In Praise of Small Kindnesses


Today’s is a soft meditation
in praise of the enormity
of small kindnesses.

Like the café worker who waved enthusiastically
to my father as he walked in the door of the coffee shop
like she was expecting him,
like he was a regular in this hipster enclave
instead of a septuagenarian
in khaki shorts and white tennis shoes.

He met me here on my workday
so I could help him format a document —
something he couldn’t figure out how to do at home
no matter how many buttons he tried,
something my mother always did for him
in the decades after he gave up his trusty typewriter.
So he arrived at the coffee shop
             vulnerable and exasperated in that way
             that only technology can make us feel:
             like slow, dependent children — and
sorely missing my mother.

Like the barista who didn’t blink
when he ordered his coffee the wrong way,
when he said la-TAY instead of LAH-tey,
who took his order from our table
as if we were in a sit-down restaurant
and she was our waiter,
who smiled the whole time like a halo of warm light,
softening the space everywhere,
who made him feel like he belonged.

You cannot know how those small gestures matter,
unless you are him,
unless you are me, watching,
unless you see his shoulders relax,
             in that way that we can do only
             when we feel safe and seen enough to let go,
and his eyes dampen, the tiny liquid pools held in at the rims,
barely noticeable, as he smiles and says,
She always knew how to do this for me. For years she did this.
She would have been 69 today. How I miss her.
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Origins of Engaged Buddhism

Excerpt from “In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You” BY JOHN MALKIN| JULY 1, 2003

John Malkin: Will you describe the origins of Engaged Buddhism and how you became involved in compassion-based social change?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on-not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.

When I was a novice in Vietnam, we young monks witnessed the suffering caused by the war. So we were very eager to practice Buddhism in such a way that we could bring it into society. That was not easy because the tradition does not directly offer Engaged Buddhism. So we had to do it by ourselves. That was the birth of Engaged Buddhism.

Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.

John Malkin: Why did you come to the United States for the first time in 1966, and what happened while you were here?

Thich Nhat Hanh: I was invited by Cornell University to deliver a series of talks. I took the opportunity to speak about the suffering that was going on in Vietnam. After that I learned that the Vietnamese government didn’t want me to come home. So I had to stay on and continue the work over here. It was not my intention to come to the West and share Buddhism at all. But because I was forced into exile, I did. An opportunity for sharing just presented itself.

John Malkin: What did you learn from being in the United States during that time?

Thich Nhat Hanh: The first thing I learned was that even if you have a lot of money and power and fame, you can still suffer very deeply. If you don’t have enough peace and compassion within you, there is no way you can be happy. Many people in Asia would like to consume as much as Europeans and Americans. So when I teach in China and Thailand and in other Asian countries, I always tell them that people suffer very deeply in the West, believing that consuming a lot will bring them happiness. You have to go back to the traditional values and deepen your practice.

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Peace work means, first of all, being peace.

Excerpt from “Being Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditation is to see deeply into things, to see how we can change, how we can transform our situation. To transform our situation is also to transform our minds. To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation. Awakening is important. The nature of the bombs, the nature of injustice, the nature of the weapons, and the nature of our own being are the same. This is the real meaning of engaged Buddhism.

A system of seven practices of reconciliation:

The first practice is Face-to-Face Sitting.

The two conflicting monks are present, and they know that everyhone in the community expects them to make peace.

The second practice is Remembrance.

… trying to mend the things of the past.

The third principle is Non-stubbornness.

The outcome is not important. The fact that each monk is doing his best to show his willingness for reconciliation and understanding is most important.

You do your best, and that is enough.

The fourth practice is Covering Mud with Straw.

… the mud is the dispute, and the straw is the loving kindness of the Dharma.

The fifth stage is Voluntary Confession. Each monk reveals his own shortcomings, without waiting for others to say them.

… de-escalation …

… the capacity of mutual understanding and acceptance will be born.

… you are part of the community. The well-being of the community is most important. Don’t think only of your own feelings.

… sacrifice …

The sixth and seventh practices are Decision by Consensus and Accepting the Verdict. It is agreed in advance that the two monks will accept whatever verdict is pronounced by the whole assembly, or they will have to leave the community.

Peace work means, first of all, being peace.

There is a lot of anger, frustration, and misunderstanding in the peace movement. The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter. We need to learn to write a letter to the Congress or to the president of the United States that they will want to read, and not just throw away. The way you speak, the kind of understanding, the kind of language you use should not turn people off. The president is a person like any of us.

Can the peace movement talk in loving speech, showing the way for peace? I think that will depend on whether the people in the peace movement can be peace. Because without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.

