Dharma Talk: Loving the Unlovable

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Sangha, today is the 28th of January, 1996. We are in the Lower Hamlet (of Plum Village). It is the Winter Retreat. With us today are friends from the Lotus Bud Sangha in Australia. In France we are in the middle of winter. In Australia it is the middle of summer. Time and space have been brought together. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the beginning of 1996, Plum Village invented the Telecom Dharma talk. The first was directed to Vietnam. The Vietnamese monks and nuns here were very happy and moved to be able to “go back” to our ancestral temple. This is the second Telecom Dharma talk, directed to the Australian continent. 

Do you have someone to love? If you do not love anyone, your heart may dry up. Love brings happiness to ourselves and to those we love. We may want to love children who are hungry, disabled, or abused, to relieve them of their suffering. We carry that love in our heart and hope that someday we will be able to realize it. But when we actually contact these children, they may appear to be difficult to love. They may be rude, they may lie, they may steal. After a short time, our love for them may fade. We had the idea that loving children who need our help would be wonderful, but when confronted with the reality, we cannot sustain our love. When we discover that the object of our love is not lovable, we feel deep disappointment, shame, and regret, as though we have failed. If we cannot love a poor or disabled child, who can we love?

Everyone has an image of the Buddha. We think that if we meet the Buddha, he will be easy to love. He has so much compassion and understanding. But what if scientists were to find a way for us to see the faces of those who lived in the past? We see stars that perished thousands of light-years ago. Perhaps images do not travel in straight lines. When you fly from Paris to Los Angeles, the plane goes in a circular route. Maybe the image of the Buddha is also traveling in a circle. The sight of the Buddha teaching his disciples on Gridhrakuta Peak, the sound of his voice, those images went into space 2,500 years ago. With the right instruments, perhaps we could capture those images and sounds and see and hear the Buddha. Then we would be able to compare the Buddha’s teachings with the recorded sutras and discover mistakes that were made when the sutras were written down after being transmitted orally for several centuries.

A monk at Plum Village said to me, “My image of the Buddha is so beautiful. If I could see the real Buddha, I am afraid he might not be as beautiful. What do you think the Buddha looked like?”

I said, “He may have looked like Mahatma Gandhi.” The monk was disappointed. To him, Gandhi is not as handsome as his image of the Buddha. I have visited families in Lumbini and Kapilavasu, belonging to the same Shakya clan as the Buddha, and I got an idea what the Buddha may have looked like.

We have beautiful images of Buddha and Jesus. We love our images and hold them in our store consciousness. But if we were to meet the Buddha at the Sainte Foy la Grande station (near Plum Village), I am not sure if we would love him. If we met Jesus in the Leclerc Supermarket, I am not sure we would love him as much as our image. Our images of the Buddha and Jesus may be quite different from the real Buddha and the real Jesus.

There were people at the time of the Buddha who did not love him. Some of his own monks left the Buddha’s Sangha to start an opposing Sangha. Some people tried to murder the Buddha. Others brought the body of a young woman to the Jeta Grove and accused the monks of violating and killing her. Love is not merely about enjoyment. It has to do with understanding. If we don’t truly understand, our love will vanish.

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We think we love disabled and hungry children, but the truth might turn out to be different. A number of monks, nuns, and laypeople from Plum Village want to go back to Vietnam to help the children there and to bring about unity and faith among people. They want their country to have a future. The war created much division, hatred, suspicion and destruction in the hearts of people. These monks, nuns, and laypeople want to go home and walk on their native land. They want to embrace the people, relieve them of their suffering, and help them taste joy and peace.

But before they go back, they must prepare themselves. The people they want to help may not be easy to love. Real love must include those who are difficult, those who have been unkind. If we go back to Vietnam without first learning to love, when we find the people being unpleasant, we will suffer and we may even come to hate them.

When you lose your ability to love, you lose your life. We think we can change the world, but we should not be naïve. Don’t think that the moment you arrive in Vietnam, you will sit down with all the conflicting factions and establish communication immediately. You may be able to give beautiful talks about harmony, but if you are not prepared, you will not be able to put your words into practice.

In Plum Village, we live together 24 hours a day. Do we cooperate to bring each other happiness? Do we work together in harmony? Are we able to overcome our individual views in order to bring together the views of everyone? Or do we maintain our own view and think that it alone is correct? If you cannot practice “harmony of views,” bringing your views together with the views of others to arrive at a collective view that everyone can accept, if you cannot love and accept each other, if you do not use loving speech every day, what will you be able to offer our countrymen when you return to Vietnam?

In Vietnam there are people who can give very good Dharma talks, who can explain how to reconcile and live in harmony, but not everyone can do it. We should not only talk about it. If we do not actually practice what we preach, what can we offer anyone? If older sisters do not hold each other’s hands like children of the same mother, how can the younger children have faith in the future?

We must practice harmony of views and harmony of speech. We bring our views together to have a deeper understanding, and we use loving speech to inspire others and not hurt anyone. We practice walking together, eating together, discussing together, so we can realize love and understanding. If you are able to breathe and smile when your sister says something unkind, that is the beginning of love. You do not have to go someplace else to serve. You can serve right here by practicing walking meditation, smiling, and shining your eyes of love on others.

We want to go out and share what we have learned. But if we do not practice breathing to untie the knots of pain in ourselves – the knots of anger, sadness, jealousy, and irritation – what can we teach others? We must understand and practice the teachings in our daily lives. We can only teach from our experience. People need to hear how we have to be able to overcome our own suffering and the irritations in our own heart. When we talk about the Dharma, our words need to have energy. That is not possible if our words come only from ideas, theories, or even sutras. We can only teach what we have done ourselves.

When we practice the First Prostration, we have to be able to see our blood ancestors and our spiritual ancestors at the same time. Some of our ancestors have done beautiful things, and others have made big mistakes. But all of them are our ancestors, and we have to accept them all, those only 20 years older than us and those 2,000 years older, those who are wonderful, and those who are very difficult. Our parents and some of our ancestors may have made us suffer, but they are still our parents and our ancestors. Until we accept them, we cannot feel at peace. If we say, “That person is not worthy of being my ancestor,” we will suffer our whole life.

After that, we get in touch with our descendants – our younger sisters and brothers, our disciples, our grandchildren, and our students. Some of them are beautiful. Some may argue with us. Some may be rude to us. When we practice the First Prostration, we have to accept all our children, those who are good and those who are difficult. That is the only way to find peace. The Three Prostrations are not just a devotional practice. They are a practice of insight, of looking deeply. We see that we are part of a stream of life comprised of all our spiritual and blood ancestors. We transcend our personal self, which is a basic Buddhist practice, and see what is meant by “no self.” When we realize that we are our ancestors and our descendants, our “self” dissolves and we accept everyone, however wicked or wonderful they have been. If we do not have that insight when we prostrate, we are still caught in the individual self, a self apart from the Sangha. We think we are not our brother, our sister, or our teacher. If we think like that, we are not ready to go out and teach other people. We have a theory about no-self, but we do not yet have the insight.

At Plum Village we practice dwelling peacefully in the present moment. By abiding peacefully in the present moment, we avoid running around in circles and we begin to have happiness. When we breathe and walk on the meditation path, when we eat a meal together in mindfulness, we see that we have the capacity for happiness every day. If we do not know how to make use of these practices and enjoy them, if we look for happiness somewhere else, we will never find it.

In Vietnam we say, “Standing on the top of one mountain, you look with envy at the top of another mountain.” We don’t realize how beautiful our mountain is. We look at the other mountain and think, It is much more beautiful over there. If only I could go over there, I would be happy. We have a husband, but we look at another family and think, Her husband is much kinder than mine. We are a child and we say, His mother is much sweeter than my mother. I wish I could exchange mothers. If we stand on this mountain peak and want to be on the other, that is because we do not know how to have happiness in the present moment in this very place. We do not have the capacity to accept the conditions for happiness that are already within us and all around us. In our Sangha, there are people who have the capacity to live happily in the present moment. They do not have the attitude of standing on the top of one mountain wanting to be on the other. They can sit very still, without feeling as though they are sitting on hot coals, wanting to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

Those who cannot be happy may think, If I could be a Dharma teacher, or a monk or a nun, I would be happy. But those who have the capacity to dwell peacefully in the present moment say, I am not a Dharma teacher or a monk or a nun, but I am just as happy. If you are not happy, becoming a Dharma teacher, a monk, or a nun will not make you happier.

How high is this peak? It represents the year 2050. We have only four more years to get to the 21st century. I am advanced in years, and I don’t know if I am going to arrive at the foot of the 21st century hill. But I think about that hill every day. I think about my descendants who are going to climb it. I don’t know whether I am going to live two years. Some things we cannot know. But one thing is certain. I am going to climb this hill with my descendants. I don’t agree with being a teacher for just three or four more years. I want to be a teacher and a companion for thousands of years.

