Walk Like a Buddha
Arrive in the here and the now.
-Thich Nhat Hanh
In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is described as the most respected and loved creature who walked on two feet. He was so loved because he knew how to enjoy a good walk. Walking is an important form of Buddhist meditation. It can be a very deep spiritual practice. But when the Buddha walked, he walked without effort. He just enjoyed walking. He didn’t have to strain, because when you walk in mindfulness, you are in touch with the all the wonders of life within you and around you. This is the best way to practice, with the appearance of nonpractice. You don’t make any effort, you don’t struggle, you just enjoy walking, but it’s very deep. “My practice,” the Buddha said, “is the nonpractice, the attainment of nonattainment.”
For many of us, the idea of practice without effort, of the relaxed pleasure of mindfulness, seems very difficult. That is because we don’t walk with our feet. Of course, physically our feet are doing the walking, but because our minds are elsewhere, we are not walking with our full body and our full consciousness. We see our minds and our bodies as two separate things. While our bodies are walking one way, our consciousness is tugging us in a different direction.
For the Buddha, mind and the body are two aspects of the same thing. Walking is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. But we often find it difficult or tedious. We drive a few blocks rather than walk in order to “save time.” When we understand the interconnectedness of our bodies and our minds, the simple act of walking like the Buddha can feel supremely easy and pleasurable. 084_Walking
You can take a step and touch the earth in such a way that you establish yourself in the present moment; you will arrive in the here and the now. You don’t need to make any effort at all. Your foot touches the earth mindfully, and you arrive firmly in the here and the now. And suddenly you are free—free from all projects, all worries, all expectations. You are fully present, fully alive, and you are touching the earth.
When you practice slow walking meditation alone, try this: Breathe in and take one step, and focus all your attention on the sole of your foot. If you have not arrived fully, one hundred percent in the here and the now, don’t make the next step. You have the luxury of doing this. Then when you’re sure that you’ve arrived one hundred percent in the here and the now, touching reality deeply, then you smile and you make the next step. When you walk like this, you print your stability, your solidity, your freedom, your joy on the ground. Your foot is like a seal. When you put the seal on a piece of paper, the seal makes an impression. Looking in your footstep, you see the mark of freedom, the mark of solidity, the mark of happiness, the mark of life. You can make a step like that because there is a buddha in you—buddhanature, the capacity of being aware of what is going on. There is a buddha in every one of us, and we should allow the buddha to walk.
Even in the most difficult situation, you can walk like a buddha. Last year I visited Korea, and there was one moment when my group was surrounded by hundreds of people. Each of them had a camera, and they were closing in. There was no path to walk, and everyone was aiming their camera at us. It was a very difficult situation in which to do walking meditation, so I said, “Dear Buddha, I give up, you walk for me.” And right away the Buddha came, and he walked, with complete freedom, and the crowd made room for the Buddha to walk; no effort was made. If you find yourself in some difficulty, step aside, and allow the Buddha to take your place. The Buddha is in you. This works in all situations, I have tried it. It’s like encountering a problem when you’re using the computer. You can’t get out of the situation. But then your big brother who is very skillful with computers comes along and says, “Move over a little, I’ll take over.” And as soon as he sits down, everything is all right. It’s like that. When you find it difficult, withdraw and allow the Buddha to take your place. You have to have faith in the Buddha within, and allow the Buddha to walk, and also allow the people dear to you to walk.
When you walk, who do you walk for? You can walk to get somewhere but you can also walk as a kind of meditative offering. It’s nice to walk for your parents or for your grandparents who may not have known the practice of walking in mindfulness. You ancestors may have spent their whole life without the chance to make peaceful, happy steps and establish themselves fully in the present moment.
It is possible for you to walk with the feet of your mother. You can say, “Mother, would you like to walk with me?” And then you walk with her, and your heart will fill with love. You free yourself and you free her at the same time, because your mother is in you, in every cell of your body. Your father is also fully present in every cell of your body. You can say, “Dad, would you like to join me?” Then suddenly you walk with the feet of your father. It’s a joy. It’s very rewarding. You don’t have to fight and struggle in order to do it. Just become aware.
After you have been able to walk for your dear ones, you can walk for the people who have made your life miserable. You can walk for those who have attacked you, who have destroyed your home, your country, and your people. These people weren’t happy. They didn’t have enough love for themselves and for other people. They have made your life miserable, and the life of your family and your people miserable. And there will be a time when you’ll be able to walk for them too. Walking like that, you become a buddha, you become a bodhisattva filled with love, understanding, and compassion.
WALKING MEDITATION PRACTICE
The mind can go in a thousand directions.
But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, a gentle wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.
During walking meditation we walk slowly, in a relaxed way, keeping a light smile on our lips. When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease, and our steps are those of the most secure person on Earth. Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking—walking not in order to arrive, just for walking, to be in the present moment, and to enjoy each step. Therefore you have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past, just enjoying the present moment. Anyone can do it. It takes only a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy.
We walk all the time, but usually it is more like running. Our hurried steps print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. If we can take one step in peace, we can take two, three, four, and then five steps for the peace and happiness of humankind.
