Foreword by Translator Sister Annabel Laity
When we step into the monastery, we feel right away a sense of harmonious order: a peaceful, serene atmosphere far from the chaotic busyness of life outside. Where does this order and peace come from? Monastic culture, transmitted from the time of the Buddha through more than a hundred generations, creates conditions for this peace. The instructions in this little book that you hold in your hands contain the essence of this monastic culture.
In the 1980s, when I asked our teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, to allow me to ordain as a Buddhist nun, he did not give his consent right away. In fact, I had to ask many times before I received it. My father had told me once that when he asked my mother if she would marry him, she said she needed time to think about it. Our teacher needed time to think about starting a monastic order in Plum Village; I also needed time to see if I had the capacity to be a nun. The commitment to monastic life is not a light one; it is a lifelong commitment to a way of living very different from the one we knew before. We commit ourselves because we know that this is the way to freedom—a deep inner freedom that is not possible without discipline and a Sangha. Our teacher and I did not yet know if I would be able to keep that commitment or whether I would be happy as a nun. So, I needed to wait two more years for ordination.
After I ordained, I was given a copy of the twenty-four chapters on fine manners compiled by Master Zhuhong in the sixteenth century, which had been translated into Vietnamese. As soon as my Vietnamese was proficient enough, I did my best to translate it into English, and, soon afterwards, I wrote a commentary on it. Some points of the commentary were matters of etiquette, hygiene, or common sense. Some resembled the table manners I had learnt from my parents and school teachers.
Much of this traditional content was new to me. I needed to train not to leave my socks lying just anyhow alongside my bed but to fold and place them neatly. I could not just quickly undo the top buttons of my robe and then pull it up over my head. Every button had to be undone and then done up again with mindfulness when I put the robe back on again. There were many everyday actions that I had been accustomed to performing on “automatic pilot” as my mind made plans for the future or ruminated about the past. Now I had the oppor-tunity to enjoy these actions fully with the help of a short verse known as a gāthā and mindful breathing. It may have taken longer to do things, but in the end they were done well—with attention and awareness—and did not need to be done a second time. I realized that as I was able to stay present in the action, I was nourishing concentration and insight. That insight consisted of being in touch with the wonders of life, that before I had taken for granted. Every moment of life can be precious if we are able to stay in the present moment.
Our teacher was very patient with me. I learnt under his steady gaze that being a nun was adopting a culture not entirely different from—but certainly not the same as—the culture in which I had been brought up. He did not want to constrain me in an alien discipline but rather to show me that inner and outer beauty should reflect each other. It was important to wear the correct robe neatly when in public so that people could find the sight of a monk or a nun pleasant and inspiring to look at. It was important to move about serenely in order to generate the energy of mindfulness and peace and not to disturb the atmo-sphere. It was important to show respect to your teacher and elders in gratitude for the fact that they were taking the trouble to train you and impart their insight to you. Even if you did not always understand them, your part as a student or disciple was to listen without preconceived ideas. At a later date, when you had reflected on their teachings, you could come back and ask for clarification. I learnt that an enlightened teacher will do anything they can to help their disciple attain awakening.
Wonderful as Master Zhuhong’s instructions were, they were, by the end of the twentieth century, somewhat anti-quated. As far as monastic discipline is concerned, there are some points that are timeless. There are also points, though, that need to be revised according to the times and the culture of the society in which the monastic order finds itself. Towards the end of the twentieth century, our teacher along with some of his senior disciples began to make revisions to Master Zhuhong’s instructions based on that need. By 1997 the revisions were complete. Parallax Press published the first edition of Stepping into Freedom
, the title of the updated instructions, and so they were made available to lay practitioners as well as monastics.
Somehow a copy of the book came into the hands of a person in prison in the United States. He was so inspired while reading it that he decided to turn his prison cell into a monk’s cell and to see his prison as a monastery. He shaved his own head and undertook to practice the Ten Novice Precepts and the fine manners for a novice—in fact all that is in the book—and he found fulfillment and liberation in doing so. He was not the only layperson to practice the Ten Mindfulness Trainings in this book. We have since heard from many others that they have done so, whether in their own homes or in a practice center with friends.Stepping into Freedom
was first published more than twenty years ago. A revised edition was made in 2008 in Vietnamese. Our teacher, a poet, included many new gāthās—short poems for the practice of mindfulness. Poetry is very difficult to trans-late, so please forgive us for not being able to convey all the lyrical beauty of the Vietnamese. Here is an example for washing the dishes:
As I wash my bowl in the historical dimension,
I look at myself and smile.I ask myself:
“What am I doing?”
There, a rose blooms.
The image of a rose as we wash up helps us not to be lost in unnecessary thinking.
This revised version of Stepping into Freedom
published here has many additional instructions in the chapters on fine manners that we need in order to keep our monastic life serene in our fast- developing technological world. For example, “When driving, do not use a mobile phone, even the kind that is not hand-held.” There is also a new chapter on “Protecting the Environment.”
We asked Parallax Press to publish this new English translation so that it can be available not only for English- speaking monks and nuns but also for lay practitioners who feel inspired to adopt whatever practices are suitable for their daily lives. We have also included a glossary of Sanskrit words. An added benefit is that if lay practitioners know what monks and nuns are required to practice, they can better support them in their interactions together.
When in 1986 I asked our teacher if I could ordain as a nun, he said that the West was not ready for monasticism. Things have changed, and the Buddhist monastic presence in Europe and the Americas is now welcomed as providing places of refuge for many people. In order to be that solid place of refuge and maintain it for ourselves and others, we monks and nuns need our precepts and fine manners. We need to train in them and hand them on to future generations. We know that our lay friends—one half of the Fourfold Sangha—can support us in this.
SISTER ANNABEL LAITY
Copyright © 2021 by Thich Nhat Hanh. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.