A Holy Truth

“The Buddha called suffering a Holy Truth, because our suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation. Embrace your suffering, and let it reveal to you the way to peace.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching


On not coming home a martyr


“I know of families where children, after breakfast, go into that room [the room for mindful breathing he advocates setting up in every home], sit down and breathe for 10 times … in, out, 1, in, out, 2, in, out … and then they go off to school. This is a very beautiful practice. Can you do that? Each morning? If you don’t wish to breathe 10 times, how about 3 times?

[audience laughs]

That’s a beautiful thing to do.  Because, before starting your school day, you invoke the buddha-to-be in yourself. Beginning the day with being a buddha is a very nice way of doing that … So if a parent would like the children to do it, then the parent should do it themselves. Start the day by being a buddha. In that way, we have the chance of not being a martyr at the end of the day.

[audience laughs]

After a day of hard work, we might become a martyr. Therefore, we should be careful to be a buddha in the morning and try to nourish the buddha throughout the day. And how wonderful if you go home with a smile, the buddha is still there. Mummy will be very glad if Daddy comes home as a buddha … “

~ From Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh


Image: Detail from the “Good night” quilt made by Mary Jane Hannaford (1840-1930) featuring a couple with the caption, “Unhappy Honeymoon”. Mary Jane was born in England and arrived in Australia as a two-year old. Though unmarried, “Mary Jane had a daughter, Emily, in 1869 and went on to have nine grandchildren …” She made this quilt when she was 81 for one of her grandchildren, Dudley, when he was 11. She must have been an extraordinary woman to bear and raise a child without being married in the 1870s. Maybe she’s depicting her views of the risks of marriage in this little vignette. The quilt features in an exhibition at NGV Australia.

Possibility of movement

The following is a favourite line from the Landmark Education programs I’ve taken. It comes from the promise of the Introduction Leaders Program and today this is what I’m creating for myself and my life …

“Historically, things around you which have never moved are now moving.”


The moments that require a higher level of rigour in our speaking


There was a man speaking on the radio this morning, a poet and professor of literature, and he was discussing the poems he wrote before and after his wife’s death from ovarian cancer. He said something like the following [my paraphrase],

“I was being interviewed about the book one day and the interviewer said, ‘So the book is the story of your wife’s experience of cancer’ and at first I said ‘yes’ and then later in the interview I felt the need to tell him that what I’d said wasn’t strictly correct. I told him that the book is the story of my experience of my wife’s experience of cancer. It felt important that I correct myself … when it came to writing about my wife and our experience I felt it was absolutely essential that I was honest … of course, I think it’s essential to be honest whenever I’m writing a poem but here there was an extra necessity …”

I was reminded of something a commenter on this blog said several years ago. She was an artist, from Belgium, and she spoke about meeting the man many years ago who would become her husband. She said something like, “When I met him, I knew it was absolutely important I was as honest about myself as possible …”

I think we’ve all had this experience, of recognising that a moment requires – impels – a higher level of rigour in our speaking. It’s curious, don’t you think? The part that intrigues me most is that it cannot be ignored.

What about you? Have you had this experience? What do you see about it?


Image: A Japanese Buddha I saw in NGV Melbourne; lacquer, gold, crystal and Cypress, from the 12th century

Ways of being


A man told me this story last year when we were speculating about ways of being. It’s a gem.

“I can’t even remember her name, but my very first seminar leader was a woman whose lifetime wish was to run a nightclub.

She never actually got this opportunity, but in all of her activities – including leading the seminar – she projected herself into the role.

In fact, her entire life was lived inside this projection – riding on the tram, cooking breakfast for her kids, making calls …

So while we all thought she was running the seminar, she was actually talking to people in the bar, crossing the dance floor, booking tomorrow’s gig, etc etc.

She just wouldn’t allow any situation to be ordinary.

Everything for her occurred inside of the atmosphere of a club.”


