Here is the first Dharma talk that Thich Nhat Hanh gave on his recent tour of Vietnam, at Phap Van Temple in Ho Chi Minh City on February 22, 2007. This excerpt presents the last part of the talk, including questions from the audience and Thay's answers. Later in this issue we offer a story of that day along with photos from the journey. To hear this talk in full, go to www.dpcast.org and look for “Mindfulness and Healing in Vietnam.”
While we’re sitting still, sitting peacefully, there are three elements that we need to harmonize. The first is the body, the second is the mind, the third is the breath — mind, body, and breath.
Sometimes our body’s there but the mind has run off somewhere else. It runs off to the future, to the past. It is caught in worries, sadness, anger, jealousy, fear. There is no peace, no stillness. If we want to sit still we have to bring the mind back to the body.
How can we bring the mind back to the body? The Buddha taught in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing that we need to know how to use the breath. When we breathe in, we bring the mind back to the breath. I am breathing in, and I am aware that I am breathing in. Instead of paying attention to things that happened in the past, things that might happen in the future, we bring the mind back so that it can pay attention to the breath.
This sutra has been available in Vietnam since the third century. Zen master Tang Hoi was the forefather of Vietnamese Zen and this is one of the most basic sutras in meditation practice. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out. This is the first exercise of the sixteen exercises in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing , which I have translated from Pali to Vietnamese and from Chinese to Vietnamese; it has been published in many languages.
The day I discovered the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing I was so happy! It is a wonderful sutra for our practice of meditation. If we practice wholeheartedly, in a few weeks we can bring peace and happiness back to our bodies and to our minds.
The Practices of the Buddha
In Plum Village we have a gatha, a short poem that we memorize. It has only a few words.
Present moment, wonderful moment!
The first one, “in, out,” means breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out.
The second one is “deep, slow.” Breathing in, I see that my in-breath has become deeper. Breathing out, I see that my out-breath has become slower. In the beginning our breath is very short, but if we continue to follow our breathing for a while, naturally our in-breath becomes slower, deeper, and our out-breath also becomes slower, more relaxed.
This is our practice. Just as when we want to play the guitar, we have to practice every day, or if we want to learn to play tennis, we have to practice to be a good tennis player, we also have to practice our breathing. After one hour of practice we already feel better. Then slowly we’ll be able to sit still like the Buddha, and be worthy to be his disciples.
Perhaps for a long time we have been going to the temple only to do offerings. But that’s not enough. We have to learn the teachings of the Buddha, the practices that the Buddha wanted to transmit to us.
Breathing for Our Mothers and Fathers
We practice not to be happy in the future; we practice to be happy right in the present moment. When we’re sitting, we should have happiness as we are sitting. When we are walking, we should have happiness as we are walking. We sit with our breath so that the body can be calm and the mind can be calm; that is called sitting meditation. When we know how to walk, to take steps in lightness and gentleness, that’s called walking meditation.
In practice centers that practice in the Plum Village tradition, we walk peacefully as if we were walking in the Buddha Land. We do not talk as we are walking. If we need to say something, we stop to say it, and then we continue walking. If you visit Plum Village or Deer Park or Green Mountain or Prajna or Tu Hieu, you will see that the monks and the nuns in these centers do not talk when they walk. They pay attention to each of their steps, and the steps always follow the breath.
When you come to live with the monks and the nuns, even for just twenty-four hours, you can learn how to walk and sit likethe monks and nuns. Peace and happiness radiate as we are sitting, as we are walking. When we practice correctly, there’s peace and happiness today; we don’t have to wait until tomorrow. Lay practitioners who attend our retreats learn to breathe, to sit, and how to pay attention to their steps right in the first hour of orientation.
While we are here in Vietnam we will also offer these teachings during the monastic retreats and retreats for lay friends. So everybody will learn about sitting meditation, walking meditation, breathing meditation.
“In, out, deep, slow. Calm, ease, smile, release.” That’s the fourth exercise: “Smile, release.”
Breathing in, I feel calm, I feel such a sense of well-being. Breathing out, I feel light. This is what we call the element of ease — one of the seven factors of enlightenment. When we practice through the third exercise we feel calm and ease. When we breathe like that it’s not just for us, but we are continuing the career of the Buddha. We are breathing for our fathers, our mothers in us. When we practice like that it’s so joyful.
I often write these statements so that the young monks and nuns can send home a calligraphy as gifts to their parents. “I am taking each step in freedom for you, Father.” “I am breathing gently, peacefully for you, Mother.” When we practice like that we practice for our whole family, for our own ancestral lines, and for our whole country, not just for ourselves alone.
