I am currently enrolled in a Buddhist Traditions course, and today I will be presenting my reflection on Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Old Path White Clouds. Such a beautiful, deep text! It was hard to choose one aspect to reflect on only four minutes. Below is my reflection along with the images from the power point I will share through my classmates. You might recognize these photographs from the slideshow I posted last year after I visited Deer Park Monastery.
In Old Path White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hanh masterfully discusses meditation, mindfulness, and other key concepts of Buddhism. In over five-hundred pages, he guides readers on a path with the Buddha, allowing for a deep experience in the reading of the text. Of the many elements presented in Old Path White Clouds, two key ideas stand out: meditation and mindfulness. Ultimately, these notions can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Meditation fosters mindfulness, and mindfulness cultivates meditation.
Utilizing the voice of the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the importance of meditation, which “will bring peace to your heart” (69), “nourish body and mind and provide the strength needed to pursue the path to enlightenment” (105). The deep importance and power of meditation is most aptly demonstrated in the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment. It is important to note that the Buddha was dedicated to meditation both before and after enlightenment. As the popular Zen proverb reminds us: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Enlightenment was pivotal in Siddhartha’s transformation to the Buddha, but it does not change the things he must do to continue nourishing his spiritual life and teach those around him.
Through Enlightenment, the Buddha found the answer to his quest for learning how to live in a world that contains suffering. In meditation, Buddha discovered that suffering comes from wrong thinking. It is through meditation and practices of mindfulness that one can overcome wrong thinking and see the reality of impermanence and inter-being, other important principles in Buddhism. The way to achieve both meditation and mindfulness is by bringing awareness to the present moment. This is an important ability because “Life can be found only in the present moment . . . Once you know how to return to the present moment, you will become awakened, and at that moment, you will find your true self” (163).
In an important passage on pages 514-515 in Old Path White Clouds, the Buddha offers ten ways that “happiness can be realized in this very life,” (514) including “[l]earn[ing] how to meditate in order to release sorrows and anxieties” (515). There is a very circular nature in the concepts presented by the Buddha. By being in the moment, one can experience life and one’s true self. By taking care of one’s self, one can take care of others. In tending to others, one is also tending to the self. By meditating, one learns how to be mindful. Through being mindful and focusing only on the present moment, one can move into meditation. All these elements work together in a powerful way that reciprocally aids the self, others and nature (which are not separate, as taught through the concept of inter-being): “By nourishing awareness in the present moment, you can avoid causing suffering to yourself and those around you. The way you look at others, your smile, and your small acts of caring can create happiness” (513). Mindfulness and meditation are keys to fostering and sharing happiness. Through this path of happiness, one also finds peace, understanding (of self and others), and acceptance (of suffering and impermanence).
What is truly wonderful about meditation and mindfulness is that they can be practiced on a daily basis and in any location. Furthermore, one does not have to be Buddhist in order to participate in these practices or benefit from them. They offer universal truths that can facilitate great change in everyone’s lives. Last year, I had the opportunity to attend two dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh and to join with many others in a guided meditation walk he led at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California. As I read Old Path White Clouds, I could hear his voice and feel the sense of peace that he so beautifully radiates. I see meditation and mindfulness as a symbiotic process that is having a powerful effect on my life.
“If you want to see the essence of a lotus flower, you must see the lotus present in all the dharmas normally thought of as non-lotus, such as the sun, pond water, clouds, mud, and heat. Only by looking in this way can we tear asunder the web of narrow views, the web of mental discrimination which creates the prisons of birth, death, here, there, existence, non-existence, defiled, immaculate, increasing and decreasing . . . reality in itself cannot be expressed by conceptual knowledge or by written and spoken language. Only the understanding which meditation brings can help us recognize the essence of reality” (466-467).