thinking (Right Thinking) stems from Nourishing Understanding and in turn supports our maintenance of Nourishing Understanding.  Much of our thinking is unnecessary, often tied to reliving events of the past or experiencing anxiety about the future.  Much of our thinking is worthless chatter, like a running monologue of commentary and connections that keep us from being in the moment.  Practicing Nourishing Mindfulness can help us to gain control over the run-away train that is our mind. 

According to TNH, thinking comes in two parts.  The first part, vitarka, is the initial thought.  This is followed by the vichara, or developing thought.  So the vitarka may be, "I have a job interview tomorrow," and then the vichara would be all the thoughts about what you will wear, what you plan to say, how prepared you are, and so on.  I find this distinction helpful, as it may lead to being able to recognize in meditation that even when I can't control the vitarka, I can gain some control and reign in the subsequent vichara.

Nourishing Understanding (Right View)

Nourishing Understanding (or Right View) is, more than anything, about having a strong understanding of the Four Noble Truths.  The Buddha said that knowing that there are those who have found a way out of their suffering is one of the core pieces of Right View.

TNH also talks about recognizing the seeds within us and knowing which ones to water.  We need to be aware of how we respond to others, to see and understand our patterns of attraction and judgment in relationships.  If you see someone who reminds you of your beloved mother, you react with love.  If you see someone who reminds you of the father you have painful memories of, you react with hesitation, fear, and perhaps even hostility.  To recognize the seeds of recognition inside of us gives us the correct vision to discern which seeds to water and which to work through, to investigate the cause of our suffering, and to find the path towards healing.  This too is Nourishing Understanding.

Lessons from The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings

The challenge with a book like The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh is that, unlike some of the other books I am reading, this book is basically an introductory educational course on Buddhism from the perspective of this specific famous Zen Buddhist.  As an introductory book, it's exactly what I need to be reading right now.  But in my position to be blogging about the insights I am gaining from this book, there is a feeling that the posts I am writing as I read this book will feel too much like a lecture.  Even more concerning is that the posts might end up with me lecturing on subjects I am still learning about, which leaves me with very little authority with which to back up my statements.  So, I have decided to share with you the condensed and edited notes I am taking from these books, almost like notes from a class you were absent for.  I am hoping that in this guise, these blog posts will be useful to us both.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Summer Solstice, the Apex of Light

Happy Solstice!!

Let's start off with a little science lesson.  June 20th was the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.  Here in Northern California, on this day the sun rose at 5:48am and set at 8:35pm, for an impressive 15 hrs 47 mins of sunlight.  This is compared to the shortest day of the year, which will be this coming December 21st, when there will only be 10 hrs 33 mins of sunlight here in the Bay Area.  This difference in the amount of light we get as the days either move towards or away from the summer solstice is all a result of the tilted axes on which our planet revolves.

Monday, June 11, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about mindfulness.  This subject comes up a lot in the Dharma talks in "Going Home", though I imagine that mindfulness will be a prevalent subject throughout my Buddhist reading.  Based on the way Thich Nhat Hanh explains it, I understand mindfulness to be about bringing your full attention and awareness to a specific thing, often to the presence of something in the actual moment.  It's about being able to focus on the details of the present moment and to stay with these thoughts instead of sliding into memories from the past or projections of the future.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Summer Reading

I am spending my summer reading books on Buddhism and Islam in hopes that I can gain a general introduction to these two religious traditions. The books on Buddhism include three by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk who practices Zen Buddhism.  He is a talented and prolific writer who is well known for speaking clearly about Buddhism to a western audience and finding ways to show the ties between Buddhism and Christianity.  I am reading "The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings", "Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers" and "Living Buddha, Living Christ".

Friday, June 1, 2012

Living in the Now

Today is June 4th and I am putting on socks because my feet are cold.  It's summer in Berkeley and while the sun is shining and the birds are singing, there have been strong winds today and the temp has dropped to the high 50's this evening.

This might not seem like a big deal to you, but after living in New York for the first time last year, the idea of being cold enough to put on extra clothes in June is almost ludicrous.  Not twelve months ago I remember being hotter than I have ever been, surviving the humidity of a New York summer living pressed up against my air conditioning unit. This fat girl from California was simply not built for humidity and New York City let me know it.