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Rooting Around Print

Rooting Around

By The roots of a word, says Barry Boyce, contain a rich bank of associations and metaphors that reveal the marvelous ways in which disparate ideas link and interrelate.

Some 2500 years ago, ancient Indian grammarians contemplated how it is that sound becomes meaning. Panini, who is thought to be the first in human history to scientifically study speech and language, wrote that when the mind has the intention to speak, it “gives impetus to the fire within the body and the latter drives the breath out.” In this way, words are born.
Following in his footsteps, the great grammarian Patanjali, whose philosophical breadth and depth has been equated with Aristotle’s, wrote of shabda (Sanskrit for sound), the ether from which words are formed. Other grammarians would go on to say that shabda was a quality of the sky, of space itself, invisible but not eternal, capable of being produced and destroyed. Yet others wrote that speech derived from a primordial shout.
Bombarded as we are with words upon words—written, spoken, chattered and electronically generated—effortlessly spent as if we are dropping small change on the ground, we easily become blind to the profound magic of speech. It becomes simple to treat words as so much blather to be expended in the run of a day. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
It’s occasionally worthwhile to take the measure of words, to listen to them and roll them about in our mind, to hear how we shape the air with our mouths and lips and nose and cut it with our teeth and produce something that gives birth to an idea in the world or unleashes storms of response.
When I studied grammar in school, it trained me to think of language as a pre-constructed entity with rules to be followed, rather than as a dynamic act that both follows rules and makes the rules as it goes along. Words are an ongoing consensual creation that spark and snap in each new usage. They have shape, but they move and evolve. Their meanings cannot be pinned down in a dictionary. A good dictionary can paint a picture or point in a particular direction, but definitions are themselves made of words, so as we seek to find the definition of a word, we follow a path of synonyms into infinite regress.
Having gained some appreciation for the wonder of words and their liveliness, I took up the pastime of searching for the roots of a word and contemplating the ideas and images that gave it birth. In English, the roots of many words can be found in Latin and Greek and in the language that most likely predated them, called Indo-European, the mother language also of Sanskrit, German, Russian and a variety of other languages. It is a mistake to look to etymology for the current meaning of a word, but it can show you a rich bank of associations and metaphors that reveal the marvelous ways in which disparate ideas link and interrelate.
I used to sit for hours in the dictionary area of the library and pore over the volumes of Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanic Etymological Dictionary, discovering, for example, that the Indo-European root sed, to sit, through various transformations over the millennia gave us sit, set, ersatz, settle, saddle, soot, seat, seance, sedentary, sediment, session, siege, assess, dissident, obsess, possess, preside, reside, subsidy, supersede, subside, sedate, soil, and chair.
This potpourri of simple, physical terms like saddle and chair and more complex notions like session (a sitting together) or preside (to sit in front of) or possess (to have the power to sit with, therefore to own) all derive from the basic notion of sitting. Complexities boil down to simplicities.
Over the years, a few words have become favorites of mine, where the etymology can reveal something about the word that says even more than the word itself. In celebration of the subtle power that lies in words, I would like to share a few of these, all of them words that are virtues.
The first is “subtlety,” which comes from the Latin subtilis, which originally meant “the thread passing below the warp, the finest thread.” Subtlety then is the kind of thread that is very hard to see but which nonetheless is vital to the integrity of the whole fabric. It’s a beautiful image that speaks to why it’s so important to pay attention to subtleties.
“Abide” is from Old English abidana. Bidan meant to remain, and the a intensified it, so it meant “intensively to remain,” “to remain completely, utterly.” To abide is to stay when there is the temptation to go, not to move when one is drawn to move. There is great power in abiding. As is said so powerfully of the title character at the end of the movie The Big Lebowski, “The dude abides.”
“Ardor,” an older synonym for “zeal” or “passion,” comes simply from the Latin ardere, to burn. To pursue something with ardor is truly to be filled with fire or to be on fire; the metaphor behind the word is as powerful as the word itself. To have ardor is to burn, to be hot, and others can feel it in your presence.
“Religion,” a word that carries such baggage today, most likely came from the Latin verb religare, to tie fast. The point of religion in human life may be some kind of binding, to be bound tightly to something that provides strength and union, be that God or gods or the practice of meditation. Perhaps, the binding is the key, not a belief system.
Such explorations in words are simply a means to enrich the appreciation of the breadth and depth of even a single word, so that we might value each of them all the more, knowing their lineage and the richness of their personality. For all of their shortcomings and their vagueness, words are after all the main vehicle we have to reach out from the vastness of our own mind.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

Rooting Around, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, March 2000.

