How a Zen Master washes his hands

A Buddhist monk once told a group of us a story about his teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, which often makes me a good deal happier when I wash my hands. At the time we were talking about Gathas, the practice verses that are used in Zen to help us to remain in the present moment. There is a verse for just about everything – waking up in the morning, doing the washing up, sweeping the floor, even driving a car:

Before starting the car
I know where I’m going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.

Reciting these short verses as we do each action brings us back to the present moment.

The gatha for turning on a tap goes like this:

Water comes from high mountain sources.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life.
My gratitude is filled to the brim.

The story the monk told us goes like this. A group of monastics were on a teaching tour of South-East Asia with Thich Nhat Hanh, when they stopped at a service station by the roadside, somewhere in Malaysia. At the time, roadside washrooms in Malaysia were not always as clean as those in their monastery in France, and the monk told us how he went to the bathroom, which was  a little dirty, then went to a rather grimy outside basin where a makeshift tap poured out rather dubious water. The whole experience made him wince a little.

He saw his Zen Master teacher going to the lavatory after him, and worried that he wasn’t going to enjoy the experience either. So he was immensely surprised to see that when Thich Nhat Hanh came to wash his hands at the grimy sink, as he turned on the tap and the water flowed out, he smiled, a big happy smile.

‘Then I knew what was happening,’ the monk told us, ‘he was smiling because he was reciting the gatha for turning on the tap!’

Water comes from high mountain sources. Water runs deep in the Earth. Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life. My gratitude is filled to the brim… When you feel this deeply, believe it with your whole body, and have recited this verse all your life every time you turn on a tap, how can you not smile, no matter where you are washing your hands? It is miraculous!

The monk understood that this was a great lesson in the power of using gathas to increase happiness. Now I smile whenever I remember this story when I’m washing my hands.

More on Gathas:

Book: See Present Moment, Wonderful Moment for 49 Gathas with commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh

From this blog: Nothing is lackingWaking up

A 9 year-old’s secret to happiness

Here’s a conversation I just had with my 9 year-old son, sitting in a café out in a village 30km from Madrid.

Dad: I’m writing a book about happiness, what do you think I should right about?
Son: I don’t know.
– Well, what do you think the secret to happiness is? What makes you most happy?
– Playing basketball!
– And why does that make you so happy?
– I love it!
– OK, what else can you tell me about it?
– It’s a nice sport. It makes me feel like I’m the king of the world! Like I’m the person who’s having the most fun in the whole city!

And here we are, us adults, writing books about happiness and trying to analyse it all, and all we have to do is to find the thing that makes us feel like we are the king or queen of the world, like the person who’s having the most fun in the whole city!

Someone sent me an email recently with a great quote in the footer:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

Exploring new streets and landscapes makes me come alive. Crossing the back roads of this extraordinary country makes me come alive. Riding my bike makes me come alive – in fact it makes me feel like I’m 9 again, like my son, and that’s probably the secret to it all.

What makes you come alive and feel like you’re a 9 year old who’s having the most fun in the whole city?

Smile: Enlightenment for the everyday man/woman

I’ve taken to writing the word ‘Smile’ on the back of my hand for the last few days. It’s a reminder that that is just about the best I can do for a calm happy life.

Getting up earlier, at 6 a.m., to start a new regular meditation practice… didn’t work. I just felt grumpy and exhausted when it was time to get the kids to bed in the evening. Trying to meditate after lunch when the house was quiet… didn’t work, I just fell asleep every time.

Filled with despair at the realisation that I’d never reach high level meditative states of mental calm by sitting still and breathing, I saw that to give up, to say people with jobs or families can’t live deep, happy, inner-peaceful existences, was silly. No one would deny us that!

I remembered that the Plum Village tradition I’ve been following for years had given me all the answers to this problem. I walk, don’t I? I eat. I turn on the tap. I get up in the morning. I talk to people. Drink tea. All of these are doorways, opportunities for mindfulness, for peace, happiness.

And easier than even all of that, the simplest thing, the easiest practice I have on hand at every moment, is to smile. If I deliberately put on a grumpy face all day, I’ll probably end up grumpy. If I take time to smile as often as possible, I end up happier.

And it’s an antidote to everything. Feeling tired? Smile to my tiredness and already it feels better. Angry? Smile to my anger and, well, it’s a start in the right direction! Smile to my fears, and they smile back and wander away.

So, with the realization that as a busy working dad I’m not going to become enlightened by sitting on a meditation cushion for ten hours a day, and that I’ll probably forget to be mindful when turning on a tap, ‘Smile’ has become my lowest common denominator.

