The second question addresses the issue of learning. In truth, each time we have a new retreat designed for a specific group of people, for example a retreat for police officers or Congress people or business people or environmentalists or war veterans, I have to do research. I have to study beforehand to understand their difficulties and suffering so I can offer appropriate practices. That’s why during all my years in the West I have learned a lot. If you do not understand the teachings and practices of the Jewish or Christian traditions, you cannot help those people. If you do not see the suffering of business people, you can never teach them to practice so they can take care of their tension and stress.
You do not need to become a scholar. As a monastic, we do not aim to become scholars, but we have to know enough in these areas to speak their language, to bring people into the practice. When you say that I’m a scholar and I spread Vietnamese Buddhism, that is not quite correct. When I taught at Sorbonne University [in Paris] about history or Vietnamese history or Vietnamese Buddhism, I had to do research. Just for that occasion I read books on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. I had to use the pen name Nguyen Lang because I was not allowed to publish under my name Thich Nhat Hanh. The government said that I called for peace and that I was a friend with the Communists, so they didn’t allow my books to be published. My aim was not to become a scholar or a historian, but the truth is I had to teach in the university. And I just wrote it down, so that younger generations could benefit.
The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and his mother a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. An artist drew his picture for me so we could have it on the altars at our different centers.
In Vietnam we have the Mahayana tradition and the Hinayana tradition. I was lucky that when I was trained in the Mahayana tradition I also had time to research the stream of original Buddhism. I discovered that Zen Master Tang Hoi had used the original Buddhist sutras with a very open view of the Mahayana tradition. That is why when we organize retreats in Europe or North America, many people come from different traditions and they feel very comfortable. Our practice combines both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions and the basic sutras we use in meditation are present in all different schools — in the Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, Korean, and Tibetan Canons of Buddhist scriptures. I have translated and written commentaries on sutras about meditation like Learning the Better Way to Live Alone and The Mindfulness of Breathing. Even though I didn’t talk about them tonight, the spirit of my talk was based on the insight of these sutras.
Our true aim is not to spread Vietnamese culture in the world, but I want to help people to relieve their suffering by sharing with them the methods of practice. That's why they know about meditation and practices that have Vietnamese roots. I say this so that you see clearly that when I go to the West it’s not to spread Vietnamese culture to other countries. I just want to help people.
When I went to the West to call for peace, I only asked to go for three months. The chief of the police station asked me, “What do you plan to do there? Whatever you do is okay, just don’t call for peace, okay?” And I did not reply. Because my aim was to call for peace, for the world to end the war, I just stayed quiet. Then I went to the United States and called for peace — how can we end the Vietnam war? So they didn’t allow me to come back to Vietnam. That’s why we cannot say that I left Vietnam to spread Vietnamese culture in the West. I only wanted to go for three months. Who would have suspected that I would stay forty years! The truth is that during the time I was in exile in the West, as a monk I had to do something to help people. If I couldn’t help my own people, then I could help Westerners. It seems like I had this aim to spread Vietnamese culture, but it happened naturally.
Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang
Man from audience: On this trip you came to Da Nang. How do you think we can help develop our city, including the Buddhist practice in Da Nang? And do you plan to have a monastery in Da Nang, where we have monastics and lay people, and where scholars in Da Nang can participate?
Thay: Da Nang is already very beautiful. It’s developing very quickly, very well. But we know that economic and technological development comes in tandem with social evils, such as gangs, suicide, and prostitution. If we know that, we should work to prevent it. The scholars and humanitarians, the monks and nuns, you have to sit down together and make a very concrete plan to prevent these social evils.That is something I can share.
The second issue has to do with our Buddhist path. Even though Buddhism has been in our country for many years, we have to renew it. If we do not, it does not have enough strength and it cannot carry out its mission. Our learning is still too theoretical, and mostly we still practice by worshipping or praying. That’s very important, but Buddhism is not just a devotional religion. If we can break through the shell of religious ritual, we can touch the deep source of insight. With that insight we can contribute a path for our nation that will bring true civilization, true culture. It will bring harmony, prosperity, auspiciousness. In the time of the kingdoms of the Ly and Tran dynasties**, they also praticed with koans; they did not just worship and make offerings. Those were very auspicious eras, with love and understanding between the king and the people.
If Buddhism played such a role in the past, helping the country to be powerful and to dispel invaders, it can contribute to the country in the same way now and in the future. To that end we have to renew Buddhism in the way we study, teach, and practice. It is very necessary to establish monasteries, training new dharma teachers and lay people to help young people with their problems in their families.
