Short: Thay's answer for the question:
What is the purpose of going on Buddhist retreats? Why not just read a book on Buddhism?
The purpose of a retreat is not to teach you about Buddhist psychology or about a particular sutra. For that you can buy a book and read on your own. The purpose of the retreat is to help us untie the knots inside. There are two kinds of knots. One knot is our notions and ideas. Everyone has notions and ideas and we are attached to them, we are not free, so we have no chance to touch the truth in life. The second knot is our afflictions like fear, anger, discrimination, despair, and arrogance. All these things should be removed in order for us to be free. The things you do on retreat, like walking, sitting, breathing, smiling, and listening to a Dharma talk, should have the function of helping you undo these two kinds of knots.
The knots are embedded deeply in our mind, in our consciousness. They bind us and compel us to do things we don't want to do, to say things we don't want to say. When you listen to a Dharma talk at a retreat, the purpose of the talk is not to give you more notions and ideas; the purpose is to help you release notions and ideas. The talk should be like the rain that can touch the seeds of wisdom and freedom within you. That's why we have to learn how to listen. We're not listening to the words. We're listening in order to get free from all notions and concepts. When you go home, if you forget everything that was said on the retreat that's a good sign. You don't have to remember anything. You should go home free. We're used to having homework from school that requires us to remember many things—words, notions, and concepts—and we think this kind of luggage is useful for our life. But in terms of the practice, this luggage is a burden. So the purpose of the retreat is to help free you from the burden of knowledge, notions, and concepts and from the burden of afflictions, anger, and despair.
Long: Thay's introduction to the 21-day retreat in 1990
My dear friends, welcome to the first twenty-one-day retreat I have offered in North America.
It is a very happy event. Four hundred of us have come to form a Sangha, a community of practice that carries within itself the Buddha and the Dharma. Wherever there is a Sangha, the Buddha and the Dharma are also present.
Among us are experienced meditators who have spent ten, maybe twenty years or more practicing meditation. And among us are also many who are new to the practice. But don't worry. The retreat will benefit all of us, including myself. When the Sangha is here, we have the opportunity to benefit from its collective energy. This is a rare opportunity to receive that energy of the Sangha for our own transformation and healing. Many here are happy practitioners. When you look at such happy people, you know that they are solid in the practice. Their way of walking, sitting, and smiling testifies to their solidity, freedom, and happiness. It is a blessing to have such people among us. They radiate peace, joy, stability, freedom, and happiness. Please make yourselves available to receive the collective energy of the Sangha. Allow yourselves just to be in the Sangha and stop all struggling.
It is so common to struggle in daily life. We are rarely at ease in the here and the now, always struggling, trying to attain something. The first element of the practice is to stop struggling. Just allow yourself to be. The Sangha is like a flowing river. Allow yourself to be a drop of water in the river, and just flow together with that river. If you cannot let go of your anxieties, you won't be able to do that. Taking refuge in the Sangha is not a declaration of faith. It is a practice. It means you allow yourself to be held by the Sangha. You have confidence in the Sangha. When you allow yourself to be in a Sangha the way a drop of water allows itself to be in a river, the energy of the Sangha can penetrate you, and transformation and healing become possible.
If you are a beginner in the practice
If you are a beginner in the practice, don't worry about what is the correct thing to do. What is most important is to allow yourself to be in the Sangha. Just be yourself. Stop struggling. During our retreat, we will practice mindful walking, sitting, and breathing. We will have meals together in mindfulness and Dharma discussions. Please enjoy every minute of our being together. Learn to walk so that each step brings you peace, relaxation, and joy. Learn to breathe in and out in a way that joy and life become possible. You are the only one who knows if you are practicing correctly. No one else can judge. If you take a step and feel peaceful and happy, that is the correct practice. When you practice breathing in and out, if you feel peaceful, if you enjoy your in-breath and out-breath, then you know that you are doing it correctly. Have confidence in yourself. When you do it correctly, there is a feeling of well-being, of peace, and of joy. Whether you stand in the right place or bow at the right moment is not important. Wherever you find yourself, if you feel at ease and peaceful and not under pressure, then you are doing it right. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you be in the here and the now in order to experience this kind of bliss, this kind of peace and joy.
