Dharma Talk: Protecting the Environment

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Many basic teachings in Buddhism can help us understand our interconnectedness with the environment. One of the deepest is the Prajnaparamita Vajracchedika Sutra (The Diamond that Cuts through Illusion). This sutra is a dialogue between the Venerable Subhuti and the Buddha. It begins with this question by Subhuti: “If daughters and sons of good families wish to give rise to the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind, what should they rely on and what should they do to master their thinking?” This is the same as asking, “If I want to use my whole being to protect life, what methods and principles should I use?”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha answered him, “However many species of living beings there are—whether born from eggs, from the womb, from moisture, or spontaneously; whether they have form or do not have form; whether they have perceptions or do not have perceptions; or whether it cannot be said of them that they have perceptions or that they do not have percep­tions, we must lead all these beings to the ultimate nirvana so that they can be liberated. And when this innumerable, immeasurable, infinite number of beings has become liberated, we do not, in truth, think that a single being has been liberated. Why is this so? If, Subhuti, a bodhisattva holds on to the idea that a self, a person, a living being, or a life span exists, that person is not an authentic bodhisattva.”

The Buddha’s answer can be summarized as, “We have to do our best to help every living being cross the river of suffering. But after all beings have arrived at the shore of liberation, no being at all has been carried to the other shore. If you are still caught up in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span, you are not an authentic bodhisattva.” Self, person, living being, and life span are the four notions that prevent us from seeing reality.

Life is one. We do not need to slice it into pieces and call this or that piece a self. What we call a self is actually made only of non-self elements. When we look at a flower, for example, we may think that it is different from “non-flower” things. But when we look more deeply, we see that everything else in the cosmos is in that flower. Without all of the non-flower elements—the sunshine, the clouds, the earth, minerals, heat, rivers, and consciousness—a flower cannot be. That is why the Buddha teaches that the self does not exist. What we call “self” is made only of non-self elements. Therefore, we have to throw away all distinctions between self and non-self.

Here is another example. You may think that you are not George Bush or Bill Clinton, but that is not correct. You are comprised entirely of “non-you” elements, among them the candidates for U.S. President. So you have to take good care of the Bush/Clinton elements in you. When you ask, “How can I stop being so angry at President Bush?” the first thing I will tell you is that Mr. Bush is you. Mr. Bush is a non-you element in you. The trees are also non-you elements. If you look deeply, you will see all of these non-you elements, and you will know that you have to take care of George Bush and the trees that are in you. We cannot say, “I am separate and unique. I am not responsible for any of these things.” Instead, we must learn to say, “By taking good care of myself, I take care of you. And by taking good care of you, I take care of myself.” How can anyone work to protect the environment without this kind of insight?

The second notion that prevents us from seeing reality as it is is the notion of a person, a human being. We usually discriminate between humans and non-humans, thinking that we are more important than other species. But since we humans are made of non-human elements, to protect ourselves we have to protect all of the non-human elements. There is no other way. If you think, “God created man in his own image and He created other things for man to use,” you are already making the discrimination that man is more important than other things. When we see that humans have no self, we see that to take care of the environment (the non-human elements) is to take care of humanity. The best way to take good care of men and women so that they can be truly healthy and happy is to take care of the environment.

I know ecologists who are not happy with their partners.They work hard to improve the environment, partly to escape their family life. If someone is not happy within himself, how can he help the environment? That is why the Buddha teaches that to protect the non-human elements is to protect humans, and to protect humans is to protect non-human elements.

The third notion we have to break through is the notion of a living being. We think that we living beings are different from inanimate objects, but according to the principle of interbeing, living beings are comprised of non-living-being elements. When we look into ourselves, we see minerals and all other non-living-being elements. Why discriminate against what we call inanimate? To protect living beings, we must protect the stones, the soil, and the oceans. Before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, there were many beautiful stone benches in the parks. As the Japanese were rebuilding their city, they discovered that these stones were dead, so they carried them away and buried them. Then they brought in live stones. Do not think these things are not alive. They are alive. Atoms are always moving. Electrons move at nearly the speed of light. According to the teaching of Buddhism, these atoms and stones are consciousness itself. That is why discrimination by living beings against non-living beings should be discarded.

The last notion is that of a life span. We think that we have been alive since a certain point in time and that prior to that moment, our life did not exist. This distinction between life and non-life is not correct. Life is made of death, and death is made of life. We have to welcome death, because it makes life possible. The cells in our body are dying every day, but we don’t organize funerals for them. The death of one cell allows for the birth of another. Life and death are two aspects of the same reality. We must learn to die peacefully so that others may live. This deep meditation brings forth non-fear, non-anger, and non-despair, the strengths we need for our work. With non-fear, even when we see that a problem is huge, we will not burn out. We will know how to make small, steady steps. If those who work to protect the environment contemplate these four notions, they will know how to be and how to act.

In another beautiful Buddhist text, The Avatamsaka (“Adorning the Buddha with Flowers”) Sutra, the Buddha continues to elaborate his insights concerning our unity with our environment. In this sutra, the word “interpenetration” is introduced. Please meditate with me on the “Ten Penetra­tions.”

The first is, “All worlds penetrate a single pore. A single pore penetrates all worlds.” Look deeply at a flower. It may be tiny, but the sun, the clouds, and everything else in the cosmos penetrate it. Nuclear physicists say very much the same thing: one electron is made by all electrons; one electron is in all electrons.

The second penetration is, “All living beings penetrate one body. One body penetrates all living beings.” When you kill a living being, you kill yourself and everyone else as well.

The third is, “Infinite time penetrates one second. One second penetrates infinite time.” Ksana means the shortest period of time, actually much shorter than a second.

The fourth penetration is, “All Buddhist teachings pen­etrate one teaching. One teaching penetrates all Buddhist teachings.” As a young monk, I had the opportunity to learn this important sentence: “Buddhism is made of non-Buddhist elements.” So I always respect non-Buddhist elements. Whenever I study Christianity or Judaism, I find the Buddhist elements in them, and vice versa. All Buddhist teachings penetrate one teaching, and one teaching penetrates all Buddhist teachings. We are free.

The fifth penetration is, “Innumerable spheres enter one sphere. One sphere enters innumerable spheres.” A sphere is geographical space. Innumerable spheres penetrate into one particular area. And one particular area enters into innumer­able spheres. It means that when you destroy one area, you destroy every area. When you save one area, you save all areas. One student asked me, “Thay, there are so many urgent problems, what should I do?” I said, “Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time.”

The sixth penetration is, “All sense organs penetrate one organ. One organ penetrates all sense organs”—eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. To take care of one means to take care of many. To take care of your eyes means to take care of the eyes of innumerable living beings.

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The seventh penetration is, “All sense organs penetrate non-sense organs. Non-sense organs penetrate all sense organs.” Not only do non-sense organs penetrate sense organs, they also penetrate non-sense organs. There is no discrimination. Sense organs are made of non-sense-organ elements. That is why they penetrate non-sense organs. This helps us remember the teaching of the Diamond Sutra.

The eighth penetration is, “One perception penetrates all perceptions. All perceptions penetrate one perception.” If your perception is not accurate, it will influence all other perceptions in yourself and others. Suppose a bus driver has an incorrect perception. We know what may happen. One perception penetrates all perceptions.

The ninth penetration is, “Every sound penetrates one sound. One sound penetrates every sound.” This is a very deep teaching. We need to understand one sound or one word in order to understand all sounds and all words.

The tenth penetration is, “All times penetrate one time. One time penetrates all times”—past, present, and future. In one second, you can find the past, present, and future. In the past, you can see the present and the future. In the present, you can find the past and future. In the future, you can find the past and present. They “inter-contain” each other. Space contains time, time contains space. In the teaching of interpenetration, one determines the other, the other determines this one. Once we realize our nature of “interbeing,” we will stop blaming and killing, because we will know that we “inter-are.”

Interpenetration is an important Dharma door, but it still suggests that things that are outside of one another penetrate into each other. Interbeing is a step forward. You are already inside, so you don’t have to enter it anymore. In contemporary nuclear physics, people talk about implicit order and explicit order. In the explicit order, things exist outside of each other—the table outside of the flower, the sunshine outside of the cypress tree. Another way of looking at things is to see that they are inside each other—the sunshine inside the cypress tree. Interbeing is the implicit order. To practice mindfulness and to look deeply into the nature of things is to discover the true nature of interbeing. You will find peace, and you will develop the strength that enables you to be in touch with everything. With this understanding, you can easily sustain the work of loving and caring for the Earth and for each other for a long time.

This essay is adapted from a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh at the Retreat for Environmentalists in March 1991 in Malibu, California. These teachings were developed during the three-week June 1992 retreat at Plum Village on “Vipassana (Looking Deeply) in the Mahayana Tradition.” Tapes of all of these lectures are available from Plum Village or Parallax Press. The teachings on the Diamond Sutra can also be found in Thay’ s book, The Diamond that Cuts through Illusion (Parallax Press). 

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Dharma Talk: The Practice of Prayer

By Thich Nhat Hanh

What is prayer? To whom should we pray? Does prayer bring results?

Thich Nhat Hanh

A five-year-old boy who loved playing with his pet mouse was deeply wounded when his mouse tunneled deep into the earth and didn’t come back, but the mouse never returned. Later, when he was a college student, the same young man attended a class that began each day with a prayer. The prayers mostly seemed silly to him, such as, “I pray it will be sunny tomorrow so we can have a picnic.” But one day a fellow student came into class crying. She told the professor that doctors had just discovered that her mother had a brain tumor and might survive only one more week.

The professor stood up, looked deeply at each student, and said, “If you do not believe in the healing power of God, please leave the room. We are going to pray for Nancy’s mother.” The young man wanted to leave but didn’t have the courage. Then the professor asked everyone to kneel down, and he offered a short but very powerful prayer: “God, I thank you for healing Nancy’s mother right now. In the name of Christ, Amen.” Two weeks later, they learned that Nancy’s mother’s tumor had disappeared without a trace. Her healing was a miracle, and the young man’s belief in prayer was renewed.

Why do some prayers succeed and some not? Are there methods that can guarantee our prayers? If your prayers do not bring good results, is it because we do not have enough faith or love? In the Bible, is says that faith can move mountains. If we want our bulb to light up, there has to be current running through the electrical line.

Last summer a practitioner at Plum Village was very ill with cancer. Sister Chan Khong suggested that she pray to her grandmother, who had lived to be 97. Sister Chan Khong said, “The strong genes of your grandmother are in you. Ask them to help you transform the sick cells that are also in you.” Sister Chan Khong taught her for only fifteen minutes, but because she had a lot of faith, she understood the teaching and put it into practice. The young lady prayed to her grandmother in herself while she ate, while she walked, while she sat, and while she touched the earth.

When I practice sitting meditation, I always send loving energy to my students. Sister Dam Nguyen in Vietnam and Jim Fauss in California both have had cancer. Whether my students know I love them or not, when I send my energy to them, I am sure it arrives. What matters most is that my heart is open. I only need to touch the source of love in me and send my love in my thoughts and also in my actions. This is a basic form of prayer that can be practiced not just in church or a meditation hall, but in every act. You touch the deep source of beauty and goodness in yourself and share it. When you pray or chant the words of the Buddha or Christ, it encourages peace in yourself, in others, and in the environment. Behind it is the practice of mindful living.

All the Vietnamese Buddhists know this prayer (De Tu Kinh Lay): “I have been a victim of craving, anger, arrogance, jealousy, and confusion, living in suffering and darkness for thousands of generations. Thanks to the light of the Buddha, I now see the roots of my afflictions, and I vow to begin anew to transform these afflictions in order to live happily.” This prayer is a mirror, an effort to look deeply into ourselves and see the seeds of craving, anger, ignorance, and confusion in us. “The light of the Buddha” is our mindfulness. We look deeply into our negative habit energies, see our shortcomings, and try to transform them.

I vow to avoid wrong actions and to take the path of goodness. I ask for the Buddha’s compassion to help me to have a healthy body and a mind free of suffering and confusion.” We pray for a body without disease and a mind without suffering, so we can enjoy peace, stability, and liberty and be released from the cycle of suffering. This prayer helps us live a life filled with health, happiness, and stability, free from craving, anger, and ignorance. We make some effort, and outside efforts follow. In fact, there is no boundary between our efforts and those from outside.

Whom should we address our prayers to? God? Buddha? Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva? We have to look deeply into the nature of God, the nature of the Buddha, the nature of Avalokiteshvara. Whenever we join our palms and bow our heads, we can ask, “Who am I and who is the object of my venerations and what is the connection between us?” If we think there is no connection between God and us, that we are different from God, our prayer is just superstition.

When I was sixteen, my teacher asked me to memorize this sentence: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty.” I recited this sentence for ten years before I realized its meaning. The Buddha is in me, and I am in the Buddha. We are two, yet we are one. We are both empty of a separate self, so the communication between us is perfect. We can pray to God, because we are a part of God. We don’t need time or space. The deep link is immediate. There is electricity in our power line.

For prayer to bring results, the first condition is the establishment of communication and the second is the establishment of the electrical line, which is mindfulness, concentration, understanding, and love. When we have these conditions, the power line will surely work, and the result of our prayer will be realized immediately, beyond time and space. When body and mind are in oneness, when there is concentration and understanding, you can touch the actual cells of your grandmother in you, and these cells can be transformed and healed. When you touch God, the Buddha, or the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in you, their energy and your energy become one. Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is the symbol of love. Manjushri is the symbol of understanding. Samantabhadra is the symbol of action with understanding. We cannot deny their existences. When love exists, Avalokiteshvara exists.

If God’s will decides everything, what is the use of praying? How can we change the fruit of our actions? The answer is understanding. When we understand deeply that our ancestors are in us, that there is no distance at all between our cells, our grandmother’s cells and our cancer can be transformed. The will of God is also our will, because we and God are one. If we decide to change, everyone, even those hostile to us, will change also.

To pray, we must have great understanding. If we want God, the Buddha, or a bodhisattva to do something for us and if we make a kind of program for them to follow, we may think that will make us happy. We might pray that no living beings will be killed, no trees cut, or no river polluted and we create a program for God to implement point by point. But in God’s program, there is also death. If insects don’t die, millions of acres of wheat may be destroyed. Living beings eat other living beings, and the result is a kind of balance. Do we have the insight to create a balanced environment? If we do not, our prayer may be naïve. We pray for ourselves and those we love, but if God fulfills these prayers it may cause disorder in the world. Our prayers must always go together with understanding and insight. To develop insight, we practice mindful breathing to calm ourselves and restore the peace and serenity in us.

An American doctor has said that God is like a communications satellite. Our wishes and aspirations are sent to that satellite, and then God sends back grace to those we pray for. Buddhists would call that satellite our collective consciousness (alaya vijnana). Whenever there is a transformation in our individual consciousness, there is also a transformation in the collective consciousness, including the consciousness of those we pray for. In this way, our mind is a creator of the collective consciousness. So we have to go back to our mind and transform ourselves. When we do so, it is quicker than a satellite. When you send a prayer to a satellite, it takes a few ksana (a fraction of a second) to arrive. Even light takes time. But when we touch our store consciousness and thereby the collective store consciousness, the part of God that is within us, we touch God right away. This satellite is not out in space; it is within us. As long as we have the notion that we and God are separate entities, it takes time for our prayer to reach the satellite and for God to receive and send it to the one we pray for. But in deep Christianity and deep Buddhism, we see that the one we pray to and the one we pray for are both in the same satellite, which is in us. Collective consciousness and individual consciousness exist simultaneously. When we are in touch with our own consciousness, we are already in touch with the collective consciousness. Touching the collective consciousness, we also touch our individual consciousness.