How to do Mindfulness Meditation Print

How to do Mindfulness Meditation

“Mindfulness practice is simple and completely feasible, says SAKYONG MIPHAM RINPOCHE. "Just by sitting and doing nothing, we are doing a tremendous amount.”

In mindfulness, or shamatha, meditation, we are trying to achieve a mind that is stable and calm. What we begin to discover is that this calmness or harmony is a natural aspect of the mind. Through mindfulness practice we are just developing and strengthening it, and eventually we are able to remain peacefully in our mind without struggling. Our mind naturally feels content.

An important point is that when we are in a mindful state, there is still intelligence. It’s not as if we blank out. Sometimes people think that a person who is in deep meditation doesn’t know what’s going on—that it’s like being asleep. In fact, there are meditative states where you deny sense perceptions their function, but this is not the accomplishment of shamatha practice.

Creating a Favorable Environment

There are certain conditions that are helpful for the practice of mindfulness. When we create the right environment it’s easier to practice.

It is good if the place where you meditate, even if it’s only a small space in your apartment, has a feeling of upliftedness and sacredness. It is also said that you should meditate in a place that is not too noisy or disturbing, and you should not be in a situation where your mind is going to be easily provoked into anger or jealousy or other emotions. If you are disturbed or irritated, then your practice is going to be affected.

Beginning the Practice

I encourage people to meditate frequently but for short periods of time—ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes. If you force it too much the practice can take on too much of a personality, and training the mind should be very, very simple. So you could meditate for ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening, and during that time you are really working with the mind. Then you just stop, get up, and go.

Often we just plop ourselves down to meditate and just let the mind take us wherever it may. We have to create a personal sense of discipline. When we sit down, we can remind ourselves: “I’m here to work on my mind. I’m here to train my mind.” It’s okay to say that to yourself when you sit down, literally. We need that kind of inspiration as we begin to practice.


The Buddhist approach is that the mind and body are connected. The energy flows better when the body is erect, and when it’s bent, the flow is changed and that directly affects your thought process. So there is a yoga of how to work with this. We’re not sitting up straight because we’re trying to be good schoolchildren; our posture actually affects the mind.

People who need to use a chair for meditation should sit upright with their feet touching the ground. Those using a meditation cushion such as a zafu or gomden should find a comfortable position with legs crossed and hands resting palm-down on your thighs. The hips are neither rotated forward too much, which creates tension, nor tilted back so you start slouching. You should have a feeling of stability and strength.

When we sit down the first thing we need to do is to really inhabit our body—really have a sense of our body. Often we sort of prop ourselves up and pretend we’re practicing, but we can’t even feel our body; we can’t even feel where it is. Instead, we need to be right here. So when you begin a meditation session, you can spend some initial time settling into your posture. You can feel that your spine is being pulled up from the top of your head so your posture is elongated, and then settle.

The basic principle is to keep an upright, erect posture. You are in a solid situation: your shoulders are level, your hips are level, your spine is stacked up. You can visualize putting your bones in the right order and letting your flesh hang off that structure. We use this posture in order to remain relaxed and awake. The practice we’re doing is very precise: you should be very much awake even though you are calm. If you find yourself getting dull or hazy or falling asleep, you should check your posture.


For strict mindfulness practice, the gaze should be downward focusing a couple of inches in front of your nose. The eyes are open but not staring; your gaze is soft. We are trying to reduce sensory input as much as we can. People say, “Shouldn’t we have a sense of the environment?” but that’s not our concern in this practice. We’re just trying to work with the mind and the more we raise our gaze, the more distracted we’re going to be. It’s as if you had an overhead light shining over the whole room, and all of a sudden you focus it down right in front of you. You are purposefully ignoring what is going on around you. You are putting the horse of mind in a smaller corral.


When we do shamatha practice, we become more and more familiar with our mind, and in particular we learn to recognize the movement of the mind, which we experience as thoughts. We do this by using an object of meditation to provide a contrast or counterpoint to what’s happening in our mind. As soon as we go off and start thinking about something, awareness of the object of meditation will bring us back. We could put a rock in front of us and use it to focus our mind, but using the breath as the object of meditation is particularly helpful because it relaxes us.

As you start the practice, you have a sense of your body and a sense of where you are, and then you begin to notice the breathing. The whole feeling of the breath is very important. The breath should not be forced, obviously; you are breathing naturally. The breath is going in and out, in and out. With each breath you become relaxed.


No matter what kind of thought comes up, you should say to yourself, “That may be a really important issue in my life, but right now is not the time to think about it. Now I’m practicing meditation.” It gets down to how honest we are, how true we can be to ourselves, during each session.

