..The Intuitive Times


Peace be in our Hearts

by Rev. Beth Miller Unitarian Minister, Halifax,

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Editor's Note: As we embrace the New Year, we thought it appropriate to share the message of Peace from Rev. Beth's Remembrance Day Sermon, Nov. 12, 1995.

Yesterday was Remembrance Day, a day set aside to remember and honour those who fought and died in war to preserve freedom in the world. But as we remember, it is even more important to contemplate peace and how we can each be agents of peace. "Make peace a lifestyle, not just an issue," says Edwin Epp. I have no idea who Edwin Epp is or was, but his sentiment rings true to me.

It also rings true to the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, whose entire life is devoted to helping people learn to make peace a lifestyle and not just an issue. He believes that without peace deep in our hearts, we cannot be effective in helping to create peace in our world. So on this Remembrance Day Sunday, I offer you his wisdom on bringing peace into our hearts.

Thich Nbat Hanh was born in Vietnam in 1926 and became a Zen monk as a teenager. During the Vietnam war, he founded the School of Youth for Social Service, Van Hanh Buddhist University, and the Tiep Hein Order of Zen Buddhism, and became chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation. His order was fiercely neutral during the war, devoting themselves to reconciliation and to helping victims, regardless of their political persuasion. In 1966, he was invited by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to tour the United States to talk about the enormous suffering of the Vietnamese people. Because of his neutrality and his outspoken frankness during that tour, he was unable to return to Vietnam, and was granted asylum in France where he has lived ever since as head of a group of meditators and peace activists.

At the end of the war, Nhat Hanh and his fellow monks tried to find legal ways to send funds to Vietnam to help feed hungry children, but his efforts were thwarted. Then they went to Malaysia and Singapore and tried to ensure the safety of boat people trying to cross the Gulf of Siam, but various governments thwarted those efforts as well. At that point, uncertain as to how to proceed, Thich Nhat Hanh went into a period of retreat and spent five years at his hermitage in France meditating, writing, gardening, and only occasionally seeing visitors. Then in 1982 he was invited to speak at a peace conference in New York. There he became aware of the growing interest among North Americans in Buddhist meditation and agreed to return the next year to lead retreats on Buddhism and peace work. He has returned each year since then, but he still lives in France where he writes, teaches, and helps refugees.

"Being Peace" is the title of the book I'm drawing from this morning It is a compilation of talks Thich Nhat Hanh gave to peace workers and meditation students during a tour in 1985. He talks in Buddhist metaphors, primarily to Buddhist students. I believe that, with regard to bringing peace into our hearts and to making peace a lifestyle, what he says is just as applicable to Unitarian Universalists, or to anyone for that matter. He says, quoting the ancient Bodhisattvas, that Buddhist meditation is only a finger pointing at the moon, it isn't the moon itself, it is only a path to being peace, it isn't being peace itself. There are many paths, so whether Zen Buddhism holds any sway with you or not, listen to the wisdom Thich Nhat Hanh has found along his path. I'm going to speak of it in more universal terms than he normally uses, and I'm not going to continually credit him, but know that it is Thich Nhat Hanh's wisdom I share this morning and not my own.

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders. If we are only filled with the suffering and not in touch with the wonders of the world, with beauty, happiness and peace, we cannot share those wonders with others. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, even as we are dealing with sorrow and suffering, we have the capacity to notice, appreciate, and enjoy those wonders. It is a pity if we are only aware of suffering, our own or that of others.

The point of spiritual practice, be it meditation or prayer or yoga or simply a daily time of quiet reflection, is to help ourselves learn to be aware of the wonders of life, to remind ourselves to relax, to be peaceful, to smile.

Have you ever noticed how contagious a smile is? When someone smiles, we feel better. This is a gift we can all give to ourselves and one another. Thich Nbat Hanh tells of a time when he was sitting with a group of children and one boy, Tim, was smiling beautifully. He said, "Tim, you have a very beautiful smile." Tim said, "thank you." He said, "You don't have to thank me, I have to thank you. Because of your smile, you make my life more beautiful. Instead of saying ‘Thank you' you should say ‘You're welcome.'"

