Dharma Talk: The Horse Is Technology

By Thich Nhat Hanh November 10, 2013 Plum Village

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Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is the 10th of November, 2013, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall of the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village. The Winter Retreat will start in five days and will last ninety days. The Winter Retreat is the most beautiful retreat in Plum Village because we can go deep into the teaching, and we have plenty of time to build brotherhood and sisterhood and transform ourselves.

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During this Winter Retreat we should stay in the compound of Plum Village, in the Sangha. We do not have permission to go out, even with the Internet. So there will be no individual email addresses and no Facebook. Facebook is neither good nor evil, but how you use it can bring more negative things than positive and can waste a lot of time. With Facebook, we are looking for something outside of us, and we do not have time to go back to ourselves and to take care of ourselves. So there will be absolutely no Facebook during this retreat. If you have anything that is not the Dharma, including iPod, iTouch, iTablet, films, and music, you have to throw it out.

Teaching at Google

On the 23rd of October, we spent the day at Google. We were in three groups at different locations, with Thay in one group and sixty monastics spread through the groups. Thay’s talk was seen and heard by everyone simultaneously.

We began with breakfast, and then at 8:30 we gave instructions on walking meditation. The people in the Google complex––they call it Googleplex––did walking meditation very seriously. At one point during the walking, we sat down, and Thay invited the small bell three times and had a cup of tea. Those who came late saw the calm atmosphere; it was very rare.

Then a Google representative delivered a welcome speech, and Thay gave a talk followed by a session of questions and answers. Thay offered a guided meditation that was used the next day at a plenary session broadcast worldwide. There were gifts exchanged, and at noon after sharing instructions on how to eat mindfully, Thay ate lunch with everyone. At 1:45, Sister Chan Khong led a session of total relaxation. At 3:00, Thay and some of the monastics met with senior Google executives, including a number of engineers. We had a long and deep discussion on how to make good use of technology in order to help people suffer less.

Google offered the theme, “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” They wanted to know the interplay between intention, insight, and innovation, not only in terms of work, but also in all aspects of life. The basic question was: How can technology become a force for integration rather than destruction? Because so far, it is a force of destruction; it’s pulling us away from each other.

Before we went to Google, a number of monastics wrote to Thay, describing the situation there and suggesting some questions to address. The first question was, “How can we innovate in order to take good care of ourselves?” Second, “How can we take care of the health of our workforce and take care of Mother Earth?” There is enlightenment in this question: it shows that they see the negative aspects of technology. They have found that emotional health is decreasing and distress is increasing in the Google workforce. They want some teaching and practice to deal with that situation.

Another question was, “Given the high rate of burnout, is there a way that we as a corporation can assist employees to create a better work-life balance?” Many Googlers are addicted to their work, they have a hard time detaching from it, and it can take over their lives. Maybe each of us feels that way also. We are being taken over by our work, and we do not have the time and the capacity to live our life deeply. Life is a gift, and we are not able to enjoy it, to make the best of that gift.

Strangely, there is an eagerness to find a technological solution to technology addiction. There is a disease called technology addiction, and yet you want to use technology to heal. Can we heal drug addiction with drugs? Can we heal anger with anger? Can we heal violence with violence? That is a contradiction.

So that is the First Noble Truth, not only for Buddhists, but for everyone. We have to contemplate the First Noble Truth of ill-being. Technology is destructive. Technology is taking our time away. We do not have the time to take care of ourselves, our families, and nature. Our civilization is going in a wrong direction.

This question is the beginning of a kind of awakening. We recognize the ill-being, and we want to transform it. We are looking for the way, the path, to heal that ill-being. That is the Fourth Noble Truth: the noble path leading to the transformation of ill-being.

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Where Are We Going?

There is a Zen story about a person sitting on a horse, galloping very quickly. At a crossroads, a friend of his shouts, “Where are you going?” The man says, “I don’t know, ask the horse!”

This is our situation. The horse is technology. It carries us and we cannot control it. So we have to begin with intention, asking ourselves, what do we want? The unofficial slogan of Google is “Don’t be evil.” Can you make a lot of money without being evil? That’s what they try to do, but so far, not very successfully. You want to be wealthy. You want to be Number One, but that costs you your life, because you are carried away by work.

Searching for information on your computer becomes a way to distract you from your problems. In this way we run away from ourselves, from our family, from our Mother Earth. As a civilization, we are going in the wrong direction. Even if you don’t kill or rob anyone, you are losing your life. If you do not have time to take care of your family and nature, making money that way costs you your life, your happiness, and the life and happiness of your beloved ones and Mother Earth. So that way of making money is evil. But is there a way to make money without being evil?

