A Monk: To Be or Not to Be?

By Brother Phap Kinh (Dharma Meridian) 

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I stepped onto the monastic path relatively late, although the seeds were present at an early age. At age fifteen, a group of friends and I meditated together. When that group disbanded, I continued (for the next thirty-five years) meditating twice daily. At age twenty, in 1978, I studied in Benares Hindu University, Varanasi, India. During my stay, I visited many holy Buddhist sites, though I found mostly ruins. I was looking for my Sangha all along, but I could not define it then.

I discovered mindfulness in 2006 at a psychiatric hospital in Paris where I worked. My introduction was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Total Catastrophe Living, which inspired me to practice some mindfulness techniques. Upon finishing the book, I received an email from a friend in the U.S. informing me that an eighty-yearold Vietnamese monk was coming to Paris to lead a peace walk. I wasn’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s name, but later discovered that Thay had written the preface to Kabat-Zinn’s book!

The Paris peace walk changed my life. As Thay and the Sangha began walking, I knew I had found my teacher and community of practice. I began attending the Paris lay Sangha and, two months later, attended my first weeklong retreat in Plum Village.

No grass grew under my feet. In 2007, I joined the historic tour of Vietnam with Thay. At Bat Nha monastery, I received transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Everything I did with the Sangha seemed inexplicably familiar, and I began to wonder whether monkhood was somehow in my future—but soon found obstacles.

I learned that the maximum age for monastic ordination was twenty at Bat Nha and fifty at Plum Village—and I had just turned fifty. Regretfully, I accepted that I would probably not become a monk in this tradition. I took consolation as an active member of the lay Sangha in France, and clearly saw the applicability of engaged Buddhism in my work at the hospital.

On my way home from Vietnam, I met a venerable Vietnamese monk who asked me why I had come. I told him that I had been traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh. He then predicted I would be wearing brown within two years. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but before I had a chance to inquire, he disappeared. Did he believe that I would become a monk? At Bat Nha Monastery? It all seemed like a dream, and impossible.

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Back in Paris, a group in my Sangha started studying the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I found these precepts extremely inspiring. Half of us in the group decided to become aspirants for the Order of Interbeing (OI). Things were moving quickly, but I felt ready. In 2008, I asked for a sabbatical leave to attend a number of trips and retreats.

It still wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would follow the monastic path. At the Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, India, I heard Thay say, “It is now or never.” His words resonated with me, and I was ordained as an OI member on that trip. I did not necessarily see monastic life as the next logical step. The venerable monk’s prophecy that I would be “wearing brown in two years” was fulfilled with my OI jacket. During the 2008-2009 winter retreat, I often asked myself what more I could do for myself and for the world as a monk. The answer was not clear.

I sat with this question. It was my koan. It wasn’t something I could think my way through. Thinking about it seemed to drive me crazy. It was a matter of the heart. During this period nothing I initiated came about, yet conditions for things that seemed impossible, such as getting so much time off work and getting ordained so soon as a lay OI member, came together. This was a wonderful apprenticeship in non-pursuit and letting go.

The Bodhisattva Path 

Clarity finally came during a retreat in June 2009. I confided in a number of brothers, both monastic and lay, who served as mirrors for me and helped me recognize my fear. I took refuge in the Sangha, and practiced looking deeply and following my heart. By the end, I realized that there was no going back to my old life. I had already moved on, and my past now belonged to a former life. I spoke to a number of monastics about my intention, and found the courage to make the decision that would free me from all worldly obligations.

That decision took tremendous courage. I had never felt so afraid in my life, beyond all reason. But what was I so afraid of? Making a monumental error? Letting go? Inadvertently abandoning my right livelihood and personal bodhisattva path?

Giving up everything even at the great risk of not being accepted into the monastic Sangha? I loved my job, my Sangha, and my life in Paris. I had nothing to run away from, so why would I uproot myself in such a way? Most of the people I knew outside of my Sangha (and even some inside the Sangha) found the idea puzzling, if not mad.

Making the decision was the hard part. Once I did, there was lightness and ease as everything fell into place. Since ordaining, I have never doubted or regretted my decision and do not miss my former life. The great fear vanished. Fear is, after all, only a mental formation. It can be paralyzing, but mental formations that are not fed shrink.

Why did I choose to become a monk? This is my aspiration: I hope and intend to continue on the bodhisattva path of relieving suffering in the world, but I have much to learn in order to go beyond the horizons that I knew before, in my work and in my life. I also have to learn from my own experience of transformation at the base, for myself, my family, and for my ancestors. I have observed that the most credible and inspiring monastics are those who speak from personal experience and live their path. I probably could have studied the Dharma and transformed many of my afflictions as a lay practitioner, but now I am free to dedicate my whole life to it. I am confident that in time, my vocation of relieving suffering will take other forms, and I will be more effective, being solidly grounded both in the Dharma and my personal monastic experience. To my delight, I am feeling younger and younger since ordination, as if the fifteenand twenty-year-olds in me who wanted to embrace the Dharma have finally found what they were looking for, despite all obstacles.

I don’t know where the Dharma will take me and what the Sangha will call me to do. I don’t think much in those terms. I have faith in the Triple Gem, and know that I am on the right path.

Brother Phap Kinh/Dharma Meridian/Christopher currently lives in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village. He is French and American, was born and grew up in Juneau, Alaska, and spent most of his adult life in Paris. He loves hiking, singing, cooking, poetry, and the Dharma.