Image: Ella Fitzgerald

Taking good care of our fear


“What can I say? I’m more scared about the future now because terrorists are all over the place. I was already afraid, but now that fear has grown worse.” (A Turkish woman speaking on the news this morning, after the attempted coup in Istanbul)

It’s my view that the biggest issue facing human being, especially at present, is fear. Not fear per se, but fear ungotten as fear. Fear ungotten as fear is the state of being used by fear.

To get fear as fear, on the other hand, is to cease being used by fear.

Getting fear has two parts:

  1. recognising that you’re experiencing fear and naming it
  2. summoning the courage to allow yourself to feel it rather than trying to get away from it or covering it up.

Contrary to belief, it won’t kill you to feel it. You’ll survive! In fact, you’ll immediately feel better, because as soon as it’s gotten the fear diminishes. And I see it as the responsibility of each of us to diminish fear, to turn down the temperature, to lower the arousal.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s view on fear or any strong emotion is that we have to take good care of it. We see it there and we treat it with great tenderness, as if it were our baby. We say to it, “I see you there, fear. Don’t you worry, I’m going to take good care of you” and we give it a “warm bath” of mindfulness.

We don’t try to get away from our fear or treat it harshly. We take good care of it and love it with tenderness.


Image: Down by the Yarra, the bush is getting ready to bloom; in two weeks, it’ll be ablaze with colour.

No not getting, no failure


This motto I saw the other day is the simple truth. All the urgings and exhortations on Facebook, LinkedIn and elsewhere about how to make change – to change yourself, your life, the world – occur to me to skip this basic reality. If you really wanted it, you would have it. To say it another way, what you want you get. There’s no not getting, no failure. Whatever your life looks like, it’s because you want it that way. If and when you want something different, you’ll have that instead.


Radio “I love you”


Following on from the series of posts about the non-silence inside us, including Radio NST (Non-Stop Thinking), I came across this email from a woman describing what her internal radio is saying to her. It was part of a project run by ABC Broadcasting in Australia which solicited listeners’ descriptions of their “inner voices” and what they are saying.

If I have to have a radio playing non-stop in my head, please let it be the channel Silvana is tuned to! Here is her email …

For a number of years now, whenever some “shameful” moment comes to my mind, or when I feel silly or do something silly, have doubt about my abilities, a voice in my head clearly says (often out loud) the words “I love you”.

This happens relatively often, even more than once a day, sometimes for small things.

Please don’t laugh! At first, it made me even more ashamed. Then I thought it was a reaction to the end of my 22 years of marriage, that maybe I was telling “someone else” that I loved them, as I used to tell my husband.

But after a while, I recognised the pattern … so now when I hear those words in my mind, or even utter them, I know I am telling myself: “It’s OK, it is not that bad, nothing to worry about, don’t be ashamed”.

In a way, I’m telling myself I should forgive myself, even for past things.

And since nobody says it anymore, after the loss of a loving person who, I felt, loved me no matter what … now I tell myself that I am loveable.

~ Silvana, by email


Image: How much is that doggy at the supermarket?

Carnality, intimacy, frankness: Edgar Degas at NGV, Melbourne


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing the paintings and drawings of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) that I loved and copied as a child here in my own city for the Degas exhibition at the NGV Melbourne.

I loved drawing as a child and, somehow, I recognised his draftmanship and used to copy them. I remember how happy I was with my version of one of his washer women for a school assignment.

I had a little cry at seeing many of them in the flesh, their lines so familiar to me. I also cried over the painting of his father and the Catalan musician, Lorenzo Pagans, which you can see below, his father listening intently to the Spanish man’s guitar. The accompanying note says that years after the deaths of his father and the musician, Degas took his friend and art connoisseur, Paul Poujaud, into his bedroom to show him the painting. Poujaud recalled,

“He showed me the precious painting hanging above the little iron bedstead … I’m sure he did not show me the Pagans in memory of his father, whom I never knew and of whom he had never spoken, but as one of those completed works he admired above all others.”