I hope we can bring a new dimension to the peace movement. The peace movement is filled with anger and hatred. It cannot fulfill the path we expect from them. A fresh way of being peace, of doing peace is needed. That is why it is so important for us to practice meditation, to acquire the capacity to look, to see, and to understand. It would be wonderful if we could bring to the peace movement our contribution, our way of looking at things, that will diminish aggression and hatred. Peace work means, first of all, being peace. Meditation is meditation for all of us. We rely on each other. Our children are relying on us in order to have a future.

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Can there be peace without war?

Excerpt from Spiritual Reflections on War and Peace: A Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh,
Peace Forum, March 19, 2003

Q: You have mentioned that there is no happiness without suffering. When I change these words we might consider that there is no peace without war. Does this mean that we cannot avoid war; we should just accept it as unavoidable karma? Should we just keep silent and breathe in and out mindfully? What would you do when there is war?

Thay: This is an excellent question. War is not just the bombs falling on us. Every
time you have a thought that is full of anger and misunderstanding—that is war. War
can be manifested through our way of thinking, our way of speaking, and our
way of acting. We may be living in war, not knowing that we are fighting with ourselves
and the people around us. With the war in yourself and the war that you inflict
on other people, there is suffering within you and there is suffering around you.
Maybe in your daily life there are a few moments of ceasefire. But most are moments
of war.

Suppose there is a couple who quarrels all the time except when they are very tired;
these moments of not quarreling are not exactly peace, they are a ceasefire. Then suppose
a friend comes to visit and asks, “Why are you living in war twenty-four hours a
day? Why don’t you try living in peace?”  And the couple says, “We don’t know. Tell
us, what is peace? What can we do in order to have peace?” And the friend tells the
couple how to practice in order to bring back harmony into their bodies and into
their emotions and feelings and they begin to have a taste of peace. Supported by the
friend, the couple’s peace grows every day until one day they say, “It is wonderful, we
know what peace is now.”

But if there had been no experience of living at war, then how could they experience peace?

Thanks to the mud, the lotus flower is able to grow. The feeling of well-being and peace is possible only when you have experienced the feeling of war. As someone who has lived many decades in the midst of war, I know what war is. And elements of suffering in war have helped me to arrive at the state of being in peace today. If I did not know some practice of peace I would have died in the war of suffering.

We know that we are co-responsible for the situation of our society. By the way we
live our daily life we contribute to peace or to war. It is mindfulness that can tell me
that I am going in the direction of war and it is the energy of mindfulness that can help
me to make a turn and to go in the direction of peace. That is why I have translated
mindfulness and concentration as the Holy Spirit; it can transform your life.

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Fearlessness of an Open Heart

OnBeing post excerpt by Sharon Salzburg, “May You Know Fearlessness of an Open Heart”

Lovingkindness is the common translation of the word metta in Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts. Metta literally means “friendship.” I usually describe it as a deep knowing of how connected all of our lives are. Metta doesn’t mean we like everybody, it doesn’t even mean we like anybody, but with metta we know deep inside that our lives are all connected to one another. The corollary understanding is that everybody counts; everybody matters. Not everyone will be our best friend, but everybody’s life has something to do with ours.

Mindfulness practice relies on developing an ability to include more and more experiences of sight and sound and sensation and feeling and thought in our field of balanced awareness — not holding on, not pushing away, but simply being with our experience. This lays the ground for having a cleaner, clearer sense of what’s happening within us and around us, without so much projection, distortion or assumption getting in the way.

Many meditators I know do both some kind of awareness practice and some kind of lovingkindness practice. Lovingkindness practice relies on developing a flexibility of awareness, being able to stretch how we are paying attention, and being willing to try something different. For example, if at the end of the day we tend to mostly fixate on the mistakes we’ve made and the things we didn’t do quite right, we stretch and look for the good within us, or wish ourselves well. If we have the habit of going into the grocery store and looking right through the clerk, as though they were a piece of furniture, we stretch and look at them (even in our mind’s eye, while we are meditating.)

In lovingkindness practice we step away from our normal ruts of attention and experiment with walking through different terrain through the silent repetition of phrases, like “May I be happy” or “May you be peaceful.”

We’re not trying to fabricate or manufacture a big emotion; we are taking some risks stepping away from how we usually view ourselves and others. We’re not moving from a true place of “I’ve made mistakes today” to a phony place of “I’m absolutely perfect.” We’re moving from an untrue place, “I’m worthless,” or an incomplete place, “Let me count up those mistakes again, and again and not think of anything else,” to a more inclusive, connected, openhearted place, “I made mistakes, and that’s not all that I am. I, like everyone want to be happy. Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone should be happy.”

