Out of the Monastery, Into the World

By Alix Madrigal

Though he spends more time with monks and nuns than politicians, Zen Buddhist monk and best-selling author Thich Nhat Hanh—Peace Is Every Step and the new Living Buddha, Living Christ—is no stranger to world affairs. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk forged his philosophy of “engaged Buddhism” during the war in Vietnam, and his subsequent efforts to end that war got him both exiled from his country and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Still, Nhat Hanh was surprised to receive a call from the Gorbachev Foundation asking him to speak in San Francisco at its State of the World Forum. His first instinct, Nhat Hanh said recently, was to refuse. “I don’t feel comfortable with politicians. But friends suggested that I meet with the politicians and share something with them. So I sent a message that if the organizers made time for the politicians to practice a day of mindfulness, I’d be glad to talk. I thought they’d never accept that.”

Much to Nhat Hanh’s surprise, his offer was accepted. Except, as politicians were involved, there had to be a certain amount of compromise, which is how Nhat Hanh came to lead the likes of MargaretThatcher, George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, James Baker, George Shultz, Mario Cuomo, and Ted Turner in a half-day of walking meditation and mindful breathing. Mindfulness and meditation, central to Buddhism, may be new to politicians and unfamiliar to most Christians and Jews, but Nhat Hanh believes that, in spirit, the religions aren’t really all that different—and that being the case, people are better off sticking with their own tradition.

Living Buddha, Living Christ began several years ago at a retreat in Munich in which fifty percent of the participants were Christians. Much of the book, which points out the similarities in the two great leaders and the two great religions, came from the transcripts of Nhat Hanh’s talks at that retreat. “I think we should not be caught in words and concepts,” he says. “All of us need love, and if you practice well as a Christian, you generate love and understanding. If you practice Buddhism well, you generate very much the same energy. And we can learn from each other.”

While Nhat Hanh sees no conflict in embracing both religions—some of his students, he says, are ministers, and he has Christ on his altar alongside the Buddha—he strongly believes that what’s important “is to get in touch with the true values of your spiritual tradition, to feel rooted in your culture. That is why,” he says, “I never advise a person to abandon his or her roots, spiritual or cultural, and embrace something else. I always tell people to go back to their tradition, to discover its value and beauties and get their nourishment there.”

At his community in France, Nhat Hanh says, every time they plant a tree they have a special meditation. “I entrust myself to earth, and earth entrusts herself to me. I entrust myself to the Buddha and the Buddha entrusts himself to me.” Just as the tree needs the earth for life and the earth needs the tree to protect and enrich its soil, Nhat Hanh says he needs the Buddha for spiritual guidance and the Buddha needs him for his work to live in the world. “In the same way, Christians need Christ and Jesus needs Christians.”

One Christian who Nhat Hanh chastises in the book is Pope John Paul II, who in his own book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, contends that Christ is “the one mediator between God and humanity.”

That was not written in anger, Nhat Hanh says. “I myself and many of my friends have suffered a lot from war, and the deepest wounds of the war stem from the lack of tolerance. That is why I always oppose intolerance. I think my friends who are Christians understand and are for true dialogue and the effort to dissipate misunderstanding and prejudice. I count very much on their support.”

Nhat Hanh practices “engaged” Buddhism, taking it out of the monastery and into the world. The practice began during the war in Vietnam, but even before that, Nhat Hanh felt the need to bring Buddhism into daily life. “The war compelled us to practice in the heart of society” to help alleviate suffering wherever he could, he said, even if it meant just filling body bags. But it was something else that first pulled him to become a monk.

“In every one of us, there is a baby monk or a baby nun,” Nhat Hanh says. “I was able to touch the baby monk in me when I was very little. I was seven, and I saw a drawing of the Buddha sitting on the grass and looking very calm. Very, very calm. I said to myself, I want to be like that. So the seed of the baby monk in me was watered.”

