Kenley and Br. Phap Luu enjoying some video production.

Living a Spiritual Life

Breathing in, I’m aware of my body. 
Breathing out, I smile to my body.
Aware of body, smiling. 

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. 
Breathing out. I know I am breathing out. 
In-breath, out-breath.

Breathing in, I am aware of the cool morning air. 
Breathing out, I relax.
Cool morning air, relaxing.

Breathing in, I am aware of the afternoon and evening, weather, and air. 
Breathing out, I enjoy the afternoon or evening weather.
Aware of weather, enjoying.

Breathing in, I am aware of the people around me, the Sangha holding me. Breathing out, I feel at ease.
Aware of the Sangha, feeling at ease.

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Today is August 26, 2023. We are sitting outside at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Vista, California, which is in northern San Diego County, practicing with the Palomitas de Paz Sangha. Doves of peace, right? Little doves of peace. So beautiful. I’m not sure English could be as beautiful like that. I don’t think we’d have a word like that would equal little doves other than little doves, of course, but not like one word that kind of encapsulates it together. This is one of the things I appreciate about Vietnamese also because a lot of times they can say things a lot more descriptively in Vietnamese than in English. 

This Dharma talk is brought to you by ChatGTP. We recently purchased a license for ChatGTP at the monastery to do some translation work, but it does a lot more. I’m just kidding. I didn’t use it. I barely have notes for myself, much less using a tool that would write it out for me. It just wouldn’t work very well for me. 

I want to share a little bit about conditions of happiness because this is a beginning point for practice: being able to identify and to cultivate conditions for happiness in our lives. And I think part of that is creating a good environment to support you, to guide you, this path of the Five Mindfulness Trainings for those of you who received them today and others who already have in the past, to support you with your aspiration to be a bodhisattva or at least be on the path of a bodhisattva, a being that will take care of our communities and our earth. A good environment starts with having a sangha, especially for people who don’t live in a monastery. We have a sangha so that we have good spiritual friends. Friends who can support us. Friends who can support and mentor us, be there when we have difficulty in our lives. Friends to share a laugh with, and some joy. To sit together and to recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings at least once a month, maybe as a Sangha. 

But we can’t stay and remain in the sangha all the time or live in a monastery all the time, although I do, and a couple others here do. I did spend most of my life as a householder, raising children and working in a career and yet when I received these Five Mindfulness Trainings twenty years ago, they really held me. They gave me a framework for setting up my life in a different way than it had been before. And it offered this direction of practice. In our home we were able to create conditions for happiness through the things we chose to consume or not to consume. The things we chose to have as decoration or not have as decoration. The food that we ate, the source of the food that we ate. And even in the work environment, we can create those conditions of happiness as well because we can set up our offices, if we work in an office, in such a way that it’s a container of practice. 

I did work in an office, and I did meet with many people. Most of my job was meetings. And just how I arranged things in the room reminded me of practice, and it also supported me to be present for other people. For example, my computer screen wasn’t where I and the person who’s seeing me could see it. My computer screen was behind me or beside me so that when a person was there talking to me, I was not distracted by the screen. This is what I mean by creating conditions of happiness, creating conditions of practice so that we can incorporate it into our lives everywhere we are. These Five Mindfulness Trainings truly are the path of the Bodhisattva. 

When these were rewritten in 2008, somewhere around there, 2009, they were rewritten by the sangha, not by Thay alone, but by the sangha at Plum Village with lay and monastic participation. And with the changes that occurred then, the trainings became quite full. They became quite inclusive of the entirety of this practice. Everything about this practice is contained in those Five Mindfulness Trainings. In fact, in some ways it kind of exceeded what we saw in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings because they hadn’t been revised yet. And so all of a sudden, the five had some of the elements of the fourteen in them it because Thay felt strongly about offering this path and this direction for people. 


The first thing that we need to do when we embark on this kind of a journey is we should have some kind of aspiration, right? We need to have a desire. Desire is not a bad thing. Desire is a wholesome part of our practice. It can also be unwholesome, it depends on what our desire is. The Buddhist term they use is volition. Volition, it’s one of the four kinds of nutriments, which you can find in the fifth mindfulness training that we read today. It talks about the four kinds of nutriments. And to live a spiritual life, volition I think is the first step towards a spiritual life. Because we must have a desire to do something differently, to move in a direction, a path. 