We think that those who have passed away no longer exist, but according to Buddhism, that is not correct. They are still there, everywhere, including in us. Although your grandmother has passed away, she is still in you. When you understand this, your prayers will be effective. Buddha is the nature of beauty and goodness in you. When you touch the Buddha in you, you can do what he had done. When you are angry or sad, if you touch those seeds of beauty and goodness in you, you will see more clearly. The Buddha in you helps you overcome difficulties. He helps you accept thinks that are difficult to accept. He transforms you.

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If you hear that the Buddha will lead a walking meditation on Gridhrakuta Mountain and if you want to fly to India to join him, I would certainly understand. But if you practice walking meditation every day and know how to be deeply in touch with life, you will not need to fly to Gridhrakuta Mountain. Buddha is not a concept, but the true nature of awakening. You can take a step right here and now, and you are already walking hand in hand with the Buddha.

We can pray not only to God, the Buddha, or our ancestors, but also to those who are still alive. When we have difficulties, if we think of someone who has stability, joy, peace, and a clear mind, we feel supported. These living bodhisattvas have the ability to listen to us and use their energy to help us. We should pray no only to bodhisattvas who are in the clouds, like Avalokiteshvara, but to those who are alive on earth. Your own roommate may be a bodhisattva, but if you don’t hold her in high enough esteem, you will not see her. If she listens with all her heart, with all her attention and compassion, she is Avalokiteshvara. If you open your heart only to bodhisattvas in the clouds, you may miss many real bodhisattvas here who have love and care, who listen to you deeply. Bodhisattvas are people who have practiced day after day so that their insight has grown. When you walk in mindfulness and have more peace and joy, your insight is growing. It is not only the Buddha who has insight. You also have your insight. You might have been less compassionate in the past, but through the practice your compassion has grown.

I often pray to those who are still alive. There are many small Sanghas everywhere of people who really practice and transform their suffering. I feel deeply supported by them. This is real prayer. I also pray to trees, the moon, and the stars. They are strong and stable, and they can support us. Do not pray to God as a concept. Touch God in His creations. You are a creation, so you can touch God in yourself and in those around you. Let us look at The Lord’s Prayer: 

Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Amen. 

“Thy Kingdom come.” The best way to chant, sing, or pray is to touch the kingdom of God right here and now. ”Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the key. The Lord’s will must be realized not only in heaven, but also on earth. Don’t wait until you reach the kingdom of God – until you pass away – to obtain stability, peace, and joy. Touch it here and now. A Zen master was asked, “Where do you find the world of no-birth and no-death?” And he said, “Right in the world of birth and death.”

Give us this day our daily bread,” is the practice of mindfulness. We only need food here and now. “Form is emptiness” is not enough. Emptiness is also form. We always want to save for the future, but to live in the present moment deeply is most important. We have to pray throughout the day, not only before going to sleep. How can there be eternity if there is no present moment?

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Trespasses are the mistakes we have made with those we love. We have said something unkind; we have acted or thought in ways that have caused suffering. We have made many mistakes and hurt others. We have to live in a way that allows us to forgife ourselves and forgive those who have hurt us. We have not been mindful, and we have to release our hurts and the hurts of others. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of action.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” What kinds of temptation? – craving, anger, arrogance, doubt jealousy, suspicion. Practice is much easier with a Sangha, a community of friends. When you are alone, you are easily tempted, but with a Sangha, when you become angry or afraid, your brothers and sisters will help calm you down. With a Sangha, you are very stable and will not fall into the lower realms. Many people are in hell right now, living in loneliness, anger, or despair. Others are in heaven, living beautifully.

We have to learn the art of praying deeply. Usually, when we have some difficulty, we call upon God and say, “Help me.” This is okay, but we also have to learn to pray on a large scale. Our aim is to cross the ocean of birth and death without fear. Asking God to do something for us is too superficial. At other times we bargain with God: “If you give me such and such, I will shave my head and be a vegetarian for three months.” When they cross the ocean, many Vietnamese boat people say that if they survive they will shave their heads for three months. There is nothing wrong with that. I only want you to practice more deeply, so you can smile to that bargaining part of you.

We usually pray for good health, success, or harmony. But it is a dream to think our health can be perfect. We are alive now because we were sick in the past. Thanks to our illnesses, we have immunity from certain diseases. Don’t dream of perfect health. Please learn to live with these little diseases, and enjoy the 98% health you have.

There has been a lot of progress in medicine in the past fifty years. People now see that the health of the body is deeply linked to the health of the mind. If we learn how to resolve the blocking points in our mind, many of our diseases will be cured. A good physician must look deeply.

We are at the gateway to a new step in medicine, that can be called “collective-manifestation-medicine” or the “medicine of one mind.” We see that many elements, near and far, make us sick and cure us. We may suffer from something our grandfather did two generations ago, or from the effects of an atomic bomb that was dropped in the South Pacific, or from someone else’s unhappiness. When someone is unhappy, he may hurt us deeply. Because we don’t have a separate self, we are connected in all directions, through time and through space.

Success is also usually seen as an element for our happiness. But our success may requires another person’s failure. When we are able to pray for ourselves, for those we love, and also for those who cause us problems, the energy of mindfulness, concentration, understanding, and love in us grows stronger. If you cannot pray for those who cause us difficulty, do not blame God or the Buddha if you do not have good results.

We also pray for harmony in the world. But life is filled with harmony and disharmony, successes and failures, ups and downs. When we are in touch with the ultimate dimension, harmony or disharmony, success or failure are all okay. We try our best to make life more harmonious. That’s all. When you step into the world of the Avatamsaka, into the Kingdom of God, whatever happens to your health is okay, whether you have so-called success or failure is okay, whether you live one or ten more years is okay. When you have touched the ultimate dimension deeply, you can dwell in the cycle of samsara with a smile.

In the past, if you had a success, you were happy. If you had a failure, you were unhappy. But once you have touched the ultimate dimension, you see that failure is also fine. Because of your failure, other people may succeed. Others may see disharmony, but you see harmony. The deep aim of a practitioner is to touch the ultimate dimension in daily life. Everywhere you go, you see that you and others are one. Even if your health is not perfect, even if your success is not great, it’s okay. The prayer of the practitioner is very deep and not on the level of the historical dimension and touch the ultimate reality. Then your relationships with others, your relationship with God, and your relationship with the Buddha will be relationships of oneness.

At Plum Village, we try to open many doors of happiness to help you keep your balance. When you return home, you have to establish your own breathing room, your own Sangha, where you can breathe, listen to Dharma talks, and have Dharma discussions, so you have more peace to help you cope with the unhappiness of people. When others are unhappy and thrown their unhappiness on you, you have to receive it and transform it.

In the collective consciousness is the collective consciousness of many bodhisattvas, many buddhas, you yourself, and also those who are not happy. Try to use the new step in medicine to bring you to that realm of buddhas and bodhisattvas, where you will not be drowned in the sickness of negativity. This new medicine is not limited by time. It can happen millions of years in the past or the future. It is not limited by space. When Kepler discovered that the tides on earth are influenced by the moon, no one believed him. Even Galileo thought Kepler had imagined it. Now we know that the gravity of the moon influences the earth, and the stars influence us.