A few years later, Nhat Hanh went to the mountains on a class picnic. “I was very excited because a hermit lived up there, and I had been told that a hermit is someone who practices to become a Buddha. But when we arrived on the mountain, very thirsty and very tired, I was disappointed because the hermit wasn’t there—I guessed that a hermit does not want to see so many people, so he must have been hiding.” Believing he could find the holy man, Nhat Hanh went off into the forest on his own. “Suddenly,” he says, “I heard the sound of water, like music,” and he came upon a natural well, where he drank and slept. “I had never had anything as delicious as that water, and it satisfied all my desires. I did not even want to see the hermit anymore. In my little boy’s brain I believed that the hermit had turned himself into the well so I could meet him privately.”

After that, Nhat Hanh says, he was transformed, and determined to become a monk. But it took him a long time to convince his parents. “My parents thought that monks have hard lives. But in fact,” he says with a wise smile, “as a monk, I have had a lot of happiness.”

Alix Madrigal is on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. This article is reprinted with permission from the Chronicle Book Review, Sunday, October 1, 1995.

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The Prodigal Son

By Mark LeMay

I came late to parenting. I was 40 when Joe was born and 43 when Sammy arrived. They are now six and three years old, and I am still amazed at how they changed my life. I am especially struck by the sheer challenge of parenting. When Joe was an infant, his nighttime nickname was Buddha: he was always awake. Now it seems we have two live-in Zen masters. They are ingenious at disrupting the first sign of complacency in us.

During our six years as parents, we have moved closer to Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness. We strive to bring mindfulness to our family life and were very pleased to discover Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Everyday Blessings. We are committed to parenting as spiritual practice, and look for ways to gently introduce our children to the path. For example, they take turns as bellmaster before meals, and we recite a mealtime gatha together. We also encourage them to sound the bell when things get a little out of control. We all take three breaths and, with or without giggling from the boys, try to remember our commitment to family harmony.

We feel it is also important that our children know something of Christianity, the root tradition of both their parents. We have attended a fairly liberal Episcopal church where the boys went to Bible school. For a year or so, Joe thought of Jesus and Buddha as ancient superheroes, like Superman and Batman. This church, with its friendly priests and warm congregation, helped heal many of my old Catholic School wounds. In particular, I remember a visit from a retired bishop who talked about the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32). He focused on the story as a model of God’s love for all his children, and of God’s willingness to accept us back into the church, even when we have fallen away.

The Prodigal Son, like many Bible stories, has always been difficult for me to grasp, and even harder to live. But since I was studying and practicing mindfulness when the bishop came, I started to see the parable in a different light. It became particularly useful to see each of the three characters as parts of myself.

In the parable, the prodigal son convinced his father to divide his estate and give him his inheritance. He then journeyed “into a far country, and wasted his substance with riotous living.” After he squandered his inheritance, a famine arose, “and he began to be in want.” He went to work for a farmer, feeding his swine and eating the husks that the swine left. He suddenly realized that his father’s hired hands lived better than he did. He decided to go home and ask his father to “make me as one of thy hired servants.” But when he returned, the prodigal son was overcome with guilt, and said to his father, “I am no more worthy to be called thy son.”

In relation to my practice, I am the prodigal son when I live in forgetfulness and self-centeredness. When I hurry my children through our morning routine or allow irritation to creep into my voice because I am attached to my agenda, I waste the precious gift of life in the present moment. When I come back to my breath, I seek the peace of mindfulness, but often I experience the guilt of the prodigal son for having strayed and causing others to suffer.

When the prodigal son returned, the father told the servants to bring his best robe for the son and to  kill the fatted calf: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” The father accepts his son with loving-kindness and rejoices at his return. He greets the prodigal son warmly and rejoices at his return. The father’s response is a model for how I can treat myself when I stray from the path of mindfulness.

The third character, the elder son, remained faithful to his father while his younger brother squandered his inheritance. Upon hearing the celebration for his brother, he “was angry and would not go in. His father came out, and entreated him: ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.'” The story does not explore the elder son’s feelings, aside from his anger. I can easily imagine him also feeling resentful, wounded, and suspicious. These feelings are familiar, for I have held them toward others and towards myself. When I wake up to the suffering caused when I stray from mindfulness, I feel critical and suspicious of myself. When I have strayed from my goal of mindful parenting, I sometimes feel the sting of shame as I take a deep breath and re-attune to my children. I feel both the guilt of the prodigal son, and the angry suspicion of the elder brother toward myself.

Each time I catch myself living in forgetfulness  and feel the prodigal son and his brother in my heart, I try to remember the father. The father does not reject his younger son for having strayed, but rejoices  at his return. The father also does not rebuke the elder son for his anger and resentment, but invites him to join the celebration. I try not to cling to or repress my shame and anger. I notice these feelings and return to my breath. My feelings cannot be removed with aggression. I recognize them as part of the fold, and each time I return to the path, I say to myself (paraphrasing Thay),”I have arrived; welcome home.”

Mark LeMay lives in Jefferson City, Tennessee, practices with the Thirty Good Leaves Sangha, and teaches parenting at a community mental health center, where he and his wife are psychologists.

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

This is an excerpt of a talk at the Sandy Beach Hotel in Da Nang on April 10, 2007. Thay spoke in Vietnamese to an audience of intellectuals and answered some fascinating questions from the audience. 

Thich Nhat HanhMost of us think that happiness is made of fame, power, money. Every one of us wants to have more power. We want to have more fame and money, because fame and money give us more power. We keep believing that when we have more money, fame, and power we’ll be happy. I have met a lot of people with great power, with a lot of money and fame, but their suffering is deep. They are so lonely.

William Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company in America, is the fourth generation of the billionaire Ford family. He came to practice with us in our practice center in Vermont. I offered him the gift of a bell, and I taught him how to invite the bell each day. He told me stories of millionaires and billionaires in America who have a lot of fear, sadness, and despair.

mb46-dharma2Who has more power than the President of the United States? But if we look into the person of President Bush we see he’s not a happy person. Even President Bush doesn’t have enough power to take care of all the problems that confront him. He’s so powerful — he has a great army, a great amount of money — but he cannot solve the problems in Iraq. He can’t spit it out and he can’t swallow it. You’re very lucky that you’re not the President of the United States! If you were the President of the United States you would not sleep all night long. How can you sleep when you know that in Iraq your young people die every day and every night. The number of American young people who have died there has gone up to more than three thousand. In Iraq — in that country that you want to liberate — nearly a million have died. The situation in Iraq is desperate.

The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the people with the most power feel that they never have enough power, and this is true. We believe that if we have power, we will be able to do what we want and buy what we want. We can buy a position, buy our enemies, buy anything. If we have power in our hands, we can do anything we want. We have to re-examine that belief, because in reality, I have met people who have great power and money and fame, and who suffer extremely.

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

In Buddhism we also talk about power. But power in Buddhism is very different; it is a kind of energy that can bring us a lot of happiness and bring a lot of happiness to others.

In Eastern philosophy and literature, we talk about the spiritual path. Each one of us has to have a spiritual direction in our lives. Whether we are business people, politicians, educators, or scholars, we should have a spiritual dimension in our daily lives. If we do not have that spiritual dimension, we cannot take care of tension and despair, or the contradictions in our mind. We can never establish good communication with our co-workers, our family, our community. Each one of us must have the power of the true spiritual path.

In Buddhism, we talk about the three powers that we can generate through our practice: cutting off afflictions, insight, and the capacity to forgive and to love.

The first one is the power to cut off our afflictions — to sever our passions, hatred, and despair. If we cannot cut off passion and hatred, we cannot ever have happiness. We can learn concrete practices to do this. Once we sever the ties of passion and hatred that bind us, we become light and free and spacious. If we have passion and hatred we suffer — both men and women, you have experience with this. We cannot eat, we cannot sleep; that is hell. So the first power is the capacity to cut off afflictions.

The second power is the power of insight — in Buddhism it is called prajna. It is not knowledge that we have accumulated from reading books or learning in school. Knowledge can be beneficial, but it can also become an obstacle. In Buddhism we say that the only career of a practitioner is insight. The insight of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas — what we call enlightenment — has the capacity to cut off afflictions and to generate the noble sentiments of compassion, loving kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity. That’s our only career, to give rise to insight. Once we have insight we can unravel our afflictions and help others to take care of their difficulties very quickly, just like a medical doctor. You only need to listen to the symptoms and you’ll be able to make a diagnosis and give the appropriate treatment.

mb46-dharma3The third power in Buddhism is the capacity to forgive. When we have the capacity to accept and to love, we do not have reproach or enmity. That love manifests in the way we look, in the way we speak. When we look with the eye of compassion and loving kindness, when we speak loving words, we are the ones who benefit first of all. In the Lotus  Sutra, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks at all beings with compassion. Looking at all beings with the eye of compassion is a wonderful way of behaving like the bodhisattva — without reproach, without hatred. And the person that we are looking at in this way feels forgiven and loved. We can help others to be liberated from ignorance and from the traps they are caught in.

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

When we have these three powers — the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to accept, love, and forgive — then fame, money, and power become wonderful tools. It is then that the more money we have the better, the more power the better, because they become means to help people, to enhance life. Buddhism does not accuse or judge people who want to become rich or successful in politics or business, but while you’re pursuing these things you should have a spiritual dimension. We must behave on a foundation of love, insight, and wisdom.

In the time of the Buddha, Anathapindika was an example of this kind of businessman. If you are a business person or a politician and you have love and compassion, then you become a bodhisattva. You have the capacity to cut off your passions and your hatred; you have insight to help resolve problems at your work; you have the capacity to accept and forgive people’s mistakes. You have a lot of power — spiritual power.

As Buddhist teachers we should not abuse our power. It is not because you are the abbot of a temple or the eldest in a temple that you have power. It is because you have the capacity to cut off afflictions, to forgive, and to love. It’s not because you are the abbess or the teacher that people listen to you, it’s because of your love and compassion.

In the political or business arena, the power of the owner or the leader has to be based on the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to love and forgive. Then you use your position skillfully and the things you do will not cause dissension. If you do not generate these three virtuous powers, power and money will corrupt everything, including the life of the owner or the leader. That is why spiritual direction is very important.

The Greatest Success 

The Buddha taught that we do not have to hurry towards the future to have happiness; we can be happy right now and right here. The greatest success is to live with love right in the present moment. We have the time to take care of ourselves. If we have pain, tension, irritation, and agitation, we suffer and naturally we cause others to suffer, including our loved ones. That is why we have to have time for ourselves. Then we’ll have time for our family and our community.

Come back to the present moment, do not allow the future to occupy all your energy and time. That is a very important principle from Buddhism. To come back is not easy, because we have the habit energy of running towards the future. Stopping that momentum, coming back to each step, to each breath — that is the basic practice. By living each moment of daily life, living in a way that is deep and free, we can be in touch with the wonders of life.

In a practice center, the basic practice is to use the breath and the steps to bring us back to the present moment. For example, when you listen to a bell you stop all your thinking and speaking and you come back to your breath. You breathe and you bring the mind back to the body, you are truly present in the present moment. In our daily life there are a lot of times our body is here but our mind is wandering in the past and the future. Our minds are not truly present in the body and we’re not present for ourselves. How can we be present for our loved ones, for our wives and husbands? These practices are very practical and clear, and they’re not difficult if we have the chance to begin.

I would like to leave the rest of the time so that you can pose questions related to the topic that we discussed today. Thank you for listening.