I would encourage you to reflect on that and reflect on where… and I know you’re online even if I’m not looking at you. I know you’re there. Hello. I’m good at distracting myself. This is how the mind works. It just kind of travels all over the place wherever it wants to go, and it’s a random source of confusion. But mindfulness practice is the ability to recognize that for what it is. And more importantly, to not judge it. It just is what it is. My mind went somewhere, and there it went, you know, and I can criticize myself for losing my train of thought and make myself feel bad, but I had, it wasn’t something that I had complete control over. It kind of went there on its own, and why should I criticize myself for that? But instead, I acknowledge it, I laugh at it, and we move on.

So anyway, volition, that means our deepest desire, and I would encourage you to reflect. I encourage you to reflect on where that seed of desire came from and when in your life. When do you think that you have that seed? We may not call it a bodhisattva path, but maybe the seed of a spiritual way of living. It might have been that.

Two people looking into a pond

I’m not from San Diego County. I grew up in the Central Valley of California. But when I was twenty, I went to Palomar College, which is just down the road from here. And I say I went there; I don’t know if I was a student there. I was quite involved with other recreational activities that were not always conducive to learning. But they were conducive to shutting up my mind. Anyway, I do recall one class. I took a world religions class when I was there. And it was my first encounter with Buddhism because I had grown up as a Christian in California, and I had not had much exposure. So it kind of planted a seed. It might have been there already, but it kind of planted a seed for me about, “Oh, Buddhism, that’s interesting. Maybe there’s something there.”

I was curious. I was curious about it. And I didn’t revisit it again until about seven years later. I was twenty-seven. And when I was twenty-seven, I was living about three blocks from the San Francisco Zen Center. And I had been participating in a 12-step recovery program. And one of their steps has to do with meditation. And I said to myself, “Okay, I want to find out about meditation.” 

This was my volition, right? It’s starting to grow a little bit. My spiritual life volition, so it’s one of the four kinds of nutriment. How do I water this volition? Right, I’ll go to the San Francisco Zen Center, and I’ll see what meditation is about. So I went there, I went twice. I gave it two shots, and it was not for me. It was a little bit too like the church I grew up in, so it was not right. I said, “No this isn’t going to work,” but I wanted to meditate and so I read one of Thay’s books right around then, and I just started meditating.  I created a little space in our flat in San Francisco where I could sit each day before work. I couldn’t even sit for five minutes. It was so awful, and I was judgmental of myself. Five minutes isn’t so long, and I’m doing it wrong and so on and so forth. 

This is our mindfulness practices: to learn how to work with those mental formations, those ideas about what we think our practice should look like.

This is our mindfulness practices: to learn how to work with those mental formations, those ideas about what we think our practice should look like. Of course, I didn’t know anything at that time. I was twenty-seven. I didn’t know anything about meditation other than what I read in a book. And then I went and saw Thay and the sangha a year later in Oakland.  I thought, “Wow these guys got it!” and I was feeling way better than at the Zen center. I mean they had Wavy Gravy there and Jerry Brown was there. This is cool. I like this community. And you know I learned a little bit more about sitting but I continued my own; I did not hear anything about sangha, but I still had this desire. I still had this volition to live a spiritual life. I continued to water that. I continue to cultivate that through my meditation practice, through reading more books, through sitting on my own without a sangha, on my own. And I did that for five years. And then a moment happened in time where everything changed. There was this transformative moment in time, and for many of you, you may have had the same transformative moment, but for me it was a very spiritual moment and that was September 11th. That was a very spiritual moment for me because I woke up, and when we talk about being a Buddhist or practicing Buddhism it’s about waking up.

I woke up and I said, “Kenley, you’ve wanted this all these years, but you’re not practicing with a sangha. You’re not helping it grow more.”

And so this desire, this volition, this deepest desire, I wanted to do more. I wanted to have community. We needed to connect as people especially when everyone was so angry. Everyone was angry and Thay’s book Anger came out that year, and I had just read it and though I missed Thay speaking in Berkeley, I knew he was there with the sangha. All these kinds of things came together at once. 

