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Old Path White Clouds – Talk 1 – 2016 Series

By: Norman Fischer | 01/06/2016
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Everyday Zen, Pali Canon

Norman initiates his series with Talk #1 on “Old Path White Clouds” by Thich Nhat Hanh at the January 2016 Bay Area Dharma Seminar.

Excerpt from this talk on the eleven practices to become an arhat, from Buddha’s Water Buffalo sermon.

Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum

Oh, bhikkhus, the ones who follow these eleven points will attain arhatship in six years of practice.”

This is pretty good, it tells you all you need to do for six years to become free. This is a good summary of the entire path. If you could follow the Buffalo Sutra, that would be all you need to do. That would be it! You don’t need the rest of it; it is all extra.

I am going to end my talk by briefly going through these eleven points in my own words, because they are worth considering.

1) Be aware of the body

This is so important. Having an intimate, constant relationship with your breathing is one of the greatest things that you can do. The greatest gift of a lifetime: to know your breathing. In times of stress or difficulty, to be able to immediately go to your breathing, to be aware of your body, as a habit, as a practice. It has so many implications and changes for your life. Oddly, we wouldn’t think so, but being aware of your body is the most powerful way to open mind and open your heart.

2) Be aware of actions of body, speech, and mind

Studying the effects of those actions until you can see what kinds of actions of body, speech, and mind will bring you peace and a good feeling, and which kinds of actions of body, speech, and mind will bring you suffering. You can choose, right? If you talk this way, and you notice that talking this way will bring you suffering, why would you want to continue talking this way? Why don’t you talk in a different way that brings more happiness to you and the people around you? So you study that; you are aware. You just don’t just throw away your words and your thoughts and your actions. You are aware of them.

3) Pay close attention to afflictive emotions


Every time you are angry, every time you are upset, every time you are full of greed or envy or rage or frustration, pay attention to what’s going on. Look at those moments. Notice how uncomfortable it is when you get angry and cling to the anger. This is not a happy time for you. Noticing that, you make a serious commitment to yourself not to cling to those emotions, not to justify them, pick them up and wave them around. It doesn’t matter if you’re right. That’s why we do that, because we’re right! But being right doesn’t help. It just makes you more miserable, and makes other people more miserable. So you study your afflictive emotions, and you pay attention and think about them more deeply.

4) Watch the six sense stores carefully

I think that for me the way you do that is by participating in longer sittings. Because during the busy, crazy, everyday life, when you are doing things fast and reacting, it’s very hard to notice that you are seeing something, notice that you are hearing something, notice that you are tasting something. But in a retreat – probably one day is enough – even in a one day of sitting, you notice seeing, hearing. You notice that the world is not just a given. The world is an intentional creation of your senses. So watching the sense stores, and noticing when you watch closely, especially if you are sitting for more than a day – I am sure many of you have had this experience – you begin to notice how acts of perception easily become sticky. You see something, and there is a grabbiness in your seeing. You hear something, and there is a grabbiness. Sometimes the grabbiness takes the form of aversion. You don’t like hearing this, you don’t like tasting that. You see how the afflictive emotions find their root in the very sense perceptions. When you see that enough times, you can release yourself from that, and then you can enjoy. It is an incredible thing to live in a sensual world: that you can see, that you can hear, that you can taste, that you can touch, that you can feel the wind on these brisk days. We can have a lot of joy in just being alive in a sensual world, with sense organs, when we cleanse and study the sense gates. It takes an extended period of peacefulness to be able to do.

5) Practice kindness

Practicing kindness and helping others, the best you can, to also practice kindness, not encouraging others in their critique of one another, in their denigration of themselves and others, but encouraging kindness in yourself and others.

6) Avoid the things in our lives that don’t help

We know what they are. We all have our favorite list: the people who would be a better for us not to hang around with; the substances that we indulge in, which would be a better idea not to indulge in quite so much, or, if at all; the videos that we obsessively watch. All the things we do, the ways of thinking and looking at life, that are habitual, don’t help. Gently, without being a puritan. Letting go of our attachment to these things.