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

Man from audience: First, I’m very surprised when your disciples still keep their religion. For example, if they are priests or pastors or ministers, do they keep their religion? Second, I know that besides being a monk, you are also a scholar. I have read a few of your writings, and I see that you have done work to spread and explain Vietnamese Buddhism to the world, just like Master Van Hanh (1). How have you contributed to the development of Vietnamese Buddhism as a scholar?

Thay: Back when Christian missionaries came to Vietnam, they often tried to convert the Vietnamese people and force them to give up their tradition to embrace the new religion. This caused a lot of suffering.

mb46-dharma4When we had boat people dwelling in refugee camps in Thailand or in other countries, there were also missionaries. They wanted to help those boat people and also tried to lure them to follow their religions. It’s a great pity to force somebody to lose their roots. That is why when we bring Buddhism to Westerners, we tell them, “Do not give up your religion; you can study Buddhist practices to help you take care of your difficulties of body and mind and to learn great love and compassion. You do not have to lose your root religion, because we don’t think that’s the best way.”

In the West, there is a great number of young people who leave their Christian religion because that tradition does not provide the practices that people need today. A lot of people give up their religion and many of them come to practice with us. I have told them, “Once you practice with us, you can go back to help renew your own tradition and religion.” If a country does not have a spiritual foundation, that nation will not endure. So the Westerners see that Buddhism is very inclusive, accepting all and embracing all without denying other traditions.

In Buddhism, we call that spirit of inclusiveness equanimity or non-discrimination. It means that we embrace all. If we say that you have to leave your religion so that you can take refuge in the Three Jewels — that’s not very Buddhist. Buddhism is very open. That is why we have been able to help the pastors and ministers. In their hearts they still love their religion, but they practice wholeheartedly because in Buddhism we have very concrete practices to help them take care of their tension and stress, and help them to help people. If we hold that only our religion has the right view, and other religions do not have absolute truth, this will cause war. Buddhism does not do that.

When we organize retreats or have public talks in the West, many thousands of people come to listen to me, but they’re not Buddhists. Most of them come from a Christian or Jewish background. Sometimes I give a teaching in a church and more people come than at Christmas time, because they see that Buddhism is very noble, very open. It is inclusive and non-discriminative. Moreover, now scientists find inspiration in Buddhism because they see interdependence and emptiness; these teachings attract a lot of scientists to Buddhism.

The second question addresses the issue of learning. In truth, each time we have a new retreat designed for a specific group of people, for example a retreat for police officers or Congress people or business people or environmentalists or war veterans, I have to do research. I have to study beforehand to understand their difficulties and suffering so I can offer appropriate practices. That’s why during all my years in the West I have learned a lot. If you do not understand the teachings and practices of the Jewish or Christian traditions, you cannot help those people. If you do not see the suffering of business people, you can never teach them to practice so they can take care of their tension and stress.

You do not need to become a scholar. As a monastic, we do not aim to become scholars, but we have to know enough in these areas to speak their language, to bring people into the practice. When you say that I’m a scholar and I spread Vietnamese Buddhism, that is not quite correct. When I taught at Sorbonne University [in Paris] about history or Vietnamese history or Vietnamese Buddhism, I had to do research. Just for that occasion I read books on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. I had to use the pen name Nguyen Lang because I was not allowed to publish under my name Thich Nhat Hanh. The government said that I called for peace and that I was a friend with the Communists, so they didn’t allow my books to be published. My aim was not to become a scholar or a historian, but the truth is I had to teach in the university. And I just wrote it down, so that younger generations could benefit.

The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and whose mother was a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. An artist drew his picture for me so we could have it on the altars at our different centers.