And I’m stunned that as a child I was also instinctively responding to his treatment of women. Look on his works and note it well. His women are carnal, real, with bodily functions. They’re not prettified or sexualised, and they are infinitely interesting. Above all, they are members of the human race, not objects.

Look at his little ballet dancer with her second-last button not quite done up; his absinthe drinker resigned and hopeless with her companion in her Parisian drinking shop; his fellow artist Victoria Dubourg staring out at the viewer “with the forthright interest of a professional equal”; the young working-class woman after the violence at the hands of the bourgeois man lounging by the door; his sister and her husband’s frozen grief over their lost child.

It’s all sensational, wonderful and I LOVE HIM.

(Click on an image to enlarge)


Main image: Therésè De Gas, his sister, and her husband, Edmundo Morbilli, after the miscarriage of their much-anticipated child, “depicting them physically close but in a pose of frozen stillness.”

The Questions


Luke Bretherton, baby-faced Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University in the US, has written a powerful article describing Brexit and Trump as responses to the “sense of precariousness and disorder we experience now.”

This view which politicians like to make use of – that we are living in a more uncertain world – sometimes brings me up short. I think,

What? Compared to living through world war? Compared to living before penicillin? Compared to living in Dickens’s London, or the Ireland of the potato famine? Compared to when exactly? Aren’t we living in a time where the possibility of imminent death has never been so distant, so unreal?

And then someone like Bretherton comes along and spells out with beautiful clarity why it is that “this sense of disorder is no illusion.” Here are some of the questions he says we are confronting in the current moment:

  1. When we can manipulate the basic structures of life at a genetic and planetary level, we are forced to ask what does it mean to be human? What is our relationship to the land, the sea and the air? And what are our responsibilities to the planet as a whole?
  2. As we become more ethnically and morally diverse as societies and some states collapse – even while historic wounds fester and erupt in others – we are confronting questions about how to remember the past and whether a common life is even possible?
  3. Amid economic crises and the dominance of the plutocratic 1%, we are asking whether there are limits to the market or is the market the only reality we all share?
  4. Through debates about gender and sexuality, we are asking what does it mean to be a man or woman?
  5. Amid changing patterns of work and the incursion of information technology into every area of life, we are asking what is work? What is social life? And what should be the relationship between humans and machines?
  6. With changes in medical technology, we ask what is health? And how are we going to care for the elderly?
  7. In a globalised world made up of networks and flows of people, information, goods and services, we are debating what the role and form of the state should be? And is democracy fit for purpose?

It’s a great article and I urge you to read it (see the link to the article at the end of the post). Following are some further highlights.

On institutions

Institutions, whether they are part of civil society, state or market, are tools for solving collective problems and pursuing, fulfilling and ordering the goods necessary to sustain a common life over time. We no longer trust the institutions we have, yet we cannot imagine the institutions we need for the problems we face. For example, we know we have to educate our children, but there are basic disagreements about what schools are for, how to teach, who should be in the classroom, and how to train teachers.

Obsessed with technique

We also ignore questions of ends by obsessing over what are the right means. We focus on producing potable water rather than what we are morally obligated to do with it. We focus on techniques of education rather than its purpose and meaning. We focus on sustaining life rather than asking what is the meaning of life … And we focus on the means of mastery: economics, science, technology, politics. We are obsessed with the means of mastery …

“Weaponised nostalgia”

Trump, the campaigners for Brexit and the populist parties (on both left and right) on the rise across Europe trade in weaponised forms of nostalgia. They present faux solutions for a world that no longer exists …

The condition of possibility for a common life

Attentiveness and reception – characterised by a posture of listening or contemplation – is the precursor of shared speech and action, and thence the coming into being of a common life …

To read the article, click here: Brexit as Theodicy and Idolatry


Landscape duet


Just finished watching a new Scandinavian TV series called Trapped, this one set in a tiny town in Iceland. Incredible scenery and atmosphere, two lovable central characters – Andri and Hinrika – the town’s police officers, and opening titles of the highest art: the landscape of the body and the landscape of the earth in a duet.