We are not here to do intensive practice
We are not here to do intensive practice. I don't like the word "intensive." What does it mean? Walking meditation is just walking meditation. If you do it correctly, you get the peace, solidity, and freedom you deserve. There is no need to do it intensively. Each step has its own value. If every step can help you cultivate more freedom, peace, and joy, that is good enough. The practice should be pleasant. Don't struggle. Whether you are practicing walking or breathing, it should bring you joy, relaxation, and peace.
You don't need to do anything to prepare for this retreat. We will not give you a lot of things to read. There is only one page of reading for the whole twenty-one-day retreat. It is a sheet of paper that contains the names of the sixteen ways of breathing. Also, don't worry about taking notes. The important thing is that you are fully here, and you allow yourself to be penetrated by the energy of the Sangha and the Dharma. The Dharma is a kind of rain, not only in the form of spoken words, but also what you see around you, what you listen to, what you touch. The Dharma comes to you in different forms. When you see a sister walking with peace and joy or sitting with stability, that is the Dharma. When you are greeted by a brother who forms his palms into a lotus flower, smiling, that is the Dharma. He is practicing mindfulness of bowing and mindfulness of smiling. The energy of mindfulness that is radiating from that person is the Dharma.
When you receive the energy of the Dharma from another person, you also radiate the energy of the Dharma from within yourself, because you are also capable of breathing in and out and smiling. Doing this unites your body and mind, and brings you to the present moment. That is already the Dharma. You can touch life from within and without. That is already enlightenment and awakening. If your smile is born from that kind of awareness and awakening, your smile is the living Dharma. You can produce the living Dharma and enhance the quality of your Sangha any time of the day.
We have come together as a Sangha
We have come together as a Sangha. Each of us can contribute to the quality of the Sangha by enjoying the practice with our own being. We are here, and the quality of our presence is determined by our awareness, our mindfulness. If you let your body and mind get caught in the past or the future, or let your body be caught in worries and fear, you don't have much to contribute to the Sangha. But if you know how to make yourself truly present, body and mind united, how to enjoy your in-breath and out-breath, and how to become aware that being here with the Sangha is a wonderful opportunity, you will improve the quality of your Sangha. All of us can profit from your presence and your contribution. If you can produce a smile that is authentic and genuine, the crown of enlightenment and mindfulness, it is the Dharma. When you walk with the awareness of each step that you take, you will enjoy more solidity, freedom, and happiness. Each step taken in mindfulness contributes to the quality of the Sangha. If everyone practices like that, then the energy of the Sangha will be healing and transforming. I promise to do my best. The sisters and brothers who sit with me here promise to do their best. And I know that you would like to do the same. The quality of the Sangha depends on every one of us. All of us profit from the collective energy of the Sangha.
In the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing (Anapananusmriti Sutra), the Buddha shows us how to transform our fear, despair, anger, and craving. The teaching is clear. We are going to learn the teaching and the practice. In order to succeed in the practice, we need the energy of mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness in each person may not be enough for transformation and healing to take place, but if we make use of the energy of mindfulness of other brothers and sisters, we will be able to make it happen. We can profit from the Sangha. In the past, you may have felt that you could not bear to be alone, and when a friend came and sat close to you, you felt better, because you were supported by his or her energy. It is the same case now. Maybe you think that the energy of mindfulness produced by your practice is not enough for your transformation and healing. Look at the people around you who are practicing. Some of them have practiced for a long time, and their happiness is quite solid. With their energy of mindfulness, your transformation and healing is possible. That is why we have to have confidence in the Sangha.
Not only is the Buddha a jewel and the Dharma a jewel, but the Sangha is a true jewel. Taking refuge in the Sangha means we have confidence in the Sangha and know how to profit from the energy it emanates. This is not a five-day or seven-day retreat, it is a twenty-one-day retreat. Let us be intelligent enough to profit from this rare retreat. You have made a great effort to be here. If you allow yourself to be in the retreat one hundred percent, this retreat will be wonderful, and it will profit everyone in the Sangha. Let us concentrate so we can be here in body and mind, one hundred percent, and together we can create a powerful energy to help all of us heal and transform. "I take refuge in the Sangha" is not a statement, it is a practice.
I would like to offer now some instructions on walking, breathing, smiling, and eating. When we have breakfast or lunch, we don't all have to eat together at the same time. If we do, we might not have time to do other things, like individual walking meditation.
