By Thich Nhat Hanh
Before our airplane takes off, we are told the way to use the oxygen mask. And we are always told that we have to put on the oxygen mask for ourselves first, and only then can we place the oxygen mask on our child, the young person sitting next to us. If we are not successful in placing the mask on ourselves first and afterwards on our child, then we will both die for lack of oxygen.
In Buddhism it’s the same. We have to help ourselves before we can help others. The word we use to speak of this is the word meaning “to cross over to the other shore.” The shore over here is the shore of suffering, the shore of anger, of anxiety, of pain. But the shore over there is the shore of peace, of freedom. To go from this shore to the other shore is called “paramita.” There are six ways of doing that called the six paramitas, six ways of going to the other shore.
We may think that paramita is a very difficult practice, but if we learn how to do it, we can go to the other shore quite easily. Even in ten minutes or half an hour or an hour we can cross over to the other shore. When we are angry, when we are drowning in our anger, we suffer a great deal in our body and our mind. It is as if we are being burned, and if we don’t know how to deal with the situation, we can drown in our suffering. Therefore, we have to practice going over to the other shore, the shore of no-anger, the shore of no-hatred. We have a raft to take us to the other shore and we have to use it every day. The six paramitas are the six ways of going to the other shore.
The Kshanti Paramita
The third paramita is called Kshanti Paramita; it can be translated as inclusiveness. It means literally, “to forebear, to endure,” but we could misunderstand that word. Kshanti really means to accept and to embrace. For example, this glass — it can hold about twenty cubic centiliters and it can endure those twenty cubic centiliters, that is its capacity. If we pour twenty cubic centiliters into it, the glass will not suffer. But if we want it to hold more, it may suffer. If we force a lot of sand into it, it will break. And we are the same. Each of us has the capacity to endure, to accept a certain amount of injustice but if we are forced to accept more we shall crack or we will break. Somebody says something or does something which we do not like, they do something unjust to us, and we suffer. But whether we suffer a lot or a little, whether we suffer at all, depends on whether the capacity of our heart to accept and to endure is small or great. There are people who could hear those same words, be treated in that same way, but they would not be angry. They would smile. But we, when we hear those words, when we see that behavior, we suffer a lot because compared with their heart, our heart is very small.
The capacity of the bodhisattvas’ hearts is very big, the capacity to receive, to embrace and to include. The reason why we suffer is because the capacity of our heart is very small. We hear the same words, we have the same treatment and some people can accept it, but we cannot. We suffer a great deal. Therefore we have to practice the capacity to include, to embrace. If we practice, if we train, the capacity of our heart will grow and we will suffer much less. We will hear the same words, we will be treated in the same way, and we will smile and we will not suffer.
To practice inclusiveness, or patience, does not mean that we have to suffer. When we suppress our suffering sooner or later we will crack, we will break, Therefore, the paramita of patience does not mean to suppress. If you practice suppressing, if you grit your teeth and bear it and think that that is the practice of patience, it is not. Soon you will crack, you will break. That is not what the Buddha taught. The Buddha taught that we have to practice, we have to train in order to open up our own hearts.
And when our understanding is great, our love is great, our heart will become great. We often say in Viemamese that it is our heart which is small, not our house. When our heart is wide, our house can receive many guests. If our heart is small, even if our house is very large, we will not receive any guests.
Every morning on the fifteenth or the first of the lunar month in the traditional temples, we organize a ceremony called “Commending the Virtues of the Buddha.” It is to praise the Buddha and the bodhisattvas and our ancestral teachers. There is a sentence praising the Buddha which goes something Like this: “The Awakened One who is fully awakened, arose in India. His heart is able to embrace the whole of space, his capacity includes all the three chiliocosms.” It means the capacity of his heart is very great. These are also four lines which are offered as praise to the Buddha. “The capacity of his heart can include all the worlds even though they are as numerous as the sands of the Ganges.”
And why does the Buddha have such a great capacity of compassion and understanding? Because he has practiced. We can do the same. If we practice the paramita of patience, if we practice the Four Immeasurable Minds of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, our heart will grow. And we will have the capacity to accept everything people say, however people treat us, even if we suffer injustice, we can still smile, we can still be happy.
A fistful of salt
In the sutras there was a time when the Buddha taught like this: “Imagine there is someone who is holding a fistful of salt. They place it in a small bowl of water and stir it around with their finger. Monks, do you think people could drink that water?” And the monks said, “Such water would be far too salty to drink. How could you drink it? You’d have to throw it away.” The Buddha said, “That is correct.” Then the Buddha said, “But if, for example, you were to throw that fistful of salt in the river, then would the people who lived in the villages alongside of the river continue to drink the water of the river?” And the monks said, “Yes.” “Why?” “Because the river is vast and the fistful of salt cannot possibly make the water of the river salty.”
It is the same for us. If our heart is small, then those words, that action, that injustice will make us angry. A small injustice will cause us many sleepless nights and we may not even be able to eat for a week. If our heart is great, like the river, then those words will not have any effect on us, that behavior and that injustice will not have any meaning. We can continue to smile, we can continue to be free, peaceful, and joyful as we were before. Therefore, the practice of the paramita of inclusiveness helps us to look deeply and to be able to see clearly the truth and to allow the heart of understanding and love in us to grow. Then our heart will become like a river and people may come and throw twenty or thirty kilos of salt into it, but we will not suffer.