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On the Fifth Mindfulness Training

Nourishment and Healing 

By Nguyen Khoa Duc (Tam Thuong Son) 

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Her words punctured the still air and rippled through what had been a very calm Dharma discussion. She said repeatedly to the Dharma group, “There is no way I can do that, no way, I am not ready…not now.” I turned to her, somewhat taken aback by the raw emotion in her voice. The middle-aged lady from Brooklyn who had been mostly silent throughout several Dharma discussions was now full of life and expressing herself in ways only New Yorkers can.

The focus of the Dharma sharing had been on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, as several of us were preparing to participate in the ceremony to be presided over by Thay the next morning. The sharing had been somewhat subdued and uneventful until the last training became the topic of discussion. The lady disclosed to the group that she enjoyed red wine, sometimes lots of it. It had been as much a staple of her diet as food itself. She felt that receiving the Fifth Mindfulness Training would present a conflict with her continuing this habit—one that she was not prepared to give up.

It was October 2009, my first-ever visit to Blue Cliff Monastery. My family had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to participate in the retreat led by Thay. People had come from everywhere to this quiet town surrounded by picturesque rolling hills. I still vividly remember our short time together, the tranquility and the bonding. Moreover, I was looking forward to the Five Mindfulness Trainings ceremony. Now this lady’s candor made me pause and reflect upon my own situation. I began to mull over what the Fifth Mindfulness Training meant to me; I found myself no longer present in the circle of my Sangha brothers and sisters. My mind started to drift away…to another time and to another place.

Foundation of Suffering 

Those of us who grew up in Vietnam during and immediately after the Vietnam War remember that millions of families had to struggle to cope with the physical and emotional hardships of the aftermath. Families were broken apart. Freedom was taken away. Fathers, husbands, brothers, and other loved ones were separated; those left behind did their best to carry on under a dark cloud of doubts, uncertainty, fear, and suppression.

Our family was no different. My father, just like hundreds of thousands of other men and women who were part of the South Vietnamese government, was sent to a concentration camp. I was nine at the time and had no idea why I suddenly had become fatherless. My mother found herself in the unfamiliar role of providing and caring for her four children while trying to keep track of my father’s well-being from afar. I missed him very much. I saw him once, one year after his imprisonment, and not again until our family was reunited here in Virginia in the early 1990s, fifteen years later. I remember many moments when I was alone, crying from missing him. I couldn’t understand why we were apart. Worse, I didn’t know if I’d see him again.

As the years passed, my friends who were in similar situations began to see their family members; one by one they trickled home. Our family was hopeful but was repeatedly devastated as the sparse news of my father seemed to indicate that he was actually being transferred farther and farther from home. My mother did her best to be the father figure to the four of us. She encouraged us to stay active with school and community events so we wouldn’t feel like outsiders, and continued to instill Buddhism in whatever form practicable amidst her own challenges. I sensed that she was overwhelmed with the many responsibilities that fell on her shoulders. Her health suffered from the great burden placed upon her.

In the late 1970s my mother began planning for me to leave Vietnam in search of a better future. I was in my early teens and keenly aware of her intent, but felt the sadness deepen inside me as I was about to be separated from another parent. I prayed that my attempts to flee Vietnam would fail, just so I could see her again. Then I’d regret the prayers when I saw the pain and disappointment on her face after each attempt failed. I finally made it out of Vietnam in 1980.

These experiences became the foundation of my teenage years and adulthood. The trauma and sorrows that peppered my childhood hardened me. I developed a fear of intimacy and trust, feeling that their fragile nature inevitably would create disappointment and sorrow. I began to feel detached from relationships. I yearned for love and envisioned my happiness in the presence of a companion, but I turned away when relationships became real. I feared that the emotional investment would let me down and hurt me, as it did when I lost my family during my earlier years. I struggled to sustain relationships; my insecurity, and as a result, erratic behavior, fractured relationships and ultimately drove those close to me away. I sought loneliness, reasoning that it was a safe haven free from suffering.

To substitute for substantive, meaningful feelings, I developed an insatiable appetite to consume information from the Internet, newspapers, books, magazines, and other sources. I became an avid sports fan; burying myself in somebody else’s world, real or fictional, provided me with with an outlet of comfort. My self-worth was no longer based on my internal being, but rather was dependent on artificial perceptions of the outside world.

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Without solidity, I felt a lack of purpose in my life and it was easy for me to develop negative habits as I grew older. I drank several cups of coffee a day to keep me alert; I also consumed large amounts of soda after exercising, which provided momentary relief from stress. I also became a workaholic, a habit I continue to try to transform today. These practices became the food I needed to survive emotionally, and I needed to continue consuming them in order to survive. I simply didn’t realize that I was sustaining myself on the wrong nutrients. I found my source of happiness everywhere but within.

Wake Up Bell 

In spite of the constant struggles with relationships, in my early twenties I met a wonderful lady whose enormous tolerance and boundless compassion has led me in a healing process. Twenty-one years later, she continues to walk beside me along the path. I remember that right after we had our first child, I became so submerged in work that one day my wife sent a calendar invite to my Outlook email; she merely wanted to request an appointment with me so we could catch up with each other. That was the wake up bell that, unfortunately only much later, I realized I needed.