When you come to the dining hall, after you get your food and sit at a table, and when your table has enough people, you can begin the practice of mindful eating. Mindful eating is very pleasant. We sit beautifully. We are aware of the people that are a part of our Sangha sitting around us. We are aware of the food on our plates. This is a deep practice. Each morsel of food is an ambassador from the cosmos. When we pick up a piece of a vegetable, we look at it for half a second. We look mindfully to really recognize the piece of food, the piece of carrot or string bean. We should know that this is a piece of carrot or a string bean. We identify it with our mindfulness: "I know this is a piece of carrot. This is a piece of string bean." It only takes a fraction of a second. When we are mindful, we recognize what we are picking up. When we put it into our mouth, we know what we are putting into our mouth. When we chew it, we know what we are chewing. Its very simple.
Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it. It has come from the whole cosmos for our nourishment. You may like to smile to it before you put it in your mouth. When you chew it, you are aware that you are chewing a piece of carrot. Don't put anything else into your mouth, like your projects, your worries, your fear, just put the carrot in. And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are capable of living in the present moment, in the here and the now. It is simple, but you need some training to just enjoy the piece of carrot. This is a miracle.
I often teach "orange meditation" to my students. We spend time sitting together, each enjoying an orange. Placing the orange on the palm of our hand, we look at it while breathing in and out, so that the orange becomes a reality. If we are not here, totally present, the orange isn't here either. There are some people who eat an orange but don't really eat it. They eat their sorrow, fear, anger, past, and future. They are not really present, with body and mind united. When you practice mindful breathing, you become truly present. If you are here, life is also here. The orange is the ambassador of life. When you look at the orange, you discover that it is nothing less than a miracle. Visualize the orange as a blossom, the sunshine and rain passing through it, then the tiny green fruit growing, turning yellow, becoming orange, the acid becoming sugar. The orange tree took time to create this masterpiece. When you are truly here, contemplating the orange, breathing and smiling, the orange becomes a miracle. It is enough to bring you a lot of happiness. You peel the orange, smell it, take a section, and put it in your mouth mindfully, fully aware of the juice on your tongue. This is eating an orange in mindfulness. It makes the miracle of life possible. It makes joy
The other miracle is the Sangha, the community in which everyone is practicing in the same way. The woman sitting next to me is also practicing mindfulness while eating her breakfast. How wonderful! She is touching the food with mindfulness. She is enjoying every morsel of her breakfast, like me. We are brother and sister on the path of practice. From time to time we look at each other and smile. It is the smile of awareness. It proves that we are happy, that we are alive. It is not a diplomatic smile. It is a smile born from the ground of enlightenment, of happiness. That smile has the power to heal. It can heal you and your friend. When you smile like that, the woman next to you will smile back. Before that, maybe her smile was not completely ripe. It was ninety percent ripe. If you offer her your mindful smile, you will give her the energy to smile one hundred percent. When she is smiling, healing begins to take place in her. You are very important for her transformation and healing. That is why the presence of brothers and sisters in the practice is so important.
This is also why we don't talk during breakfast. If we talk about the weather or the political situation in the Middle East, we can never say enough. We reserve our time to do the things we want to do during our retreat — mindful eating, breathing, smiling, and being here with our Dharma brothers and sisters. Talking takes away the precious time that we share here. We are not depriving ourselves of the joy of talking or imposing silence on ourselves so that we can become a Buddha. We need the silence to enjoy our own presence and the presence of our Dharma brothers and sisters. This kind of silence is very alive, powerful, nourishing, and transforming. It is not oppressive or sad. Together we can create this kind of noble silence. Sometimes it is described as "thundering silence" because it is so powerful.
When we listen to a Dharma talk and when we practice, questions are born within us. I suggest that you write them down in a small notebook. Write down every question that you have. Don't be too eager to ask the question. In my experience, if the question is answered by someone else, even by the teacher, the answer is not as good as when you find it by yourself. In the beginning, you may have a million questions. But you'll discover, with surprise, that through looking deeply and touching deeply, you can answer most of the questions by yourself by the end of the retreat. During the retreat, we will have three question-and-answer periods. I need these sessions in order to offer appropriate teachings. In these sessions, please only ask questions connected with your practice. In your practice, if you find something that you don't understand, that you have some difficulty with, or if you discover something wonderful, but you're not sure if it reflects the true teachings of the Buddha, please ask me.