There was no sangha where I lived. And this is important for those of you who have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings today: if you don’t have a Sangha where you live, then start one. If you don’t hear anything else today, start one. Because I waited too long. Well, no, I can’t say that because that’s judgmental. But I waited longer than I needed to, right? I could have learned that lesson sooner, but I didn’t. I started a sangha right away. I went back to Fresno where I was living at the time. And the Mindfulness Bell, which was the magazine for our community had like this like call-in thing for other people who are in your area. It’s like a wanted ads kind of thing. Where you could find other practitioners that were interested in being with sangha. I called and I got this other woman’s name. She lived in Fresno, and she wanted to start a sangha. I called her up on the phone. I said, “Hey, you want to start a sangha?” She said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So we picked a day, we picked a time, and we started sitting together once a week. Boom, done. Right? And then we had a few more people come and a few more people and you know, it just kind of grew from there.

I said to myself, “I have got to go to Deer Park.” I came to Deer Park and continued going a few times before I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings at Deer Park. And that seed of desire was just so strong. The seed of finding something greater in life, to take care of each other, to take care of our planet. So here I am twenty years later. How have I maintained that? Because our desire needs to be, our volition needs to be maintained. Because if we don’t maintain it, it will slowly disappear. Right? 

Deer Park entrance sign

I’ve practiced with a sangha for twenty years. I’ve come to Deer Park for retreats regularly, at least a few times a year. I incorporated mindful practice into my household. My partner was also a mindfulness practitioner following Thay. And so we were able to raise our children in that environment. Our first child was born in 2000. He’s known nothing but Thich Nhat Hanh and the mindfulness practice. We haven’t told him to do anything with it. He’s just exposed to it. And he’s twenty-three and he’s the sweetest guy ever. I mean he’s just a sweet kid. Well, he’s an adult now. He’s just compassionate and kind and loving and everything that I would want to see in a child. And my daughter is the same. It’s so wonderful. And it’s because of the practice, and it’s because of this volition, this deepest desire, the first kind of nutriment that we can do, that we can incorporate into our lives.

I always wanted to live in community, but I never saw a way to do that. And my partner and I had made some effort. We had tried several different ideas, but nothing ever came to fruition. But everything kind of changed with COVID. And I changed everything in my life for the better. And I do live at Deer Park, and I’ve been living there for three years, and it has helped me to maintain this desire, this volition, this Bodhisattva path.

A recent book was released of Thay’s writings that was only available in Vietnamese previously. It’s called The Path of the Bodhisattva. Wonderful book. And I read it and I said to myself, “Oh no.” I went judgmental right away. I was thinking I’m such a bad bodhisattva. There’s just so much there and I’m like, “Oh my there’s no way I can do that.” So anyway, we set high standards for ourselves sometimes. 

Sense Impressions and Consciousness

In addition to volition, the other kinds of nutriments that we have in the four kinds of nutriments are sense impressions, edible foods and consciousness. Consciousness is something we can gather together here. This is collective consciousness that we’re creating. This consciousness here of the thirty people that are here and the thirty or forty that are online. This is a collective consciousness of practice and so we can help expand this. This can be our nutriment. This is a nutriment, right? The collective consciousness is a nutriment, and it waters our own individual consciousness in a way that helps us to practice those Five Mindfulness Trainings. 

And then from there we can go to sense impressions and edible foods. Now everyone probably can figure out edible foods. It’s quite simple. But sense impressions are also what we receive, right? What we see, what we hear, what we watch, what we listen to, including conversations. We may have arguments about books that we read, the music we listen to, but all this stuff is a sense impression that enters our body, and it is food. It’s feeding us, it’s feeding us something, right? And some of it’s going to feed us something wonderful, like listening to a Dharma talk (maybe not mine but to Thay’s Dharma talks). It’s going to feed you; it’s going to nourish you by the sounds that you’re hearing. 

Creating these conditions of happiness, we can return to how are we feeding ourselves with our consciousness, our volition, our sense impressions, and if we do consume things that are difficult or that we can’t avoid, for example, sometimes you just can’t avoid violence on the street when you’re just driving down the road. But if something violent occurs in the world or in our community we can see that maybe one time, but we don’t need to see it again because then you’re continuing to water that sense impression in your consciousness, and it’s not helping you. It’s like when these young men, these young Black men are killed by law enforcement. I don’t need to watch those videos. I know they’re horrible. I haven’t watched them. I don’t need to watch them. And people watch them over and over again. I think to myself, “What are you doing?” We have to think about how we’re consuming content, that’s a librarian word, content. We’re consuming content into our consciousness and we need to think about what is affecting us, how it’s affecting us. 