The Healing Power of Total Relaxation
We accumulate so much stress! This can bring a lot of illnesses if we do not know how to practice total relaxation. That is why the Buddha taught us: breathing in, I relax my whole body; breathing out, I smile to my whole body.
In Plum Village we have the Dharma practice called “total relaxation.” We can do total relaxation as we are sitting or as we are lying down. I ask you to learn this practice. If you practice total relaxation each day for about twenty minutes, you can avoid a lot of illnesses. If you hold in too much tension and stress in your body or your mind, it can generate illnesses in the future, such as high blood pressure, cardiac diseases, or stroke.
If we can practice as a family each day, with a time allotted so that the parents, the children, can lie down and practice, that is a very civilized family. In Plum Village we have produced CDs that can help people to practice total relaxation, available in English, French, Vietnamese, and German. At first when we don’t know how to lead total relaxation, we can listen to the CD and the whole family can practice. After a while we can take turns leading total relaxation for our family.
In the West there are hospitals that apply these breathing exercises to save patients when there are no other ways to help them. In an article in the Plum Village magazine, Brother Phap Lieu [a former physician] wrote about a doctor who learned about the sutra and the practices of Plum Village and then applied what he learned to help his patients.
Peace and Freedom in Each Step
There are people in the West who are from the Christian tradition yet they know how to take advantage of Buddhist wisdom to help themselves. We call ourselves a Buddhist country, but many of us only know how to worship and make offerings. We do not yet know how to apply the very effective teachings transmitted to us by the Buddha through the sutras such as The Four Establishments of Mindfulness or Mindfulness of Breathing.
We have this temple — Phap Van (Dharma Cloud) — as well as Prajna, Tu Hieu, An Quang, and other temples. We can go to these temples to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha. We learn about breathing meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, total relaxation meditation, so that we can apply them into our daily lives.
At the retreat for businesspeople in Ho Chi Minh City, they will also learn breathing meditation, sitting meditation, and walking meditation. We have organized a retreat like that for congressmen and –women in the United States. Presently in Washington D.C. there are congress people who know how to do walking meditation, how to coordinate their breath and their steps. A congressman wrote a letter to me, and he said, “Dear Thay, from my room to the voting chamber I always do walking meditation. I come back to my breath and my steps on my way to this place. My relationship with the voting process and with my co-workers has improved so much because I know how to apply walking meditation practice.”
We have also organized retreats to teach these practices to police officers in the United States. Imagine all these big police officers who now take steps in peace, in gentleness. Do you know that in the United States there are more police officers who commit suicide than are shot by criminals? They witness so much suffering and they cause so much suffering to themselves and to their families; they feel they had no way out. That’s why a retreat like ours benefited them so much and they suffer much less.
In prisons there are those who know how to organize sitting meditation. Last month an American prisoner wrote to me, “Dear Thay, even though I am in prison, I’m very happy, and I see that sometimes being in prison is good for me. This is an advantageous condition for me to do a lot of sitting and walking meditation. If I were outside right now, maybe I would never have learned this practice. I am not a monastic, but I see that I am living in prison and I live according to the mindful manners and precepts in the book Stepping Into Freedom.” Stepping Into Freedom is a revision of the book written for the monastics; it contains the essential practices for the novices.
Over the centuries when people have been in deep despair and have come in touch with the wonderful teachings of the Buddha, they have been able to transform their lives. We are children of the Buddha — for many generations. Buddhism has been in our country for over two thousand years. If we have not learned these basic practices of meditation, it is a shame.
That is why I very much hope that those of you who are present today are determined to learn these basic practices. We have to be able to sit still. We have to know how to breathe in such a way that we feel comfortable, peaceful, and we need to know how to walk so that there is peace and freedom in each step. We’re not doing this for ourselves only, but for our fathers, for our mothers, for our children, and for our country.
In the Anapanasati Sutra on mindfulness of breathing , the Buddha taught us to use the mindfulness of our breathing to heal our body and our mind. When there is relaxation in the body, our body has the capacity to heal itself and medication becomes secondary. When stress is so great, we can take a lot of medication, but it’s very difficult to heal. So while we’re taking medication, the most important thing is to relax the body. When the nurse is about to give us an injection we tense our body because we are afraid there’ll be pain. When we tense up the muscles like that, if she gives an injection it will be very painful. So she says, “Now take a deep breath!” And when we’re breathing out and we’re thinking of the out-breath, then she sticks the needle into our arm.
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