Children’s Questions to Thay
Summer Retreat 2001
Child: Why do you shave your head?
Thay: This question is classic. Many children have asked why do you shave your head? The answer I usually give is that we want to save shampoo. But there are other answers as well. The Buddha said to the monks and nuns, every morning when you wake up you have to touch your head and remember that you are a monk or a nun, not a person who lives in the world. Remembering that you are a monk or a nun you will know that you shouldn’t try to run after fame or profit, you should try to cultivate more compassion and understanding every day. That is one ofthe reasons why we shave our heads, in order to remember that we are monks and nuns.
The other reason is that to shave one’s head is a symbolic act we make in order to show our determination not to do as we did before. We really want to begin anew. We want to live a spiritual life. That is an expression of a determination. Shaving one’s head is a kind of language saying I want to pursue the spiritual path of the Buddha.
Another reason is that we want to tell people that we are already monks or nuns and they should not try to run after us and to take us as their husband or their wife. It is an indirect message that I am already a monk, please don’t try to seduce me. I am already a nun, please don’t try to seduce me. Please leave me alone so I can follow the path of the Buddha. It is very clear. Don’t run after me; I am already a monk; I am already a nun.
Child: Thay, mosquitos keep biting me and I want them to stop it. Can I kill a few everyday?
Thay: When I was a little boy I also had that question. Later on I learned that a mosquito needs to get some food in order to live. It is like us. When we are hungry we also look for something to eat, that’s very natural. I think there are ways in which we can protect ourselves from being bitten by mosquitos. In Vietnam everyone has a mosquito net to sleep under at night. If they don ‘ t use a mosquito net they have to kiII mosquitos the whole night. Not only a few, because after you kill one another will come. So you spend the whole night killing mosquitos. So killing mosquitos is not the best solution. One way we can protect ourselves is by using a mosquito net. I think there are a few mosquito nets in Plum Village. You may ask the brothers to let you borrow one so you can spare the life of little mosquitos.
In my practice , from time to time I allow mosquitos to get a bite. Some of the brothers and sisters practice like that also. When a mosquito lands on us we just breathe in and out and we just allow the mosquito to get some food. We don ‘t do it very often. But from time to time we want to practice to nourish our compassion and understanding. Sometimes when I saw a mosquito land on me I produced a kind of storm to make the mosquito fly away. But we do it without any anger. Wejust prevent the mosquito from biting.
Child: How can we help our bad teachers?
Thay: What do you mean by bad?
Child: Teachers that like to blame others and give extra work for the children to do.
Thay: When we say that our teachers are bad, are we sure that we are good students? That is the first question, are we good school students? Helping our teacher is a very good thing to do. I think first of all we should show our sympathy and we should not show our anger to our teachers. We shou ld have an opportunity to s it down and talk to our teachers. Your teacher must have something good in him or her, although she may have some negative things also. So during the talk with your teacher you can mention what is good in him or her. After that you can say what is good in other teachers, especially the good things that you don’t see in your teacher. You have to speak in such a way that it doesn’t sound like you are blaming your teacher. You say what you appreciate in your teacher and then you say what you appreciate in other teachers. That is an indirect way to help your teacher to develop these positive things that she has not developed.
Also we can say that we students can be silly sometimes, we are difficult sometimes. So please help us so we can be less silly and less stubborn. If we talk to our teacher like that and we listen very deeply our teacher will appreciate us. We make an effort to please our teacher and our teacher will make an effort to be a better teacher.
There are many ways in which we can come to our teacher. We can come to our teacher as one or two students and sometimes we can talk to another teacher and ask that teacher for help. Sometimes we can write a loving letter to our teacher, not blaming. If you don’t have a chance to talk directly to him or to her, you can write a letter acknowledging all the goodness in her and you can ask her not to do the things that will make you suffer. Three or four of you can sign the letter together. If you write with loving speech your teacher will have a chance to read it. I hope these suggestions are helpful. Please try.
Child: Why do we have to die one day?
Thay: Imagine there is only birth, there is no death. One day there will be hardly any place to stand on earth. To die means to leave the place for our children . And who are our children? Our children are ourselves. Our children are our new man ifestat ions. The son is the continuat ion of the father. The father looking at his son has the feeling that he will not die because his son is there to continue him. Looki ng like that you see that you are not dying, you are continuing in your son . And your son is not dying because he is continued in the grandson and so on. Buddhist meditation helps us to look deeply to see that there is no real dying only continuation in different forms .
Look at the c loud in the sky. The cloud may be afraid of dying. But there is a time when the cloud has to be transformed in to rain and to fall down. But that is not really dying. That is changing form. The cloud changes into the ra in and the cloud continues in the rain. If you look deeply into the ra in you can see the cloud. There is no real dying. You continue to be in many other forms. The cloud can continue in the form of snow, in the form of rain, in the form of a river, or in the form of ice. One day the cloud can become ice cream. If the cloud does not die how can we have ice cream to eat?