If you’re in Australia, check it out on SBS OnDemand.


“Now is not the moment to be alive”: Thich Nhat Hanh

aladdin magic lamp on black with smoke

For many years and decades, I had the experience that time was running away from me and the sensation of trying to grasp a retreating shadow, like trying to grasp smoke. It was unpleasant and disturbing. Sometimes I asked others about their experience of time to see if they had this experience too. I never got a clear answer on this.

Only recently I realised the source of this experience – that I live in the past or the future and hardly ever in the present, and for large portions of my life I haven’t actually been there. My life has been going on without me. It’s been a shock to see this clearly, and for this belated and not wholly welcome realisation I have Thich Nhat Hanh to thank. As he says in this devastatingly simple excerpt, for many of us, “Now is not the moment to be alive.”

“We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say that, ‘Wait until I finish school and get my degree and then I’ll be really alive.’

Then when you’ve got  it – and it’s not easy to get – then you say to yourself, ‘I have to wait until I have a job in order to be really alive.’

And then after the job, it’s the house. After the house, it’s a car. And we are not capable of being alive in the present moment. And we tend to postpone being alive to the future, to a distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. And we may not be alive at all in all our life.

Therefore the technique, if we have to speak of technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that I am here and now, and the only moment for me to be alive is the present moment.”

~ From audiorecording of Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh


“How can I smile when I am full of sorrow?” Thich Nhat Hanh


During the retreat, one friend asked this hard question, “How can I smile when I am full of sorrow? It’s like forcing myself to smile, it’s not natural.”

Maybe some of you in this audience think the same. I have answered the question like this.

You should be able to smile to your sorrow. Because you are more than your sorrow. A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If you turn the Buddha on, you are the Buddha. If you turn the sorrow on, you are the sorrow. If you turn the smile on, you are the smile, and so on. Don’t let one channel dominate you all the time. You have the seed of everything in you, therefore we have to seize the situation in our hands. To recover our own sovereignty.


I would like to go back to the smile. This morning I met with a young lady who is expecting a child. The child will have to wait for four more weeks in order to come out. And I told the young mother, “Please, breathe and smile for him or her.” And I really meant it. Because you don’t need to wait until the baby is born in order to take care of him or her. You can take care of him or her right now. Or even sooner.

[audience laughs]

What if that lady tells you she cannot smile? This is not the case, but it’s just a supposition. What if the lady cannot smile? It’s very serious. What if the young lady cannot breathe, cannot smile, cannot enjoy the blue sky? That’s very serious.

She cannot say, “I’m too sorrowful, smiling is not the correct thing to do. Maybe crying, or shouting, would be the correct thing to do.” But your baby will get it all. Anything you are, anything you do, your baby gets it all.

Even if the baby is not there in your womb, the seed of the baby is already there. So those of you who are still unmarried, you should be aware that the baby is already there somehow. Don’t wait until the doctors tell you that you have a baby to begin to take care of it. It is already there. And whatever you are, and whatever you do, your baby will get it. So anything you eat, anything you do, any worries that are on your mind, will be for the baby, so be aware. 

Can you tell me that you cannot smile? No, think of the baby. You smile for him or her, for the future generations. So don’t tell me that it just does not go together, the smile and my sorrow. Your sorrow, yes, but how about your baby? It’s not his sorrow, it’s not her sorrow, it’s your sorrow. But you have a baby so you should be responsible. So smile.

And I would like to go a little bit deeper.

There is a baby buddha in every one of us. As Buddhists you believe the Buddha that everyone has buddha nature and everyone is a buddha to be. Therefore there is a baby buddha in yourself, and you would not be very polite and kind to that baby buddha if you suppress him or her with all the weight of your sorrow and anxiety. You don’t give that baby buddha a chance to be.


So when you tell me that you just cannot smile, when you want to deny the chance for the buddha in you, it’s very serious.


I can tell you that if you are unable to smile, the world will not have peace. 


~ From audiorecording of Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh

Image: Winter sky in Melbs this afternoon