Everyone gets lost in thought sometimes. You might think, “I can’t believe I got so absorbed in something like that,” but try not to make it too personal. Just try to be as unbiased as possible. Mind will be wild and we have to recognize that. We can’t push ourselves. If we’re trying to be completely concept-free, with no discursiveness at all, it’s just not going to happen.

So through the labeling process, we simply see our discursiveness. We notice that we have been lost in thought, we mentally label it “thinking”—gently and without judgment—and we come back to the breath. When we have a thought—no matter how wild or bizarre it may be—we just let it go and come back to the breath, come back to the situation here.

Each meditation session is a journey of discovery to understand the basic truth of who we are. In the beginning the most important lesson of meditation is seeing the speed of the mind. But the meditation tradition says that mind doesn’t have to be this way: it just hasn’t been worked with.

What we are talking about is very practical. Mindfulness practice is simple and completely feasible. And because we are working with the mind that experiences life directly, just by sitting and doing nothing, we are doing a tremendous amount.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He has received teachings from many of the great Buddhist masters of this century, including Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Penor Rinpoche and his father Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche.
This article was originally published in the January 2000 issue of the Shambahala Sun, and is excerpted in our 30th-anniversary collection of the finest meditation teachings from the magazine, as printed in our January 2010 issue.

To read more 30th anniversary meditation teachings in their complete form, click here.

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Hearty Discipline Print

Hearty Discipline


Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on the philosophy of Naropa University.

At Naropa Institute we approach the whole educational system according to the principles of buddhadharma. We would like to present a traditional approach, similar to the Victorian style of education or other European approaches.
Recently, education in America has been based on entertainment. That is to say, the professors and teachers have become more and more cowardly. They don’t want to push their students to follow their instructions or the traditional educational format.
In the schooling of young children in preparatory schools or elementary schools, we begin to find more and more that children are told to use their toys to learn with. “We are not going to push you to do anything drastic. You don’t have to memorize; you don’t have to think, even. Just play nicely with the toys we provide, and you will learn something about our history, our mathematics, our alphabet, and our grammar.”
That is the idea of education that seems to have been created by the present generation, which had a terrible time with their schooling. Now they are in power, so they have invented a system of entertainment-as-education, so that children won’t have to go through terrible education situations. That approach is actually based on good intentions, excellent, maybe. But, on the other hand, it could mean the destruction of the educational system altogether.
We have to push our children and ourselves to relate properly with the principles of education, which means discipline, respecting our elders, that is to say our teachers, and putting ourselves through a certain amount of painful situations.
Knowledge is often regarded as a gigantic, monumental tablet. We might wonder how we can climb on that, or comprehend that gigantic thing, those stacks and stacks of information, knowledge and wisdom—accomplishments of all kinds. How can we actually achieve something? How can we climb up and conquer and be on top of that Mount Everest of knowledge at all? However, we could recognize that learning is not necessarily all that difficult, although it does require effort.
An educational system based on very hearty discipline is absolutely necessary for us. We have to push ourselves, lock ourselves in our studies and simply relate with the information that is given to us. We have to appreciate what’s being taught to us; we have to memorize and experience the information, as well as relating to the challenge of discussion groups and all kinds of examinations. If we don’t do that we find ourselves nowhere. We don’t have to borrow toys to help us to study properly. Obviously, the concept of comfort, as well as entertainment, is out of the question. Comfort is not in the best interest of student or teacher. When we begin to present education as a toy or a lollipop, we begin to devalue our wisdom, and we reduce school to a candy bar approach, as opposed to a university or a center of learning. People have tried that many times, but it never brings success such as is achieved by someone who has learned orally, personally. There is no real experience taking place when we try to avoid discipline.
We are applying the Buddhist mentality or Buddhist approach to education at Naropa, rather than purely taking a religious approach to education. We are not particularly talking in terms of converting people to Buddhism, but we are talking in terms of bringing the inheritance of Buddhist methodology into our system of education.
At Nalanda University, Vikramashila and other Buddhist centers of learning, the student, the practitioner, and the scholar concentrated one-pointedly, on the point. Education was a complete lifestyle. Students practiced and they concentrated one pointedly. They memorized texts and thought about what was said in the texts, about whether the contents were valid or invalid.
When you follow these principles of education, you begin to use your logical, or critical, intelligence to examine what is presented to you. That critical intelligence is also critical intelligence about yourself. That critical intelligence is applied two ways: towards what is presented to you, the educational material, as well as towards who is going to be educated. So you work with yourself as well. The two blades of the sword work simultaneously. Then you begin to find yourself examining things constantly. The process of education becomes very precise and clear and absolutely accurate. There is no room for mistakes, at all.
In order to study and learn properly, we have to pull up our own socks. If we want to learn properly and study properly, we have to work at it; we have to work on it. There is no other way. There is no savior or god of knowledge who descends on our heads, so that one minute we’re dumb and the next minute we are brilliant. Oh no!  We have never heard of that. Nothing like that happens.
In the Buddhist tradition, we talk about individual salvation, or sosor tharpa. Everybody has to save himself or herself. Everybody has to prove himself. We are capable of individual salvation because we do possess our own inherent human dignity already, in any case. We are capable of learning properly, but we have to tune in to our dignity rather than trying to use lollipops and toys and gimmicks. So, no toy shop anymore.