I came to mindfulness practice about five years ago, through Days of Mindfulness with the Thuyen Tu Sangha. I began to slow down and learned the importance of healing. I learned how it’s okay to face and take care of pain, as that is the only way to transform suffering. While I embraced the concept of mindfulness, I initially found many activities within the practice—such as mindful eating, walking meditation, and deep relaxation—awkward and counterintuitive. I realized a key component of the practice was the support of the Sangha that provides me the strength and energy to help me recognize, embrace, and take care of my negative energies.

Even today, I find it difficult to invite in the sadness, despair, and regrets of my inner child so that I can touch them. I still don’t feel completely safe with intimacy but have begun to recognize the seeds of suffering within me. I realize that I have not reached the end of my journey on the path to healing; in fact, I feel as if it has barely begun. I also realize that the journey may take more than this lifetime. But now I don’t worry about the future or expectations, for I am resting comfortably in the present and in the presence of my Sangha friends. I continue to move forward in their arms.

Recently I reduced my coffee consumption to one cup a day, and that hasn’t affected my alertness or how I function at work and at home. I no longer depend on a pain reliever to get me through my daily runs; in fact, I’ve discovered that my dependence on the pain reliever was all mental. I still find myself eating lunch with one hand on the computer mouse, feverishly clicking, or with both eyes fixed on my iPhone, but that has lessened as I’ve become more aware of this unwholesome habit energy. Most importantly, the practice of bringing my mind and my breath back into the present has helped me restore my consciousness and the clarity with which I now look at life. The transformation is slow and some days I feel like it does not progress at all; however, I have begun to find—however temporarily—peace and joy sprouting from these seeds. I become more present with my wife and children, and our collective energy has begun to permeate the relationships among us and deepen our appreciation of each other.

The sound of the bell from the monastic leading the discussion brought me back to the present and to the circle of Dharma brothers and sisters. The sharing was about to end, and as everyone was slowly walking away, I caught up to the lady from Brooklyn. I smiled, “Dear sister, I, too, have had the same struggle, for different reasons, and although I am not completely sure, I think that as long as you are mindful in your alcohol consumption, and continue to practice mindfulness with your local Sangha, you will be fine. Taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings doesn’t mean our lives are 100% reflective of them. Being aware of them is a start. I hope to see you tomorrow morning.” She smiled at me, as if she appreciated my advice. Little did she know that my reassurance was directed as much to myself as to her.

This article was also published in the Spring 2013 Newsletter of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax (www.mpcf.org). 

mb64-OnTheFifth3Nguyen Khoa Duc is a member of the Boat of Compassion Sangha in the Washington, D.C., area. He began the practice in 2008. This article was his presentation of the Fifth Mindfulness Training on a Day of Mindfulness, which was led by the Blue Cliff Monastery monastics in Virginia in March of 2013. Duc has been married to Lanh Nguyen for twentyone years. They have two children, Joey (14) and Sydney (12), and live in Vienna, Virginia. 

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Paradigm Shift

Mindful Artists Network Retreat

By Aleksandra Kumorek

In January of 2013, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with representatives of the media and with makers of video games to discuss how the glorification of weapons and violence in film, television, and computer games can be curbed. The impetus for the memorable meeting was the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in which twenty primary-school children were killed. Only a few days later, British Labour politician Diane Abbot started a campaign against “hypersexualization” in the British media, recognizing publicly that free access to pornography has proven to be damaging to the development of children. And in Berlin, massive protests happened after a gym posted advertisements using a violent slogan only one hundred meters from the site where Jonny K. had been beaten to death a few months before. Worldwide, there seems to be a gradual recognition of the simple fact that we reap what we sow.

The Buddha offered us a helpful perspective, teaching that everything we consume—even intellectual content—is food. If we poison our minds, eventually we will become sick. Buddha’s view of the human mind was realistic: in each of us, there is a potential mass murderer as well as a potential Buddha. If we nurture the seeds of hatred and violence, we will reap hatred and violence. From a grain of wheat, only wheat will grow. If we take this seriously, we discover that a profound paradigm shift is needed regarding the role of art and media.

Buddhist psychology teaches us that it’s not about suppressing our impulses of hatred, anger, and greed, but about dealing with these seeds in a loving and compassionate way so that they won’t do any harm, individually or collectively. How can we practice this in everyday life? How can artists, journalists, and creative professionals integrate Buddhist ethics into their work? Artists have a strong impact on the collective consciousness; what seeds do they water?

At the first retreat of the Mindful Artists Network in Findhorn, Scotland, we will explore these questions. The Mindful Artists Network was founded in 2012 in Plum Village by Susanne Olbrich (pianist and composer) and Aleksandra Kumorek (writer and director). The retreat will take place June 28-30, 2013, under the spiritual guidance of Dharma teacher Sister Jewel (Chau Nghiem). This will be an opportunity for dialogue, deep looking, creative collaboration, networking, and joint practice. We invite artists and journalists from all Buddhist traditions to join us for this occasion. More information is available at www.mindful-artists.org.

Aleksandra Kumorek, True Profound Ideas, is a writer, director, and lecturer in Berlin. Since 2012 she has been a member of the Order of Interbeing.

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Heartsong

By Brother Phap Sieu

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The most common question we are asked as young monastics is, “Why did you become a monk?” I find that I often answer differently. The responses are all true but vary depending on my experiences that day, or who is asking. This process gently reflects that there is no clear stream of events, or even one particular moment, that opens the way to monastic life. The more I recall, the broader my scope of memory becomes. I must conclude that it is a continual process, which may have begun with a mother’s compassion for her son, extending into the present and onwards. However, there are a few particular memories that shine.

