By David Percival
The mind can go in a thousand directions,
But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, a cool wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.
If your path is like mine, you often find your mind jumping into the future, back to the past, fabricating ridiculous situations, and taking you to places you don’t want to go. Before you know it your path is littered with boulders of fear, anger, despair, frustration, and forgetfulness.
Thay tells us that the practice of Plum Village is to come back to the present moment and take care of the situation. Wherever we are — at home, at work, driving, gardening, at a meeting — we can use the energy of mindfulness to bring us back to ourselves, to the present moment. One powerful resource available to all of us is to make use of gathas throughout our day. Gathas are short poems or verses that we can recite, regardless of where we are, to help us return to the present moment and to dwell in mindfulness. Monastics in Thay’s tradition practice gathas throughout their day.
As Thay says, “when we practice well, the gathas are with us continuously and we live our whole lives in awareness.” Gathas allow us to focus our mind, making it possible to almost instantly return to ourselves. Gathas help us to stop our relentless running, to slow down, to enjoy life in the here and now. While we enjoy walking, sitting, washing the dishes, turning the compost, we can stop our wild thinking; then we see the wonders of life in the present moment.
At my first retreat in the late 1980s, Thay taught us the following gatha, strongly suggesting that we memorize it:
Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment!
I did what Thay suggested and I will carry this gatha with me always. It is a continuous source of peace and calm.
Dwelling in Mindfulness
In June 2006 at the Breath of the Buddha Retreat at Plum Village, Thay told us to use gathas and poetry to help us dwell in mindfulness throughout our day. For example, early in the morning, standing in front of my altar, I start every day as follows:
Waking this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment, And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
Start by memorizing a few short gathas (see sidebar). Then add more, including longer ones. Notice the rhythm of the lines: recite the first line as you breathe in and recite the second line as you breathe out, and so on. When you are stuck in traffic, waiting in the queue at the bank, walking down a hallway at work, or going to the restroom, recite this gatha:
I have arrived (in-breath)
I am home (out-breath)
In the here (in)
And in the now (out) (repeat all four lines)
I am solid (in)
I am free (out) (repeat two lines)
In the ultimate I dwell (in)
In the Pure Land I dwell (out) (repeat two lines)
You will be able to sit, stand, or walk at ease. You can calm yourself, you can smile at the chaos around you, and you will be able to continue what you are doing in a focused mindful way. Then, when you find your mind going off in another direction, pull another gatha from your gatha storehouse.
If you do a lot of walking meditation, either slow or fast (for exercise), you will note the built-in rhythm of walking and the gatha adapts well to any kind of walking. For example, with fast walking, my rhythm is four steps to each stanza:
In (in breath, four steps)
Out (out breath, four steps)
Deep (in, four steps)
Slow (out, four steps)
Calm (in, four steps)
Ease (out, four steps)
Smile (in, four steps)
Release (out, four steps)
Present moment (in, four steps)
Wonderful moment (out, four steps)
Or, with slow walking use one step per line. For me, fast walking is a very mindful practice and I try to do it in the present moment, enjoying the blue sky, the flowers, the insects, the birds, and my faster breathing.
A gatha is a poem, a song (see A Basket of Plums), and a guided meditation. They are the same and used in different situations. For example, with “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” I sing or chant it to myself as I walk, as I drive, as I work in my garden. The rhythm of walking, weightlifting, and working adapts well to the stanzas.
A Gatha to Cool the Flames
How often anger creeps into my mind! What a pernicious little seed it is, suddenly sprouting at the slightest provocation. We need to recognize and embrace our anger. When anger arises, stop — do nothing. Let the flames cool. Use a gatha to come back to yourself. Smile at your anger.
Angry in the ultimate dimension
I close my eyes and look deeply.
Three hundred years from now
where will you be and where will I be?
Finally, we can take existing gathas and adapt them to our individual situations – change some words, add your own lines. And, as Thay instructs us, write your own gathas. Encourage your children to write gathas. Ask your sangha to write and share gathas.
Sitting by the Garlic
For example, gardening is a major part of my life, a true meditation, a place to dwell happily in the present moment, a practice of non-self, impermanence, and interbeing:
Walking in my garden
I touch the present moment.
I am the flower.
I am the cloud.
I am the butterfly.
I hold some compost in my hand
And touch the essence of the Buddha.
Sitting by the garlic
the turtle moves under the mulch.
The beauty of life surrounds me.
Breathing in, I sit with impermanence.
Breathing out, I smile at the flowers.
Breathing in, I enjoy this moment.
Breathing out, there is no place to go.
The bits and pieces of our lives may seem routine and mundane – getting up, bathing, going to the bathroom, cooking, eating, washing dishes, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, being with friends, gardening, working, driving, etc. The joy of the practice is doing everything in mindfulness, no matter how routine, because all these little things when put together equal our lives. This is what we do. The practice is now or never, with what we do and where we are. We can experience the joy of moving through our days in freedom and with equanimity, walking with peaceful steps and looking at all beings with our eyes of compassion.
The day is ending and our life is one day shorter.
Let us look carefully at what we have done.
Let us practice diligently, putting our whole heart into the path of meditation.
Let us live deeply each moment and in freedom,
so the time doesn’t slip away meaninglessly.
David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he makes the desert bloom. He practices with the Rainbow Sangha and he keeps the Mindfulness Bell circulating.
Resources for Gatha Practice
All of these are by Thich Nhat Hanh unless otherwise noted, and all are available from Parallax Press (www.parallax.org).
Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: A beautiful short book with 49 gathas, featuring Thay’s commentary on each one.
Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training: This book is not just for monastics but is for everyone. It begins in Part One with 68 gathas.
Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices: A basic resource for our personal and sangha practice. See the section on gathas, pp. 37-41.
A Basket of Plums (ed. Joseph Emet): Gathas as songs; songs as gathas.
The Blooming of a Lotus – Guided Meditation Exercises for Healing and Transformation: While some of the meditations are very long, others are shorter and consist of familiar gathas.
The Energy of Prayer – How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice: See Appendix 2, “Buddhist Prayers and Gathas,” pp.145-155.
Thay occasionally brings gathas into his other books. Some examples: Touching the Earth– Intimate Conversations with the Buddha, pp. 23, 71, and 72; No Death, No Fear, pp. 43 and 80. In The Path of Emancipation there is a beautiful explanation of “I Have Arrived, I am Home,” pp. 28-31, as well as a discussion of “In/Out, Deep/Slow,” pp. 115-119, and comments on “Being an Island Unto Myself,” pp. 181182.