People have suffering within themselves: loneliness, despair, anger, fear. Most people are afraid of going home to take care of themselves, because they think they will be overwhelmed by the suffering inside. Instead, we try to run away from ourselves or to cover up the suffering inside by consuming. Technology is helping us to do this, so in this way technology is evil.

The horse is supposed to carry us to a good destination, as is technology. But, so far, technology has mostly helped us to run away from ourselves at the cost of our own life and happiness, and the happiness of our beloved ones and the beauty of Mother Earth. So you cannot say that we are not evil, because while realizing your dream of being wealthy, you sacrifice your life, you sacrifice the happiness of your beloved ones, and you cause damage to Mother Earth. So it’s not so easy not to be evil.

But if technology can help you to go home to yourself and take care of your anger, take care of your despair, take care of your loneliness, if technology helps you to create joyful feelings, happy feelings for yourself and for your beloved ones, it’s going in a good way and you can make good use of technology. When you are happy, when you have time for yourself and your beloved ones, maybe you can be more successful in your business. Perhaps you will make more money if you are really happy, if you have good emotional health, if you reduce the amount of stress and despair within yourself.

The Four Nutriments

During his talk at Google, Thay spoke about the four nutriments. In Buddhist psychology there are five universal mental formations: contact, sparsa; attention, manaskara; feelings, vedana; perception, samjna; volition, cetana. They are always present, expressing themselves in our consciousness. The first one is contact, and the last one is volition. These two mental formations are considered to be the kind of food we don’t consume with our mouth.

Some of us use technology to consume in order to forget the suffering in us, in the same way that we sometimes use edible food. When we are lonely or fearful, we search in the refrigerator for something to eat, not because we need it, but we want to forget the suffering in us. Many of us are addicted to eating and become fat and suffer from many kinds of diseases, just because of this kind of consuming. Edible food is the first of the four nutriments.

The second nutriment the Buddha taught was sensory impressions. We pick up a book to read, hoping to have a sensation. We go to the Internet, looking for pictures and songs and music to have a certain feeling. When you listen to music or read a book or newspaper out of routine, you are doing it so you won’t encounter yourself. Many of us are afraid of going home to ourselves, because we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside of us. So we look for sensory impressions to consume. Technology, the Internet, is helping us to do this.

Many young people do this. A teenager confessed to us in a retreat that he spends at least eight hours each day with electronic games, and he cannot stop. At first he was playing games to forget, and now he’s addicted to it. In real life he does not feel any love or understanding in his family, school, or society. Many young people are trying to fill up the loneliness, the emptiness inside, by looking for sensory impressions. That is the second source of nutriment.

Now, as a Buddhist monk or nun, are we doing the same? If you go to the Internet and download a film and a song to enjoy, then you are doing the same. You have to do what the Buddha taught you to do: learn to go home to yourself without fear. Breathe and walk to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and insight, and go home and take care of the loneliness inside. We do not have time to look for sensory impressions to fill up the vacuum in us. If we do that, we are not really monastics, we are acting just like the people in the world. That is why in this Winter Retreat, we have to practice letting go from our own choice, not because Thay tells us to do it. We do it because there is an enlightenment, there is an awakening in this way of living, and you can help people in the world by choosing to live differently. We have to learn to go home to ourselves and take care of the suffering inside and get the peace, the joy that we need, so that we can help people.

That is why having no email address, no Internet, no Facebook, is not something that makes you suffer, but helps you to become a real practitioner. If you do it, if you wake up to that kind of truth, you will do it with joy, not with a sense of deprivation. There are many people who check their email several times a day and find nothing new. Because you are empty inside, you are looking for something new. You have to learn to generate something really new: a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness. That is possible with the practice of mindfulness.

What Is Your Intention?

Volition is the third nutriment, another source of food. Volition is intention. What do you want to do with your life? That is the question. Of course, you have the right to look for material and affective comforts, but that is not your deepest desire. Do you have an ultimate concern? Do you know the meaning of your life? That can be a tremendous source of energy.

If your volition is only to make money, to become the number one corporation, that’s not enough, because there are those who have a lot of money, a lot of power, and yet they are not happy. They feel quite lonely and they don’t have time to live their life. Nobody understands them and they don’t understand anyone. Happiness is not there because there is no understanding or love.