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Once during a camping trip organized by the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association, two group leaders got into a very heated argument. Just when it seemed they were about to come to blows, the older one announced, “I’m going to breathe,” and promptly vanished into the trees. At thirteen, I waited as long as I could (about five minutes) and then followed. The smiling man, now sitting calmly under a tree, was unrecognizable as the one who had been yelling just moments before. Later he explained that he had learned how to take care of his anger while living in a monastery in Southern France. But the first time I met the Plum Village monks and nuns was completely against my will.

Miraculous  Brotherhood

There was no way I was going without a fight. A meditation retreat? At the beginning of summer! But kick and scream as I might, it was fruitless. The agreement was made: if my brother and I were to go for just the week, we would get a whole month of summer to ourselves—no extra-curricular activities, no youth camp, no book reports!

The orientation was boring. How could it not be? One thousand people sitting, watching some monk speak in Vietnamese. I understood about one word in twenty and was too cool (or proud, though I never would have admitted it then) to ask for translation. But the chanting was neat. The bell was pretty cool, too. There was something about how an entire room completely stilled—and if you’ve ever been in a room filled with Vietnamese friends, you know what a feat that is.

It was with the slumped shoulders and defiant eyes classic to many teenage boys that I approached the room marked “Teen Program.” Double-checking my bag to see if my CD player and headphones were on hand, I stepped through the door.

A few days later, one would not have recognized the irrepressibly smiling, glowing young man I’d become. The Teen Program was  awesome! Who knew monks and nuns could be so… cool! They even took us to the beach—even rolled up their pants and played in the waves, splashing! But most miraculous was my sense of brotherhood with the other teens. Who could believe that in just five days I could be so open, feel so embraced by these kids whom I’d just met earlier that week? Certainly not me—nor the other teens. It was with continuing wonderment that we shared, laughed, and learned together.

The drive back to San Francisco from San Diego was about eight hours. As we neared our house I woke up briefly. “Mom…I have a question.” She seemed a bit startled; I’d been so quiet most of the trip. “Why did we wait so long before coming to these retreats?”

The Pursuit of Consumption

So tired. That was the thought that followed me to bed every evening, then waited, crouching by the headboard, to greet me every morning. College was everything I had expected it to be, for the first year. That was before having to worry about rent, essays, job applications, clothes, parties, friends, what I would do with the rest of my life. All I wanted was to find a meaningful direction that truly resonated with me. Instead I was taught how to be “successful”: how to make money and keep it. I ignored the happiness of my heart in favor of the calculating logic of my mind. I began to lose touch with the verve of life. Friends began to tell me I seemed down, needed to get out more. Teachers asked about late assignments, and roommates wondered if I wanted to go out Thursday night.

The absence of a spiritual practice and community support was really beginning to show. The Plum Village Retreats seemed ages ago; I was too “cool” now, too mature for singing circles and handholding. There was no way that stuff would work in the real world.

So instead of returning to my body and my breathing, and taking care of my emotions, I partied. At first the partying was filled with real enthusiasm, excitement, and perhaps even happiness. Then the partying became mandatory. Upon meeting friends on campus, instead of “How are you doing?” or “How’s your day?” the common greeting was, “How was your night?” Without enough courage or mindfulness to face the suffering within myself, to stop I was flung headlong into the whirlpool of consumption.

Suddenly I could not wait for the latest movie, book, or CD, could not wait for the next restaurant to open. Life dwindled to nothing but seeking the means to fulfill my need to consume. Later, in my aspiration letter to the monastic community, I likened the pursuit of consumption to a day in an amusement park. Stand in line for roller coaster: three hours; experience twenty-five-second adrenaline rush; get out of roller coaster; get back in line.

Magical Antidote

One day I received a letter in the mail. It was from Mom. Frustrated by my evasiveness on the phone, she finally put everything she felt to paper: all eighteen pages of it. The first three pages expressed concern for my well-being; the following three pages were full of comfort and encouragement. The next six contained detailed charts and graphs depicting just how much my college education cost. The final five revealed a candid account of Mom’s own experience upon first arriving in the U.S.: the humiliating struggle through high school as a complete alien, being responsible for six younger brothers and sisters, acclimating to a completely new continent—all without even the benefit of a common language.

It was a magical antidote for me. Hand-written and drawn, it was a mother’s true love for her child given form. Reading and receiving the contents accomplished what years of consumption, partying, and even counseling tried to hide: I recognized my suffering. I was no longer victim to my own self-pity, helplessness, and apathy. Reading the letter was the beginning of a re-opening of the heart. It also removed any assumptions about the practice being “kiddie stuff.”

Soon afterwards, I found myself driving south to Deer Park Monastery. I continued to visit Deer Park regularly every few months, commuting up and down the California coast, choosing to spend the weekend or spring break there. It was during one of these trips, windows down, speakers blasting the classic Plum Village CD, Rivers, when something clicked. I must have driven up and down the same highway over fifty times at that point, and never had I once recognized the beauty of the setting sun on my left, the soaring mountains on the right. Was there ever anything so beautiful? How could I have driven right by all these years without ever seeing? My heart was filled with a vast and immense joy. In that moment I made an oath to myself to do whatever it took to continue to live fully in the moment, to no longer be blind or deaf to the wonders around me, to life! It was but a small step from there to Plum Village, where the arms of the Sangha enfolded me.

mb60-Heartsong3Phap Sieu (Dharma Transcendence) is an energetic monk who loves sharing the Dharma with young people. He especially enjoys drinking tea and playing with the brothers. He resides in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.