From a 1980 public talk by the Ven. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche at The Naropa Institute. © 1999 by Diana J. Mukpo.

Hearty Discipline, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, January 2000.

Building a Community of Love: bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh Print

Building a Community of Love: bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh

meets with Thich Nhat Hanh to ask: how do we build a community of love?

As teacher and guide Thich Nhat Hanh has been a presence in my life for more than twenty years. In the last few years I began to doubt the heart connection I felt with him because we had never met or spoken to one another, yet his work was ever-present in my work. I began to feel the need to meet him face to face, even as my intuitive self kept saying that it would happen when the time was right. My work in love has been to trust that intuitive self kept saying that it would happen when the time was right. My work in love has been to trust that intuition knowledge.

Those who know me intimately know that I have been contemplating the place and meaning of love in our lives and culture for years. They know that when a subject attracts my intellectual and emotional imagination, I am long to observe it from all angles, to know it inside and out.

In keeping with the way my mind works, when I began to think deeply about the metaphysics of love I talked with everyone around me about it. I talked to large audiences and even had wee one-on-one conversations with children about the way they think about love. I talked about love in every state. Indeed, I encouraged the publishers of my new book all about love: new visions to launch it with postcards, t-shirts, and maybe even a calendar with the logo "Love in every state." I talked about love everywhere I traveled.

To me, all the work I do is built on a foundation of loving-kindness. Love illuminates matters. And when I write provocative social and cultural criticism that causes readers to stretch their minds, to think beyond set paradigms, I think of that work as love in action. While it may challenge, disturb and at times even frighten or enrage readers, love is always the place where I begin and end.

A central theme of all about love is that from childhood into adulthood we are often taught misguided and false assumptions about the nature of love. Perhaps the most common false assumption about love is that love means we will not be challenged or changed. No doubt this is why people who read writing about racism, sexism, homophobia, religion, etc. that challenges their set assumptions tend to see that work as harsh rather than loving.

Of all the definitions of love that abound in our universe, a special favorite of mine is the one offered in The Road Less Traveled by psychoanalyst M. Scott Peck. Defining love as "the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth," he draws on the work of Erich Fromm to emphasize again and again that love is first and foremost exemplified by action—by practice—not solely by feeling.

Fromm’s The Art of Loving was published when I was four years old. It was the book I turned to in my late teens when I felt confused about the nature of love. His insistence that "love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love" made sense to me then and it still does. Peck expands this definition. Knowing that the world would be a paradise of peace and justice if global citizens shared a common definition of love which would guide our thoughts and action, I call for the embrace of such a common understanding in all about love: new visions. That common understanding might be articulated in different words carrying a shared meaning for diverse experiences and cultures.

Throughout the more than twenty years that I have written on the subject of ending domination in whatever form it appears (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism), I have continually sought those paths that would lead to the end of violence and injustice. Since so much of my thinking about love in my late teens revolved around familial and romantic love, it was not until I was in my early twenties writing feminist theory that I began to think deeply about love in relation to domination.

During my first years in college Martin Luther King’s message of love as the path to ending racism and healing the wounds of racial domination had been replaced by a black power movement stressing militant resistance. While King had called for non-violence and compassion, this new movement called on us to harden our hearts, to wage war against our enemies. Loving our enemies, militant leaders told us, made us weak and easy to subjugate, and many turned their backs on King’s message.

Just as the energy of a racially-based civil rights liberation struggle was moving away from a call for love, the women’s movement also launched a critique of love, calling on females to forget about love so that we might seize power. When I was nineteen participating in feminist consciousness-raising groups, love was dismissed as irrelevant. It was our "addiction to love" that kept us sleeping with the enemy (men). To be free, our militant feminist leaders told us, we needed to stop making love the center of our imaginations and yearnings. Love could be a good woman’s downfall.

