This article on Walking Meditation was written by Br. Phap Hai from Deer Park Monastery published in a shortened version, in the Shambala Sun Magazine of June 2014.



I’m sometimes asked what the defining practice of Plum Village is.


I believe that it is the practice of walking meditation. Thay continually emphasizes the transformative power of this simple yet profound practice.  In our community, rather than just practicing walking meditation in formal periods, we are encouraged to practice walking meditation continuously throughout the day, even when we only need to take a few steps.

It is a practice that can help us to develop the capacity to be fully present, fully ourselves, and fully alive.


After hurtling through space and making it back to earth, at the end of the movie Gravity, Sandra Bullock's character rises up off the beach and takes slow, delicious steps on the earth. She walks with gentleness and delight. For me, this one simple scene was without a doubt the most impactful of the whole movie. Watching Sandra Bullock's character take those steps, I was reminded once again of one of the teachings of the 9th century Zen Master Rinzai who said: "the great miracle is not to walk on the air or to walk on water or fire, but to be able to walk on the earth." 


To walk on the earth doesn’t really sound like much of a miracle, does it?When I began reflecting on Master Rinzai’s quotation, I began asking myself what walking on air and water might mean, and why he considered walking on the earth- something that we seemingly do each and every day- such a miracle. I started to look at my own life, and to ask myself what walking on “air” or “water” might mean to me, and also what it could be to  walk on the “earth” of my own life.


When I began to contemplate my life in this way, I realized that I actually spent most of my time walking on “air” and “water”- the air and water of the past, the future, my worries, my plans, my fears and hopes. In fact, it began to seem that it was an exceedingly rare experience for me to truly take steps on the “earth” of my embodied experience.


This last point is,  for me,  the crucial starting point of meditation practice- inhabiting our bodies, inhabiting our lives. Developing the capacity to become intimate with the absolutely ordinary earth of our lived experience, our daily lives.


And rather than bolts of lightning, and seeking peak experiences, it is touching the wonder of  the absolutely ordinary, the commonplace, the seemingly unimportant that is the essence of an authentic practice life:


One day the Buddha was speaking to a prince who asked him, “What do
you and your monastics practice every day?” The Buddha replied, “We sit, we walk and we eat.” 
The prince said, “We also do these things every day, so how are you different?” The Buddha responded, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we 
know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”


To be completely at home in each moment is truly a miracle- perhaps the greatest miracle of all.


In the Plum Village tradition, we often speak of  the first fruit of the practice as "Arriving". It feels so wonderful to arrive at our destination after a long, tiring journey. I often tell the story of the time that i was asked in Spring 2000 to travel from Plum Village to Australia to assist with retreats and days of mindfulness. We flew from Bordeaux to Paris, where we had a  6 hour layover in the airport before continuing on to Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon) via Dubai. After eleven hours in the holding room at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City it was time for the final nine hour flight to Sydney.


By the time we landed in Sydney, we had been traveling for around 42 hours. I will never forget how heavy my suitcase felt as I carried it the final few steps to my room. As I placed my suitcase down on the floor, a great "aaaahhhhh" flowed out of me. My whole body relaxed and I felt wonderful. This is exactly the experience we are referring to when we speak about "arriving".

If we say the word "arriving " out loud, the first syllable is "ahh", and it is a good reminder for the times that we find ourselves struggling or striving. The practice of meditation is about arriving with every breath, every step, every moment of our daily lives.


When we can settle into our lived experience, and there is nowhere more important for us to be than right where we are, we have truly arrived. The practice of walking meditation is the practice of arriving at our destination with each step, each breath. 


Usually in our daily lives, we are habituated to "doing", to going somewhere. When we walk, we are always going somewhere, physically and mentally-somewhere else that is not here.  We are sitting here, and we decide that we need to go and open the window. The next thing we are aware of is when we are at the window, we have not been present for the moments "in-between" . 


Walking meditation is an opportunity to bring awareness to these moments of transition- these "in between things" moments- that usually pass unnoticed. These so-called moments of transition, in fact, make up the majority of our life. 


As I walk, I feel the sensation of the soles of my feet on the earth and return my awareness back to my breath. I become rooted in my body, established in time and place. I am fully myself.


Each time I practice walking meditation, it is a new and different practice. There are times that I walk slowly and deliberately, taking perhaps three steps for every in-breath and three steps for every out-breath, and there are other times when the situation is such that I need to move more quickly, but I bring the same awareness to my steps. 


The practice of walking meditation can be a beautiful gift that you offer yourself. Some simple ideas for gently incorporating it into your life might be:


  • Choose a staircase or a section of pathway that you will always walk with mindful awareness.
  • When you walk, relax your whole body and bring your awareness to the sensations in your feet.
  • Feel how it is to truly walk on the earth. Thay has invited us to take steps as if we are “kissing” the earth with our feet. How is that experience for you?
  • Notice how many steps you take for an in-breath, and how many steps you take for an out-breath.
  • In the beginning, if you find that your mind is wandering, silently repeating a word or two whilst you are walking can be helpful. Some suggestions might be : on the in-breath “Arrived, Arrived”, and on the out-breath “Home Home”- allowing yourself to sink into the experience of being at home, of arriving. Or “Here”, “Now” is another good choice.
  • Don’t forget to smile!


I wish you every joy and success in this beautiful practice. ~ Tich Chan Phap Hai


This article was written for, and published in a shortened version, in the Shambala Sun Magazine of June 2014.