Be like the earth
Rahula became a novice when he was only eight years old. When he was eighteen years old the Buddha taught him about the practice of inclusiveness. He said, “Rahula, you have to practice to be like the earth.” “Why?” “Because the earth has the great capacity to receive, to accept, to embrace, and to transform. If people pour fragrant milk, perfumes, and sweet things on the earth, or if they pour on the earth filthy things like spittle, mucous, excrement and garbage, the earth does not crave or is not greedy for the sweet things and is not angry with the filthy things. It receives everything equally. The earth has the capacity to include them all and to transform them all. It is not attached to the clean or angry with the dirty. You have to practice to be able to behave like the earth.”
The Buddha continued to teach Rahula that not only the earth, but also the water, the fire and the air have the great capacity to accept all forms of offerings, wonderful and fragrant as well as polluted and dirty. It means the capacity of these four elements is very great and our heart has to be as great as that and then we will not suffer. In this way the Buddha shared the paramita of inclusiveness with Rahula.
I remember one day I was leading the children on walking meditation in the Upper Hamlet. We went along a beautiful path, seeing so many beautiful leaves, flowers, and butterflies, bees, and dragonflies, and all these beautiful things made us feel we were in paradise. Then we came to a place where we saw on the lawn the excrement of a dog and the children held their noses and stood to one side. I took their hands and I said, “Look deeply, my children. I have a lot of faith in the earth because the earth has received this excrement of the dog, but in a week’s time the earth will have transformed it, and it will become nourishment for the flowers and the trees which we are seeing today. The earth has the capacity to accept, to embrace and to transform and is never angry with what is thrown upon it.”
The method which helps our heart to grow bigger is the Four Immeasurable Minds. The Four Minds have become so great, the mind of loving kindness, the mind of compassion, the mind of joy, and the mind of equanimity. Maitri, karuna, mudita, and upeksa are the four elements of true love. If you cultivate them every day, then they become boundless. You are capable of embracing everything, everyone, then the larger your heart becomes, the happier you become. You don’t have to suffer because of all the small things, the inconveniences that make you suffer every day. So the practice is not to be a bowl of water but to be a river and after that to be the ocean. What makes other people suffer cannot make you suffer any more because your heart is large. That is what it means by “boundless states.”
Maitri — the capacity to offer well-being
In Sanskrit, loving kindness is maitri; it is the capacity to offer well-being and happiness. And you cannot offer something that you do not have. Therefore, practice in order for you yourself to have maitri , the energy of loving kindness, and you will be the first to profit from that energy. With the practice of looking deeply, the practice of calming, of understanding, you make the energy of loving kindness grow within yourself. You experience bliss, solidity, freedom, and well-being, and your presence will naturally offer the person you are with that same kind of energy. You only need to just be there. Before you do anything, before you say anything, your presence can already make him or her happy, because in you there is the energy of maitri.
There are people who are very pleasant to be with and children like to come and sit close to them. Just sitting close to them, the children feel good in themselves. There are people whom we want to sit close to. We don’t need to talk to them. We don’t even need them to look at us, just sit near them and you can feel that wonderful energy of love, of well-being. When you come and sit close to the linden tree, then the linden tree has the capacity of calming you down. The linden flower also helps you to calm down; the linden tree has something like maitri within herself. So a person who cultivates maitri is someone whose presence is wonderful, refreshing and healing, and you would like to stay close to him or to her.
If you want to practice loving kindness, you have to look deeply to see and to understand. And when you see and understand you can offer joy and happiness to the other person. That person, what do they need and what do they not need? When we can see their real needs, we can offer the thing that they need. That person may be very afraid of the color red and we force her to wear a red dress; that will make her suffer. When we were a child, we really wanted to wear a red dress, but our mother would not allow us to wear red. When we have our own daughter, we want our daughter to wear a red dress in order to satisfy the desire we had when we were young. But our daughter hates red. To force our daughter to wear a red dress is to make her suffer.
When we were young, we wanted to be a doctor, but we did not have the chance to learn to be a doctor and therefore our desire has become an unsatisfied wound in us. When we have our own children we force them to train as doctors in order to satisfy the desire that we once had. But our daughter has a different skill or talent and does not want to be a doctor. To force our children to be doctors is to make them suffer. We think that to be a doctor will bring a lot of money and bring a position in society. We have an idea of happiness and we want to force that idea onto our children. That comes from our love, but this kind of love is not produced by understanding. Therefore, the more we love, the more we make our children suffer. To understand is the element that brings about true love. If we want to love, if we want to understand, we have to look deeply. If we want to practice maitri, we have to learn to look deeply.