These two movements for social justice that had captured the hearts and imagination of our nation—movements that began with a love ethic—were changed by leaders who were much more interested in questions of power. By the late seventies it was no longer necessary to silence discussions of love; the topic was no longer on any progressive agenda.

Those of us who still longed to hold on to love looked to religions as the site of redemption. We searched everywhere, all around the world, for the spiritual teachers who could help us return to love. My seeking led me to Buddhism, guided there by the Beat poets, by personal interaction with Gary Snyder. At his mountain home I would meet my first Buddhist nun and walk mindfully with her, all the while wondering if my heart could ever know the sweet peace emanating from her like a perfume mist.

My seeking led me to the work of a Buddhist monk Martin Luther King had met and been touched by—Thich Nhat Hanh. The first work I read by this new teacher in my life was a conversation book between him and Daniel Berrigan, The Raft Is Not the Shore.

At last I had found a world where spirituality and politics could meet, where there was no separation. Indeed, in this world all efforts to end domination, to bring peace and justice, were spiritual practice. I was no longer torn between political struggle and spiritual practice. And here was the radical teacher—a Vietnamese monk living in exile—courageously declaring that "if you have to choose between Buddhism and peace, then you must choose peace."

Unlike white friends and comrades who were often contemptuous of me because I had not traveled to the East or studied with important teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh was calmly stating: "Buddhism is in your heart. Even if you don’t have any temple or any monks, you can still be a Buddhist in your heart and life." Reading his words I felt an inner rapture and could only repeat, "Be still my heart." Like one wandering in the desert overcome by thirst. I had found water. My thirst was quenched and my spiritual hunger intensified.

For a period of more than ten years since leaving home for college I had felt pulled in all directions by anti-racist struggle, by the feminist movement, sexual liberation, by the fundamentalist Christianity of my upbringing. I wanted to embrace radical politics and still know god. I wanted to resist and be redeemed. The Raft Is Not the Shore helped strengthen my spiritual journey. Even though I had not met with Thich Nhat Hanh he was the teacher, along with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who were my chosen guides. Mixing the two was a fiery combination.

As all became well with my soul, I began to talk about the work of Thich Nhat Hanh in my books, quoting from his work. He helped me bring together theories of political recovery and spiritual recovery. For years I did not want to meet him face to face for fear I would be disappointed. Time and time again I planned to be where he was and the plan would be disrupted. Our paths were crossing but we were never meeting face to face.

Then suddenly, in a marvelous serendipitous way, we were meeting. In his presence at last, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that not only was I given the blessing of meeting him, but that a pure spirit of love connected us. I felt ecstatic. My heart jumped for joy—such union and reunion to be in the presence of one who has tutored your heart, who has been with you in spirit on your journey.

The journey is also to the teacher and beyond. It is always a path to the heart. And the heart of the matter is always our oneness with divine spirit—our union with all life. As early as 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh was sharing: "The way must be in you; the destination also must be in you and not somewhere else in space or time. If that kind of self-transformation is being realized in you, you will arrive."

Walking on love’s path on a sunny day on my way to meet my teacher, I meet Sister Chan Khong. She too has taught me. She felt my heart’s readiness. Together we remembered the teacher who is everywhere awakening the heart. As she writes at the end of Learning True Love, "I am with you just as you have been with me, and we encourage each other to realize our deepest love, caring and generosity . . . together on the path of love.

* * *

bell hooks: I began writing a book on love because I felt that the United States is moving away from love. The civil rights movement was such a wonderful movement for social justice because the heart of it was love—loving everyone. It was believing, as you taught us yesterday, that we can always start anew; we can always practice forgiveness. I don’t have to hate any person because I can always start anew, I can always reconcile. What I’m trying to understand is why are we moving away from this idea of a community of love. What is your thinking about why people are moving away from love, and how we can be part of moving our society towards love.

Thich Nhat Hanh: In our own Buddhist sangha, community is the core of everything. The sangha is a community where there should be harmony and peace and understanding. That is something created by our daily life together. If love is there in the community, if we’ve been nourished by the harmony in the community, then we will never move away from love.

The reason we might lose this is because we are always looking outside of us, thinking that the object or action of love is out there. That is why we allow the love, the harmony, the mature understanding, to slip away from ourselves. This is, I think, the basic thing. That is why we have to go back to our community and renew it. Then love will grow back. Understanding and harmony will grow back. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that we ourselves need love; it’s not only society, the world outside, that needs love. But we can’t expect that love to come from outside of us. We should ask the question whether we are capable of loving ourselves as well as others. Are we treating our body kindly—by the way we eat, by the way we drink, by the way we work? Are we treating ourselves with enough joy and tenderness and peace? Or are we feeding ourselves with toxins that we get from the market—the spiritual, intellectual, entertainment market?

