Dharma Talk: Cultivating Our Bodhisattva Qualities

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Bodhisattvas are awakened beings. We also have our nature of awakening, no less than they, but we have to train ourselves. One way is to practice invoking the names of four great bodhisattvas—Avalokiteshvara (Regarder of the Cries of the World), Manjushri (Great Understanding), Samantabhadra (Universal Good­ness), and Kshitigarbha (Earth Store). When we recite their names in a deep, relaxed way, every word can touch our hearts and the hearts of those listening. In the beginning, we still feel separate from these bodhisattvas. But, practicing steadily, we realize that we are Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha. It is not important whether they were historic figures, born in such and such a year or in such and such a place. The key is to realize their qualities within ourselves. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

We invoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.

When we are able to communicate with another person, it is a big relief. We have e-mail, faxes, and telephones. We can send news to the other side of the planet instantly. But communication between parents and children, between those living together has become very difficult. We spend hours on our computer without really looking at the person nearby who loves and cares for us. We are alienated by so many things. Listening deeply helps reestablish the commu­nication between us.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva represents great love, great compassion, and deep listening. When you manifest these qualities, you become the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara vows to listen deeply in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. To listen deeply, you must be one hundred percent present. Listening with all your attention, you release the past and the future, and focus entirely on the other person. We have this ability, but we seldom use it. We are usually lost in the past or the future and listening with just half an ear. The practice is to be present and to listen with one hundred percent of ourselves.

Even when we listen, we may have a notion, a “preju­dice,” about the other person and what she is saying. Our habit energy is to judge whether what she says is correct or not. Then, when she speaks, it isn’t her words we hear, only our judgment. We must learn to be space. Space can hold everything. If we are like a wall, impenetrable, whatever the other person says will just bounce back to her, and she won’t feel relief. A Vietnamese musician said, “We have to be space so that love can enter.” We have to empty ourselves of preconceived ideas in order to be present in the heart of the other, in her fears and difficulties.

A philosopher came to visit a Zen master. While the master was preparing tea, the philosopher talked endlessly, showing the master how much he knew. When the tea was ready, the master poured it into the philosopher’s cup, and he continued pouring even after the cup was full. The tea was flowing all over the table, and the philosopher yelled, “Stop!” The master smiled and said, “Your mind is also overflowing. How can you receive anything from me?”

When people come to a practice center, they may act as though they are quite fine. Only after several days do they begin to share some of their difficulties. What they say, at first, is not the deepest reality, only the surface, because they are afraid of being judged. But if you listen deeply, even when they repeat themselves (not saying, “You already said that”), and try to understand what is being said and also what is being left unsaid, you may be able to see the key point and ask the right questions to help.

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One day I was weeding the garden with a teenager, and he said to me, “Sometimes I see something that is very beautiful, but my mother says it is not beautiful.” I looked deeply into his situation, and I said, “Is there a young lady you think is beautiful but your mother does not?” He was shocked. “How did you know that?” He thought I could read his mind, but when you listen deeply, with all your attention, you can understand many things right away. After that, he revealed the whole story to me, and I had the opportunity to help him. I said, “True beauty is profound. Don’t be attracted just by a smile, hair, or eyes. Try to see the depth of beauty.” I suspected this is what his mother had wanted to tell him, but had not been able to. The aim of deep listening is understanding. When someone is suffering, if she can find one person with the willingness and capacity to sit quietly beside her and listen, that is a great encouragement. Whether what she says is easy to hear or shocking, we don’t reject it. We train ourselves to listen in order to understand. When we listen deeply, we are Avalokiteshvara. When we understand deeply, we are Manjushri. Looking with the eyes of interbeing, we see that Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri are not separate. 

We invoke your name, Manjushri. We aspire to learn your way, which is to be still and to look deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of people. We will look with all our attention and openheartedness. We will look with unprejudiced eyes. We will look without judging or reacting. We will look deeply so that we will be able to see and understand the roots of suffering, the impermanent and selfless nature of all that is. We will practice your way of using the sword of understanding to cut through the bonds of suffering, thus freeing ourselves and other species.

Manjushri Bodhisattva represents great understanding. When you pay respect to the qualities of great wisdom and understanding, you are paying respect to Manjushri, and, at the same time, you are paying homage to these qualities in yourself.

These days everyone is running so quickly. We sit in a silent meal, but we might be still running. Whether we are sitting, walking, standing, or eating, we have to learn to stop. Bodhisattva Manjushri knows how to stop—in order to see deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of those around him. We have to learn to stop our mind in order to look deeply. As Avalokiteshvara, we learn to listen without prejudice. As Manjushri, we learn to look without judging. To understand the suffering of the Palestinians, for example, Israelis have to learn to look in the way a Palestinian looks. To understand the Israelis, Palestinians must learn to understand an Israeli—his suffering and his fear. After looking deeply in that way, we see that both sides suffer, that each person has anger and fear. If we continue to punish each other, we will not go far. It is better to take the other person’s hand and work together toward a solution that is beneficial for both sides. In our Sanghas, if we notice two members who are unable to look at each other, we have the responsibility to help them communicate by practicing stopping and looking deeply, without preju­dice.

