Breathe, Remember, Return


Senior Dharma Teacher Brother Phap Dung shares a New Year's Eve talk at Plum Village on December 31, 2017 along the theme of "Breathe and Remember." Above calligraphy by Denise Nguyen.

Dear respected Thay, dear beloved family,

Today we pretend it is the end of the year coming. We make an excuse to come together to celebrate and to remember. Today’s talk is called “Breathe and Remember.”

Many of you remember to come back to Plum Village, so this is wonderful. Plum village is like a spiritual family, and I see a lot of familiar faces every year. We all need a spiritual home. This is something lacking in our society, something very important in our life as a human being. We’re not just going around “eating” and trying to make a living, get a car, a house, and so on. There is another dimension that involves the spirit. It is the same stuff that makes us cry, that makes us joyful and happy. There is something more than just running around.

Thay has introduced to us a breathing room. A peace room, a spiritual room. A room where you dedicate to come back and to remember. That room can be empty of furniture. We have a living room, dining room, entertainment room, office room, a room for the car even! But we don’t have a room for peace. We need a room for peace. Every time someone in the family has difficulty, they can go to that room, and once the door or the curtain is closed, there is peace. You cannot disturb the person inside, even if it’s your child. So we go there and we breathe to come back to ourselves. Each home needs a room like that. If you do not have an extra room, make it a corner somewhere in the house. Put something there, perhaps it is a flower, perhaps it is a calligraphy or a photo. Something to remind you that there is something more important than just running around.

In today’s society, a lot of people are very lonely, alienated, and disconnected. There are many ways to communicate, but more and more people feel something lacking. The spiritual home, the spiritual room, is like a bank account. In your bank account, you put money in it. And every time you look at your account, if it is full, you feel good. If the number is low, you start to worry. The spiritual room is like that. The more you remember, the more rich your connection.

So when you join your palms and bow in mindfulness, you’re putting in spiritual money into your spiritual bank. You remember that you are not alone. You remember there is something more important than just running around.

The practice of mindfulness can be translated into the practice of remembering. The word “smirti” is sometimes translated as “mindfulness”, but it can also be translated as “remembering.” Most of the time, we live in forgetfulness. When you forget to take a breath, you’re probably reacting or overwhelmed by something. But when you remember to take a breath, you remember that you are alive, that there is something more important than just getting things done. This does not come naturally.

We are constantly running to the future, and we forget that right now, in this present moment, I am alive. Isn’t that enough? One day, we will not breathe, and that day we cannot avoid. But now, we are breathing fresh air. We remember that we are alive. Simply being alive is a gift. Isn’t it beautiful to remember that life is a miracle and that we are given a chance to live it?


Taking a breath, “I know I am alive.”

When we take a breath, we can also train to remember that we have a body. If there’s a little tension, we remember to relax. Some of us forget, and we have wrinkles in our forehead. But when we remember, we can relax our face, our arms, and the rest of our body. It’s a training. If we forget, we actually start to get tight because we’re training to strive, achieve, and run. That is forgetfulness. Sometimes we sit at the computer for hours using certain muscles. We get tense and we get sick. We need to remember that we have a body, and we need to take care of it.

Taking a breath, “I know I have a body”.

The practice of mindfulness, coming back to your spiritual room, will help you create a safe island, a safe island for yourself. When you breathe, you build that safe place within yourself. Each one of us, we have difficulties and affiliations. We have relationships that are not very stable. For us to confront these situations, we need to invest and build the safe place within ourselves. The practice of breathing and coming back to yourself is very reliable, and it is something that can be trained and cultivated. This is very important for us to remember.

When we feel unsafe, it is because we lose ourselves. If someone is threatening to us, if we are solid and have trained ourselves to feel safe, there is no threat. They might be angry, resentful, or have some emotion, but we know from our own practice that the other person is feeling unsafe. That is why there is aggression. When we are solid and feel safe inside, no one can threaten us. We can cultivate that solidity. Each one of us can be a mountain.

Sometimes we might not feel it, we may feel vulnerable and insecure. But we can find our island by taking a walk and going into nature. If you cannot find people who are solid to you, go into nature. Hug a tree, touch the earth. These will not let you down. These elements are within us and they can nourish us. This is something that needs to be cultivated. Our breath is also something very stable, if we can invest in it.

Suffering does not have to be completely gone for us to be joyful, happy, and to help. We don’t have to be completely happy, and healthy, and peaceful to help. The monks and nuns have their suffering, but they know how to take care of it. We can create an environment for us to take refuge in: the spiritual family. We cannot do this alone.

People are asking, “What can I trust? There’s nothing I can trust.” Trust comes with safety. When we’re feeling unsafe, we don’t know what to trust. Do we trust ourselves? That needs training. Trust is not something that’s automatically there, it is a state that can be cultivated. This requires our effort, our training, our ability to not lose ourselves.

Click on the video below to continue Br. Phap Dung's Dharma Talk: