Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 “Heart of the Buddha” retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer’s when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can’t remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don’t believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, “When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence.” Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can’t remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don’t need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It’s not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don’t want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, “Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this.” Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don’t buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, “Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?” Then, they will begin to ask, “When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn.” At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, “Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don’t know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive.” Use ord­inary language. Don’t make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don’t look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don’t need incense. You don’t need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don’t say, “I am practicing spirituality, and you don’t know anything about it!” Try to avoid saying, “Darling, I am practicing Buddhism.” Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, “Darling, how do you do it?” Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, “Who is responsible for this?”

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn’t say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one’s own life. But I don’t want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, “What happens to the consciousness before death?” If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby’s diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don’t have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby’s diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I’m going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on “the art of mindful living.”

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