Brother Pháp Lý is the kind of person who prefers to hug you the first time he meets you. I had heard about him before he arrived: his buoyant personality, his love of nature, and perhaps most notably, his penchant for barefooting. “You will hardly ever see him wearing shoes,” I was told. If you have ever had the good fortune to meet Brother Pháp Lý, you know that this turns out to be true.
Like him, I had become interested in barefooting after reading Christopher McDougall’s modern classic Born to Run, which documents the success of runners who utilized minimalist footwear, as well as the rise of injuries as athletic footwear became more geared toward comfort. I had experimented with minimalist footwear and barefoot running on and off over the past several years, mostly on asphalt and grass. Unlike Brother Pháp Lý, I had never become comfortable barefooting on trails.
When I arrived at Deer Park, I started practicing walking meditation barefoot in order to stay more present with the sensation of my feet touching the Earth. I found that it brought me a lot of joy, and generally helped ground me in mindfulness. Brother Pháp Lý’s presence at Deer Park has inspired some of us to practice barefooting even more, and naturally we’ve been looking into the dharmic lessons that it offers, chiefly around the tenets of simplicity, equanimity, and interbeing.
Even for a monk, Brother Pháp Lý has very few possessions, and he typically eschews dinner. After all, as Plum Village practitioners, we “get our joy from the simple things, coming from the Earth”, as the song goes. Brother Pháp Lý exemplifies that sentiment as well as anyone. Barefooting is a continuation of the idea that joy is given freely to us by the Earth, in the form of simple gifts. What joy to have feet! What a gift! With these feet we can travel hundreds of miles at a time, we can walk over mountains and across rivers, through grasslands and desert. In the spirit of few possessions and simple appearances, what joy not to worry about having the right shoes!
Of course, it isn’t always comfortable. Though he generally packs lightly, Brother Pháp Lý always hikes with a first aid kit, and he regularly makes use of it. Barefooting, as he knows, teaches the virtue of sacrificing comfort for happiness. We often confuse the terms, mistaking what feels good for what is good, confounding pleasure with fulfillment. But barefooting points us toward the deeper truth that comfort and happiness often have little to do with one another. We must step on thepointy rocks if we want to enjoy the fine, smooth sand, and we must have pain if we alsowant joy. We must occasionally stub our toes if only to help us discover how strong our feet are, and we must sometimes endure suffering if only to help us discover our capacity for healing. We realize, with practice, that pain is as impermanent as pleasure, and we step mindfully in the direction of equanimity, embracing every sensation, no matter how intense.
Unsurprisingly, Brother Pháp Lý loves animals and is one of the sangha’s most committed vegans. When we walk barefoot, we cultivate compassion, taking gentle steps, putting more care, love, and mindfulness into our steps, avoiding not only sharp stones and thorns, but also insects and flowers. Slowing down and feeling Earth directly help us to look deeply into our interbeing nature. As we become aware of the connection between our feet and the Earth, the line between self and other blurs. With each step, we can remember, “This is me,” and we can know that we inter-are with the pointy rocks and the fine sand, we inter-are with the asphalt and mud, we inter-are with the leaves and the grass, and we can feel this truth directly, with our feet.
A web search will reveal countless articles detailing the many health benefits of barefooting (also called “earthing” and “grounding”) not discussed here. At the monastery, keeping with Asian tradition, we practice barefooting whenever we are indoors. I have found that this too has merit, spiritual, physical, and otherwise. If you don’t feel comfortable hiking or walking barefoot around your neighborhood, you may like to consider barefooting around your house or in your yard, even if it’s for only a few minutes a day.
Brother Pháp Lý returns to France next month. He will not be able to walk there, though I know he would prefer it to sitting on an airplane, where social norms dictate that he confines his feet in shoes. As novice monks, we train to remember Master Guishan’s Encouraging Words: “Imitate those worthy of admiring.” I am now barefooting on trails and around the monastery as often as I can, and I can sense my practice deepening. Perhaps you too may benefit from being Brother Pháp Lý’s shoeless continuation.
Brother Trời Minh An recently received full bhikshu ordination during the 2021 Great Precepts Transmission Ceremony at Deer Park Monastery. Becoming a bhikshu is what follows several years of practice as a novice monastic.