Thay is not afraid of dying because Thay sees himself in his disciples, in you. You have come to learn with Thay and there is a lot of Thay within yourself. Thay is giving himse lf to you. If you have received some understanding, some compassion and some awakening from Thay then Thay is continued in yo u. Later on if someone wants to look for Thay they just come to you and they see Thay. Thay is not onIy here [pointing to himself], Thay is here also [pointing to the children.] This is what I like best about Buddhist meditation. Buddhist meditation can help us to transcend death.
You know that death is very important for birth, for our continuation. In our body there are many cells that die every minute in order to leave space for new cells to be born. Birth and death take place every minute in our body. If there is no death it is impossible for us to continue in our body. That is why birth and death are linked to each other. Birth gives rise to death and death gives rise to birth . If we cry every time one of our cell s dies we will not have enough tears left. If every time one of our cells dies we organize a funeral then we will spend all our time organizing funerals. That is why we have to see that birth and death take place every moment in us. That is why the role of death is very important. That is about the first answer. But the second answer is better. Looking deeply you don ‘t see birth and death, you see that there is a continuation. If you study more deeply you will see more deeply.
Child: Dear Thay, how many hours of meditation do you practice daily and of which how many hours of sitting meditation and how many hours of walking meditation?
Thay: Every time I sit it is sitting meditation, whether in lotus position or half-lotus position or chrysanthemum position or any other kind of position that is sitting meditation. I am not a good mathematician so that is why I don ‘t count very well. My practice is to do like this. Any time that I sit down it is sitting meditation. I want to sit quietly and peacefully. During the time that I have to give a Dharma Talk, although I have to speak that is also sitting meditation. I sit with stability, with peace. You don’t count the time of sitting in the sitting meditation hall only, you count the time of sitting everywhere. Sitting on the grass, sitting on the hill; any sitting is sitting meditation .
Any time you move your feet and touch the ground, any time you go from one place to another you can practice walking meditation. In Plum Village we are recommended to do like that. We do not do it just for one hour or one and a half hours a day, but all day long. Every time you walk it should be walking meditation because it brings you more happiness, more peace than the other kind of walking, in forgetfulness. Also we are not supposed to talk while we walk because we have to invest ourselves completely in the walking. In every step you give 100% of yourself so that you can produce the energy of stability and peace. If you talk then the energy is taken from the walking by the talking. Monks and nuns are always encouraged to walk like that. If you need to listen to someone you stop and listen with 100 % of yourself.
The practice in Plum Village is not to just have some time in the day for the practice. You try to practice the whole day. Whether you are cooking or washing you follow your breath. If you do things mindfully that is already meditation. In Plum Village we practice continuous meditation and we want to do everything in a relaxed way. Driving a car, talking on the telephone, washing our dishes – we want to do everything peacefully. We consider each activity as important as the time of sitting meditation . You can enjoy it. Now we are having a session of questions and answers. I do not think of it as hard labor. I think questions and answers can be a very joyful time. You ask a question and [put all my energy into listening to you and trying to understand you. I try my best to respond to your question with all my heart. We can have a lot of fun and happiness. We can have a lot of peace and calm doing that.
Child: Dear Thay, what should we do when other children make fun of us?
Thay: There are many ways to practice. If you are a good practitioner, then you can go back to your mindful breathing and you just smile to the person who is making fun of you. That is the most beautiful response. You don’t get angry, you just look at him and smile. It shows him that you are not affected by his attempt to make you angry. Although you don’t say anything, even though you just look at him or her and smile, your message is very clear. I have peace in me. I am not going to get angry. You cannot provoke me to be angry. This is also a teaching for him or for her. You can do that only if you practice in advance. At home if someone says something or does something that is irritating, you go back to your breath. Breathing in, smiling. Breathing out, calming. You just look at him and say silently, why are you doing that? You don’t say it out loud. You just look and smile and there is compassion in you. You see that the other person is not happy and that is why he is expressing his violence and irritation. Because you know that people who are happy don’t do that. They don’t make other people unhappy.
I wish all children who have come to Plum Village can practice this teaching. Every time there is an irritation in you, don ‘t say anything. Don’t do anything. Just go back to yourself and practice mindful breathing. Breathing in, I feel calm. Breathing out, I am not going to get angry. Keep smiling like a flower and you will disarm everyone. They will not provoke you anymore. They will learn from you. Be a flower.
When you provoke a flower, when you call a flower mean names, what will the flower do? The flower will continue to smi Ie to you. When someone comes and tries to make fun of you or provoke you, just practice “flower fresh.” Breathing in, I am fresh as a flower. Breathing out, I am solid as a mountain. Thay has transmitted to you the flower and the mountain. Right? You have the flower and the mountain in yourself. Make good use of the flower and the mountain in you and you will not be affected by what other people say and what they do to you. If you begin to practice at your young age you will become a great practitioner in the future and you will be able to help so many people, including your children and your grandchildren .