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Our health is the same. Those who live far from us can make us very happy or unhappy. In “oneness-of-mind medicine,” the doctor also has to pray for his or her patients, because we know that the mindfulness and compassion of our physician influences us. A physician cannot be just a mechanic: “Here is a prescription. Open your mouth.” She must go the next step. After making her best prognosis, she must say, “I will pray for you, too.” And she sends her love, care, and compassion to her patients. Before seeing a patient, she has to breathe, calm herself to restore the peace and happiness of her own body and mind, and then look deeply into the patient, diagnose, and while giving the patient a prescription, say, “Follow this, and I will pray for you. I will send my love to you.” We have to do this also, not just physicians. When your brother is sick, you cannot just say, “The hospital will take care of him.” You also have to send your love and care to your brother in the hospital. You have to send your love and care to all who are in danger. You cannot just say, “They will take care of themselves.” We deeply influence each other.

Dr. Larry Dossey says that in our time we have to open the door to this new step in medicine. He proposes that every physician encourage his patients to pray, and physicians who forbid their patients from praying be subject to suit. Physicians have to care not only about medicine and the body, but also about spirit. For your happiness with yourself and the happiness of your brothers and sisters in the Dharma and in your blood family, you have to send your love everywhere. With every step I take, I send compassion to myself and to brothers and sisters near and far away. It heals me and it will heal them. Even though Sister Dam Nguyen is in Hanoi and Jim Fauss is in California, when I send my love to them, I am sure they receive it right away.

Sending love to people is not a superstition. It is based on something scientific. When we sit together, we create a great collective energy that can support many near and far. Collective consciousness can be governed by understanding or by ignorance. The more our collective consciousness is full of ignorance, the more sickness we have in our body and mind. When we have more understanding, we have more loving kindness, and health and healing are possible. In the medicine of one mind, the collective consciousness plays a significant role in the happiness of our beloved ones and ourselves.

We have to find the root causes of our diseases, most of which come from the collective store consciousness. In medical school, they don’t teach you how to go into the unconscious domain. The unconscious of Western psychology is only a small part of the collective consciousness, and the healing of most disease comes from there. If you want to heal a diseases, organize a good store consciousness. Practice mindful sitting, walking, speaking, and  eating. Water the seeds of joy and peace in yourself every day. Enjoy the present moment and share your peace and love with other. This is real prayer.

This Dharma talk was given by Thay at Plum Village in March 1996.

Photos:
First and second photo by Gloria Norgang.
Third photo by Carole Melkonian.

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Dharma Talk: The Power of Visualization

By Thich Nhat Hanh

From talks given June 11 and June 14, 2004, at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat, Plum Village

Thich Nhat Hanh

mb38-dharma3In June, 2004, Thich Nhat Hanh offered teachings on the nature of consciousness at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village. Expounding on the material published in Transformation at the Base, Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness (Parallax Press, 2001) Thay offered methods of practice that will deepen our understanding of ourselves and of reality. 

Here, Thay speaks about the practice of visualization, explaining how it can enhance our mindfulness through such diverse examples as recent information from nuclear science and a marvelous story about the mother of the Buddha. 

Also included in this section is Learning to Speak the Truth, an excerpt of a talk given at the same retreat by senior student and Dharma teacher, Thay Phap An, who shares stories of some of his difficulties as a young monk in the early days at Plum Village. 

The practice of visualization is very important in Buddhism, but practitioners of other disciplines need imagination and visualization too. In order to learn, in order to create, we need the capacity to imagine and to visualize. For example, studying mathematics takes a lot of visualization. If your power of visualization is weak you cannot learn a kind of mathematics called projective geometry. If you are an architect, you have to visualize in order to create new forms of architecture. Many scientists have to visualize a lot, because they have to see molecules and atoms with their mind, since they cannot see them with their eyes. Theories concerning the elementary particles of the cosmos come from visualization.

While scientists use instruments and tools to empower their vision, practitioners use visualization to purify their minds so they can look deeply at the nature of reality.

Visualization While Walking 

Using the techniques of visualization during walking meditation can bring us love, wisdom, and joy. When we study the levels of consciousness, we see that the sixth––mind consciousness, also called the gardener––has the power to imagine, to visualize.

When you make a step, you might visualize that your mother is taking the step with you. This is not difficult to do, since you know that your feet are a continuation of the feet of your mother. As we practice looking deeply, we see the presence of our mother in every cell of our body. Our body is a continuation of our mother’s body. When you make a step you might say, “Mother, walk with me,” and suddenly you feel your mother walking with you. Perhaps during her lifetime she did not have a chance to walk in the here and the now, and to enjoy touching the earth like you have. So, suddenly compassion is born in you, because you can see your mother walking with you. Not in your imagination, but as a reality. You can invite your father and other people you love to walk with you, and you feel they are present in the here and the now. You don’t have to be with them physically in order to touch their presence.

If we know that all our ancestors are fully present in every cell of our body, then when we make a step, we know that they are all taking that step with us. Your mind can see the feet of all your ancestors, millions of feet, making a step with you. Using visualization in that way will shatter the idea that you are a separate self. You walk, and they walk too.

Our Perceptions are Mental Constructions 

There are many incorrect things on the screen of our consciousness, and if we know how to focus we can erase them. We bring our wisdom to that view of illusion projected on our screen, and we recognize it as an illusion. Then we press on the mouse, and it is erased from our screen.

When illusion is erased, something appears. The disappearance of ignorance (avidiya) helps the light, the wisdom to arise. So when you use your mind to erase the illusion, the truth appears. Thanks to our practice of looking deeply, we know that what appears in our consciousness is the collective construction of our mind. With practice, we are no longer sure of our perceptions. We become more careful. We know that what is perceived is very much the collective construction of our consciousness.

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Parakalpita means collective mental construction. In the past, when we did not practice, we believed that the world of mental construction is a solid, objective world. But now as we begin to practice, we learn that what we touch, what we see, what we hear, is only a collective mental construction. We begin to understand that what we perceive is very much the construct of our consciousness. To recognize parakalpita as a mental construction is a step toward wisdom. And our practice will help us to see that the nature of the world as we see it is the nature of parakalpita, the nature of mental construction.

So with the practice of mindfulness you become more alert. Anything you hear, you touch, you see––you know that it has the nature of mental construction, and you do not consider it as reality. The world of representations may carry some substance of the world, of things in itself, but it mostly consists of representations. And it is collective in nature; for example, the person sitting next to you will see and hear almost the same things that you see and hear. Because you are made similarly, you perceive in the same way.

The Process of Seeing and Hearing 

We know that the images we see are projected onto our retina, and our brain translates them into electrical impulses, which forward them to the center of sensation in the occipital lobe. We don’t see with our eyes; our eyes only receive images which are translated into the language of electrical signals. And an image does not come as a whole; it comes as millions of dots, received and processed by more than thirty different regions of the cortex.

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The same happens with sounds. A sound is received and translated into electrical signals, then goes to an area just below the occipital lobe, and then is transferred to many areas of the cortex, and finally sent to the parietal lobe. Then we become aware of it.

Whether it is sound or image or touch or smell, all are translated into electrical signals so that the mind can receive and process. It is very, very complicated. That is why the teacher Vasubandhu said that the processing of store consciousness is not something that mind consciousness can access. And that is why we agree with what the Buddha said in the Diamond Sutra: All conditioned dharmas are like a dream, are like magical performances, are like water bubbles, are like reflected images, are like a drop of dew, are like lightning. The Buddha said, “Dear one, you have to train to look at them like that.”

Because of what we know, we don’t believe that what we perceive is objective reality. It is the mental construction of our consciousness, and we know that is the nature of our perceptions. What we conceive to be personalities, people, atman––what we conceive to be entities, dharmas––are just mental constructions. They are evolving in many ways, but they are all manifestations from consciousness. That is the first verse of The Thirty Verses on consciousness, offered by Vasubandhu.

