Present Moment, Wonderful Moment

by: Thich Nhat Hanh

Everyone has pain and suffering.  It is possible to let go of this pain and smile at our suffering.  We can only do this if we know that the present moment is the only moment in which we can be alive.
    Gathas are short verses that we can recite during our daily activities to help us return to the present moment and dwell in mindfulness.  As excercises in both meditation and poetry, gathas are an essential part of Zen Buddhist tradition.  Using a gatha deosn't require any special knowledge or religious practice.  Some people like to memorize a favorite verse that they find they can come back to again and again.  Others just like to write the verse down in a place they are likely to see it often.
    ...The use of gathas goes back for over two thousand years.  When I entered the Tu Hieu Monastery in Vietnam as a novice in 1942, I received a copy of Gathas for Everyday Use, compiled by the Chinese meditation master Du Ti.  Du Ti's book of fifty gathas was written for monks and nuns of former times.  At Plum Village, where I live in France, we practice gathas when we wake up, when we enter the meditation hall, during meals, and when we was the dishes.  In fact, we recite gathas throughout the entire day to help us attend to the present moment.  One summer, in order to help the children and adults at Plum Village practice mindfulness, we began assembling gathas relevant for daily life today.  The result is this book of practical, down-to-earth verses.
    We often become so busy that we forget what we are doing or even who we are.  I know people who say they even forget to breathe!  We forget to look at the people we love and to appreciate them, until it is too late.  Even when we have some leisure time, we don't know how to get in touch with what is going on inside and outside of ourselves.  
    To meditate is to be aware of what is going on - in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and in the world.  When we settle into the present moment, we can see beauties and wonders right before our eyes - a new born baby, the sun rising in the sky.  We can be very happy just by being aware of what is in front of us.
    Reciting gathas is one way to help us dwell in the present moment.  When we focus our mind on a gatha, we return to ourselves and become more aware of each action.  When the gatha ends, we continue our activity with hightened awareness.  When we drive a car, signs can help us find our way.  The sign and the road become one, and we see the sign all along the way until the next sign.  When we practice with gathas, the gathas and the rest of our life become one, and we live our entire lives in awareness.  This helps us very much, and it helps others as well.  We find that we have more peace, calm, and joy, which we can share with others.
    As exercises in both meditation and poetry, gathas are a key part of the Zen tradition.  When you memorize a gatha, it will come to you quite naturally when you are doing the related activity, be it turning on the water or drinking a cup of tea.  You don't need to learn all the verses at once.  You can find one or two that resonate with you and learn more over time.  After some time, you may find that you have learned all of them and are even creating you own.  When I wrote the gathas for using the telephone, driving a car, and turning on the computer, I did so within the tradition that I inherited from my teachers.  You are now one of the inheritors of this tradition.  Composing your own gathas to fit the specific circumstances of your life is one useful way to practice mindfulness.
    I hope you find this collection of gathas a steady and delightful companion.

Selected Gathas and Commentary

Waking Up
Waking up 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.

What better way to start the day than with a smile? Your smile affirms your awareness and determination to live in peace and joy.  How many days slip by in forgetfulness?  What are you doing with our life?  Look deeply and smile.  The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.
    How can you remember to smile when you wake up?  You might hang a reminder - such as a branch, a leaf, a painting, or some inispiring words in your window or from the ceiling above your bed.  Once you develop the practice of smiling, you may not need a sign.  You will smile as soon as you hear a bird sing or see the sunlight stream through the window and this will help you approach the day with more gentleness and understanding.  The last line of this gatha comes form the Lotus Sutra.  The one who "looks at all being with eyes of compassion" is Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.  In this sutra this line reads: "Eyes of loving kindness look on all living beings."  Love is not possible without understanding.  In order to understand others, we must know them and be inside their skin.  Then we can treat them with loving kindness.  The source of love is our fully awakened mind.

Walking on the Earth
is a miracle!
Each mindful step
Reveals the wondrous Dharmakaya.