Your notebook will be like a friend. When we have some insight or question, we write it in the notebook. It is a kind of conversation with ourselves. Some days we will practice in complete silence. When we want to communicate with someone, we write a note. Many of us find the practice of complete silence very rewarding. Last fall in Plum Village, we had a twenty-one-day inter- faith dialogue retreat that was almost totally silent. During the Dharma discussions, people were encouraged to express themselves, but apart from that, there was total silence. Everyone in the retreat loved it. They felt very safe and powerful, and they felt the energy of healing and solidity.
I would like to speak a little now about walking. Please make every step you take during the retreat a mindful step. When you move from one place to another, please practice mindful walking, no matter how short the distance. We will learn mindful walking with the Sangha, and we will walk mindfully together every day.
Perhaps you have used a seal before. When you stamp a seal onto a piece of paper, you make sure that the whole seal prints on the paper, so that when you remove the seal, the image is perfect. When we practice walking, we do the same thing. Every step we take is like placing a seal on the ground. Mindfulness is the ink. We print our solidity and peace on the ground. In our daily lives, we don't usually walk like that. We print our hurry, worry, depression, and anger on the ground. But here, together, we print our solidity, peace, and freedom on the ground. You know whether you succeed or not with each step. Bring all of your mindfulness to the soles of your feet and walk. Enjoy every step you take, not only when you walk together with the Sangha, but when you walk alone to the dining room, the meditation hall, or the Dharma discussions. Allow plenty of time to walk. Every step can be healing and transforming. Every step can help you cultivate more solidity, joy, and freedom.
We have only one style of walking in Plum Village: mindful walking. Whether we are having a retreat or not, everyone always walks the same way. That is why when our friends come to Plum Village, they naturally join in the practice and are supported by everyone else in their walking meditation. Walking meditation is a wonderful way to learn how to live deeply each moment of our daily life. You will be surprised to find out that, when you return home, it is possible to implement this practice in the busy city. There are ways to put into practice what we learn during a retreat. When we leave Plum Village and go to the airport or the train station, we practice the same way. Everywhere is Plum Village. When I board an airplane, I walk in exactly the same way, v printing peace and joy with every step.
Fifteen years ago, I led a mindfulness retreat in a center called Cosmos House in Amsterdam, where people practiced Tai Chi, Yoga, Zen, and so on. Our meditation room was on the top floor, and the staircase was quite narrow, especially up to the third and fourth floors. But I have only one style of walking. I cannot walk otherwise. My students and I blocked the stairs for hundreds of people behind us. On the third day of the retreat, everyone in Cosmos House had learned to walk like us.
I also remember when I marched for nuclear disarmament in New York City in 1982. There were a million Americans walking together that day. We were a group of thirty people. A Zen teacher, Richard Baker-roshi, asked me to join the march, and I said, "Will I be allowed to walk peacefully in the peace walk?" He said, "Yes, of course." So I joined, and our group walked mindfully, and we blocked more than two hundred thousand people behind us. Strangely enough, people accepted that, and they slowed down. Then the peace walk became more peaceful.
It is not difficult for us to walk peacefully here, because we are a Sangha practicing mindfulness. Please enjoy every step you take. Every mindful step is not only for your sake, but for the sake of the whole Sangha, the whole world. When you take a peaceful step, all of your ancestors in you take that step at the same time. You also walk for your children, whether they are born or unborn. Do not underestimate the strength, the value, of one step taken in mindfulness. One mindful step can produce healing and transformation for many generations. I promise to do my best. Peace is every step. All of us can do it. By the third or fourth day, you will have seen the difference. The presence of our brothers and sisters in the Sangha reminds us of the practice of peaceful walking.
The Bell of Mindfulness
Every time we hear the sound of the bell, it is an opportunity for us to go back to our mindful breathing. We may lose our mindful breathing, get lost in our thinking, in our projects and worries. The sound of the bell is the voice of the Buddha inside us calling us back to our true home, the here and the now. The practice of mindfulness is, foremost, to produce our true presence in the here and the now, so that everything becomes real and alive. During our meals, from time to time, you will hear the sound of the bell. It is for our enjoyment. When you hear the bell, remember to come back to the here and the now, and to recognize your food, and the Sangha. Learn to welcome the sound of the bell like a friend, like the Buddha smiling to us and wanting us to enjoy each moment of our retreat.
I know that you all just arrived today, and are still tired, so I will continue tomorrow.
All of his Dharma Talks of this retreat were collected and published in "The Path of Emancipation" book.