We think that Plum Village can contribute in this area. If the great venerables, the high venerables here in your Buddhist Institute want to stop these young people from getting corrupted, you need to establish monasteries. You can train five hundred or a thousand monks and nuns so that they can help people in society. They can help people in their districts and bring balance to those areas. They can help re-establish communication in the family so that young people do not go out to look for some sort of relief and then fall into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and drug addiction. That is the mission of Buddhism in this modern age. We can send Dharma teachers to you to help you train a generation of new monks and nuns. I think that our country is waiting for this rising up — to “uncloak the old robe” — and to renew Buddhism.
Question: Thinking About the Future
Man from audience: Respected Zen Master, from the beginning of this talk I listened to your teaching about meditation. My understanding — I don’t know if it’s correct or not — is that meditation is only for people who have suffering or misfortune, or people who have a lot of extra time. People who work, study, or have normal activities, they need to think about the past so that they can do certain things that are good for the present, but in meditation you talk about liberating yourself from the past. And they need to look to the future — only you know your dreams, how to be successful in your career— but in meditation you cut off thinking about the future. So the people who need to think about life, about society, about themselves for the future, should they practice meditation?
[ Translator: Thay is smiling.]
Thay: We can learn a lot from the past. We have to re-examine the past and learn from it. But that does not mean that we are imprisoned by the past. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.
While we are looking into the past, we can still establish our body and mind stably in the present moment. It is because we establish our body and mind stably in the present moment that we have the capacity to learn from the past. Otherwise we just dream about the past, or we are haunted by the past. The future is the same way. If we sit there and worry about the future, we only spoil the future. We have the right to design projects, to plan for the future. But this does not mean that you are frightened and worried about the future. These two things are completely different.
The future is made up of only one substance, and that is the present. If you know how to take care of the present with all your heart, you are doing everything you can for the future. Thinking and dreaming about the future does not take a long time — you don’t need twenty-four hours to dream about it! You only need one or two minutes, and that’s fine.
What is meditation? Meditation is not something you can imagine. Meditation first of all means you have to be present in the present moment. Earlier I brought up an image that the body is here but the mind is wandering elsewhere. In that moment you’re not present. You’re not present for yourself. You’re not present for your husband, your wife, your children, your brothers or sisters, your nation, or your people. That is the opposite of meditation.
In the present moment there are needs; for example, you have certain pains and difficulties. Your loved one has certain pains and difficulties. If you cannot be present in the present moment, how can you help yourself and the other person? That is why meditation, first of all, is to be present in the present moment. Being present in the present moment means you are not imprisoned by the past and your soul is not sucked up by the future. Meditation is not thinking, not something abstract.
Sitting meditation, first of all, is to be present, to sit still. Once we have that stillness, we’ll be able to see the truth. We can have projects and take actions that are appropriate to the truth in order to take care of a situation. That is why dwelling peacefully, happily in the present moment, is so important. You come back to the present moment to be nourished, to be healed, and also to manage the problems and issues in the present. If we can take care of the issues in the present, then we’ll have a future.
Dreaming about the future and planning about the future are two different things; one is a scientific way, the other one is running away. For example, perhaps there is sadness in the present and we want to run away. Dreaming about the future is a kind of calming medicine, like barbiturates, that can help you temporarily forget about the present.
We have to practice. Taking steps in freedom, with ease, is something that you have to practice. Once you you have joy and happiness in the present moment, you know that these moments of happiness are the foundation of the future.
Please remember this for me: If you don’t have happiness in the present moment, there is no way to have happiness in the future.
To the friends practicing Pure Land tradition I say that the Pure Land is a land of peace, of happiness. There are those among us who think that the Pure Land is in the west and in the future. The west is not about Europe or North America — the western direction! Those who practice Pure Land, especially beginners, believe that the Pure Land is in the future. They think that only when we die we go there, and then we go in a western direction, the direction of extreme happiness.
People who have practiced Pure Land for a long time go more deeply. The Pure Land is not in the west or in the east, but right in our mind. When we practice meditation, and we practice properly, we practice in the Pure Land. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look can bring us happiness in the present moment.
The Buddha, wherever he went, never left the Pure Land. If now we can live in the Pure Land with each step, each breath, each smile, everything can give rise to the Pure Land; with certainty the Pure Land is something in our hand. But if we suffer day and night, and we think when we die we’ll go to the Pure Land, that something is not so sure.
That’s why I want to remind you once again: If you have no capacity to live happily right in the present moment, in no way can you have happiness in the future.
Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.
*This is the master who helped the first Ly king in the eleventh century when Vietnam had just gained independence from the Chinese.
**The Ly and Tran eras spanned the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries in Vietnam.
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