This poem can be recited right as we get out of bed and our feet touch the floor.  It can also be used during walking meditation or any time we stand up and walk.
    Dharmakaya literally means the "body" (kaya) of the Buddha's teachings (Dharma), the way of understanding and love. It also is the ground of being manifested as mountains, rivers, stars, moon, and all species.  Before passing away, the Buddha told his disciples, "Only my physical body will pass away.  My Dharma body will remain with you forever."  In Zen, the word has come to mean "the essence of all that exists."  All phenomena - the song of a bird, the warm rays of the sun, a cup of hot tea - are manifestations of the Dharmakaya.  We, too, are of the same nature as these wonders of the universe.
    Walking on Earth is a miracle!  We do not have to walk in space or on water to exerience a miracle.  The real miracle is to be awake in the present moment.  Walking on the green Earth, we realize the wonder of being alive.  When we make steps like this, the sun of the Dharmakaya will shine.

Opening the Window
Opening the window,
I look out onto the Dharmakaya. 
How wondroous is life!
Attentive to each moment,
my mind is clear like a calm river.

After you wake up, you probably open the curtains and look outside.  You may even like to open the window and feel the cool morning air with the dew still on the grass.  But is what you see really "outside?"  In fact, it is your own mind.  As the sun sends its rays through the window, you are not just yourself.  You are also the beautiful view from you window.  You are all that exists, you are the Dharmakaya.
    When we open the window and look out, we see that life is infinitely marvelous.  At that very moment, we can vow to be awake all day long, realizing joy, peace, freedom, and harmony throughout our lives.  When we do this, our mind becomes clear like a calm river. 

Turning on the Light
Forgetfulness is the darkness,
mindfulness is the light.
I bring awareness
to shine upon all life.

When you touch a light switch, you can stop for a few seconds to recite this gatha before you turn on the light.  Not only will there be light in the room but there will also be light within you.  Dwelling in the present moment is a miracle.  Every illusion and random thought will disappear, just as darkness disappears when the light comes on.  When we are mindful, we get in touch with the refreshing, peaceful, and healing elements within ourselves and around us.  Peace and joy are available anytime.
    Conscious breathing helps us return to the present moment.  I practice breathing every day.  In my small meditation room, I have a calligraphy of the sentence, "Breathe, you are alive!"  When mindfulness shines its light upon our activity, we recover ourselves and encounter life in the present moment.  The present moment is a wonderufl moment. 

Turning on the Water
Water flows from high mountain sources.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
and sustains all life.

Even if we know the source of our water, we often take its appearance for granted.  But it is thanks to water that life is possible.  Our bodies are more than seventy percent water.  Our food can be grown and raised because of water.  Water is a good friend, a bodhisattva, that nourishes the many thousands of species on Earth.  Its benefits are infinite.
    Reciting this gatha before turning on the faucet or drinking a glass of water unables us to see the stream of fresh water in our own hearts so that we feel completely refreshed.  To celebrate the gift of water is to cultivate awareness and help sustain our life and the lives of others. 

Brushing your Teeth
Brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth,
I vow to speak purely and lovingly.
When my mouth is fragrant with right speech,
a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.

Each toothpaste advertisement promises that this particular brand will make our mouth clean and our breath fragrant.  But if we do not practice Right Speech, our breath can never be completely fragrant.  In Vietnamese we say, "your words smell bad!" to mean, "Your words are not kind or constructive, but rather they are sharp, slanderous and misleading."  Our speech can build a world of peace and joy in which trust and love can flourish, or it can create discord and hatred.  Right Speech means that our words are both truthful and beautiful.
    In 1964, several of us founded a new Buddhish order, the Order of Interbeing.  The order developed fourteen mindfullness trainings. [The ninth mindfulness training is about Right Speech.] When we remember to speak words that are true, kind, and constructive, we nourish a beautiful flower in our hearts, and we can offer its sweet fragrance to everyone.

Looking in the Mirror
Awareness is a mirror
reflecting the four elements.
Beauty is heart that generates love
and a mind that is open.