In Vietnam we have the Mahayana tradition and the Hinayana tradition. I was lucky that when I was trained in the Mahayana tradition I also had time to research the stream of original Buddhism. I discovered that Zen Master Tang Hoi had used the original Buddhist sutras with a very open view of the Mahayana tradition. That is why when we organize retreats in Europe or North America, many people come from different traditions and they feel very comfortable. Our practice combines both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions and the basic sutras we use in meditation are present in all different schools — in the Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, Korean, and Tibetan Canons of Buddhist scriptures. I have translated and written commentaries on sutras about meditation like Learning  the Better Way to Live Alone and The Mindfulness of Breathing. Even though I didn’t talk about them tonight, the spirit of my talk was based on the insight of these sutras.

Our true aim is not to spread Vietnamese culture in the world, but I want to help people to relieve their suffering by sharing with them the methods of practice. That’s why they know about meditation and practices that have Vietnamese roots. I say this so that you see clearly that when I go to the West it’s not to spread Vietnamese culture to other countries. I just want to help people.

When I went to the West to call for peace, I only asked to go for three months. The chief of the police station asked me, “What do you plan to do there? Whatever you do is okay, just don’t call for peace, okay?” And I did not reply. Because my aim was to call for peace, for the world to end the war, I just stayed quiet. Then I went to the United States and called for peace — how can we end the Vietnam war? So they didn’t allow me to come back to Vietnam. That’s why we cannot say that I left Vietnam to spread Vietnamese culture in the West. I only wanted to go for three months. Who would have suspected that I would stay forty years! The truth is that during the time I was in exile in the West, as a monk I had to do something to help people. If I couldn’t help my own people, then I could help Westerners. It seems like I had this aim to spread Vietnamese culture, but it happened naturally.

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

Man from audience: On this trip you came to Da Nang. How do you think we can help develop our city, including the Buddhist practice in Da Nang? And do you plan to have a monastery in Da Nang, where we have monastics and lay people, and where scholars in Da Nang can participate?

Thay: Da Nang is already very beautiful. It’s developing very quickly, very well. But we know that economic and technological development comes in tandem with social evils, such as gangs, suicide, and prostitution. If we know that, we should work to prevent it. The scholars and humanitarians, the monks and nuns, you have to sit down together and make a very concrete plan to prevent these social evils. That is something I can share.

The second issue has to do with our Buddhist path. Even though Buddhism has been in our country for many years, we have to renew it. If we do not, it does not have enough strength and it cannot carry out its mission. Our learning is still too theoretical, and mostly we still practice by worshipping or praying. That’s very important, but Buddhism is not just a devotional religion. If we can break through the shell of religious ritual, we can touch the deep source of insight. With that insight we can contribute a path for our nation that will bring true civilization, true culture. It will bring harmony, prosperity, auspiciousness. In the time of the kingdoms of the Ly and Tran dynasties (2) they also praticed with koans; they did not just worship and make offerings. Those were very auspicious eras, with love and understanding between the king and the people.

If Buddhism played such a role in the past, helping the country to be powerful and to dispel invaders, it can contribute to the country in the same way now and in the future. To that end we have to renew Buddhism in the way we study, teach, and practice. It is very necessary to establish monasteries, training new Dharma teachers and lay people to help young people with their problems in their families.

We think that Plum Village can contribute in this area. If the great venerables, the high venerables here in your Buddhist Institute want to stop these young people from getting corrupted, you need to establish monasteries. You can train five hundred or a thousand monks and nuns so that they can help people in society. They can help people in their districts and bring balance to those areas. They can help re-establish communication in the family so that young people do not go out to look for some sort of relief and then fall into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and drug addiction. That is the mission of Buddhism in this modern age. We can send Dharma teachers to you to help you train a generation of new monks and nuns. I think that our country is waiting for this rising up — to “uncloak the old robe” — and to renew Buddhism.