Our mind darts from one thing to another, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch without stopping to rest. Thoughts have millions of pathways, and we are forever pulled along by them into the world of forgetfulness. If we can transform our walking path into a field for meditation, our feet will take every step in full awareness, our breathing will be in harmony with our steps, and our mind will naturally be at ease. Every step we take will reinforce our peace and joy and cause a stream of calm energy to flow through us. Then we can say, “With each step, a gentle wind blows.”
While walking, practice conscious breathing by counting steps. Notice each breath and the number of steps you take as you breathe in and as you breathe out. If you take three steps during an in-breath, say, silently, “One, two, three,” or “In, in, in,” one word with each step. As you breathe out, if you take three steps, say, “Out, out, out,” with each step. If you take three steps as you breathe in and four steps as you breathe out, you say, “In, in, in. Out, out, out, out,” or “One, two, three. One, two, three, four.”
Don’t try to control your breathing. Allow your lungs as much time and air as they need, and simply notice how many steps you take as your lungs fill up and how many you take as they empty, mindful of both your breath and your steps. The key is mindfulness.
When you walk uphill or downhill, the number of steps per breath will change. Always follow the needs of your lungs. Do not try to control your breathing or your walking. Just observe them deeply.
When you begin to practice, your exhalation may be longer than your inhalation. You might find that you take three steps during your in-breath and four steps on your out-breath. If this is comfortable for you, enjoy practicing this way. After you have been doing walking meditation for some time, your in-breath and out-breath will probably become equal: 3-3, or 2-2, or 4-4.
If you see something along the way that you want to touch with your mindfulness—the blue sky, the hills, a tree, or a bird—just stop, but while you do, continue breathing mindfully. You can keep the object of your contemplation alive by means of mindful breathing. If you don’t breathe consciously, sooner or later your thinking will settle back in, and the bird or the tree will disappear. Always stay with your breathing.
After you have been practicing for a few days, try adding one more step to your exhalation. For example, if your normal breathing is 2-2, without walking any faster, lengthen your exhalation and practice 2-3 for four or five times. Then go back to 2-2. In normal breathing, we never expel all the air from our lungs. There is always some left. By adding another step to your exhalation, you will push out more of this stale air. Don’t overdo it. Four or five times are enough. More can make you tired. After breathing this way four or five times, let your breath return to norma1. Then, five or ten minutes later, you can repeat the process. Remember to add a step to the exhalation, not the inhalation.
After practicing for a few more days, your lungs might say to you, “If we could do 3-3 instead of 2-3, that would be wonderful.” If the message is clear, try it, but even then, only do it four or five times. Then go back to 2-2. In five or ten minutes, begin 2-3, and then do 3-3 again. After several months, your lungs will be healthier and your blood will circulate better. Your way of breathing will have been transformed.
When we practice walking meditation, we arrive in each moment. When we enter the present moment deeply, our regrets and sorrows disappear, and we discover life with all its wonders. Breathing in, we say to ourselves, “I have arrived.” Breathing out, we say, “I am home.” When we do this, we overcome dispersion and dwell peacefully in the present moment, which is the only moment for us to be alive.
You can also practice walking meditation using the lines of a poem. In Zen Buddhism, poetry and practice always go together.
I have arrived.
I am home
in the here,
in the now.
I am solid.
I am free.
In the ultimate
As you walk, be fully aware of your foot, the ground, and the connection between them, which is your conscious breathing. People say that walking on water is a miracle, but to me, walking peacefully on the Earth is the real miracle. The Earth is a miracle. Each step is a miracle. Taking steps on our beautiful planet can bring real happiness.
Why do Buddhists walk in circles around (circumambulate) sacred objects?
A kind of walking meditation is circumambulation. This is the act of walking in a circle around an object of veneration. Buddhists circumambulate to show devotion, pay tribute, cultivate their minds, and accumulate merit. Although the practice predates Buddhism, the Buddha mentioned it several times over his teaching career and said it purified negative karma and benefit a more favorable rebirth.
In Buddhist circumambulation walking meditation, the practitioner travels clockwise around a devotional object, keeping the object on their right while meditating, praying, or reciting mantras.
Buddhists circumambulate many different types of devotional objects: stupas, temples, statues, sacred mountains, even people. When the Buddha visited his ancestral home at Kapilavastu, the elders of his clan bowed to him, then circumambulated him as he sat in their midst as a sign of respect.
Buddhist tradition holds that circumambulation should be practiced with body, speech, and mind—walking, saying prayers, and thinking beneficial thoughts.
As the Tibetan teacher Lama Zopa observed, “If your mind is distracted and you are gossiping while you are circumambulating, there is no great benefit.” Intention is always more important than ritual in Buddhism.
Some traditions place great significance on the number and timing of circumambulations, but these rules vary by site and tradition. The general guideline is, the more circumambulations, the better—a minimum of three times is customary, honoring the triple gem. But however many you are able to do is the right number, and whenever you are able to do them is the right time.