Tuesday, 17 April 2012

On retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week I was on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, - and about 800 other people - and what a joyous experience it was! At the prompting of my sister I have started this blog to write about living mindfully, not just when on reteat but in daily life as well, as this is what Thay teaches. Thay is the Vietnamese word meaning teacher, by which Thich Nhat Hanh is known to his students. and I certainly consider myself one of his students!
The retreat was for me a demonstration that living mindfully, moment by moment, is possible, as it is lived by both Thay and the other monastics who accompanied him. Although we all hang onto his every word, and try to mindfully buy his latest book, without showing too much craving, I think the way he lives his life is a practical and palpable example of mindfulness. Just to notice the way he walks across a room is a teaching in itself. He exudes gentleness and happiness in each step, and it is clear he is really alive, awake to each step as it is taken. He is not walking to the stage thinking about what he will say to his audience, he is walking to enjoy the walk!
The simplicity of his teaching should not be dismissed as merely breathing and smiling, because to practice what he is teaching is hard work and requires diligent effort! It's easy to be mindful in that collective atmosphere with hundreds of others, but arriving home, when the family/house/work clamours for attention does take a lot of effort. No wonder he says it is easier to be a monk than to practice as a lay person.

The retreat was an experience of swimming in mindfulness, everywhere you turned someone was walking mindfully, or sitting mindfully, or smiling mindfully, being aware of their breathing and just enjoying being themselves, and this practice has a ripple effect that affects others.
It's hard to write this without sounding like an adoring groupie, as I do love Thay and love what he teaches, but actually, what I love is the effect of being in his presence, and knowing that peacefulness and quietness are possible. He is a very humble person who offers his teaching with a smile of happiness, and only teaches what he knows to be true through practice. He is very charismatic, but he is not seeking to be a leader, first and foremost he is a practitioner.
One of the teachings that stood out for me from the week was about cows! The Buddha was teaching his monastics when a worried farmer appeared saying he had lost his cows and asked if they had seen them. As they hadn't, the Buddha recommended he look in another direction. As the farmer disappeared the Buddha said to his monks, 'we are very fortunate not to have any cows'. In this instance the cows are an analogy for the things we dearly hold onto, not just physical or material possessions but thoughts and ideas as well. In fact, Thay suggests that the hardest cows to get rid of are our ideas, especially the idea of happiness, which
can provide many misperceptions and wrong notions. If we think we need a particular object or item to make us happy we will be miserable until we get it, but actually achieving it also shows the idea is false, as it does not bring lasting happiness. The only true freedom and happiness we can have is when we are free from ideas and perceptions, not bound by them.
Thay suggests we have to identify our cows, in order to release them. So, what are your cows?


  1. Hi Lauri
    Now that I've worked out how to leave comments it's good to be here at that start of your mindful living blog.
    I have an acre of cows both mental & material. One of the material ones is indeed material - I have a so much fabric, mainly for patchwork & craft purposes that is is a great weight on my mind. I think this is because working with fabric is something I very much enjoy doing but I know I have more than enough material to last a long lifetime and my fantasy of leading a creative life doesn't match up with my present reality. There are unwholesome mental formations blocking it as well as time!
    One vow I can make to myself ( and now I've written it here I will feel inclined to stick to it ) is to make a quilt for Project Linus - a charity that donates quilts to sick children. This will in a very small way help me to lead a more sustainable life in using some of this stash of fabric and perhaps having made one quilt i'll make another...

    Wishing you well in releasing some cows

  2. Thanks Janet, for being the first commentee! I think you're right, that in making a public declaration (as it were) it gives strength to the resolve to practice whatever it is we most need. I also think you're right that the things we most love can also become cows, simply because we hold them so close, and then think they are so important. If your house burned down would you be rushing to save your fabric? I think it's better to release cows ourselves rather than having them taken from us in another way! Let's keep looking, to see what else is there :)