The moments during the day of looking in a mirror can be moments of deep awareness.  The mirror can serve as a tool for cultivating mindfulness so that we develop a broad capacity to understand and love others.  Anyone who maintains awareness in the present moment becomes beautiful and naturally emanates peace, joy, and happiness.  A calm half smile and a loving heart are refreshing, and they allow miracles to unfold.  The Buddha's smile is beautiful because it expresses tolerance compassion, and loving kindness.
    In Vietnamese culture, the four great elements are earth, water, fire, and air.  The Vietnamese poet Tru Vu wrote:

The flower, with its ephemeral fragrance,
is made of the four elements.
Your eyes, shining with love,
are also made of the four elements.

The four elements are neither mind nor matter.  They are the universe itself revealed to us.  When your mind is the clear mirror of meditative awareness, you will know that you are the outward expression of the essence of reality.  So please smile.  Smile with your eyes, not just with your lips.  Smile with your whole being, reflecting the four elements in the mirror of mindful awareness.

Using the Toilet
Defiled or immaculate,
increasing or decreasing-
these concepts exist only in our minds.
The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.

Life is always changing.  Each thing relies on every other thing for its very existence.  If our mind is calm and clear, using the toilet can be as sacred as lighting incense.  To accept life is to accept both birth and death, gain and loss, joy and sorrow, defilement and purity.  The Heart Sutra teaches us that when we see things as they are, we do not discriminate between seeming opposties such as these.
    Everything "inter-is."  Understanding the truth of nonduality allows us to overcome all pain.  Reciting this gatha can help us apply the teachings of the Heart Sutra, even during what is usually regarded as a mundane act.

Washing Your Hands
Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.

Our beautiful Earth is endangered.  We are exhausting her resources and polluting her rivers, lakes, and oceans, destroying the habitats of many species, including our own.  We are destroying the forests, the soil, the ozone layer, and the air.  Because of our ignorance and fears, our planet may be destroyed as an environment that is hospitable to human life.
    The Earth stores water, and water gives life.  Observe your hands as the water runs over them.  Do you have enough clear insight to preserve and protect this beautiful panet, our Mother Earth?

Unborn and indestructible,
beyond time and space-
Both transmission and inheritance
lie in the wonderful nature of the Dharmadhatu.

Whenever we take a bath or a shower, we can look at our body and see that it is a gift from our parents and their parents.  Many of us in the West do not want to have much to do with our parents.  They may have hurt us so much.  But when we look deeply, we discover that it is impossible to drop all identity with them.  As we wash each part of our body, we can meditate on the nature of the body and the nature of consciousness, asking ourselves, "To whom does this body belong?  Who has transmitted this body to me? What has been transmitted?"
    If we meditate in this way, we will discover that there are three components: the transmitter, that which is transmitted, and the one who receives the transmission.  The transmitter is our parents.  We are the continuation of our parents and their ancestors.  The object of transmission is our body itself, and the one who receives the transmission is us.  As we continue to meditate on this, we see cearly that the transmitter, the object transmitted, and the receiver are one.  All three are in our body.  When we are deeply in touch with the present moment, we can see that all our ancestors and all future generations are present in us.  Seeing this, we will know what to do, and what not to do - for ourselves, our ancestors, our children, and their children.
    The Dharmadhatu is all that is manifested from the Dharmakaya, having Dharmakaya as its essence, just as all waves are manifestaions of water.  The Dharmadhatu is neither born nor destroyed.  It has no previous existence and no future existence.  Its existence is beyond time and space.  When we understand this truth of existence with our whole being, we will begin to trancend the fear of death, and we will not be disturbed by unneccessary discriminations.