You may think that Brother Phap Canh will get to the top of the mountain in the year 2050. He is 20 now, so he will be 74 years old. When he stands there, what will he see? He will look down and see the Sangha climbing up together. At 74, he will probably have many disciples, both lay and monastic. They will call him “Grandfather Teacher.” What I want to say is we have to climb this hill together. We cannot go up as individuals. Our practice lies in doing it together. We cannot go up as individuals. If we go as a Sangha, we will reach our goal. If we go as individuals, we will never get anywhere. We must go up the hill of the 21st century together. That is how we will transcend our individual selves.

Your grandfather teacher is called Thanh Guy. He is present with us today in this Dharma Hall. He gave me the Dharma Lamp Transmission. He sent me out on the path with all his love and care. Now he is carrying me in his passing. I am carrying him in my passing, and I am transmitting him to you so you can carry him with you. If it were not for my teacher, how could I be here? We are just a stream called “life.” When we give Dharma Transmission, we are not giving it just to one person. We give it to many people at the same time. When your receive Dharma Transmission, you also receive it for many.

The Sangha body of the Buddha has never ceased to be. Today we bear in our heart the Sangha of the Buddha, which is more than 2,500 years old. We may still be young, but we are also very, very old. Our Sangha body is sitting in the Dharma Nectar Hall in France and in the Lotus Bud Sangha in Australia. But the Sangha is much greater and wider than this.

You have seen me teach the Dharma a little bit everywhere, and you have experienced the Sangha in many different parts of the world. Each part of the Sangha nourishes itself using different methods and different teachings, yet we are present in all these Sanghas, and our descendants will be present in them, also. To see this is the realization of no-self. You need this insight to be able to take stable steps on the path of life. We are not individuals suffering in isolation. When one horse in the stable is sick, none of the horses will eat hay. Our suffering is the suffering of others. Our smile is the smile of others. Our joy is the joy of others. Only when we live this way is the Buddha’s teaching of no-self a reality.

If you think you are standing outside, that is an illusion. You are standing on this mountain thinking you should be standing on that one. Everything depends on your way of looking. To have a cup of tea with Thay may be happiness. But not drinking tea with Thay is also happiness. Can you be at peace in the present moment? Can you accept the elements of happiness that are already here? If you don’t have happiness, it doesn’t matter whether you are a monk, a nun, a Dharma teacher, or a layperson.

During this winter retreat, we have been studying “The Living Tradition of Buddhist Meditation.” Today we are going to learn a little more about the poem by Nhan Tong, the Bamboo Forest Master, called “Living in the World of the Dust, but Enjoying the Path of Practice.”

If you understand,
All wrongdoings from the past are wiped away.
If you are able to understand,
Past wrongdoings will not be repeated.
Practicing in daily life,
Keep your true nature shining.
Realizing that Buddha is you mind,
You don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu.
When you are mindful, here and now,
When your light is shining,
Why ask about the methods of Ma Tsu?
Don’t even think about his methods.
When you realize that Buddha is your mind,
You will never ask again about Ma Tsu’s methods.  

If you understand, all wrongdoings from the past are wiped away. We misbehave because we do not really understand what we are doing. Once we understand, we will stop. How can we understand what we are doing? By looking deeply. That is called the “shining nature” in us.

At times we have to prostrate before six other people and ask them to shine light on our practice. When we do this, we will receive great benefit. We have wrong perceptions that imprison us. We need at least six people to shine their light on us. They will do this only if we prostrate before them, and, with all our sincerity, ask for their help. The Sangha’s wisdom is greater than that of any individual. I always take refuge in the Sangha. Six is the minimum. You can ask sixty people if you like. When you ask them to shine light on your practice, it can reveal the darkest places in yourself, the things that bring about your suffering.

If you are able to understand, past wrongdoings will not be repeated. Practicing in daily life, keep your true nature shining. You perfect yourself in the Three Trainings of precepts, concentration, and insight. Gin means protect, maintain, look after. Tinh sang means the essential nature that is shining and clear and resides in all of us. The energy of mindfulness is light. With mindfulness, we know what is happening. When we are angry and we know we are angry, we can transform it, because mindfulness is there. If we nourish our mindfulness for ten or fifteen minutes, our anger will be transformed. Keep your true nature shining. The shining nature is not a vague idea. It is mindfulness itself, and it helps us have concentration. With concentration, we look deeply, see, and understand. That is called prajna, wisdom or insight.