I love Star Wars. I’m going to watch Star Wars. It’s violent, but I’m okay with that, you know.

I love Star Wars. I’m going to watch Star Wars. It’s violent, but I’m okay with that, you know. Like the new TV show Ashoka just came out this week, it’s this new Star Wars show. It’s got some sword fighting and stuff like that. It’s fun, right? And as I consume that I need to be aware of what it may be doing to my consciousness. I’m not saying don’t do this don’t do that, but it’s more about awareness. 

When you look at the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I think all of you took all five, right? They all start with the words “aware of.” This awareness, mere recognition is a very foundational Buddhist practice. Mere recognition, just to recognize it and to name it, is how we take care of things. That’s our mindfulness practice. And I don’t think I need to talk about edible foods, but you know, it’s what you eat. You can decide for yourself what feels appropriate in the food realm. 

Fourteen Verses of Plum Village

In our chanting book, the Plum Village chanting book, the new one, not the old one, the soft cover one. There is a reading called the Fourteen Verses of Plum Village. I think it just says Fourteen Verses of Meditation. I think it’s what it’s called. But these are a distillation of the Plum Village practices in fourteen verses. And if you haven’t read those, I would encourage you to look because they’re quite beautiful. And if you don’t have a chanting book just look up the Fourteen Verses of Plum village online. Just search for that and it should show up. The sixth and the seventh one caught my attention recently. Here’s number six.

Looking deeply into the heart of reality
to see the true nature of things,
practicing vipashyana enables me to let go
of everything I am searching for, my desires, and my fears.

That’s a big ask, right? To actually see the true nature of things and not get caught on the word things. It could be people. But the nature of things is a great place to start, right? And then we practice it through meditation and through looking deeply. Vipassana is looking deeply. And I can let go of searching, I can let go of searching for my desires and my fears. Let go of everything. Anybody been able to let go of everything? Yeah. But here it says it enables us to let go of everything. Wow that’s the freedom that the path of practice is; to be able to let go of everything. I think we might get caught on the idea of let go of everything is actually kind of a physical letting go. But I think the more difficult realm is the mental letting go. Our ideas, our perceptions, those are the things that are much more difficult to let go of. Because sometimes we’re not even aware of it, of what those are. And this looking deeply practice is how we can discover some of our ideas, some of our perceptions. And then once we discover, we can be curious, we can discover, and then we can kind of name it for what it is and then make an effort to transform it and through that transformation we can let go of it. It doesn’t mean it won’t arise again because it will. Because these things are deep. But once we are aware of it, that mere recognition piece, then we can transform it and let it go.

I grew up in Fresno, California from the age of seven on. Prior to that I was born and lived in Nigeria and Zambia. And when I came from Zambia to California, it was kind of difficult to say the least. I was living in a neighborhood where there were a lot of Mexican gangs. And so I became very familiar with the Mexican culture that existed in Fresno at the time, you know, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And when I moved to San Francisco in 1991, I moved into a Black neighborhood, historical Black neighborhood. And I had not been around many Black people growing up other than being in Africa. And then I observed myself avoiding Black men on the street in my neighborhood, and I didn’t do it intentionally. I just noticed that I was doing it. And I was thinking, that’s weird. Doesn’t seem correct.  Why am I doing this? 

So being curious, this is a something that’s deep in my consciousness. There’s something there that tells me I need to avoid Black men in my neighborhood. And it bothered me at the time I thought to myself, “What’s up with that?” And so I needed to name it for what it was, the racism in myself. I had picked up the seeds from the collective consciousness, from my society, and who knows where else, probably from generations of ancestors as well. And I had to consciously try to transform that perception. And I did work around it, and I did work around it on and off for the next, well until now. And it continues surprisingly because it’s such a deep seed in my consciousness. 