If we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, everyone around us will benefit from it. This, he says, is the most basic kind of peace work. He offers four little lines you can recite at any time to help you be peaceful. Close your eyes, if you are comfortable, and try it with me now:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

"Breathing in, I calm my body". Feel the freshness of this. Feel your breath actually calm you body, calm your mind.

"Breathing out, I smile." A smile can relax hundreds of tiny muscles in your face and relax your whole nervous system.

"Dwelling in the present moment..." don't think of somewhere else, of the past or the future. Too much of our lives is taken up with resentments or hurts or regrets that belong to the past. Even more is taken up with living in the future. We tend to say, "wait until I finish school and get my degree, then I'll be truly alive." But then it's the job or the car or the house or having children or when the children are grown or when our parents no longer need us or until we retire. We tend to postpone being fully alive until some future goal is met but now is the moment to be fully alive. Otherwise, we may never be fully alive at all in our entire life. Dwell, be, here and now, in the present moment.

"I know this is a wonderful moment." This is the only moment that is real. Let it simply be a wonderful moment. Enjoying this moment is our most important task right now.

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Even though life is hard and it is sometimes quite difficult to smile, we have to try if we are to bring peace into our hearts. We become what we concentrate on, what we give our psychic energy to. If we are filled with sorrow, we can simply be sorrow. Or, we can smile to our sorrow and know that we are much more than our sorrow. We are kind of like a TV satellite dish, capable of receiving hundreds of channels. What we choose to tune in to is what we become. Spiritual practices, self-help groups, therapy, and hopefully church, can help us to tune in to the life affirming, self-strengthening, peace making channels within us.

Now even though you are all relaxed, don't doze off or tune out just now because if you do, you'll think that all I said this morning was relax, smile, and live in the present moment. Don't worry, be happy, as the title of a reggae song says. That's very important, but it isn't enough. Taken by itself, living in the present moment and smiling a lot doesn't lead to very much depth, and doesn't contribute much to the world beyond the fleeting warmth of the smile. In fact, it can be down right irritating to those around us. What we're talking about here is developing a peace-filled self that goes beyond "don't worry - be happy" to inspire and spread peace in our troubled world.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the three gems of Buddhism: awakening, growing in love and understanding, and building communities of harmony and awareness. There are parallels in other religious thought and in secular wisdom. What does it mean to be awake? To grow in love and understanding" And to create communities of harmony and awareness? All three are intertwined, and to make clear distinctions between them is somewhat artificial, but our minds and our language work in categories.

Being awake is being in touch with the reality that includes, but is larger than, one's own life. In part, that has to do with things just being as they are, and how we see those things being our own human judgements about them. It also has to do with perception and with putting our feelings in a larger context. In Unitarian Universalism, we talk about the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part. Thich Nhat Hanh talk about Buddha nature. In both cases, it is the idea that we are one with all of life, and that that has implications for how we live. To be awake is to realize understanding, love and compassion. To realize - to make real in the world through our living and our being. To allow understanding, love and compassion to live and breathe through us. To actualize them rather than only hold them as mental concepts.

To be awake, to comprehend something, we have to become one with it. Our word, comprehend, is like the French word, comprendre, which means to know or to understand. ‘Com' means to be one, to be together. ‘Prendre' means to take or to grasp. To really comprehend something is to take that thing up and to be one with it. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about working with a committee for orphans from the war in Vietnam. From Vietnam, they would send out an application for each child, one sheet of paper with a small picture in one corner and the name, age, and condition of the child. The committee would translate each application into French, English, Dutch or German in order to seek sponsors so that the child would have food to eat and books for school and maybe even funds to place him or her with a family. Each day, he would translate about thirty applications into French. He approached this by simply looking at the picture of the child, not reading the application, but looking at the child for a minute or two. He says that when he picked up his pen to translate, it was not him translating, but he and the child together. He became one with the child and together, they wrote the application.