Question: Thinking About the Future

Man from audience: Respected Zen Master, from the beginning of this talk I listened to your teaching about meditation. My understanding — I don’t know if it’s correct or not — is that meditation is only for people who have suffering or misfortune, or people who have a lot of extra time. People who work, study, or have normal activities, they need to think about the past so that they can do certain things that are good for the present, but in meditation you talk about liberating yourself from the past. And they need to look to the future — only you know your dreams, how to be successful in your career— but in meditation you cut off thinking about the future. So the people who need to think about life, about society, about themselves for the future, should they practice meditation?

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

Thay: We can learn a lot from the past. We have to reexamine the past and learn from it. But that does not mean that we are imprisoned by the past. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.

While we are looking into the past, we can still establish our body and mind stably in the present moment. It is because we establish our body and mind stably in the present moment that we have the capacity to learn from the past. Otherwise we just dream about the past, or we are haunted by the past. The future is the same way. If we sit there and worry about the future, we only spoil the future. We have the right to design projects, to plan for the future. But this does not mean that you are frightened and worried about the future. These two things are completely different.

mb46-dharma5The future is made up of only one substance, and that is the present. If you know how to take care of the present with all your heart, you are doing everything you can for the future. Thinking and dreaming about the future does not take a long time — you don’t need twenty-four hours to dream about it! You only need one or two minutes, and that’s fine.

What is meditation? Meditation is not something you can imagine. Meditation first of all means you have to be present in the present moment. Earlier I brought up an image that the body is here but the mind is wandering elsewhere. In that moment you’re not present. You’re not present for yourself. You’re not present for your husband, your wife, your children, your brothers or sisters, your nation, or your people. That is the opposite of meditation.

In the present moment there are needs; for example, you have certain pains and difficulties. Your loved one has certain pains and difficulties. If you cannot be present in the present moment, how can you help yourself and the other person? That is why meditation, first of all, is to be present in the present moment. Being present in the present moment means you are not imprisoned by the past and your soul is not sucked up by the future. Meditation is not thinking, not something abstract.

Sitting meditation, first of all, is to be present, to sit still. Once we have that stillness, we’ll be able to see the truth. We can have projects and take actions that are appropriate to the truth in order to take care of a situation. That is why dwelling peacefully, happily in the present moment, is so important. You come back to the present moment to be nourished, to be healed, and also to manage the problems and issues in the present. If we can take care of the issues in the present, then we’ll have a future.

Dreaming about the future and planning about the future are two different things; one is a scientific way, the other one is running away. For example, perhaps there is sadness in the present and we want to run away. Dreaming about the future is a kind of calming medicine, like barbiturates, that can help you temporarily forget about the present.

We have to practice. Taking steps in freedom, with ease, is something that you have to practice. Once you have joy and happiness in the present moment, you know that these moments of happiness are the foundation of the future.

Please remember this for me: If you don’t have happiness in the present moment, there is no way to have happiness in the future.

To the friends practicing Pure Land tradition I say that the Pure Land is a land of peace, of happiness. There are those among us who think that the Pure Land is in the west and in the future. The west is not about Europe or North America — the western direction! Those who practice Pure Land, especially beginners, believe that the Pure Land is in the future. They think that only when we die we go there, and then we go in a western direction, the direction of extreme happiness.

People who have practiced Pure Land for a long time go more deeply. The Pure Land is not in the west or in the east, but right in our mind. When we practice meditation, and we practice properly, we practice in the Pure Land. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look can bring us happiness in the present moment.

The Buddha, wherever he went, never left the Pure Land. If now we can live in the Pure Land with each step, each breath, each smile, everything can give rise to the Pure Land; with certainty the Pure Land is something in our hand. But if we suffer day and night, and we think when we die we’ll go to the Pure Land, that something is not so sure.

That’s why I want to remind you once again: If you have no capacity to live happily right in the present moment, in no way can you have happiness in the future.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

1 This is the master who helped the first Ly king in the eleventh century when Vietnam had just gained independence from the Chinese.

2 The Ly and Tran eras spanned the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries in Vietnam.

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