Smile to life, smile to my wife, smile to people on the street, smile when I see smile written on the back of my hand. Smile when I’m interrupted writing this blog post. Smile to the bamboo leaves in the sun in front of this garden table, smile to the birds singing in the trees, and the whir of the construction crane from the house they are building down the road. Smile to my grumpiness at night, smile to my kids, smile to the ants, smile to the sky, smile to the wispy cloud passing overhead. Smile because I’ve just written all of this.

Which direction to take in life

I just read a comment on a blog post saying that the book Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh had literally saved someone’s life. I think I could say the same about that book. I discovered it about 12 years ago in the comments of another blog post, and it opened the doors to mindfulness, Dharma, Buddhism – not religion, just a new way of life.

Actually I’d studied Buddhist philosophy as part of my philosophy degree at university, and seen many Buddhist temples in Thailand and other corners of South East Asia in a pre-university gap year, so perhaps I was bound to encounter it again at some point.

But the book Peace is Every Step showed me a calm, present, beautiful way to live, without running, without chasing after things. For many years I attended retreats with Thich Nhat Hann, and then, after my second child was born a couple of years ago, life became very busy on the home-front, and mindfulness and Dharma faded into the background.

Now they are very alive in me again. Now it feels like they can save me again from the running-round-in-circles of my tirelessly over-excitable mind. They can gently sooth my busy, exhausting thoughts.

Our mind can create incredible things, but it can also drive us insane, can drain us of all our energy with our recurrent, obsessive thinking.

Or we can learn to understand it and calm it, and to live very happily in the present moment. For me, living happily, ‘Being happiness’, means being peace – living with inner calm, and I know that mindfulness, meditation, even just knowing enough to watch and smile at my mind, can take me there. It’s not about becoming slow, or dull – great energy, fun and creativity will arise from all this, but without the over-excited ups and corresponding crashing downs.

Many years ago I saw that there were two paths in life, one, which attracted me enormously for a while, involving lots of business work with the goal of making a huge amount of money (and thus being ‘successful’ in our Western sense), and another which led to peace and happiness, which would be a great success in another sense. Still I am pulled about like a ship in a storm by ideas from our Western system of values that ask me ‘What are you going to do with your life next?’, often tormenting me from morning to night with the inner voice that spurs me on to ‘do something else, do something more, do do do!!!’ until I feel exhausted and bereft.

But then I remember the other direction, that says these ideas can be calmed, can be released, that the tormenting, exhausting and recurrent ideas are just what I call ‘mind-made problems’, and when we come to understand and calm our mind, they evaporate in the breeze.

I have been listening to the first few of a series of talks and meditations by B Allan Wallace, from an 8 week retreat on Shamatha (calming the mind) and Loving Kindness. A friend recommended the meditation in Audio 3 (that starts at 8m31) as a great way to clarify again what I wanted from life, and he was right – highly recommended. In another of the audios, Allan Wallace asks if we are sure what direction we want to take in life.

In one direction I see the endless push and pull of certain western values that torture me when I give them free reign – ‘what next, what next, what next?’ And in the other direction I see practices and a simple way of life that take all these torturous questions and dissolve them into peace. This is the direction of inner peace, of loving kindness, of a calm mind. Which direction do I want to take? The second, without a moment of doubt.

Then I think happiness will not be something that we can chase after, or manufacture, or pay for. Real happiness is true, abiding inner calm. It’s a path with many steps – much to let go of, many distractions to remove, new ways of simpler living and new practices to embrace. But if the direction is clear, then all will be well.

To live happily in the present moment, with a calm mind, filled with loving kindness. Filled with creative energy and life. That’s the direction I choose.


A further recommendation: The film, Walk with me. Captures the essence of all this perfectly. Available in all the usual video on demand places.

“The past is no longer there, the future is not yet there, there is only the present moment…”


This morning, Casa de Campo. The warm smell of dried grasses, the sound of crickets, the gentle morning breeze.

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What I learned from the Zen Master

This is a list of the things I learned from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in about 10 years of reading his books, going on his retreats, and being an interpreter for Spanish listeners at his talks.

What I learned from the Zen Master.

The world is beautiful
You are beautiful
You don’t have to be anything else
Everything is as it should be
You don’t need to run any more
There’s nothing to do
Just live happily in the present moment
This is it!
You are already in paradise
You can be calm and relaxed
Just smile
Let go
Be solid, calm, fresh, free
Smile
Don’t let difficult emotions overpower you, just breathe
Walk and enjoy the world

A Fantastic Book – A Gentleman in Moscow

Dear Amor Towles,

Thank you for your wonderful book, A Gentleman in Moscow. For years I’ve been reading non-fiction, mostly spiritual and biographies, and have just returned to novels. But I’m very clear that I only want to read novels that make me feel good – parenting young children I want to be uplifted and nourished by what I read!