Touching Interbeing

Knowing that we live in the world of parakalpita, we should practice looking deeply in order to discover the nature of interbeing, because if we look deeply into the world of mental construction, we can touch the nature of interbeing, the nature of paratantra. Paratantra means “leaning on each other,” depending on each other in order to manifest. You cannot be by yourself. You have to inter-be with everything else.

For example, a flower has to rely on many non-flower elements in order to manifest. That is why when we look at a flower we don’t see a separate entity. If we see a flower as an entity, then we are still in the parakalpita world. And when we see another person as an atman, a separate self, then we are still in the world of parakalpita. That is why using mind consciousness, we are not focused on these so-called selves and dharmas in order to discover the nature of paratantra. Empty inside, empty as a self, empty as an entity: for that you need the energy of mindfulness and concentration. You live your day mindfully. You look deeply at anything you come in touch with, and you are not fooled by appearance. You are not caught in a world of parakalpita; you are capable of seeing that those you meet are devoid of any solid entity, any solid selves.

Looking into the son, you see the father and the mother and the ancestors; you see the son is not a separate entity. Looking into yourself––your suffering, your happiness––you don’t see you as a separate self, you see a continuation. This is to learn how to see everything in the light of interdependence, interbeing. Everything is based on everything else in order to manifest. Slowly the notion of one and of many vanish.

Training to See the True Nature of Reality 

The nuclear scientist David Bohm practiced looking deeply, and he said that an electron is not a separate entity; one electron is made of all the other electrons. He seemed to understand that the one is made of the all, and just touching the one deeply, you touch everything.

So touching the nature of paratantra, we understand that there are no separate entities. There are only manifestations that rely on each other to be possible, like the left and the right. The right is not an entity that can be by itself. Without the left, the right cannot be. Everything is like that.

The first verse of Vasubandhu’s thirty verses is that the metaphor of selves and dharmas are evolving in several ways. They are creations of consciousness, mental creations. The sixth, the seventh, and the eighth levels of consciousness create.

The Buddha offered us the insight of impermanence and the insight of no-self, as tools for us to touch the world of parakalpita so that we can discover the nature of interbeing, the nature of interdependence, which is devoid of any solid, separate self. One day the Buddha told his beloved disciple, Ananda: “Whoever sees interbeing, that person sees the Buddha.” If we touch the nature of interdependence, of interbeing, we touch the truth, we touch wisdom. We touch the Buddha.

During the day, while walking or sitting, eating or cleaning, you dwell in the concentration of paratantra, so that you can see things as they are, not as selves, not as entities, but as mental constructions that rely on each other in order to manifest. This is the process of training. And finally, when the training is complete, the nature of parinispanna will appear, will reveal itself entirely, and what you touch is no longer a world of illusion, but the world of thing-in-itself. These are the principles of the practice.

First of all, we should be aware that the world in which we live is being constructed by us, by our mind, collectively. That if we look deeply, if we know how to use mindfulness and concentration, we can begin to touch the nature of interdependence. And when our practice is deep, we can erase the illusion of parakalpita so the true nature of reality can be revealed: the nature of parinispanna.

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Visualizing Before Touching the Earth 

Visualization can be very helpful. When I was a young novice in Asia, this practice was taught to us, but most of us could not do it. We memorized very well, we chanted very beautifully, but we could not do this visualization for the first ten or fifteen years. The moment you can do it, you feel wonderful. You can erase the notion of self through this practice.

mb38-dharma6If you are an intelligent practitioner, you do not touch the Earth with the intention of begging the Buddha to give you something, or to forgive you for having done something. That practice is still based on the notion of separate selves: the belief that you and the Buddha are different; that you are almost nothing, and the Buddha is everything; that you need him to give you a little bit of wisdom or happiness. With that kind of intention, you still live in the world of parakalpita. So before touching the Earth before the Buddha, you have to visualize that you are empty of a separate self, and also that the Buddha is empty of a self. The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty. It’s difficult to find another tradition with a similar practice. For instance, you cannot stand in front of the deity you worship, and say, “You, my God, you are empty!”

Before you bow, you say something like this: “Dear Buddha, I am bowing to you, but I know deeply that I am empty and you are also empty, because you are in me and I am in you. When I am touching the Earth before you, it may look ridiculous. But looking deeply, I see that I bow like this in order to touch you in me, and so that you can touch me in you also.

Then you visualize countless Buddhas appearing, like the image of Indra’s net. This is a net made of jewels, and in each jewel you see reflected all the other jewels. Looking into the one you see the all. Suppose you build a hall made of mirrors, and then you enter holding a candle. Looking into a mirror you see you and the candle, and when you turn around you see that each mirror reflects you and the candle in the mirror too. You just need to look into one mirror to see all the reflections of you and the candle. Countless yous and countless candles are reflected in just one mirror.

So you are standing there, about to touch the Earth and get in touch with the Buddha. And you have to visualize countless Buddhas appearing around you, and in front of each Buddha there is one you who is touching the Earth. You touch the Earth in such a way that the barrier between you and Buddha is no longer there. You use the tool of your mind to erase the distinction between you and the Buddha, so that you can touch the nature of interbeing, and you can be free of the notions of one and many, the same and different. And that is the purpose of visualization––to erase the duality between you and Buddha. Before you can wipe out that kind of separation, the practice of bowing is not deep. You have to see the nature of interbeing between you and Buddha before the bowing can bring a deeper result.

So touching the Earth before a Buddha is not an act of superstition. You develop your wisdom by doing so, and you realize freedom. You transform your suffering, your loneliness, by this kind of practice.

The Mother of the Buddha

In the Avatamsaka Sutra there is a delicious portion describing the young man Sudhana looking for the mother of the Buddha. Sudhana’s teacher is the great boddhisattva Manjushri, who encouraged his disciple to go and learn from many people. Not only old teachers, but also young teachers; not only Buddhist teachers but also non-Buddhist teachers. And then one day he was told that he should go and meet the mother of the Buddha, that he would learn a lot from her. So he looked hard for her, but he couldn’t find her.

Then someone told him, “You don’t have to go searching, you just sit down and practice mindful breathing and visualization, and then she will come.” So he stopped searching. He sat down and he practiced. Suddenly he saw a lotus with one thousand petals come up from deep in the Earth. And sitting on one of these petals he saw the mother of the Buddha, Lady Mahamaya, so he bowed to her! And suddenly he realized that he was sitting on one of the petals of the same lotus, and then each petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals.

You see? The one contains the all. The lotus has one thousand petals, and Lady Mahamaya was sitting on one petal when suddenly that petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he saw himself sitting on one petal. And suddenly he saw that is petal had become a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he was so happy. He joined his palms and looked up, and a very nice conversation began between the mother of the Buddha and the young man Sudhana. Lady Mahamaya said, “Young man, do you know something? The moment I conceived Siddhartha was a very wonderful moment! There was a kind of bliss that made my whole body and mind feel wonderful. The presence of a Buddha within yourself is a wonderful thing! You cannot be happier than that.

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“You know something, young man? After Siddhartha came to my womb, countless boddhisattvas coming from many directions came and asked my permission to pay a visit to my son in my womb, to make sure their friend was comfortable in there. And before I had a chance to say yes, they all entered my womb. Millions of them. And yet I had the impression that if there were more boddhisattvas who wanted to come into my womb, there was still plenty of room for them to enter.

“Young man, do you know something? I am the mother of all Buddhas in the past. I am the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And I shall be the mother of all Buddhas in the future.”

That is what she said. Beautiful, very deep. And that is the work of visualization: to show you the nature of interbeing, to show you the truth that one contains the all. The smallest atom can contain the whole cosmos.