So the question is whether we are practicing loving ourselves? Because loving ourselves means loving our community. When we are capable of loving ourselves, nourishing ourselves properly, not intoxicating ourselves, we are already protecting and nourishing society. Because in the moment when we are able to smile, to look at ourselves with compassion, our world begins to change. We may not have done anything but when we are relaxed, when we are peaceful, when we are able to smile and not to be violent in the way we look at the system, at that moment there is a change already in the world.

So the second help, the second insight, is that between self or no-self there is no real separation. Anything you do for yourself you do for the society at the same time. And anything you do for society you do for yourself also. That insight is very powerfully made in the practice of no-self.

bell hooks: I think one of the most wonderful books that Martin Luther King wrote was Strength to Love. I always liked it because of the word "strength," which counters the Western notion of love as easy. Instead, Martin Luther King said that you must have courage to love, that you have to have a profound will to do what is right to love, that it does not come easy.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Martin Luther King was among us as a brother, as a friend, as a leader. He was able to maintain that love alive. When you touch him, you touch a bodhisattva, for his understanding and love was enough to hold everything to him. He tried to transmit his insight and his love to the community, but maybe we have not received it enough. He was trying to transmit the best things to us—his goodness, his love, his nonduality. But because we had clung so much to him as a person, we did not bring the essence of what he was teaching into our community. So now that he’s no longer here, we are at a loss. We have to be aware that crucial transmission he was making was not the transmission of power, of authority, of position, but the transmission of the dharma. It means love.

bell hooks: Exactly. It was not a transmission of personality. Part of why I have started writing about love is feeling, as you say, that our culture is forgetting what he taught. We name more and more streets and schools after him but that’s almost irrelevant, because what is to be remembered is that strength to love.

That’s what we have to draw courage from—the spirit of love, not the image of Martin Luther King. This is so hard in the West because we are such an image and personality driven culture. For instance, because I have learned so much from you for so many years of my life, people kept asking me whether I had met you in person.

Thich Nhat Hanh: (laughs) Yes, I understand.


bell hooks: And I said yes, I have met him, because he has given his love to me through his teachings, through mindfulness practice. I kept trying to share with people that, yes, I would like to meet you some day, but the point is that I am living and learning from his teaching.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes, that’s right. And that is the essence of interbeing. We had met already in the very non-beginning (laughs). Beginning with longing, beginning with blessings.

bell hooks: Except that you have also taught that to be in the presence of your teacher can also be a moment of transformation. So people say, is it enough that you’ve learned from books by him, or must you meet him, must there be an encounter?

Thich Nhat Hanh: In fact, the true teacher is within us. A good teacher is someone who can help you to go back and touch the true teacher within, because you already have the insight within you. In Buddhism we call it buddhanature. You don’t need someone to transfer buddhanature to you, but maybe you need a friend who can help you touch that nature of awakening and understanding working in you.

So a good teacher is someone who can help you to get back to a teacher within. The teacher can do that in many different ways; she or he does not have to meet you physically. I feel that I have many real students whom I have not met. Many are in cloisters and they never get out. Others are in prison. But in many cases they practice the teachings much better than those who meet me every day. That is true. When they read a book by me or hear a tape and they touch the insight within them, then they have met me in a real way. That is the real meeting.

bell hooks: I want to know your thoughts on how we learn to love a world full of justice, more than coming together with someone just because they share the same skin or the same language as we do. I ask this question of you because I first learned about you through Martin Luther King’s homage to your compassion towards those who had hurt your country.

Thich Nhat Hanh: This is a very interesting topic. It was a very important issue for the Buddha. How we view justice depends on our practice of looking deeply. We may think that justice is everyone being equal, having the same rights, sharing the same kind of advantages, but maybe we have not had the chance to look at the nature of justice in terms of no-self. That kind of justice is based on the idea of self, but it may be very interesting to explore justice in terms of no-self.

bell hooks: I think that’s exactly the kind of justice Martin Luther King spoke about—a justice that was for everyone whether they’re equal or not. Sometimes in life all things are not equal, so what does it mean to have justice when there is no equality? A parent can be just towards a child, even though they’re not equal. I think this is often misunderstood in the West, where people feel that there can be no justice unless everything is the same. This is part of why I feel we have to relearn how we think about love, because we think about love so much in terms of the self.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Is justice possible without equality?

bell hooks: Justice is possible without equality, I believe, because of compassion and understanding. If I have compassion, then if I have more than you, which is unequal, I will still do the just thing by you.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Right. And who has created inequality?