I often offer metta to my invisible, someday hoped-for reader, trying to convey the strength, courage, and vitality of the quality:

“May you know the fearlessness of an open heart. May you never meet anyone you consider a stranger, and know that no matter what, you are not alone. May you have compassion for others’ suffering and joy in their delights. May you be free to give and receive love.”

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Why the Buddha Kept Meditating

Excerpt from “No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering” by Thich Nhat Hanh.

When I was a young monk, I wondered why the Buddha kept practicing mindfulness and meditation even after he had already become a Buddha. Now I find the answer is plain enough to see. Happiness is impermanent, like everything else. In order for happiness to be extended and renewed, you have to learn how to feed your happiness. Nothing can survive without food, including happiness; your happiness can die if you don’t know how to nourish it. If you cut a flower but you don’t put it in some water, the flower will wilt in a few hours.

Even if happiness is already manifesting, we have to continue to nourish it. This is sometimes called conditioning, and it’s very important. We can condition our bodies and minds to happiness with the five practices of letting go, inviting positive seeds, mindfulness, concentration, and insight.


The first method of creating joy and happiness is to cast off, to leave behind. There is a kind of joy that comes from letting go. Many of us are bound to so many things. We believe these things are necessary for our survival, our security, and our happiness. But many of these things—or more precisely, our beliefs about their utter necessity—are really obstacles for our joy and happiness.

If you come to look deeply into your fearful attachment, you will realize that it is in fact the very obstacle to your joy and happiness. You have the capacity to let it go. Letting go takes a lot of courage sometimes. But once you let go, happiness comes very quickly. You won’t have to go around searching for it.


We each have many kinds of “seeds” lying deep in our consciousness. Those we water are the ones that sprout, come up into our awareness, and manifest outwardly.

One way of taking care of our suffering is to invite a seed of the opposite nature to come up. As nothing exists without its opposite, if you have a seed of arrogance, you have also a seed of compassion. Every one of us has a seed of compassion. If you practice mindfulness of compassion every day, the seed of compassion in you will become strong. You need only concentrate on it and it will come up as a powerful zone of energy.

Naturally, when compassion comes up, arrogance goes down. You don’t have to fight it or push it down. We can selectively water the good seeds and refrain from watering the negative seeds. This doesn’t mean we ignore our suffering; it just means that we allow the positive seeds that are naturally there to get attention and nourishment.


Mindfulness helps us not only to get in touch with suffering, so that we can embrace and transform it, but also to touch the wonders of life, including our own body. Then breathing in becomes a delight, and breathing out can also be a delight. You truly come to enjoy your breathing.

Mindfulness is an energy you can generate all day long through your practice. You can wash your dishes in mindfulness. You can cook your dinner in mindfulness. You can mop the floor in mindfulness. And with mindfulness you can touch the many conditions of happiness and joy that are already available. You are a real artist. You know how to create joy and happiness any time you want. This is the joy and the happiness born from mindfulness.


Concentration is born from mindfulness. Concentration has the power to break through, to burn away the afflictions that make you suffer and to allow joy and happiness to come in.

To stay in the present moment takes concentration. Worries and anxiety about the future are always there, ready to take us away. We can see them, acknowledge them, and use our concentration to return to the present moment.

When we have concentration, we have a lot of energy. We don’t get carried away by visions of past suffering or fears about the future. We dwell stably in the present moment so we can get in touch with the wonders of life, and generate joy and happiness.


With mindfulness, we recognize the tension in our body, and we want very much to release it, but sometimes we can’t. What we need is some insight.

Insight is seeing what is there. It is the clarity that can liberate us from afflictions such as jealousy or anger, and allow true happiness to come. Every one of us has insight, though we don’t always make use of it to increase our happiness.

We may know, for example, that something (a craving, or a grudge) is an obstacle for our happiness, that it brings us anxiety and fear. We know this thing is not worth the sleep we’re losing over it. But still we go on spending our time and energy obsessing about it. We’re like a fish who has been caught once before and knows there’s a hook inside the bait; if the fish makes use of that insight, he won’t bite, because he knows he’ll get caught by the hook.

Often, we just bite onto our craving or grudge, and let the hook take us. We get caught and attached to these situations that are not worthy of our concern. If mindfulness and concentration are there, then insight will be there and we can make use of it to swim away, free.


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The Soul, Like the Moon

Taken from PARABOLA, Volume 30, No. 3, Fall 2005: “Body and Soul.”

The soul, like the moon,
is new, and always new again.

And I have seen the ocean
continuously creating.

Since I scoured my mind
and my body, I too, Lalla
am new, each moment new.

My teacher told me one thing,
Live in the soul.

When that was so,
I began to go naked,
and dance.

—Lal Ded, 14th century, Kashmir. Translated by Coleman Barks from “Naked Songs,” published by MayPop Books, 1992.


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