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We all Carry Buddhas Within 

You know that the human body is made of cells, and now science has declared that cloning is possible. From one cell they can duplicate the whole body. How is it possible? Because one cell contains the totality of the genetic heritage of that person. If not, how could we, from one cell, bring the whole body into full manifestation? So current science has proved not only in theory but in practice that, in the one you touch the all.

And we all have all our ancestors fully present in every one of our cells. We carry all of them while we walk, while we eat, while we do things. Without visualization you cannot see it. That is the power of the sixth consciousness, called the gardener.

Who is Mahamaya, the mother of the Buddha? Is that someone outside of you? Or is she you? Because all of us carry in our womb a Buddha. Mahamaya is very careful because she knows that she carries a Buddha within. Everything she eats, everything she drinks, everything she does, every film she watches––she knows that it will have an effect on her child. The Buddha Shakyamuni said, “You are a Buddha. There is a baby Buddha in each of you. Whether you are a lady or a gentleman, you carry within yourself a Buddha.” We also carry a Buddha but we are not as careful as Mahamaya in our way of eating, drinking, smoking, worrying, projecting and so on. We are not responsible mothers of the Buddha.

Like Mahamaya, there is plenty of room inside of us, not only for one Buddha but for countless Buddhas. We can declare, like Mahamaya, that we were the mother of all Buddhas in the past. We can be the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And we shall be able to be the mother of all Buddhas in the future. Mahamaya is hope. Is she outside in objective reality or is she inside ourselves?

So if you visualize like that, all negative feelings, all complexes will vanish. All doubt that you can behave with the responsibility of a Buddha’s mother will disappear and the Buddha in you will have a chance to manifest for yourself and for the world. And that is why visualization is a very important tool of meditation, of transformation. With a mind that is polluted by greed, by anger, you cannot do it well; that is why the purification of our thinking, of our mind, is very important. The practice of the Mindfulness Trainings, the practice of mindfulness of walking and sitting, the practice of samadhi to help purify the mind and to bring the fire of concentration to burn away the ignorance, the delusion. Through these practices, we erase all the wrong perceptions in us so that reality can reveal itself very clearly to us.

When mind has become true mind, when mind has become beautified in true mind, the world parakalpita is no longer there. Instead, the world parinispanna reveals itself completely. There is no longer any fear, any craving, any sorrow, any anger, because all these have been created by our wrong perceptions and our complexes.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Barbara Casey.

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Dharma Talk: Our Vietnamese Spiritual Ancestors

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh Speaks to Communist Party Officials at the Ho Chi Minh Political Institute, Hanoi March 17 and 18, 2005

Thich Nhat Hanh

Buddhism can help us see the truth, reestablish communication, and bring happiness to ourselves and our families. The religious element of Buddhism is hope, faith, and prayer. But Buddhism is not just a religion. Buddhism has insight and concrete methods to help us resolve our difficulties, calm our emotions, transform our suffering, reestablish communication with others, and bring happiness. Methods like breathing mindfully and walking mindfully produce the energy of mindfulness. With that energy we recognize the pain that is coming up in us, and embrace it and calm it down. With mindfulness, we can look deeply and see the roots of our suffering. We are able to shine the light of understanding and transform our suffering.

In us we have anger, sadness, anxiety, and we also have love and understanding. We are like an organic garden. When flowers die they become compost, and from that compost, beautiful new flowers grow. Our suffering is our compost—our sadness, our grief, our despair, our jealousy, our discrimination. But we also have flowers—understanding, love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice – and both things are organic.

Buddhism teaches that the afflictions are the awakening. Awakening means happiness. We use the rubbish to make compost and then to grow flowers. If we know how to embrace and transform, we can turn anger into happiness and wisdom. This is called the insight of non-duality. Afflictions can become awakening. And awakening, if we do not look after it properly, will become afflictions. If we are not afraid of the rubbish, we will know how to turn it into flowers.

Hungry Ghosts 

When children cannot trust their parents, then they cannot trust their ancestors, and that is why each day our society creates thousands of hungry ghosts. These hungry ghosts feel lonely and alienated. They have suffered because of their family, school, church, temple, and society, so they deny the basic structures of society.

There are a lot of hungry ghosts both in the West and in the East. What are they hungry for? They are hungry for understanding; they feel no one understands them. They are hungry for love; they feel no one can love them. But even if we offer them love and understanding, they cannot receive it, because they have great doubt and great suspicion. So in order to help them, we have to be very patient. Hungry ghosts are not spirits in the clouds, they are people of flesh and bone around us. We have helped many hungry ghosts to return to their home and their tradition.

In Touch with My Father

One day I talked to my father and said, “Father, the two of us have succeeded.” I was successful because in that moment of sitting meditation, I felt completely free. I didn’t have any more dreams or wishes, any more projects I wanted to pursue. I felt completely free, completely relaxed; there was nothing that could pull me anymore.

When I talked with my father, I knew that he is not separate from me. Please understand that if someone who prays does not yet have the wisdom to know that the object of prayer and the subject of prayer are one, that person still has a good chance of deepening their understanding in the future. And what they are doing is valuable because communicating with their ancestors keeps them from feeling rootless.

How to Connect with Our Ancestors

Based on the treasury of Buddhist literature, in Plum Village we have developed practices that can help people to reestablish their connection with their ancestors. The practices of the Five Touchings of the Earth and the Three Touchings of the Earth have helped Westerners to heal a lot of their loneliness and agitation. Imagine five thousand Westerners touching the earth, guided to understand that all the characteristics of their ancestors are circulating in their body. When they stand up, they are different people, because they have let go of their despair, their hatred, and their anger. I would like to suggest that you look further into these practices.

We have also written a prayer for the New Year, vowing to our blood and spiritual ancestors to love, forgive, and accept each other in the coming year. If every Vietnamese family would maintain an ancestral altar, and each day take one minute to come together and light a stick of incense in silence, that moment would be enough to help us not fall into alienation. We are the trees that have their roots, we are the river that has its source, and we carry our ancestors into the future. Anyone can do this, including a businessman or a politician. In the West people have begun to do this.

Our parents have transmitted to us their whole self, according to genetic science. We cannot remove our parents and ancestors from us, because every cell contains in completion all the previous generations of ancestors. You cannot take your father or your mother out of yourself, because you are your father, you are your mother. If you are angry with your father or your mother, you are angry with yourself. If you are angry with your children, you are angry with yourself. Our children are our continuation and they are taking us into the future. If we want to be beautifully continued, we have to do the most beautiful things that our life can produce.

mb39-dharma2When a father is not happy, he will make his whole family suffer. If the children can look deeply, they will see that their father is the victim of his own suffering. Maybe when he was a child, he was not cared for, so he was wounded. When he was growing up he had no teacher to help him transform his suffering. He passed on all his suffering to his children, so they are angry with their father, and blame him. They are determined that they will not be like him, but if they do not practice, they will be just like him, because they are his continuation. Therefore, the intervention in our life of the spiritual and moral dimension is absolutely essential.

We all have received transmission from both our blood family and our spiritual family. Our teacher is our spiritual father; he gives birth to our spiritual life and transmits the whole of himself to his disciples. If we do not have a spiritual lineage transmitted to us, we have no means to recognize our suffering, or ways to transform it. We will pass on our suffering to our children, and that is a great shame. Only by having a spiritual life can we become a free person, free from our suffering.

A Question of Superstition

Question: Worshipping the ancestors is very good for our country. But when people make an offering and then make a prayer asking for something, it’s a kind of exchange: if I make an offering, then you will give me something. That is superstition.

Thay: The key to this very important question is education. The superstition of today can become the non-superstition of tomorrow. When we go to the temple, we light the incense and bow before the statue of Buddha. It may look like superstition, but Buddhist insight tells us that Buddha is the capabil­ity of under­standing, of compassion, of love. Of course that statue is just a representa­tion, a sym­bol. When people start practicing, they think that Buddha is outside of them. But when they become good practitioners, they see that they have Buddha nature within them, and they see it in others. We have to help people go to a higher level of understanding. We also have to see the cultural value in this practice and that our love for the deceased is our motivation.