Greeting Someone
A lotus for you
a Buddha to be

The tradition of joining our palms together and bowing when we meet someone is very beautiful.  Millions of men and women in Asia and around the world greet each other this way every day.  Forming a lotus bud with your hands is very pleasant.  I hope you will try it from time to time.  If a tulip blossom is more familiar for you to envision, you may want to say, "A tulip for you, a Buddha to be."  A tulip possesses the Buddha nature just like a lotus.
When someone offers me a cup of tea, I always bow respectfully.  As I join my palms, I breathe in and say, "A lotus for you." As I bow, I breathe out and say, "A Buddha to be."  To join our palms in a lotus bud is to offer the person standing before us a fresh flower.  But we have to remember not to join our palms mechanically.  We must be aware of the person we are greeting.  When our respectf is sincere, we remember that she has the nature of a Buddha, the nature of awakening.
If we look, we can see the Buddha in the person before us.  When we practice this way regularly, we will see a change in ourselves.  We will develop humility, and we will also realize that our abilities are boundless.  When we know how to respect others, we also know how to respect ourselves.
As I bow, mindfulness becomes real in me.  Seeing my deep reverence, the person to whom I bow also becomes awake, and he may like to form a lotus and bow to me, breathing in and out.  With one greeting, mindfulness becomes present in both of us as we touch the Buddha with our hearts, not just with our hands.  Suddenly, the Buddha in each of us begins to shine, and we are in touch with the present moment.
Sometimes we think that we are superior to others - perhaps more educated or intelligent.  Seeing an uneducated person, a feeling of disdain may arise, but this attitude does not help anyone.  Our knowledge is relative and limited.  An orchid, for example, knows how to produce noble, symmetrical flowers, and a snail knows how to make a beautiful, well proportioned shell.  Compared with this kind of knowledge, our knowledge is not worth boasting about, no matter how much formal education we have.  We should bow deeply before the orchid and the snail and join our palms reverently before the monarch butterfly and the magnolia tree.  Feeling respect for all species of living beings and inanimate objects will help us recognize a part of the Buddha nature in ourselves.  
In the West, some people prefer to shake hands.  Whatever form you use, if you greet others mindfully and respectfully, the Buddha is present.

Looking at Your Empty Bowl
My bowl, empty now,
will soon be filled with precious food.
Beings all over the Earth are stuggling to live.
How fortunate we are to have enough to eat.

When many people on this Earth look at an empty bowl, they know their bowl will continue to be empty for a long time.  So the empty bowl is as important to honor as the full bowl.  We are grateful to have food to eat, and with this gatha, we can vow to find ways to help those who are hungry.

The Five Contemplations
This food is the gift of the earth, they sky,
    numerous living beings
    and much hard work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude
    so as to be worthy to receive this food.
May we recognize and transorm unwholesome
    mental formations,
    especially our greed.
May we take only foods that nourish us and keep us healthy.
We accept this food so that we may nurture
    our sisterhood and brotherhood,
    build our Sangha, and norish our ideal of seving living beings.

The first contemplation is being aware that our food comes directly from the earth and sky.  It is a gift of the earth and sky, and also of the people who prepared it.
    The second contemplation is about being worthy of the food we eat.  The way to be worhty of our food is to eat mindfuly - to be aware of its presence and thankful for having it. We cannont allow ourselves to get lost in our worries, fears, or anger over the past or the future.  We are there for the the food because the food is there for us, it is only fair.  Eat in mindfulness, and you will be worthy of the earth and the sky.
    The third contemplation is about becoming aware of our negative tendencies and not allowing them to carry us away.  We need to learn how to eat in moderation, to eat the right amount of food.  The bowl that is used by a monk or a nun is referred to as an "instument of appropriate measure."  It is very important not to overeat.  If you eat slowly and chew very carefully, you will get plenty of nutrition.  the right amount of food is the amount that helps us stay healthy.
    The fourth contemplation is about the quality of our food.  We are determined to ingest only food that has no toxins for our body and our consciousness, food that keeps us healthy and nourishes our compassion.  This is mindful eating.  The Buddha said that if you eat in such a way that compassion is destroyed in you, it is like eating the flesh of your own children.  So practice eating in such a way that you can keep compassion alive in you.
    The fifth contemplaion is being aware that we receive food in order to realize something.  Our lives should have meaning and that meaning is to help poeple suffer less, and help them to touch the joys of life.  When we have compassion in our hearts and when we know that we are able to help a person suffer less, life begins to have more meaning.  This is very important food for us and can bring us a lot of joy.  A single person is capable of helping many living beings.  And it is something we can do anywhere.

[For more gathas and their commentaries see Present Moment, Wonderful Moment by Thich Nhat Hanh.]