Well, having immensely enjoyed the company of the Count in the Metropol, the evening that I finished the book I lay in bed waiting for sleep, and suddenly was struck by the realisation that one of the things I most enjoy in life is getting up in the morning and waking my family and preparing them breakfast, packed lunches etc. A task I’d occasionally complain about in the past.

Somehow the reading of your book changed the way I saw a mundane daily task, and turned it into something glorious. No idea what did it, perhaps the novel just made me feel better about existence. Or about being nice and looking after the small but important things in life.

All this has reminded me why it’s worth writing, or creating, too – art improves life!

Thank you.

Ben

Eating My Lunch

Eating my lunch too fast, I realised that I was missing all its deliciousness, so I slowed down and began to enjoy it enormously, and realised that life is just like this. Why rush through missing its goodness?


I’ve spent 10 years quite immersed in Buddhist texts, and books from other traditions, and though I now read much less from these books, this verse continually surfaces as my favourite. From the Buddhist text ‘The Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone’:

“Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.
We must be diligent today.
To wait till tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.
How can we bargain with it?
The sage calls a person who dwells in mindfulness night and day, ‘the one who knows the better way to [live].’”

Translation from the wonderful book/commentary ‘Our Appointment with Life‘ by Thich Nhat Hanh.

To ‘dwell in stability and freedom’, in peace, means to live free from all the things in our mind that keep us from enjoying life right now. This is wonderfully explained in this passage, also from the same book:

“I want to tell you that there is a wonderful way to [live]. It is the way of deep observation to see that the past no longer exists and the future has not yet come … to dwell at ease in the present moment, free from desire. When a person lives in this way, he has no hesitation in his heart. He gives up all anxieties and regrets, lets go of all binding desires, and cuts the fetters which prevent him from being free. There is no more wonderful way of [living] than this…

In observing life deeply,
It is possible to see clearly all that is,
Note enslaved by anything,
It is possible to put aside all craving.
The result is a life of peace and joy.”


So, to live in the present… free from exhausting desires… with no anxieties and regrets… not enslaved by anything…

What enslaves me? Everyone can answer that question for themselves and work out how to free themselves. Perhaps many things!

Why rush through life, enslaved by anything, missing all its goodness?

Walk! Take pictures!

image

Today my body gave me very clear early morning instructions after dropping my son at school: keep walking! So I did.  Two hours in glorious minus two Celsius frosty parkland and city streets. Accompanied by further instructions from the heart: Take pictures!

It’s what I used to do all the time when I first arrived in Madrid (the big difference being that then I used a big Canon SLR and waited days to see the results, but now take, edit and post the photos from my phone!)

The best thing to read now would be Go Outside.

image

Not quite the Seine, but Madrid’s river Manzanares is lovely in its own way.

How to Relax?

I’ve been writing for a few years now about inner peace, happiness and so on and I always love to read your reflections on what I’ve written. For this post, I’d love to hear from you in the comments the answer to two questions. How do you relax? What can give you instant peace? It’s such a personal thing after all!

I remember picking up a book called ‘How to Relax’ in a bookshop once and after reading a few pages of techniques that I’d read a thousand times and didn’t completely suit me, I started to feel slightly stressed! That’s when I realised that how to relax is such an incredibly personal thing, and that we each have to answer that question for ourselves.

In a similar vein, I read an article by a buddhist Zen Master once about the buddhist text ‘The Discourse on Happiness’, where the Buddha answers a question put to him about how to be happy with a series of practical suggestions. The Zen Master in question said we should each write our own Discourse on Happiness with what works for us, and went on to say that one thing that gave him great happiness was to have time to sit on the lavatory without having to be in a hurry to finish up and rush to the next thing to do!

How do I relax? Walking in the countryside. Reading a great book. Lighting a fire in the fireplace. Playing the guitar for fun as opposed to playing the guitar ‘to get good as fast as possible’! Cooking. All of these things, if, and only if, I do them without being in any hurry at all – like the Zen Master on the loo!

What can give me instant peace? This weekend I was up in the mountains with family and friends. On Sunday evening I was packing up the car, in a rush, so we could get back down to Madrid before it got too late. I realised I was in a rush, but couldn’t seem to stop until suddenly I heard the very gentle, slight, tinkling in the breeze of a small set of wind chimes hanging over the balcony of a little wooden house behind me.

The delicacy of the sound stopped me at once and brought back all of the wonder of my surroundings. Naked oaks, the chilling wind, the mountains rising in the distance at the head of the valley, the darkening sky – everything seemed to stop and come into focus all at once. I felt wonderful, and immensely grateful to the wind chimes for stopping me. The instant peace came from just that – from stopping, and completely connecting with the present moment – it seems that that’s all it takes!

So I’d be very grateful for any feedback in the comments. How do you relax? What can give you instant peace?

Thank you.