The Buddha, when asked to describe how rare it is to encounter teachings and practices of liberation, gave this simile:
"Imagine that there is a vast ocean with a wooden plank floating around on the surface. There is a small hole in the wooden plank. Deep in the ocean is an ancient blind turtle who surfaces once every hundred years or so for air. It is more likely that upon surfacing for air that the head of the blind turtle will emerge through the hole in that wooden plank floating randomly on the surface of the great ocean than it is for someone to encounter transformational teachings, have enough capacity to understand them and to put them into practice.”
Brother Phap Hai. Nothing to It. Parallax Press. Kindle Edition.
The Four Aspects of a Spiritual life
Br Phap Hai
Not so long ago, my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, whom we call Thay (pronounced ‘tie,’ teacher or friend) according to Vietnamese tradition, gave a very beautiful teaching to the monastic residents of our community, in which he shared the importance of creating a dynamic balance in our spiritual life. He talked about our spiritual life as being composed of four aspects: study, practice, work, and play. When we live in a balanced way, these four areas form a harmonious pattern or mandala of practice in our daily lives.
The first area of our spiritual life is study. Throughout our lives we will encounter wonderful and profound teachings. Each time we encounter a teaching, we need to ask ourselves, “How does this relate to my own practice? How can I apply this in my own life? Does this teaching have anything to say to me right now?” Each time we encounter a sutra, a teaching, a person, an experience, are we able to approach it with fresh eyes, letting go of our preconceived notions? This is a very subtle practice.
The second of the four areas of the mandala is practice. In my Buddhist tradition, of course we have sitting meditation, but we also have walking meditation, eating meditation, listening-to-the-bell meditation, and stopping meditation! Everything has the breath as its foundation: each type of meditation is an opportunity for us to return again and again to our breathing.
In addition to choosing some simple practices such as stopping and breathing every now and then, taking some steps in walking meditation each day, and enjoying a mindful meal, I recommend that you set aside a few minutes at the beginning and the end of the day to simply sit. Five or ten minutes might seem like an impossible task at the beginning, but by making this commitment to yourself, you are bringing the best possible energy into each day. Don’t underestimate the transformative power of five minutes of simply sitting.
The third area of spiritual life is the element of work or service. If we feel isolated, or depressed, or alone, often a way to begin the process of transformation is by reaching out and being of service where we are right now. For some of us, our path of service is a paid position in a company: we have a job working in a company, or we run a business. Some of us take care of our families; others of us are unable to work, but concentrate our efforts on recovery or healing. Can we see all these as paths of service?
The fourth area of the spiritual life that Thay invites us to look into is the element of play—choosing things that we find delightful to do, which really nourish us and water the seed of joy in our lives. The practice of play is really a practice of being at ease. I love the word ease, don’t you?
One of the wonderful ways that playfulness can manifest is through a practice of laziness. At Plum Village, Lazy Day is a day for us to be truly present to the day without any scheduled activities. We just let the day unfold naturally, timelessly. It is a day in which we can practice however we like. For some of us, to have a weekly Lazy Day can be almost impossible.
Laziness, in the Plum Village practice, means to allow the world to be as it is and to allow each moment to unfold just as it unfolds: to experience the beauty, as I am right now, of the morning sun coming up; to watch the sky changing; to see the wind blowing in the leaves.
A few weeks ago, a friend came to visit our monastery for the first time and at the end of her stay she shared that she was impressed by the solid energy, and yet she was surprised because she had expected the monks and nuns to be much more solemn. It was a revelation to her to see that in addition to “formal” periods of practice our spiritual life is expressed through joyful interaction, sports, and the echo of laughter amongst the mountains.
Brother Phap Hai. Nothing to It, Parallax Press, Kindle Edition