bell hooks: Well, I think inequality is in our minds. I think this is what we learn through practice. One of the concepts that you and Daniel Berrigan spoke about in The Raft Is Not the Shore is that the bridge of illusion must be shattered in order for a real bridge to be constructed. One of the things we learn is that inequality is an illusion.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Makes sense (laughs).

bell hooks: Before I came here I had been struggling with the question of anger toward my ex-boyfriend. I have taken my vows as a bodhisattva, and so I always feel very depressed when I have anger. I had come to a point of despair because I had so much difficulty with my anger in relation to this man. So yesterday’s dharma talk about embracing our anger, and using it, and letting it go, was very essential for me at this moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh: You want to be human. Be angry, it’s okay. But not to practice is not okay. To be angry, that is very human. And to learn how to smile at your anger and make peace with your anger is very nice. That is the whole thing—the meaning of the practice, of the learning. By taking a look at your anger it can be transformed into the kind of energy that you need—understanding and compassion. It is with negative energy that you can make the positive energy. A flower, although beautiful, will become compost someday, but if you know how to transform the compost back into the flower, then you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to worry about your anger because you know how to handle it—to embrace, to recognize, and to transform it. So this is what is possible.

bell hooks: I think this is what people misunderstand about Martin Luther King saying to love your enemies. They think he was just using this silly little phrase, but what he meant was that as Black Americans we need to let our anger go, because holding on to it we hold ourselves down. We oppress ourselves by holding on to anger. My students tell me, we don’t want to love! We’re tired of being loving! And I say to them, if you’re tired of being loving, then you haven’t really been loving, because when you are loving you have more strength. As you were telling us yesterday, we grow stronger in the act of loving. This has been, I think, a very hurting thing for Black Americans—to feel that we can’t love our enemies. People forget what a great tradition we have as African-Americans in the practice of forgiveness and compassion. And if we neglect that tradition, we suffer.

Thich Nhat Hanh: When we have anger in us, we suffer. When we have discrimination in us, we suffer. When we have the complex of superiority, we suffer. When we have the complex of inferiority, we suffer also. So when we are capable of transforming these negative things in us, we are free and happiness is possible.

If the people who hurt us have that kind of energy within them, like anger or desperation, then they suffer. When you see that someone suffers, you might be motivated by a desire to help him not to suffer anymore. That is love also, and love doesn’t have any color. Other people may discriminate against us, but what is more important is whether we discriminate against them. If we don’t do that, we are a happier person, and as a happier person, we are in a position to help. And anger, this is not a help.

bell hooks: And lastly, what about fear? Because I think that many white people approach black people or Asian people not with hatred or anger but with fear. What can love do for that fear?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Fear is born from ignorance. We think that the other person is trying to take away something from us. But if we look deeply, we see that the desire of the other person is exactly our own desire—to have peace, to be able to have a chance to live. So if you realize that the other person is a human being too, and you have exactly the same kind of spiritual path, and then the two can become good practitioners. This appears to be practical for both.

The only answer to fear is more understanding. And there is no understanding if there is no effort to look more deeply to see what is there in our heart and in the heart of the other person. The Buddha always reminds us that our afflictions, including our fear and our desiring, are born from our ignorance. That is why in order to dissipate fear, we have to remove wrong perception.

bell hooks: And what if people perceive rightly and still act unjustly?

Thich Nhat Hanh: They are not able yet to apply their insight in their daily life. They need community to remind them. Sometimes you have a flash of insight, but it’s not strong enough to survive. Therefore in the practice of Buddhism, samadhi is the power to maintain insight alive in every moment, so that every speech, every word, every act will bear the nature of that insight. It is a question of cleaning. And you clean better if you are surrounded by sangha—those who are practicing exactly the same.

bell hooks: I think that we best realize love in community. This is something I have had to work with myself, because the intellectual tradition of the West is very individualistic. It’s not community-based. The intellectual is often thought of as a person who is alone and cut off from the world. So I have had to practice being willing to leave the space of my study to be in community, to work in community, and to be changed by community.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Right, and then we learn to operate as a community and not as individuals. In Plum Village, that is exactly what we try to do. We are brothers and sisters living together. We try to operate like cells in one body.

bell hooks: I think this is the love that we seek in the new millennium, which is the love experienced in community, beyond self.

Thich Nhat Hanh: So please, live that truth and disseminate that truth with your writing, with your speaking. It will be helpful to maintain that kind of view and action.

bell hooks: Thank you for your open-hearted example.

Thich Nhat Hanh: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Building a Community of Love: bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh, bell hooks, Shambhala Sun, January 2000.