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Mindfulness Is a Source of Happiness

By Dr. Tho Ha Vinh

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Much of the economic and ecological crisis facing mankind is related to overconsumption and mindless consumption of natural resources. Yet a change of behavior can only occur if we find other means to foster our well-being than through shopping and consuming.

If we look at the roots of overconsumption, we find craving and unlimited desire. If we examine the roots of craving and unlimited desire, we reveal a sense of meaninglessness about our life, a sense of isolation we try to overcome by acquiring material possessions and new experiences. But the satisfaction that material objects bring us is very limited; the new car, computer, or smart-phone bring us pleasure for a short time, but too soon, the feeling of isolation and the need for fulfillment return. In response, we continue the cycle of mindless consumption, buying more things in hopes they will fill the vacuum within us.

Comparable to the cycle of addiction, the short-lived pleasure quickly turns to suffering and depression, and we become more deeply addicted to the habits of overconsumption as we try to create meaning in our lives.

The feeling of meaninglessness and isolation will never be transformed in this way. Becoming a complete and fulfilled human being can only be achieved through training of the mind. Loving kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity, peace of mind, wisdom, and contentment cannot be bought, but can be trained. Mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools for developing compassion, peace, wisdom, and joy. More than any external circumstances, these qualities determine our true sense of well-being and happiness.

His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan first formulated the vision of Gross National Happiness (GNH). It measures the quality of a country in a more holistic way than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is based on the belief that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.

As important as laws, policies, and government action might be for GNH-inspired development, I deeply believe that without a transformation of consciousness and mindset, GNH cannot be fully implemented.

The Happiest Day of Their Lives

For this reason, the first workshop conducted by the GNH Centre Bhutan in cooperation with Plum Village was titled “Mindfulness as a Source of Happiness.” Four days of mindfulness workshops were coordinated with a delegation of brothers and sisters from the extended Plum Village community and friends from Wake Up International. We targeted young people, who are the most subject to western consumerist influence through television and the Internet. It was deeply moving to experience how open they were to engaging in mindfulness practices: sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful eating, sharing from the heart, and listening to one another with compassion.

Approximately five hundred participants engaged in the workshops. Some who had registered for one day returned for additional days. I met mothers and fathers who told me that their son or daughter had come home from the workshop and told them they should absolutely join on the next day. Some participants said it had been the happiest day of their lives; others said they had never felt so much peace. When we asked who would like to continue to practice, nearly all of the participants raised their hands.

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A princess opened the event in the presence of the Minister of Labor and Human Resources, Dasho Karma Ura, a prominent GNH Scholar, two Members of Parliament, and other distinguished guests. The princess gave a wonderful opening address, ending with a quote from Venerable Master Thich Nhat Hanh. We offered a calligraphy of Thay’s to the princess: “Peace begins with your wonderful smile.” It could not have been more appropriate!

Several Members of Parliament who participated with the young people approached me after the event and said they wanted us to organize similar workshops in their constituency and in all provinces of Bhutan. The Minister of Education joined on the last day and invited the whole delegation for dinner to share on mindfulness in education.

Original Radiant Nature

The participants were amazingly responsive to the mindfulness workshop facilitated by the brothers and sisters from Plum Village. The spiritual atmosphere that permeates Bhutan has a powerful impact on the youth, and although the lives of the young are heavily influenced by TV, Internet, and other forms of media, these influences remain superficial. Mindfulness, meditation, and ethical values are easily understood, and today’s youth are attracted towards positive aspects of life. It is still easy to reach and touch their wholesome inner being. Their original radiant nature is not too deeply covered by the distractions of mundane life.

Several commented that the retreat had been one of the happiest moments of their life. They were also very touched when they watched the video of the Wake Up Movement and realized that young people in America and in many other countries around the world are also practicing mindfulness and trying to lead healthy, happy, and peaceful lives.

When looking at the faces of the young people who had participated in the retreat, it was obvious that mindfulness really is a source of happiness! It was amazing to see the shining eyes, the big smiles, and the happy faces. At the end of the workshop, the attendees did not want to leave and wanted to bond with the monks and nuns. It was truly impressive. They were full of gratitude and enthusiasm.

We plan to create a local group for youths, where they can continue to practice mindfulness regularly. We hope they will become our GNH ambassadors of mindfulness in their families, their schools, and their society.

mb62-Mindfulness4Dr. Tho Ha Vinh, Chan Dai Tu, is the Program Development Coordinator of the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan. He has been the Head of Training, Learning and Development at the International Committee of the Red Cross. He is the chairman of Eurasia Foundation, an NGO working with children and youth living with intellectual disabilities in Vietnam. He is a Dharma teacher (Dharmacharya) ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Dharma Talk: Precepts as a Way of Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh

There are many problems in the world today—alcoholism, sexual abuse, oppression, exploitation of the environment, and so forth. If we look deeply, we can see that our stability and the stability of our family and society require us to discover practices and antidotes to overcome these prob­lems.

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Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha offered us the Five Wonderful Precepts. These precepts can perform miracles. The moment we decide to receive them, a transformation already occurs in us that touches everything. I have seen this many times. During the ceremony to receive the precepts, our internal knots are untied, and afterwards we actually look different. Many small doors are closed, and one big door is opened wide. When we confirm our determi­nation to go through that door, we look and feel happier and more stable. With the community’s support, we attain peace and loving kindness right away.