7) Practice sitting

This is a great thing. Doing it regularly, not just once a week, or once a month, but every day! It’s a pleasure to sit every day. I think it is better to sit early in the morning, before everybody gets up, and the world bustles along. It’s great to sit when it is quiet. I am fortunate. I can sit where it’s quiet. And it’s a pleasure. Once you get used to the idea that it is a pleasure, and not something that you are supposed to do because it is good for you. No, it’s not something you are supposed to do because it is good for you. It’s something you do because it is a pleasure. And it helps a lot, because when you are sitting every day, all these other practices are much easier to do. They appear in your life, you don’t ignore them, they come forward to meet you, when you sit every day. When you sit every day, your day goes better. You are less stressed out, you’re happier.

8) Practice The Four Noble Truths as a guide for your life

Although in Zen we don’t emphasize having a vision of Buddhism, or a teaching we follow; in fact, when we are practicing, we do have a vision for how we are living. We are not just living willy-nilly. We have a path. We have a point of view. We have a way of living. We are not wild buffalos; we are taming our buffalo. This Buffalo Sutra is where the Zen ox herding pictures come from. Training our buffalo is training our mind, training our heart. So we are not wild buffalos. We are trained, tamed buffalos. We are Americans, so wild buffalos sounds pretty good to us, but, actually, wildness isn’t freedom. Wildness is being a slave to the greatest tyrant of all, which is one’s self and one’s own impulses and wild desires. Being wild is being enslaved to suffering, and not even knowing that you are.

9) Practice the Four Foundations of Mindfulness

Practicing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness simply comes down to paying attention to your life, being aware and being present for your life, seeing what’s going on, with honesty, with forgiveness. What’s really happening here? That’s mindfulness.

10) Preserve good relationships with your community

Again, this is really important. There is no such thing as “my spiritual practice.” Nobody practices alone. Nobody practices as an atomized individual. The only way that anybody practices is together. So we need to have good relationships and make friendship and the preservation and enhancement and beautification of friendships in the dharma our priority. More important than our need for power, our self interest, our self realization.

11) Trust and respect our elders

This is a tricky one, I think, because the world we are living in now is so radically different with respect to the world of the Buddha, or even the world that Thich Nhat Hanh grew up in the early 20th century in Vietnam. That world was a world built on authority, maybe you might say patriarchy. It was almost a feudalistic world, in which one recognized, respected, and maybe even, to some extent, feared one’s elders and social superiors.

The world we live in now is one in which we are aspiring – struggling – to radical democracy and social equality. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to practice respect. I don’t think that democracy and social equality means that we should pull everyone down to a low level. Maybe when we start with the assumption that we ourselves, deep inside ourselves, are at a pretty low level, then we feel as if we want everybody to be on the same level that we are on. I don’t think democracy is that. I think democracy and social equality really mean raising us all up to a higher level. In order to do that, respect becomes a crucial practice. That’s why it’s the eleventh practice; it capstones all this, as if the kingpin of this all is respect: respect of the practice, respect for ourselves, and specifically respect for our elders.

So respect is a really important practice, and it is all but absent in the world we live in now. There is very little respect. There are no heroes, right? Everyone is subject to being trashed on the Internet.

Se we need to develop a sense of respect and honor. Respecting ourselves, respecting one another, and respecting elders. I think we all know one another well enough in this community, know that elders are not always the wisest ones. But elders are always elders. They may not be the wisest ones, but they are elders. One thing about being an elder, that you know, is that every elder has an elder. In other words, every elder is someone who looks toward someone else that they respect. So everybody is practicing respect, including the elders.

Maybe that is what we mean when we talk about an elder in the dharma. An elder in the dharma is someone who has practiced for a long time and who has practiced respect for a long time. Even if that person is younger than us chronologically, they would be our elder, if they have practiced for a long time. We would respect them for that, regardless of how wise they are or are not.

I think that it would be a really good idea to extend this practice to people who have lived a long time, because the sense of our practice is that someone who has lived a long time is someone who has practiced a long time. So as a practice, maybe we should practice respect for the elderly. As we know, in or world this is not what is commonly practiced. The elderly are not respected. Therefore, they often do not respect themselves inside, because the society does not value and respect them as they should be respected. So this would be a revolutionary thing for all of us to practice. Buddha gave this as the last lynchpin of the eleven practices.

So, that’s the program. Just do those things. He doesn’t say that you must do them perfectly. So just do them the best you can. It only takes six years! That’s what he says, so it’s worth a try. So write the list down. Put it on your refrigerator, practice all of those things for six years, and probably you will be an arhat.


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