Now I don't know if Thich Naht Hanh's translations were superior to those of people who simply translated the words. But doesn't it seem somehow extraordinary to you? It may or may not have made much difference in the sponsorship the children received, but I can't help but believe that approaching the task with such awareness somehow increased the sum of love in the world. And it increased Thich Nhat Hanh's own awakeness which in turn helps him to increase the awakeness of those he meets and teaches which also impacts those with whom they come into contact. Practicing such comprehension, such taking on and becoming one with, is a benefit to the whole world.

There are many ways to awaken to our interconnectedness. Consider planting a garden. These particular plants are depending upon you to plant them. They will live or die because of the earth. The earth is also depending upon the plants to make it fertile because when they die and decompose, they makes the soil richer. We, too, are dependent upon the earth to feed the vegetables we grow, and upon the vegetables to feed us. We are interconnected and interdependent. Planting a garden has a different quality when we comprehend, take on and become one with, the plants and the earth. We can eat the vegetables anyway, but we bring more love into the world with our comprehension.

All things are one with all other things. With the awakened eye, you can see clearly a cloud floating in a sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there would be no water; without water, the trees cannot grow and without trees you cannot make paper. So, the cloud is here. There are many other things in this paper, too. Sunshine is here because the forest cannot grow without sunshine. Neither can we humans grow without sunshine. The logger who cut the tree needs sunshine and the tree needs sunshine, so the logger and the sunshine are in this paper, too. If you look very closely, you can also see the wheat that became the bread for the logger here. You can see his father and mother. Look even more closely and you can see everything in this sheet of paper. Without all of these elements, this paper is empty - it is empty of a separate self. But it is full of everything - it is full of the entire cosmos.

You, too, are empty of a separate self - but you are full of the cosmos. How you experience that cosmos depends upon what you do with your feelings and your perceptions. Whether our feelings are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral depends in large part upon our perceptions. With understanding, we can develop more love, and with love we can transform unpleasant feelings into pleasant ones.

A young boy wakes up one morning and sees that it is already quite late. He goes into his sister's room to wake her up so she will have enough time for breakfast before going to school. He wakes her pleasantly enough, but she is grumpy and instead of saying "thank you for waking me up," she says, "Shut up! Get out of here and leave me alone," and kicks him. He will probably get angry. He thinks, "Why did she kick me? I woke her up nicely." He may go to the kitchen and tell his mom about it. He may kick her back. But then he remembers that during the night, his sister coughed a lot. He decides she must be sick. Maybe she is getting a cold and that's why she behaved so meanly. He is not angry anymore. Instead of telling his mom how mean she was, he asks her to go check on his sister. At that moment, he is awake.

He understands, and he reacts with love. When we understand, we love. And when we love, we naturally act in ways that can relieve the suffering of others. It is so much easier to get caught up in our own feelings, in our own reactions to the negativity of others. But it is an act of peacemaking to try to understand. To develop understanding, we must practice looking at things with the eyes of compassion. Sometimes we have to just stop for a moment, to let our negative reaction pass over us, and then enlarge our perception of what might be going on. We might go back to that simple exercise:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

Taking the time to be aware of our oneness, to understand, to love will bring peace into our hearts and peace into the lives of those we love. Make peace a lifestyle, not just an issue.

As useful and important as it can be to us, sometimes our knowledge can be an obstacle to our understanding, like a block of ice that obstructs the flow of a stream. It is said that if we take a thing to be true and cling to it, even if truth itself comes in person and knocks on our door, we will refuse to open it. We must be willing to abandon our perceptions about things to gain understanding.

There is a Buddhist story about a young widower. He had a five-year-old son whom he loved very much. One day when the father was away on business, bandits came, burned down his whole village, and took his son away. When the man returned, he saw the ruins and panicked. He took the charred remains of a child to be his son and was sick with grief, crying uncontrollably. He cremated the remains, collected the ashes, and put them in a beautiful velvet bag. Working, sleeping, eating, he always carried the bag of ashes with him.