Lighting Incense on the Ancestral Altar

We accept that the tree has its roots and the water has its source. The ancestral altar shows us that the value of our life comes from its source. Every day you light a stick of incense at your ancestral altar. While we are lighting the incense, we can be in touch with the ancestors in each cell of our body. My teacher taught me to put the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight into lighting the incense. When your body and mind are together fully in the moment, that is the energy of mindfulness. And when you are completely attentive to what you are doing, that is the energy of concentration. Then there will be communication between you and your ancestors in every cell in your body. Saluting the flag is not superstitious, because you know that the flag is a symbol for your country. If you say lighting incense is superstition, then you are also saying that the flag is superstition.

Our ancestors have the right to know what’s going on in our lives. When we have child who is sick, we can light a stick of incense and ask the ancestors to help the child. We say, “Oh, the child is so sick, I ask the ancestors to protect the child,” and wake up the presence of our ancestors in each of our cells and in the cells of our child. If we listen deeply, we will hear a response from the ancestors in each of our cells.

Cloning

Whatever has insight and understanding is scientific; whatever doesn’t is superstition. In cloning, you take a cell from one body and you make another body. We can take any cell, starve it for two or three days, and it will become a germ cell. Then you can remove the contents of an ovum from a woman, put it with the germ cell and insert it in the womb of a woman. After nine months the child born will be the exact replica of the cell donor. That is called clon­ing. This works because every cell of our body contains all the other cells. The teachings of the Avatamsaka Sutra are now being proved by science. According to Buddhism, religion and science are complementary.

King Tran Thai Tong 

When King Tran Thai Tong was twenty years old, his uncle declared that his nineteen-year-old queen was too old to give birth. The uncle wanted a successor to the king, so he forced Tran Thai Tong to divorce his wife and marry his wife’s pregnant elder sister, who was already married to Tran Thai Tong’s brother. The king was forced to abandon his beloved wife, so he decided to abdicate, and he went to Yen Tu Mountain. What suffering for a twenty-year-old man to go through! His elder brother also suffered a lot from losing his wife, so he tried to organize opposition to the regime. This could have created a lot of conflict within the family. But when King Tran Thai Tong went to Yen Tu Mountain, he met the National Teacher living there, who showed him how to overcome his suffering. The teacher taught the king to be a politician and a practitioner at the same time.

The king went back and continued his duties, and he also practiced sitting meditation and beginning anew six times a day. Thanks to his moral virtue he was able to be persuasive with the kings of adjacent countries who wanted to invade. He became a very important king, the first king of the Tran dynasty.

When King Tran Thai Tong’s older brother was dying, he asked his three children to take revenge against the king, but the compassionate king dissuaded them. The eldest child was Tue Trung Thuong Si, a layman who became a great Zen master. His younger brother Tran Hung Dao was important in driving the Mongol invad­ers out of the country. Their younger sister married the second Tran king. King Tran Thai Tong’s practice of Buddhism transformed his family, and they all cooperated to build the country. If King Tran Thai Tong had not had a teacher to help him develop a spiritual and moral dimension, he would never have become a great politician. On both the material side and the spiritual side, we have to take root in a lineage.

Deep Listening and Loving Speech 

In the past forty years Thay has taught many young people and intellectuals in America and Europe to understand that we are the continuation of our father and mother. Once children understand that, they can forgive their parents and transform their suffering, and then go back and help their parents to do the same.

Listening deeply and loving speech are wonderful practices of transformation. When the child knows how to practice loving speech and deep listening, he will say, “Father, I know that in the past few years, you’ve been suffering a great deal. I’m sorry that I haven’t helped; instead I’ve made things worse. I want you to tell me all your difficulties so I can understand you better, and then I won’t do or say things that make you suffer. It’s only because I am stupid that I made you suffer. Please help me.” When you have opened your father’s heart and he has begun to tell you his suffer­ing then you have to practice deep listening, like the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

We listen with compassion, with only one aim: to give that person a chance to say everything that is in their heart so they will suffer less. Even when the other person uses words of blame and bitterness, we just listen with an open heart. These two methods are very important. Loving speech: to speak using words that express everything in our heart in a way that the other person can hear and accept. Listening deeply: to listen with the heart of compassion.

At retreats in the West, everyone learns these practices. We have helped numberless parents and children to resolve their dif­ficulties through these concrete methods. Restoring communication and bringing happiness to our family is done through concrete, scientific methods. 

Conditions for Happiness

Buddhism is a source of insight that can bring us happiness right away. When I bring my body and mind together through con­scious breathing or walking, I’m able to be in touch with so many wonders of life that are in the present moment: the sky, the clouds, the birdsong, the sound of the wind in the trees. These wonders of life nourish us and make us see that life is worth living.

According to Buddhism, our basic error is believing that hap­piness is only possible in the future. We think, “Oh no, there’s not enough here for me to be happy. I need a couple more conditions to be happy.” And so I sacrifice the present for the future. But when we are fully in the present moment we see that we have far more conditions than we need to be happy. Sit at the foot of a tree and write down all the conditions for happiness you presently have. You will be surprised; you will need five or six pages.

When we are nourished by dwelling happily in the present moment, then we can begin to recognize the difficulties that are manifesting in our lives, and we can embrace and calm them. We have turned our community into a happy spiritual family. Each summer 2,000 or 3,000 laypeople come to practice with us, from at least forty countries. Everyone learns the methods of deep listening and loving speech to reestablish communication. Every retreat has miracles of reconciliation among couples, parents, and children.

This is What We Do 

We are monastics and laypeople trained in this way of practice, offering retreats and teachings so people can transform their suf­fering into happiness. Each day we learn more, because we only do this one thing.

The monk or nun in the local temple has to help families rees­tablish communication and become happy again. The monks should practice living together harmoniously, developing brotherhood. Then they can help the families in that area to do the same thing through offering retreats and teachings. The temple should have a file on each family; the Buddhist families, the families that are not yet Buddhist, and the families that are not Buddhist at all, but who can still benefit from Buddhist practices. I believe that within six months or a year the situation in that district will change.

Without a spiritual direction, our path of modernizing the nation will fail. People fall into drug addiction, gangs, crime, or sexual misconduct because they are not happy and they don’t have good communication with their parents. They are hungry ghosts, without roots in their family or in their culture. We have to take care of the problem at the roots by helping families reestablish communication and share love and happiness. This is the work that Buddhism can do.

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Meeting with the Buddhist community in the past two months, I see that at all levels, our learning is still too theoretical. We have to be practical, to know how to immediately apply what we learn. That is my advice to the leaders in different areas of study and training. In Plum Village our learning is very practical. If we are not able to practice reconciliation ourselves, then how can we help others do these things? We need to establish an institute where we can learn and practice at the same time, where we can train monastic and lay people who will help build beautiful, harmonious, and loving communities.

We are the Communists 

mb39-dharma4Wrong perceptions are the cause of ninety percent of our suffering; in Buddhism we call this ignorance. Ignorance in the Vietnamese language is vo minh, meaning lack of light, without the light. We all love our nation, but we suspect each other: “Does he really love the nation, the people? Or does he want to eliminate me?” These thoughts come about because we have a lot of fear and suspicion. The practice of dissipating wrong perceptions and establishing happiness and communication is not religious. When we suffer, we can go to the church or the temple to pray, but that only soothes some of our pain. If we want to heal, then we have to use concrete practices like those that Buddhism offers.

