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Circles of Life and Death, Part One: Recalling Thich Nhat Hanh and Black Elk

Photo by Shyam

Visiting Blue Cliff Monastery recently, the Thich Nhat Hanh center in upstate New York, I was struck by the simplicity of grounded, joyful practice. Engaging in walking, being, sitting, and eating in spacious silence was a much-needed balm for my body and mind. In Vajrayana practice and ordinary life, there is so much activity—details, planning, and expression. On my first foray onto the Plum Village path of mindful being, based on the idea of inter-being, I was reminded of the simple joys of my original path, Shin Pure Land, introduced to me by Taitetsu Unno in 1990. Don’t get me wrong, I am a devoted Vajrayana practitioner—it is my home base. But aging seems to bring with it some need for winnowing, pruning, essentializing. No less for meditation than all other areas of life. My life is overly busy, and busyness is not a virtue listed in any spiritual path that I can recall.

At Blue Cliff, we prepared our lunch bowls in silence, then sat waiting to eat, regarding the bounty of the meal, waiting for others to be ready for the meal chant. In those spacious minutes, I witnessed the trees outside the dining hall window. Blue Cliff is a studded jewel of new and mature tree plantings, the grounds lovingly tended. As I regarded the trees treeing, the rocks rocking, the water waving, and my own breath settling like the puffy clouds drifting in the beaming sky, I felt an ease I had not felt in close to a year. As Thay put it in the video they shared with us visitors, the whole forest is present in a piece of paper.* He held the paper, mentioning also the paper mill, its workers, and the effort and pride taken in the result. When the paper is burned, it too joins back to the elements, as we will do at death. The cycle of life and death and rebirth, true for all things and beings.

Photo by Olena Ivanova

Recently, I was asked to teach a short lesson on mandalas to a kindergarten class. A mandala is a circle representing the universe and everything within it. In Tibetan this is called nö chü, the container and its inhabitants. When we are slow enough to take it all in, we realize we are also merely one of the inhabitants of a vast container, both profound and mundane. Our plans are no more important than the next being’s—at least not to them. The circle is a flat representation of the sphere: the three-dimensional shape of our interconnected world. I like how Thay referred to the term inter-being. We hear and talk so much about sentient beings and reducing the sharp delineation between self and other by practicing for the benefit of all sentient beings, ourselves included. Yet if we see others as always more important than ourselves and bypass or ignore our own basic needs, then we may cause more trouble than we hope to remedy. Self and others form a web of interconnection, inextricably linked.

Photo by Lanty-1

Teaching briefly on mandalas ended up being quite a deep experience. Even kindergartners can mentally and emotionally metabolize the interconnected circle, sphere, globe, representing wholeness and interdependence. On the same day, the 5th and 6th grades asked me to help mediate a conversation that was becoming quite polarized about strife in the Middle East. Although desperately poignant, complex, and nuanced, the heartbreaking war in the Middle East is nothing new to us humans. In the recent past, all headlines were on Ukraine and Russia, and likewise on back through recordable time—and unfortunately, potentially forward in time—we see unending conflicts between humans fighting over resources, doctrines, belief systems, land, and ideologies. These misperceptions of difference stand in the way of the true expression of ourselves and the fundamental need to serve others. They disregard the container and all its inhabitants as worthy of love, care, and respect.

Bear River State Park, rare white buffalo born in 2023, said to be a good omen. Photo by the author

The Native American leader Black Elk spoke of the Oglala Sioux Nation as a sacred hoop or circle:

You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles . . . the sky is round, and I have heard that the Earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The Sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The Moon does the same, and both are round. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children. But the Wasichus us have put us in these square boxes.

(Unno, 149)

Black Elk contrasts the circle, expressing the vitality of his people, and the square boxes of modern homes, which felt suffocating to their way of life, no less so for being forced to stay and settle—in rigid contrast to seasonal migrations following buffalo herds for their sustenance and customs. I think of grids of towns, cities, states, and nations outlined on maps, human-based rigid thinking, denial of interconnection, natural processes, and migration of all species, including us.

Photo by Oskar Holm

Whether we look at present conflict, past examples of genocide in the United States, Vietnam, or countless other locales, we see the deep need for spiritual practice and compassion-building. Buddhism and thinking of others will never go out of style, off-trend, or be obsolete, simply for the essential need to overcome our inherent selfishness, the erroneous perception that we are most important. As recounted by my beloved teacher, Taitetsu Unno, in his book River of Fire, River of Water:

Such sorrow—
The cry of true compassion
Sinks into my hard ego.

(Unno, 120)

Please check back next month for Part Two.

* The Universe Explained in a Sheet of Paper – Thich Nhat Hanh (YouTube)


Unno, Taitetsu. 1998. River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism. New York: Penguin Random House.

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