The foundation of all precepts is mindfulness. We begin each precept with the awareness of a particular problem, saying, “Aware of …” Then, instead of saying, “Don’t do this,” or “Don’t do that,” we say, “I am determined to do this. I am determined not to do that.” Because forgetfulness is such a strong tendency in us, it is very helpful to practice the Five Precepts with a sangha, a community of friends.

The First Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life.

To practice the first precept is to protect life. Life has many forms, inside us and around us. When we practice mindfulness, we see that lives are being destroyed every­where, and we vow to cultivate compassion and use this as a source of energy for the protection of the lives of people, animals, and plants. The first precept is the precept of compassion and loving kindness.

We should not lose awareness of the suffering in the world. We can nourish this awareness by means of sounds, images, direct contact, and so on. But most of the suffering we endure every day—perhaps 95%—is not necessary at all. Because we lack insight, we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others, especially those we love. But when we have contact with the remaining 5% of suffering, we feel compassion, the kind of energy necessary for us to trans­form ourselves and help relieve the world’s suffering. But if we touch too much suffering, it may be harmful for us. Medicine always needs to be taken in the proper dosage. We should stay in touch with the suffering only to the extent that we do not forget it, so that compassion will flow in us and be a source of energy that can be transformed into action. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that we can use, and compassion is born from insight.

After we have developed compassion, we have to continue practice in order to learn the many ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants. Just feeling compassion is not enough. We also have to develop understanding and insight so that we know what kind of action to take. We say “learning the ways.” We do not know everything. We have to come together as a sangha to discuss together how we can protect life. Confucius said, “To know that you don’t know is the beginning of knowing.” This is the best way to study and practice the precepts. There are many problems in our society that did not exist at the time of the Buddha, so we have to come together and discuss these things. We and our children have to learn and practice the ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants.

The first sentence is: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants.” This is about awareness of the destruction of life, the cultivation of compassion, learning the ways of action, and keeping our awareness of suffering alive. There is e­nough in this sentence for us to practice the rest of our lives.

The second sentence is: “I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing, in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.” This sentence reflects our determination not to kill, either directly or indirectly. But we must also learn how to prevent others from killing. No killing whatsoever can be justified. If you were in Nazi Germany and someone asked you why things were the way they were, if you were practicing the first precept you could not say, “They did it. I am not respon­sible. My hands are clean.” During the Gulf War, if you did not do anything, that is also an offense against the first precept. Even if you attempted to do some things and did not succeed, what is most important is that you tried something. We must make the effort to stop all wars.

According to the Buddha, the mind is the basis of all actions. To kill with the mind is more dangerous than to kill with the body. When you believe that you have the only way and that everyone who does not follow your way is your enemy, millions may be killed. And it is not just by killing with our hands and our thinking that we can break the first precept. If, in our way of life, we allow killing to go on, we also commit an offense. We must look deeply. When we buy something or consume something, we may be participating in an act of killing.

If someone were to ask me, “What is the best way to practice the first precept?” I would have to say, “I don’t know.” I myself am still learning together with you. We should be modest and open. Because we have made efforts together in looking deeply, we have been able to write a more profound version of the precepts. If we continue to practice, we may be able to offer our children an even better version tomorrow.

The Second Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn the ways of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of others species on Earth.

Stealing comes in many forms. Oppression is one form of stealing, and it causes much suffering both here and in the Third World. Countries are torn by poverty and oppression. We want to help hungry children and adults help themselves, but we are caught in a way of life that keeps us so busy that we do not have time to help. Sometimes all that is needed is one pill or one bowl of rice to save the life of a child, but we are caught up in the tiny problems of our daily lives. We could send hundreds of thousands of pills or millions of bowls of rice, but we feel helpless, unable to do anything to alleviate the suffering.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there are street children who call themselves the “Dust of Life.” They wander the streets and sleep under trees, scavenging in garbage heaps to find things they can sell for five dong. Nuns and monks in Ho Chi Minh City are organizing daily classes in the temples for these children. If they agree to come in the morning and stay for four hours, learning to read and write and playing with the monks and nuns, they are offered vegetarian lunches. After that, they can go to the Buddha Hall to take a nap. (In Vietnam, we like to take naps after lunch, because it is so hot. When the Americans came, they brought the practice of working eight hours, and many of us tried to follow, but we couldn’t. We desperately need naps after lunch.) At two o’clock there is more teaching and playing, and the children who can stay four more hours receive dinner. The temple does not have a place for them to stay overnight, so they leave after dinner and come back in the morning. We in Plum Village have been supporting these nuns and monks. It only costs twenty cents per child per day, for lunch and dinner, and it keeps the children off the streets, preventing them from becoming delinquent and entering prison later on. We don’t need a lot of money to help these children. We only need a little time. There are so many things like that we can do to help, but because we cannot free ourselves from our own small problems and our lifestyles, we don’t do anything. The first sentence of this precept is about aware­ness of the suffering and about cultivating loving kindness and learning the way of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. The second sentence is: “I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.” This is very specific. We may have a feeling of generosity and a capacity of being generous, but we must also develop specific ways of expressing our generosity. Time is more than money. Time is life; time is happiness; time is for bringing joy and happiness to other people. Even if you who are very wealthy, unless you are happy, you cannot make other people happy.