So your volition is not to have a lot of money, to have social recognition, to have a lot of power or fame. What you really want may be something more. Maybe you want to reverse the direction of civilization. You want to help people know how to handle the suffering in themselves, how to heal and transform, how to generate joy and happiness, how to live deeply every moment of their life, so that they can help their beloved ones to do the same and help the Earth to restore her beauty. That is a good desire, a good nutriment. As a corporate leader, if you have that kind of energy, you will become very strong. That is the first item they wanted Thay to speak about at Google: the intention, the motivation that pushes us to do what we are doing.

The Buddha had a strong desire to transform himself, to have the freedom and compassion to help people suffer less. That is a good desire; that is good food. Animated by that kind of energy, he spent forty-five years teaching and helping all kinds of people. He had very strong energy.

So those of us who have a good source of the nutriment of volition can be very happy. To generate understanding and compassion, to be truly happy and to be able to help many people: that is good volition, good intention. If a corporate leader has that kind of bodhicitta, he can reverse the trend of civilization. He can be himself, he can control the horse, and he can make good use of technology.

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With a knife, you can chop vegetables and peel potatoes. The knife is a helpful tool. But a terrorist can use a knife to kill people also. Technology is like that. If you have compassion and insight, you can come up with innovations that make good use of technology, that will help you and others go home to themselves, take care of themselves and their beloved ones.

The fourth nutriment is consciousness. Your individual consciousness is a source of food. There are many good things in your consciousness: you have the capacity to love, to forgive, to understand, to be compassionate. You need to know how to cultivate these elements in your consciousness. We all have the seed of compassion in us. If we know how to water the seed of compassion every day, it will grow. Every time we touch the seed of compassion, it becomes a mental formation, and with compassion alive in you, you don’t suffer anymore. That is good food.

But compassion is not the only good food you have. You have the seeds of joy, of happiness, of tenderness, of forgiveness, of nondiscrimination––many good things in yourself. You have to learn to cultivate more of these elements so that you have good food to nourish you and make the people you love happy. In you, there are also negative seeds, like a seed of anger, a seed of despair, a seed of loneliness. If you consume in a way that waters these negative seeds, then when you read a newspaper or play an electronic game or have a conversation, anger, despair, jealousy may arise in you, and you cultivate food that is not healthy for you.

As a gardener, you grow things that are good for you to consume. We know that there are plants that can make us sick, like poison oak, so we don’t cultivate those. That is true with anger, despair, violence, discrimination. These are not good food.

All of us have the seeds of these negative things in us. The collective consciousness is also food. There are neighborhoods now full of violence, fear, anger, and despair. If you happen to live in that neighborhood, you consume the collective energy of anger and fear. You don’t want to be angry and fearful and violent like them, but if you continue to stay there for a few years, you consume that collective energy and you become like them. That is not good food.

When you come to a retreat, you see hundreds of people who know how to breathe, how to concentrate, how to release tension, how to generate compassion. They generate a powerful collective energy of mindfulness and compassion, and you consume it. You feel the peace, you feel the joy, you feel brotherhood, and you consume it. That is good food. Collective consciousness can be good food or can be poisonous. The collective consciousness nutriment is very important.

But at Google, we spoke more about volition, because understanding volition was the most direct response to their inquiry about intention. A corporate leader should have a clear volition, a desire to help people suffer less. If you have that kind of good food, you become a happy person and you can be a good leader. A corporate leader needs to learn how to go home to himself first, to listen and understand his own suffering, to have compassion and take care of himself. Then he can help people in his family to do that and his family will be his support. And then he can try to help his associates do the same, and they will practice helping all employees in the workforce to go home and take care of themselves and their families. You can inspire them to have that kind of volition, that kind of intention, that kind of motivation. You give them the third nutriment. As leader, you might say, “Dear friends, you come here not just to have a job and to feed your family. You come here to join us in helping people to suffer less. We work in a way that helps people go back to themselves and take care of themselves. In order to do that, we have to do it for ourselves.”

Making Good Use of Technology

Some of our brothers have proposed to Facebook and Google to create a website where people can come and learn how to breathe, how to walk, how to handle a strong emotion, how to generate a feeling of joy and happiness for themselves and for other people. Facebook has promised to help make that happen. If Google has a mindfulness website, all the employees of Google can go there and learn how to take care of themselves and their families. Then they will have insight into what kind of electronic gadget or device will help us to go in that direction.

Suppose you talk to your smartphone. “Dear friend, I suffer. What shall I do?” And your smartphone says, “Oh! The first thing you have to do is to breathe in mindfully and go back to yourself.” This is the advice of a good teacher. An electronic device can tell you, “Dear friend, you are not in a good situation to do something. You have anger in you. You have to go home and take care of your anger.” When you are driving a car while falling asleep, a sensor would detect that. It might invite the bell to sound and say, “Dear friend, you are sleepy. Wake up! It’s dangerous to drive in this condition.” That is the practice of mindfulness.