We are those who are truly without possessions, we are the true Communists. I think if you can generate brotherhood, then you will not want to eliminate each other or compete with each other anymore, and you can truly have that paradise of Communism right now. We already have it if we know how to generate brotherhood and sisterhood, and if we can understand and love each other. The practice of Buddhism is to recognize and acknowledge the pres­ence of suffering, such as poverty, sickness, illiteracy, and lack of organization, and then to eradicate it. If our foundation is based not on individual power, but on brotherhood and sisterhood in a community, then we can overcome these four difficulties.

 Corruption 

Before returning to Vietnam, we heard that corruption in the Communist Party in Vietnam is severe, and that the government wants to fight this corruption. In Buddhism it is said that no animal can kill the lion, the most powerful animal. The only killer of the lion is the bacteria that reproduce themselves within the body of the lion. We can fight difficulties and obstacles outside of us, but if we let bacteria manifest within us, then we will die. That is why we agreed not to participate in corruption in order for things to go easily for us. For example, if we wanted to get our books through customs at the airport, we might need to bribe someone. We told the Vietnamese embassy in France that we didn’t want to feed the system of bribery and corruption; that we have come to Vietnam to offer our contributions, and if we use these methods, we go opposite to our intention. They agreed with us completely. During the past two months we have not practiced bribery, even though we have met many difficulties. If we engage in bribery, then we cause the bacteria within to grow and we will die. If we choose the easy way out, then we betray the people who have sacrificed their lives before us.

Engaged Buddhism

If the Communist Party supports this work, then we can change the situation in our country quickly. If a young person fails in the family, he still has a chance to succeed in school; so the teachers should learn these methods of practice too. Temple, the family, and the school need to work together to help the young people. If we can do this we can move thirty years ahead of China on this path of modernization. I have taught in several Asian countries, and I see that we have a chance. Our practice is engaged Buddhism––it takes care of the things that are actually happening in life. It’s not the Buddhism that floats in the clouds.

I know that Vo Nguyen Giap led the army in the war, and now he’s doing sitting meditation each day. I also know that Prime Minister Pham Van Dong has taken the Three Refuges. I hope that if you in the government, in the Communist Party, wish to go in a spiritual direction then you will do it. If a politician cannot communicate with his or her own family then we cannot trust that politician. Vietnamese history proves the importance of the spiritual dimension. Whether we are business or political leaders, by living a spiritual life, a moral life, we are actively, positively contributing to the fight against the problems in the society, such as corruption. We teach not with our words, but with our daily life.

In Buddhism our tradition is to live simply and know that we have enough. In the developed countries, even though they consume a lot, the suffering is great. So, if we think that happi­ness lies in the direction of power, of sex, of fame, of money, then we are mistaken. There are people who are going in that direction who suffer so much in their body and in their mind. It is only love that brings happiness. Without love, without time to be present for our loved ones, how can we be happy? Buddhism is only to teach people to love in such a way that we can offer happiness to each other each day.

Marxism 

Question: How can we establish a dialogue between Marxists and religious people? I agree that Buddhist humanist philosophy contains a lot of deep understanding. Marx and Engels were very scientific, and I agree that the Buddha taught what are seen as modern developments in science. Now we need a dialogue between religion and Marxism. Marxists see that the nature of religion can be very destructive, but we also see the valuable aspect of religion which you have talked about today.

According to my understanding of Marxism, material strength is important, but spiritual strength is the strength of our people, so it is also very important. We have to create conditions to encourage the spiritual aspect. I hope there will be many dialogues like today, in this open spirit between the Party and the government and the religious leaders. 

Thay: These are very interesting points. Thay sees that Marx had a deep spiritual dimension. Buddhists are a continuation of Buddha, and must develop the wisdom of Buddha to satisfy the needs of the people of today. And you are the continuation of Marx, so you have to keep developing what Marx taught. If that doesn’t happen, Marxism will die. That is true of all traditions, not only Buddhism and Marxism.

In Buddhism, there is the expression namarupa, name and form, that means body and mind together. Sometimes things manifest as body, sometimes as mind. It is the same thing, but it manifests in two different ways. Just like when physicists look at an elementary particle of matter, they sometimes see it manifesting as a wave and sometimes as a particle. So is it a wave or is it a particle? Now scientists are agreed that they will call it a wavicle. The same is true with material and spiritual. We could think that spirit is one thing and matter is another thing. But in fact matter does not exist outside of spirit, and spirit does not exist outside of matter. 

The Heart of the Practice 

Meditation is the capacity to recognize suffering, to look deeply into it, and to use the wisdom of interdependence, of non-self, and impermanence to transform it. The purpose of Zen is to generate mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so we can live deeply each moment. Mindfulness is to be aware of what’s hap­pening in the present moment. For example, when we are aware of our in-breath, that is called mindfulness of breathing. When we are aware that we are taking a step on this planet Earth, that is mindful­ness of our step. When we drink tea with our mind and body completely present, then we are drinking tea in mindfulness. When we live each mo­ment of our life deeply in that way, that is meditation.

Concentration is present when we focus on one thing and our mind is not dispersed. With mindfulness and concentration, we can discover the insight that can transform our suffer­ing. This insight can completely cut off the roots of ignorance and wrong perceptions.

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The past has gone, the future has not yet come, life is only truly available in the present moment. So we let go of regrets about the past and worries about the future, and we come back to live deeply in the present moment. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look of our eyes can help us to live deeply and bring happiness to ourselves and our loved ones. If we train like this, within just a few days we can begin to see the fruits and the joy of Zen practice.

Buddhism is inclusive, not dogmatic. In the old days Buddhism was able to live with Confucianism and Tao­ism, and Buddhism can now live with Marxism. Buddhism and Marxism both have to develop to respond to the people now. If we can do that, then what difficulties do we have?

The Vietnamese culture has a great capacity to transform. The word metabolize means that whatever we ingest we take in and transform so it becomes a usable part of us. We can metabolize cultures we have received from other countries, so they become Vietnamese. Buddhism has to become Vietnamese Buddhism, Confucianism has to become Vietnamese Confucianism, Taoism has to become Vietnamese Taoism, and Marxism has to become Vietnamese Marxism. Then we can hold hands and walk in harmony, in brotherhood and solidarity. We can be happy right now if we can have this inclusive attitude, this open-minded view.

Our Vietnamese Spiritual Ancestors 

All the traditions that came before combined to become the Bamboo Forest tradition. When we can go together as a river, when we have brotherhood, then every person is our body. We see that each person’s suffering is our suffering. Instead of individualism, we have common views and a common direction. Bamboo Forest tradition is also engaged. Imagine King Tran Nhan Tong abdicating the throne in favor of his son, Tran Anh Tong, so he could become a monk. As a monk, he called for the building of brotherhood with foreign countries, and went to the neighboring country of Champa (now a part of Vietnam), and called for a cessation of war. When he was a king he called for peace, and when he became a monk he continued to call for peace. He was the Bamboo Forest Master.

I also want to remind you of the Zen Master Tang Hoi. His father came from Sogdia, north of India, to Vietnam as a young businessman. He loved Vietnam and he married a Vietnamese woman. Zen Master Tang Hoi lived in the beginning of the third century A.D. He was the first monk to go to China to transmit the teachings and the practice of Zen, three hundred years before Zen Master Bodhidharma. Zen Master Tang Hoi organized monks comprising the council of ordination, who went from Vietnam to witness the first monastic ordination ceremony held in China.

In the process of building a beautiful society in Vietnam, Bud­dhism can play a great role if we have the courage to go beyond theoretical learning, and adopt concrete practices of transformation. We can train Dharma teachers, both monastic and lay, who have the capacity to bring Buddhism into life, to help society, to reestablish communication, and to rebuild the roots of the family. 

Transcribed by Terry Barber, Edited by Barbara Casey.

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