I know one very poor gentleman in Vietnam who has been practicing generosity for fifty years. He owns only a bicycle, but because his heart is so generous, he is able to help many other people in need. When I met him in 1965, I was a little too proud about our School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). We organized to rebuild many villages and promote social reform in the fields of education, health, and economic development. Our project was ambitious—we trained 300 workers, including monks and nuns, who went to the villages and helped the people modernize the economy, health, and education. Eventually, there were nearly 10,000 workers throughout Vietnam. As I was telling this gentleman about our project, I looked at his bicycle and thought that he could bring only a little help to people in one province. But in fact, he has taught me an important lesson.

Although the SYSS accomplished many of its goals, when the communists took over, they stopped our work, while this gentleman continues his small work to this day. Unlike us, he did not have anything for the government to confiscate. Thousands of our workers had to hide; and many orphanages, clinics, and schools were shut down. Because we have learned from this gentleman, now we are more humble. When you practice generosity, looking is very important, so that you can learn all the time.

In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of helping people rely on themselves. We call this the gift of Dharma. The third is the gift of non-fear. We human beings are afraid of being left alone, of becoming sick, and of dying. Helping people not be destroyed by fear is the greatest gift of all.

The second precept is a very deep practice of sharing time, energy, and material resources. Time is for being deeply present with the other person. Time is not just to make money. It is to produce the three kinds of gifts.

The Third Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. 

We know that in our soul there are memories, pains, and secrets that we want to keep to ourselves or share only with those we love and trust the most. In the royal capital, there is a zone where only the king and his family can circulate. There is a place like that in our soul, where we don’t allow anyone to approach, except our most beloved. The same is true of our body. Our body has areas that we do not want others to approach or touch, except for our most beloved, the person we respect, trust, and love the most. In the Buddhist tradition, we speak of the oneness of body and mind. Whatever happens to the body also happens to the mind. A sexual relationship is an act of communion between body and spirit. This is a very important event, not to be done in a casual manner. When you are approached casually or carelessly, with an attitude that is less than tender, you feel insulted in body and soul. Someone who approaches you with respect, tenderness, and utmost care is offering you deep communication, deep communion. Only in that case will you not feel hurt, misused, or abused, even a little. This cannot be obtained without true love and commitment. Casual sex cannot be called love. 

“True love contains respect.” This Vietnamese expres­sion means that a couple respects each other as honored guests. Respect is one of the most important elements of a sexual relationship. Sexual communion should be like a ritual, performed in mindfulness with great love, care, and respect. If you are just motivated by desire, that is not love. “Love” is a beautiful word, and we have to restore its meaning. When we say “love” to describe our appetite, as when we say, “I love hamburgers,” we spoil the word. We should not misuse words in this way. We make them sick. We have to make the effort to heal the words by using them properly and carefully.

If love is understood in this way, why do we need to add the phrase, “long-term commitment”? If love is real, there is no need to say or do anything else. We don’t even need a wedding ceremony. True love guarantees everything. It includes the sense of responsibility, accepting the other person as he or she is, with all strengths and weaknesses. If you like only the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept his or her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding, and energy to help the person transform. According to the teaching of the Buddha, true love is maitri, the capacity to bring joy and happiness, and karuna, the capacity to transform pain and suffering. This kind of love can only do good, and it is safe.

In the West and in Asia, we use the phrase “love sick­ness.” The kind of love that makes us sick is attachment, or addiction. Like a drug, it makes us feel wonderful, but once we are addicted, we cannot have peace. We can’t study, work, or sleep. We just think about the other person. This kind of love is possessive, even totalitarian. We want to own the object of our love, and we don’t want anyone to prevent us from possessing them totally. It creates a kind of prison for our beloved one. He or she is deprived of the right to be himself or herself. This is neither maitri nor karuna. It is the willingness to make use of another person to satisfy our own needs.

The expression “long-term commitment” is in this precept to help us understand that in the context of love, commitment can only be long-term. “I want to love you. I want to help you. I want to care for you. I want you to be happy. I want to work for your happiness. But just for a few days.” This is not love. The two people are afraid to make a commitment to the precepts or to one another.

To love our child deeply, we have to make a long-term commitment and help him or her through the journey as long as we are alive. When we have a good friend, we also make a long-term commitment. We need him or her. How much more so the person with whom we want to share our body and soul! The phrase “long-term commitment” cannot begin to express the depth of our love, but we need to say some­thing so that people will not misunderstand the word love, especially those who do not have time to join a Dharma discussion or read precepts’ commentaries.

A long-term commitment made in the context of a sangha can be long-lasting, strong, and fruitful. If your long­term commitment is just between the two of you, you will not have the support of friends and family. So we have a wedding ceremony for families and friends to witness. The priest and the marriage license are just symbols. What is important is that your commitment to come together to live as a couple is witnessed by friends and family so that they will support you. The feeling between you may not be enough to sustain your happiness. Without the support of family and friends, what you now describe as love will turn sour later on. If a tree wants to be solid, it sends many roots deeply into the soil. If it has just one root, it may be blown over by the wind. In the same way, a couple needs to be supported by families, friends, ideals, practice, and the sangha.