The electronic devices that you invent can do that kind of work. iReminder; iReminding; iReturning. Returning to yourself. We spent two hours consulting with Google executives and engineers to find ways to make good use of technology to help people take care of themselves and suffer less.

There are many new functions they can put in telephones to help us, like the bell of mindfulness every quarter of an hour so that you remember to go back to yourself and to take care of yourself. In Plum Village, every time we hear the bell, we stop our thinking, we stop our talking, we stop our action, bringing our mind back to our body, and having the insight, “Ah, we are alive! We are present, sitting, walking on this planet, how wonderful.” You enjoy breathing in and out three times in mindfulness in order to celebrate the fact that you are still alive. When you are confused, when you are angry, you can talk to your phone, and your phone can remind you what to do and what not to do.

There was a young engineer who said, “But if we do these things, it’s like we are imposing on others what they don’t need.” Thay said that there are real needs, and there are needs that are not real. When you look for something to eat when you are not hungry, but are trying to forget the suffering in yourself, that is not a real need. If technology is trying to satisfy these kinds of needs, you are not helping people, you are only giving them the kind of sense impressions that cover up their suffering. But they have real needs, like going home to themselves and taking care of themselves, taking care of their families. That is why you have to help people to identify the real needs, and needs that are not real.

I think we planted a lot of good seeds in the minds of these Googlers. Let us see what will come after a few months.

Enjoyment Is the Practice

Thinking that work is one thing and life is another thing is dualistic thinking. For example, after you park your car in the parking lot and begin to walk to your office, you can choose between mindful walking or walking just to arrive at your office. If you know how to walk mindfully, then every step from the parking lot to your office can bring you joy and happiness. You can release the tension in your body and touch the wonders of life with every step. Walking this way is a pleasure. On the one hand, you see walking as life; on the other hand, you see walking as labor, as work.

When you wash the dishes, there’s a way to do it that helps you to enjoy every moment of dishwashing, so washing the dishes is not work, it is life. If you want to know how to wash dishes, read my book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. If you know how to mop the floor and cook your breakfast in mindfulness, it becomes life, not work. When a doctor receives a patient, it is work. But with compassion, with joy, you can transform the meeting between you, the doctor, and the patient, into a beautiful relationship, and that’s life. So life and work are not two different things.

When Thay does calligraphy, he begins every session with a cup of tea. Tea was invented by monastics in the Zen tradition who found that by drinking it, they were more awake for sitting meditation. So tea and meditation have been together for thousands of years.

Then Thay mixes some of the tea with the ink, and when he draws half a circle, he follows his in-breath. When he draws the second half of the circle, he breathes out. So there is the breathing in the circle, there’s mindfulness in the circle. From time to time he invites his own teacher to do the circle with him. In his hand is the hand of the mother, of the father, of the ancestor, of the teacher, of the Buddha. To do the circle in mindfulness, there must be the hand of the Buddha in his hand. So during that practice of drawing the circle, there is mindfulness, there is concentration and insight. This insight is made not by a self, but by a collective of selves. The Buddha is there and helps to make the circle in mindfulness.

So if you say that Thay is working hard, you are not right, because he enjoys making the circle. That is also his life and his practice. Meditation, working, and practicing become one.

In the monastic life of Plum Village, we do four things in our daily life. We study the Dharma and we practice the Dharma. Third, we work: cleaning, cooking, organizing a retreat. And fourth, we play: having tea with each other, playing basketball, and things like that. These are the four aspects of monastic life.

These four aspects inter-are. You do not enjoy only the time of playing, because the time of playing is also learning, is also building brotherhood, sisterhood, and cultivating health. Enjoyment is the practice. So within the playing is the studying, the practice, and the work.

We learn and practice in a way that cultivates joy. We can do walking meditation and sitting meditation the same way we play a game. It can be very joyful, just sitting together and doing nothing, or walking together. When you listen to a Dharma talk, allow the seeds of joy in you to be watered. It’s not good practice if you suffer.

When we organize a retreat or a Day of Mindfulness, we do it with compassion. We have a chance to serve, and that gives us a lot of joy. That’s not work, that is practice. When people come and practice, we practice with them. So there is no distinction between working and living and practicing.

That is the meaning of monastic life. The four aspects of life: learning, practicing, working, and playing. Each of the four has the three others inside it. As a lay practitioner, you can do the same. That is why you have to transcend dualistic thinking about work and life. We have to train ourselves to do our work in such a way that every moment of work is a moment of life.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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