When we look deeply, we see and understand the roots of suffering. When we are angry, we say that the other person is at fault, but by looking deeply, we come to understand her suffering, her difficulties, and her fears. We un­derstand why she behaved in that way. We see that we are only the victim of her suffering and our sorrow vanishes. To cut the bonds of ignorance, we must use the sword of understanding every day. If we suffer unnecessarily, it is because we are not using the sword of understanding.

We invoke your name, Samantabhadra. We aspire to practice your vow to act with the eyes and heart of compas­sion; to bring joy to one person in the morning and to ease the pain of one person in the afternoon. We know that the happiness of others is our own happiness, and we aspire to practice joy on the path of service. We know that every word, every look, every action, and every smile can bring happiness to others. We know that if we practice whole heartedly, we ourselves may become an inexhaustible source of peace and joy for our loved ones and for all species.

Samantabhadra is the bodhisattva of great action and universal goodness. He works hard and has the willingness and capacity to help. To act deeply, we must understand and love deeply. To save the world, we need the eyes of Manjushri, the heart of Avalokiteshvara, and the hands of Samantabhadra.

People who do not practice suffer a lot. Entering a spiritual practice you feel joyful. If you aren’t a joyful practitioner, look more deeply in order to discover the joy that exists within you. Sometimes one piece of bad news invades our whole mind, and we forget the many joyful elements in us. The practice is to observe our unfortunate situation—yes, something happened—but also to stay in touch with the many joyful elements, so we will not drown in our difficulties.

The practice of Samantabhadra is not to talk a lot, but to act. We make the effort to bring joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the suffering of one person in the afternoon. When you are just beginning to be a bodhisattva, you can do this. When you are a bigger bodhisattva, you can bring joy to many people and help relieve the suffering of many others. Every word, every look, every act, and every smile can bring happiness to others. When you know how to walk mindfully, with happiness, kindness, and humility, you are already bringing joy to many people. Practicing diligently, we become a source of peace and joy to those we love and all living beings. The joy of others is our own joy. This is the wisdom of interbeing.

We invoke your name, Kshitigarbha. We aspire to learn your way of being present where there is darkness, suffer­ing, oppression and despair, so that we may bring light, hope, relief and liberation to those places. We are deter­mined not to forget about or abandon those who are in desperate situations. We will do our best to establish contact with them when they cannot find a way out of their suffering and when their cries for help, justice, equality, and human rights are not heard. We know that hell can be found in many places on Earth, and we do not want to contribute to making more hells on Earth. We will do our best to help transform the hells that already exist. We will practice in order to realize the qualities of perseverance and stability, so that, like the earth, we can always be supportive and faithful to those in need.

Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva represents the great vow to save all living beings, especially those who are caught in the most hellish conditions. Kshitigarbha makes the commitment never to abandon anyone. Wherever people are suffer­ing the most, that is where we will find him. Kshitigarbha will always do his best to approach and support those in jails, torture chambers, and in all the hells where people are undergoing the utmost suffering. He represents the quality of not abandoning anyone.

Kshitigarbha’s vow is, “Until all the hells are emptied, I will not become a Buddha. I will remain on Earth until every sentient being is liberated.” This is the greatest of vows. It means he will not abandon those who suffer. We cannot abandon the one we love. She may be difficult, but we cannot abandon her. When she is in hell, when she is suffering, that is the moment she needs us the most.

There are countries where people are jailed unfairly, where people are deprived of basic human rights and live in oppression, where people are so desperate to communicate the reality of their suffering to the outside world that they pour gasoline on their own bodies and burn themselves. If we don’t do anything to help them, we fail in our vow. We live in a society with plenty of material luxuries. We are covetous of this or that little thing, and we don’t realize that there are people in prison who just want to live with dignity. The practice of Kshitigarbha is to reach into these desperate situations, to do his best to be there and to help.

There are people who have never heard the name of Kshitigarbha, but who manifest these qualities every day. In big cities like Chicago, New York, Manila, and Washington D.C., there are many hells. We have to find these hells and dismantle them in order to help people and relieve their suffering. We may have the idea that we didn’t create that hell, so we are not responsible. But we are constantly creating hells by our forgetfulness, our jealousy, and our craving. When we act or speak unmindfully, we cause suffering to those around us. Hell exists everywhere, yet we continue to live in ways that harm others. By living mind­fully, we make it clear that we do not want to create more hells, that we do not want to contribute to anyone’s suffer­ing anymore. 

Kshitigarbha means “Earth Store.” The earth never discriminates. She absorbs everything and transforms it all into flowers. We want to learn to be like the earth—solid, stable, and deep. The earth has the quality of accepting and releasing everything. How can we support others if we don’t have the solidity of the earth? If we see that we are not solid, we must train ourselves to become solid.