Karuna — the capacity to reduce suffering in the other person
The second immeasurable mind is the mind of compassion. Compassion is the capacity to reduce and to transform the suffering in the other person. If we want to remove the suffering from the other person, we have to have a right perception of the nature of their suffering. What is the cause of the suffering? What gave rise to the suffering in the other person? We have to practice looking deeply; that is, we have to practice another of the paramitas, called the paramita of meditative concentration. When we have time, when we have the ability to open our heart, when we don’t have prejudice, we can look into the other person and see the suffering that that person has been through. We can see the nature of their suffering and when we know that, we know what we should do and what we should not do in order for that wound to heal in the other person. If we don’t have that understanding then we will not have the insight which is another paramita, the paramita of understanding, and we will just make the other person suffer more. Compassion is the heart which has understanding and wisdom in it.
Mudita — the capacity to offer joy
The third immeasurable mind is that of joy. In our relationship with our loved one the element of joy is very important. If we love each other, we have to love each other in such a way that both of us have happiness every day, then it is real love. If every day we weep, we are sad, we suffer, then that is not real love, In the morning, were we able to smile and be happy together in our love? Were we able to say good-bye to each other and go to work with the energy of joy and love? But if, in the morning, we weep, in the midday we weep, and in the afternoon we weep, then the element of joy is not there. Therefore, the element of joy is very important in our love. First of all, there is the element of loving kindness, which is to offer happiness; the element of compassion, to remove suffering; and then the element of joy, the happiness which comes from our love.
Upeksa — the capacity to love with equanimity
And finally, there is the element of equanimity. Equanimity means to love in such a way that we can preserve the freedom of the other person and our own freedom. If we lose our freedom and we take away the other person’s freedom, that is not yet real love. When we love with the aim of possessing the other, we take away our loved one’s freedom. We have to love in such a way that we have a lot of space and the other person has a lot of space. If we see there is a little bit of loving kindness, of compassion, of joy, and of equanimity in our love we should try to practice so that every day the loving kindness, the compassion, the joy, and the equanimity grow a little bit more. After a couple of weeks, we shall see that gradually our love is becoming true love and our happiness is growing all the time.
We have learned that understanding leads to acceptance and acceptance leads to forgiveness and love. It makes our heart grow up. The love and the understanding help us to mature, and when our heart is mature, we can easily accept these words, this unskillful behavior, this injustice, and we continue to be happy.
Dear Sangha, in the Vietnamese war nearly all of us were the victims of unintelligent policies. And in our suffering we condemned each other, looked on each other as enemies. But in fact we were all the victims of the government which did not really act with clarity. Southerners were victims and so were Northerners. If we’d seen that, we would have been no longer angry, we would have been able to embrace everyone. The Northerners would have been able to embrace the Southerners and the Southerners embrace the Northerners. The Vietnamese would have been able to embrace the North Americans and the North Americans would have been able to embrace the Vietnamese. We see that our enemy is our inability to see the situation as it really is. It is our ignorance, it is the darkness of our mind which cannot see the real situation and therefore gives rise to wrong observation and brings about a war where we kill each other and create a Iot of suffering for ourselves and for the people around us too.
The Bodhisattva Thi Kinh
Quan Am Thi Kinh is the bodhisattva of compassion of Vietnam, with a great, large heart. At that time in Vietnam there were no temples for nuns, and Thi Kinh very much wanted to devote her life to nunhood. So she had to pretend to be a boy in order to be able to lead the monastic life. She entered the temple as a novice monk; she was very happy. There are, among us. people who feel they have to become a monk or a nun to be happy. So they are willing to do anything to become a monk or a nun, and Thi Kinh was one of those people. There are people in Plum Village, monks and nuns, who feel like that. People have said to me, “If I could not be a nun, I could not bear it.”
At one point there was a woman who was a great admirer of the “monk” Thi Kinh, who was really a young woman. But Thi Kinh paid her no attention. The woman became pregnant and accused Thi Kinh of being the father. Of course as she was a woman this was not possible, yet she did not defend herself because she cherished the monastic life so much. When arrested and accused she remained silent. She was beaten and abused and still she remained silent. The woman who accused her left the child at the gates of the temple to further aggravate the situation. Instead of being angry, Thi Kinh embraced the child and raised her as a daughter of the Buddha. She was so full of compassion. Only when the “monk” Thi Kinh passed away did people discover that she was really a woman and they realized the great forebearance and love she had to have withstood such accusation and abuse. Her heart was so great. They saw she was truly an embodiment of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.
If we have great happiness, we do not mind wrong accusations which come from ignorance and hatred. We hear them and yet we do not suffer. We just feel sorry for the person who says them. The reason we can bear it is because our heart is great and therefore the paramita of inclusiveness is very important. If you are still suffering a lot, it’s not only because of the other person who’s making you suffer. If you are still suffering a lot, it’s because the capacity of your heart is not very great. Cultivating the great, boundless minds of love – loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity – help us to grow our inclusiveness, so that we too may embrace and forgive, forbear and overcome obstacles in our lives, and become refreshing sources of compassion and happiness for ail beings like the bodhisattva Thi Kinh.
Excerpted from Dharma talks in Vietnanamese and English from Spring 1991 and Summer 2000. The Vietnamese talk was translated by Sister True Virtue. The talks were transcribed by Barbara Casey and edited by Sister Steadiness.