One day the man's real son escaped from the bandits and found his way home. He arrived at his father's new cottage at midnight, and knocked at the door. You can imagine at that time, the young father was still carrying the bag of ashes, and crying. He asked, "who is there"" And the child answered, "It is me, Papa. Open the door." In his state of mind, the father thought that some mischievous boy was making fun of him, and he shouted at the child to go away and continued his crying. The boy knocked again and again, but the father only became more and more hurt by what he thought was a cruel joke, and refused to let him in. Some time passed, and finally the child left. The father and son never saw one another again.

When we cling so tightly to what we take to be true, we are not open to truth. Guarding knowledge is not a good way to find understanding. Understanding means a willingness to throw away our knowledge. You must be willing to let go of your views and your knowledge in order to transcend them and reach understanding.

The third gem of Buddhism that Nhat Hanh talks about is building communities of awareness and harmony. You have many opportunities in your life to build such communities.

When you are with your family and you practice calming yourself, smiling, living in the moment, being awake, understanding, and loving, you are building a community of awareness and harmony. Your attitude is contagious. You teach peace by being peace. When you practice these things among your friends, at your work place, at your community organizations, here at church, you are building communities of awareness and understanding. You make a difference. It is through you that understanding, love and compassion are realized - made real in the world.

This all may seem very simple and not very effective for bringing about the kind of world peace we long for. But Thich Naht Hanh and many other wise people in the world today tell us that until peace is in our hearts, there will not be peace in the world. We promote the attitudes that promote war between peoples in so many unconscious ways in our daily lives. Unconsciously, we practice, and teach our children, to be afraid of people, to see enemies in strangers. We compete. We think in dualities - right and wrong, good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, our side and their side, left and right. We need to learn understanding, love and compassion to create a peaceful world.

Thich Naht Hanh talks about his work in Vietnam when he was remaining neutral and trying to help victims of the war. Many of the monks in his order were killed by both sides because they were suspected by each of being on the other side. They tried to understand both sides and tell their perceptions to both: that the fighting needed to stop. They sought reconciliation, but both sides sought only victory. What these monks saw that no one else could see was that there was suffering being endured on both sides; there were very real, very human hopes and fears, visions and dream, on both sides.

In his peace work, Naht Hanh asks people to do a meditation exercise to practice being both sides of a thing. Remember, to comprehend is to take on and become one with. Before the cold war ended, he once asked an American woman to do this exercise, first being an American, and then, after some breathing and meditation, to become a Soviet citizen. She experienced deep fears and longings for peace in both parts of the exercise.

He also talks about letters his Zen center in France receives from refugee camps in Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines where the Vietnamese boat people land the approximately fifty percent that make it across the Gulf of Siam. Many of the young girls among the boat people are raped by sea pirates. One letter told of a twelve year old girl who was raped by a Thai pirate and jumped in the ocean and drowned herself

When he first learned of this, he was angry. It was natural to take the side of the little girl and want to kill the pirate. But in meditation he realized that had he been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions, he might have become the pirate. He saw that there are hundreds of babies born each day along the Gulf of Siam, and if we, the rest of the world, don't do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. If any one of us were born today in one of those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates. To kill the pirate who raped the child is in some way to kill us all because we could all be that pirate. Condemning the pirate is too easy an answer, an answer that leads to more killing and away from peace.

There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse which is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, "Where are you going?" The man on the horse yells back, "I don't know, ask the horse." This is the situation we face. Our world is riding many horses we cannot control.

There are many things we can do to begin to get these horses under some kind of control, but we must begin with ourselves. If we could just learn, person by person, to be awake, to understand and love, to build small communities of awareness and harmony, to make peace a lifestyle and not just an issue, we might begin to create a peaceful world. It may take a long time before enough people learn to change the world, but we must begin. And in the meantime, the enriched quality of our own lives is enough reward for our efforts.

On this Remembrance Day weekend and always, may peace be in our hearts.

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