It’s just like during the transmission when I said of the word “heart” instead of the “source” for your names. It’s something that’s there. As we look deeply and see the sixth verse “looking deeply into the heart of reality to see the true nature of things.” So I look deeply into that heart of reality of my experience, of my actions, my karma, and how I responded to it and look to see where that came from in order to let it go. And I’ve let it go many times. And I have judged myself incessantly on this topic over the last thirty years. And yet there’s still desire, there’s still volition to transform it. And there’s hope. I’ve been able to practice with that for a long time. And so that’s just one example of how we can apply this practice in our daily lives. This is how we apply our practice. Mind you this was before I became a meditation practitioner, when this experience happened, but I still noticed it. It was troubling enough that I noticed it.

Here is the seventh verse. 

Dwelling peacefully in the present moment,
transforming habit energies
gives rise to understanding,
freeing me from afflictions and pain.

This is exactly what I was just talking about: transforming habit energy. This present moment thing is a little more challenging. “Rise to understanding, freeing me from afflictions and pain.” Here it is saying that this practice of the present moment can free me from afflictions and pain. What? How does that work? It’s like how many of you listen to Thay, a lot of times? Maybe you’ve seen a lot of Dharma talks or recordings or whatever? What are the two things he talks about the most? Anybody? Breathing and present moment. Dwelling in the present moment. These are his favorite topics it seems. 

The only way I can dwell peacefully in the present moment is to follow my breathing and to allow myself to be aware of what’s in the present moment. And perhaps it’s just my in-breath and my out-breath. But if we stop long enough, we might also be aware of what else is present. The person next to me, the birds chirping, and so on. These practices of dwelling in the present moment are supported. 

Waking up this morning, I smile. 24 brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion

When I talked about conditions of happiness at the beginning and transforming habit energies, they can be conducted through other verses. They’re called gathas in our practice community. So there’s a whole book of them. But these gathas, these verses, are little sentences that help us dwell peacefully in the present moment. So they have little ones like, “Waking up this morning I smile, twenty-four brand new hours before me, I vow to live fully in each moment, and look at beings with eyes of compassion. “ Train yourself to memorize these. You know there’s a brushing your teeth one, there’s one for walking across the floor, there’s one for turning on the water, there’s one for washing dishes, there’s one for washing vegetables, and they’re all designed to kind of help you return to the present moment so that you can transform your habit energies. And your habit energies are what keeps you distracted, keeps you not in the present moment. The habit energies help you do more than one thing at once, like think about how you’re going to solve that mathematical problem while you’re washing the dishes. Something like that. But then through this practice, you learn to have some understanding, so like in my story with the young men in my neighborhood, I was able to deepen my understanding not only of my own psyche but also of the young men in my neighborhood: to understand where and how this is a society in which we live. And then this frees me from afflictions and pain. 

Again we get to practice in a way that we can move in the direction of freedom. These are just two of the verses from the fourteen verses. And they’re all like this, they’re all just this compact on how to live. Like the Five Mindfulness Trainings, right? So I just encourage you, as you practice this path, whether you took the five or didn’t take the five, that somewhere in you there’s some volition for a spiritual way of living, otherwise you wouldn’t be here in the first place. I don’t think, I could be wrong. 

Lamp Gatha

When I received the lamp to teach, to be a dharma teacher here with you, ten years ago, there is an exchange of verses between the student and the teacher. I wrote a verse and then he, Thay, wrote a verse back. And it’s what’s on my certificate. I want to share that with you, what this little verse is. And like you, with the five mindfulness trainings and reciting them regularly, I also return to this verse to remind myself of what my teacher has transmitted to me. 

Mindfulness and concentration, diligently maintained, give birth to joy and happiness
However many afflictions there may be, all there is now is true peace
That wondrously pure lotus blossom
Is born from the mud.

This still kind of brings some tears to my eyes because I’m like, I don’t always experience joy and happiness. But here, Thay tells me, with mindfulness and concentration, I can have joy and happiness. And then there’s this recognition of my afflictions. I have so many afflictions. I had so many afflictions. Some very difficult afflictions even in recent years. And here Thay is saying, it’s okay. You can have afflictions. You don’t have to be perfect because this spiritual life is born from that mud. This spiritual life comes from my afflictions because we can’t have one without the other.

Light and loving edits by Karen Hilsberg