The teachings of Sister Chân Không and Swiss Cheese

A few summers ago, I took my young son on a backpacking tour through Iceland, France, and Germany. Being a single woman traveling with a young child in foreign lands, my hackles were up for any nuanced stranger danger infractions. By the time we reached Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in Southern France, for our three weeks of mindfulness training, I was exhausted. Most of my fatigue I attributed to the efforts of constantly keeping my energetic shield up.

Two days into our retreat, I heard Sister Chân Không, an expatriate Vietnamese Buddhist nun,  peace activist, and close collaborator of the late Thích Nhất Hạnh, tell us that in her tradition “boundaries”  were not a practiced concept. Instead of constructing walls to keep others out, she urged us to radiate love and compassion out from our whole bodies and to “water the garden” of humanity with kindness. So essentially, in my words, loving kindness eradicates the need for shields and cord-cutting. That’s not to say we don’t take action if in harm's way, but also, do we really need to lug those heavy shields around?

How does one square this view with the Western notion that “good fences make good neighbors,” that sometimes our boundaries feel like Swiss cheese and we get slimed by other’s projections and ill will?  In light of Sister Chân Không’s teachings, my own Lakota traditions, and all I’ve observed in 20 years of practice, I have been thinking a lot about energetic boundaries and would like to share some of these discussions with you.