Keep your true nature shining so you do not enter the path of wrong practice. Ta is wrong or crooked. Dao is path. This is the path of suffering and self pity, the path that leads away from our teacher and our Sangha. The Sangha is a precious jewel, even with its weaknesses. It is essential for our practice. There are things you cannot accomplish without a Sangha. To lose your Sangha is like falling into the ocean without a life jacket. You might die. Keep your true nature shining so you do not venture onto the path of wrong practice. Keep the light of mindfulness shining so you develop the power of concentration and see the truth in your heart, in the environment, and in the Sangha. That will prevent you from falling into the path of suffering.

Always improve yourself by true practice. The word tu, “practice” in Vietnamese means, literally, “to make more beautiful or correct” or “to repair.” If you have a leaky roof, you repair it. If you have some jealousy, you have to transform it. To better yourself, to cultivate happiness, all these things are included in the Vietnamese word for “practice.”

Always improve yourself by true learning. Always follow the “right tradition,” which is the true teaching of the Buddha, not the things people added to the teachings later. The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, but there has always been a tendency to bring in other teachings that are more complicated. We have to be careful not to travel down paths of wrong teaching, or we will lose our way. The way of practice in the right tradition is the tradition of precepts, mindfulness, and living with the Sangha. To say that we can take drugs or drink alcohol while practicing meditation is an example of wrong teaching. To practice meditation without also practicing precepts, concentration, and insight is not following the right tradition. When Zen Buddhism first came to the West, people thought it had something to do with drugs, and they did not practice the precepts. That kind of practice always brings about suffering. Please follow the right tradition.

Realizing that Buddha is your mind, you don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu. Mind is Buddha. Buddha is your mind. Buddha is not some statue made of wood or jade. Buddha is not a god. Buddha cannot be found in heaven. The Buddha is in your heart and mind. When your mind has precepts, concentration, and wisdom, Buddha is present. The Buddha is not the mind of forgetfulness. He is the mind of mindfulness.

When you are mindful, here and now, when your light is shining, why ask about the methods of Ma Tsu? Don’t even think about his methods. You don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu, such as kung an, questioning, shouting, or using the stick. Yelling and hitting are tools that can help meditation students untie the knots of suffering in themselves. These kung an, questions and answers, are used by the Dhyana masters to undo the knots of the students. I prefer simpler methods, like asking “What are you doing?” Sometimes when Sr. Chan Khong is looking through her files, I ask her, “What are you doing?” Sometimes she says, “You’ve caught me. I wasn’t practicing mindfulness.”

When you are cooking, sweeping, or working in the garden, practice mindfulness. If not, it is a waste of time. When I ask, “What are you doing?” if you are present, you can just look at me and smile. But if you are not practicing, you have to say, “Thay, you’ve caught me. I’m not practicing.”

When you realize that Buddha is your mind, you will never ask again about Ma Tsu’s methods. Ma Tsu was a very famous Dhyana master from China. He was born in 707 and he lived to be 81 years old. There is a story about a conversation between Ma Tsu and one of his students. One day, the student was sitting diligently practicing sitting meditation. The teacher asked, “What are you doing?” and the monk answered, proudly, “I am practicing sitting meditation.” The teacher said, “Why are you doing that?” and the student replied, “To become Buddha.” Ma Tsu began polishing a tile, and the student asked, “Master, why are you doing that?” Ma Tsu replied, “To make a mirror.” The student said, “Polishing the tile will not make a mirror.” Ma Tsu replied, “Sitting in meditation will not make a Buddha.”

To become a Buddha, you have to know how to smile, how to speak, how to stand, how to walk, how to work, how to wash pots, and do all those things while you look deeply in the state of Samadhi (concentration). Meditation is not just sitting. Once a student came to Master Ma Tsu and asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Ma Tsu said nothing. He just beat him. You see how kind the teacher of Plum Village is.

The great Bamboo Forest Master, realizing that Buddha is mind, said that you do not have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu. If you are free from attachments, you will be happy. Wealth and sex, for example, are like worms on the end of a hook. If you don’t look deeply, you will get caught, and suffer a lot. If you see the dangers of wealth and sex, you can behave according to the precepts and keep your freedom. Without inner freedom, you can never be happy.

Thoi means the behavior or way of life that is pure. Layman P’ang lived at the time of Ma Tsu in 8th century China. He had a wife, a daughter, and a son, and the four of them practiced together. Although they came from a wealthy family, they gave up their luxurious ways when they tasted the Dharma. They were very pleased to live simple lives.