Recently, I received this letter: 

Dear Thay, 

I have been on death row for seventeen years. During this time, I have felt a lot of suffering and despair. But within me there is still the will to transcend all these psychological and emotional wounds. There are moments when I cannot transcend my anger, when I am being crushed by my hatred. My only vow is to survive my time in prison without hatred toward those who put me in jail and those who have tortured me. I don’t know if I can do it. Sometimes I feel I am going insane. 

I never think that I am better or higher than others. I am satisfied being an ordinary person. I’m just grateful that after seventeen years in jail, I’m not crazy. With this gratitude, I can treasure whatever happens. In my last cell, for twelve years I was only able to look at a brick wall. Here there is a small window where I can see the city and a lot of trees. The first time I came in touch with trees, I was so moved that I cried. When I see the sunset through this little window, I feel a lot of happiness. 

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When I read Living Buddha Living Christ, which someone sent me, it was the first time I learned to dwell peacefully in the present moment. I understood your- teaching right away. Although I have a lot of difficulties, I have learned to treasure short moments of awareness. During these mindful moments, fear and despair cannot master me, and I tune in to my own humanness. I believe if I continue, I will find transformation. 

If one day I am executed, I can accept that. I wish that from this garbage, I can transform into a flower. During my search for peace, I have learned to accept myself as well as those around me. My only dream is that if I am ever re­leased, people will come to me and say, “How after twenty years in jail are you still a normal person, not insane?” 

I write to you hoping that these simple words can share with you the humanness in me. I write, not in the name of one person on death row, but as someone who has been sent to prison to learn and grow in a situation where there is little hope for the future. My main point is to tell you, Thay, that humanness exists in me and that a death row prisoner can find peace and joy in hell. Please take good care of yourself.

After reading this, I asked Sister Thuc Nghiem to send him the book about walking meditation, and I asked him to practice walking meditation in his cell, and, if he can, to request permission to go into the prison yard to practice. If he can help other prisoners practice walking meditation and if they can feel some peace, it can help a lot. It is encourag­ing to know that you are practicing being in the present moment and giving a chance for the best in you and others to manifest. True freedom is freedom from afflictions, such as despair, anger, and hatred. There are so many people in the world who are not free, who suffer tremendously.

Another prisoner on death row, Jarvis Jay Masters, wrote a book called Finding Freedom. Jarvis took the Five Mindfulness Trainings with a Tibetan monk. One day, a nearby prisoner was banging on his wall and shouting, and then he said to Jarvis, “Give me some tobacco!” Jarvis did not smoke, but he did have some tobacco to share with others. So he said to the other man, “When you ask for a ciga­rette, ask politely. Now sit quietly, and I’ll try to help you.”

Then he took a little tobacco and wrapped it in a photocopied page of my book, Being Peace. He had received a photocopy of Being Peace from a friend. Later, he received a real copy of the book, so he used the first page of the photocopy to wrap the tobacco. Three days later, he gave the same man a little more tobacco wrapped in the second page of Being Peace. Then the man began to ask him for just the pages. Eventually he read the whole photocopied version of the book, page by page, and he began to practice breathing mindfully and dwelling in the present moment. Soon after that, he was released, and on his way out, he stopped to thank Jarvis. The two men looked at each other, smiled, and recited this sentence from the book: “If you are peaceful, if you are happy, you can smile, and everyone in your family, your entire society will benefit from your peace.”

Kshitigarbha is not just a legendary personality. Kshitigarbha is you, me, both of these prisoners, and many others. We only need to train ourselves, and we will be able to reach into the places of utmost suffering and oppression. The ability to love, understand, act, save people, and vow not to abandon those who suffer are qualities in us that we cannot deny. If you say you have a lot of love but you don’t do anything when you are needed, that is just talk. It’s not important whether you call yourself a “Buddhist.” There are people in organizations like Medecins sans Frontieres and Amnesty International who have never heard about Buddhas or bodhisattvas, but who actualize the teachings of love and compassion every day through their lives. We know from our direct experience that these four bodhisattvas and many other luminous beings exist. We can see their qualities in many people and ourselves. The practice is to learn ways to make the Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha inside of us grow. 

From a Dharma Talk at Plum Village on January 15, 1998. Translated into English by Sister Chan Khong. Edited for publication by Brother Phap Hai, Arnold Kotler, and Leslie Rawls. 

Photos:
First photo courtesy of Plum Village.
Second photo by Yen Nguyen
Third photo by Ger-Ulrich Rump

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2 thoughts on “Dharma Talk: Cultivating Our Bodhisattva Qualities

  1. Thanks Rosi for the interesting article, it made me think and reflect.
    Will you be available tomorrow for a cup of coffee and a chat in my neighborhood? Please let me know.

    Much Love,
    Shira

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