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Learning Where You Are The Experience of Place Based Education Print
Shambhala Sun | January 2000


Learning Where You Are

The Experience of Place Based Education

            Where are you? Who are you? How does where you are affect who  you are? Place based education is interested in examining these questions.  Place based education is interested in a deep experiential inquiry into who and where we are, and the relationship between the two.
            Earlier this year, public school students in the Patagonia, Arizona Elementary School got a taste of place based education. Every Monday morning, Mrs. Gail Greenleaf’s fifth grade class was dropped off not at the school, but at The Place at Harshaw Creek, a privately held ranch three miles outside of town, where they got a day-long immersion in place based education. It was my pleasure, along with other Living Education staff, to work with Mrs. Greenleaf and her students.
            Loaded down with water bottles, field journals and brown bag lunches, the students boarded the bright yellow school bus at 9:00 am. The bus drove downhill, turned right, and made its way out of town along Harshaw Creek Road, following the dry wash up and out, towards the San Rafael Valley and the old Mexican border crossing at Lochiel.

            Very quickly, the bus was swallowed by the high desert landscape. Waist-high tufts of sacaton grass, bright green cholla (looks like Gumby) and prickly pear (among “ouchies” of infinite variety). Brilliant sunlight breaking through the leafless canopy of the mesquite bosque. Bleached stalks of agave and sotol piercing the cloudless blue sky. Straw arrows pointing to heaven. Circling buzzards taking it all in.

            The bus would slow to gently pass the Longhorns ranging on the shoulder of the road. Minutes later, filled with excitement and anticipation of the day’s activities, students disembarked at a school without walls.
            Each visit began with questions and observations. What was the same? What had changed since their last visit? Students examined three trees—a mesquite, a sycamore and a pear tree—and made journal entries recording noticeable changes. Students recorded the day’s temperature, checked the rain gauge, and measured the positions of the sun and moon in the sky overhead.
            Then students broke into two groups for meandering hikes lasting an hour and a half. One group might follow an animal trail through the National Forest, while another traced a dry wash to its terminus. Along the way, students would engage in a wide array of experiential exercises: scavenger hunts, sitting alone in silence, making lists of observations (“Notice what you notice”—Ginsberg), composing poems; making field notes, sketching from nature, and role-playing. (Be a cholla! Be an eagle!)
            After the morning hikes, we held one hour “classes” in place-based education. Sessions might be spent sound mapping; symbol mapping; making micro habitats; collecting, grinding and eating mesquite beans; examining animals’ homes; digging local clay to make coil pots; finding and grinding pigments for painting; harvesting and weaving native grasses; learning to flint knap, or to throw atl-atls.
            After lunch, we broke into three groups to work on student-generated projects. Not surprisingly, the students were most interested in the ancient Hohokam culture, for Hohokam lived along what is now called Harshaw Creek from approximately 900-1400 c.e. The three projects chosen were Hohokam homes, Hohokam neighbors, and Hohokam daily life.
            During the course of the project period, the “homes” group actually designed and constructed a scale-model pit house, large enough to hold five students. The “neighbors” group created a field guide to local wild life, and the “daily life” group gathered local edibles and medicinals, made clay figurines and shell ornaments, and needle and thread from agave and horse hair.
            Over the dozen weeks of the program, students got to know this 66-acre piece of earth intimately. They now carry with them the living wisdom of this place: Here is where you can find crystals. Here is where the bat cave is. This is a pack rat den. Be careful lifting up that rock scorpion in the high desert! It’s snowing—no, it’s the cottonwoods! This is where the ancient grinding holes are. Here is where we find pottery, manos, metates. This is when it gets really hot—and here’s how to keep cool.
            Children—some of whom at first were reluctant even to be outside—learned to find comfort and knowledge in the bare facts of the high desert. Over the three months, they learned not only the names, but also the faces and the characteristics of their sentient and insentient neighbors.
            Gary Snyder, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Turtle Island, has a poem called “For The Children.” The final lines of the poem are:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

            I believe that these words—and recommendations for our children—are timely. We need to teach our children who they are, where they are and how to live.
            In this regard, this pilot project was only a beginning. The fifth graders are more acquainted with where they are, yet they are just beginning their journey towards understanding Patagonia’s natural environment and community history, the elements and forces that help to shape who they are, and who they will ultimately become.

Steven Glazer has been an elementary educator, arts administrator, and school director. He is the author of The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education (Tarcher/Putnam, 1999).
Learning Where You Are The Experience of Place Based Education, Steve Glazer, Shambhala Sun, January 2000.


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