One day Layman P’ang’s daughter came to Master Ta Dao and asked, “If I don’t want to be friends with all dharmas, objects of mind, what can I do?” Master Ta Dao just put his hand over his mouth. The next time Layman P’ang met Master Ma Tsu, he asked the same question, “If I don’t want to be friends with all dharmas, how should I act?” Ma Tsu said, “Layman, if you can drink all the water in the Han River, I will answer your question.” Upon hearing that, he was awakened.

Layman P’ang and his family symbolize happiness with a simple life. This is the opposite of thinking you have to buy a lot of things to be happy. If you are not attached to wealth, it is because you have realized your shining nature of enlightenment.

You don’t have to go to a mountain to practice. If you follow the precepts, you will not be carried away by sounds and appearances. Some appearances infatuate us and we get carried away by them. Some sounds make us angry, others make us afraid. We practice mindfulness in order to stop – to stop our wrong perceptions, to stop being carried away by sounds and appearances, to stop our mind from running from place to place, unable to settle anywhere. We can do this because we have learned the art of mindful living.

The First Prostration

The Stream of Life

Contemplate while touching the earth with your knees and forehead:

Touching the earth, I connect with ancestors and descendants of both my spiritual and blood families. My spiritual ancestors include the Buddha, the bodhisattvas, the noble Sangha of Buddha’s disciples, and my own spiritual teachers still alive or already passed away. They are present in me, because they have transmitted to me seeds of peace, wisdom, love, and happiness. They have awakened in me my resource of understanding, and compassion. When I look at my spiritual ancestors, I see those who are perfect in the practice of the precepts, understanding, and compassion, and those who are still imperfect. I accept them all, because I also see shortcomings and weaknesses within myself. Aware that my practice of the precepts is not always perfect, that I am not always understanding and compassionate, I open my heart and accept all my spiritual descendants. Some of my descendants practice the precepts, understanding, and compassion in ways that invite confidence and respect, but there are others who come across many difficulties and are constantly subject to ups and downs in their practice. 

In the same way, I accept all my blood ancestors on my mother’s and father’s sides. I accept their good qualities and virtuous actions, and also their weaknesses. I open my heart and accept all my blood descendants with their good qualities, their talents, and also their weaknesses. 

My spiritual ancestors and my blood ancestors, my spiritual descendants and my blood descendants are all part of me. I am them and they are me. I do not have a separate self. All of us are part of a wonderful stream of life.

The Second Prostration

The Wonderful Pattern of Life 

Touching the earth, I connect with all people and species that are alive at this moment. I am one with the wonderful pattern of life that radiates out in all directions. I see the close connection between myself and others – how we share our happiness and our suffering. I am one with those who were born disabled or who become disabled because of war, accident, or illness. I am one with those who are caught in war or oppression. I am one with those who find no happiness in their families, who have no roots or peace of mind, who are hungry for understanding and love and who are looking for something beautiful, wholesome, and true to embrace and believe in. I am someone at the point of death who is very afraid, not knowing what will happen. I am a child who lives in poverty and disease, whose arms and legs are like sticks. I am the manufacturer of bombs that are sold to poor countries. I am the frog swimming in the pond, and I am also the snake that needs the body of the frog to nourish itself. I am the caterpillar or the ant that the bird is looking for to eat, but I am also the bird that is looking for the caterpillar or the ant. I am the forest that is being cut down. I am the river and air that are being polluted, and I am also the one who cuts down the forest and pollutes the river and the air. I see myself in all species, and I see all species in me. 

The Third Prostration

Limitless Time and Space 

Touching the earth, I let go of my idea that I am this body with a limited life span. I see that this body, made up of the four elements, is not me, and I am not limited by this body. I am part of a stream of life of spiritual and blood ancestors that for thousands of years has been flowing into the present and flows on for thousands of years into the future. I am one with my ancestors. I am one with all people and all species, whether they are peaceful and fearless or suffering and afraid. At this very moment, I am present everywhere on this planet. I am also present in the past and in the future. The disintegration of this body does not touch me, just as when the plum blossom falls, it is not the end of the plum tree. I see myself as a wave on the surface of the ocean. I am in all the other waves, and all the other waves are in me. My nature is water. The appearance and disappearance of my form as a wave does not affect the ocean. My Dharma body and wisdom life are not subject to birth and death. I see myself before my body manifested and after my body disintegrates. I see how I exist everywhere. Seventy or eighty years is not my life span. My life span, like that of a leaf or a Buddha, is limitless. I have gone beyond the idea that I am a body that is separated in space and time from all other forms of life.

Photos:
First photo by Sr. Jina van Hengel.
Second photo by Joseph Lam.

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