Every time we have a wedding ceremony in Plum Village, we invite the entire community to celebrate. During the ceremony, the couple recites the Five Awarenesses (See Mindfulness Bell #2), and they agree to recite them every full moon day, with the knowledge that friends everywhere are supporting their relationship so that it will be stable, long-lasting, and happy. If you do not accept the institution of marriage, you still need some commitment, and it is best made in the presence of a sangha—friends who love you and want to support you in the spirit of loving kindness and understanding. Even if you do not have a marriage license and are not bound together by the law, your relationship will be stronger if you make a commitment in front of family and friends. 

“Responsibility” is the key word of the third precept. In a community of practice, if everyone practices this precept well, there will be peace and stability. Practicing in this way, we respect, support, and protect each other as Dharma brothers and sisters. If we don’t, what happens in our community will also create trouble in the larger community. We have seen that if a teacher cannot refrain from sleeping with one of his students, he will destroy everything. So we refrain from sexual misconduct because we are aware that we are responsible for the well-being of the entire community, including the future generations. If we do not refrain, we will destroy everything.

The third precept also applies to society. There are many ways that our families and society are destroyed by sexual misconduct. I know one person who still suffers every day because she was molested as a child. The best way for her to heal herself is to observe the third precept: “As a victim of sexual abuse, I vow to become someone who will protect all children and adults from sexual abuse.” In that way, her suffering can be transformed into a positive energy that will help her protect others. When you take the third precept, you vow to protect children and also those who abuse children sexually. The ones who cause suffering must also become the objects of your love and protection. You see that the molesters are the product of an unstable society. Whether it be an uncle, an aunt, a parent, or a grandparent, he or she should be observed, helped, and healed.

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Practicing the third precept is to help ourselves and others avoid being wounded. We usually talk of women being wounded, but men also get deeply wounded by love relationships. We have to be very careful, especially in short-term commitments. The practice of the third precept is a very strong way of restoring stability and peace within ourselves, our families, and our society. We should also discuss the many problems relating to this precept, such as the “sex industry,” advertising, and loneliness. The feeling of loneliness is universal in our society. There is so little real communication, even in our own families. That feeling of loneliness can push us into a sexual relationship. We believe in a naive way that having a sexual relationship will make us feel less lonely. But when there is no communication between you and the other person on the level of the heart and the spirit, having a sexual relationship can only widen the gap. It can destroy you and the other person. Your relationship will be stormy and will cause both of you much suffering. You will both feel even more lonely. The belief that sexual relationships help us feel less lonely is a kind of modern superstition; we should not be fooled by it. The union of the two bodies can only be positive when there is understanding and communion on the level of the heart and the spirit. If the communion between husband and wife doesn’t exist on this level, then the coming together of their two bodies will separate them further. It is better to refrain from sexual relations until you make a breakthrough to communicate.

The third precept can help us protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, communities, and society. So many children and adults, couples and families, communities, and nations have been destroyed by sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. For many people, this kind of responsible behavior may be easy to practice, but for others, it is quite difficult. These people have to come together to share their experiences and help each other learn and practice responsibility and non-harming. We all have to do the same.

The Fourth Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to recon­cile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

This precept is directly linked with the second precept. There is a saying in Vietnamese, “You don’t need a lot of money to have kind speech.” Loving speech is freely available. We only need to be mindful, choosing our words carefully, and we can make many other people happy. This is generosity. Many of us think that we can only practice generosity if we spend a lot of money. We dream of getting rich so that we can bring happiness to others. We don’t understand that once we are rich, it may actually be more difficult to practice generosity. When we are motivated by loving kindness, maitri and karuna, we can bring happiness to others through our kind speech. With kind speech, we offer people joy, happiness, confidence, hope, and trust. Mindful speaking is a deep practice. Avalokitesvara is able to speak in a way that helps people let go of their fear, misery, and despair. Without looking deeply into ourselves, this is not easy. When we have a lot of suffering in our­selves, it is difficult to speak mindfully or with loving kindness. So we have to look deeply into the nature of our anger, despair, and suffering in order to free ourselves and be available to others.

Suppose your husband tells you something that hurts you. If you reply out of anger and suffering, you risk hurting him and making the suffering deeper. But if you suppress your anger and remain silent, you will suffer more later on, and your suffering will also bring about more suffering for your partner. I recommend that you breathe in and out: “Breathing in, I know I am angry. Breathing out, I calm my anger.” Then, when you are calm enough, you can say, “Darling, I am angry. What you said hurt me.” You will feel some relief just from saying that. During that moment, you are really in touch with your anger. You are not denying it.

Then you can invite your spouse to meet with you on Friday evening so that the two of you can look together at the disturbance. If you discuss your feelings right away, while you are still angry, you risk saying something that will make the situation worse. Between now and Friday night, you both have a few days to look deeply into the nature of your anger. While driving the car to work, for example, he may ask himself, “Why did she get so upset? There must be a reason.” Hopefully, before Friday night, one or both of you will see into the true nature of the problem and say, “I’m sorry, I was not very mindful.” Then, when Friday comes, you won’t have to look at the problem. Instead, you can have a cup of tea together. Making an appointment will give both of you time to calm down and look deeply.

When Friday night comes, if the suffering has not already been transformed, you can both practice deep listening. You sit quietly together and then one person expresses himself or herself, while the other person sits and listens. When you speak, try to tell the deepest kind of truth and practice loving speech, knowing that only with that kind of speech will there be a chance for the other person to understand and accept. The other person, while listening, knows that only with deep listening can he relieve the suffering of the other person. If he listens with half an ear, he cannot do it. His presence and his listening must be of good quality. It is good to meet on Friday night, so that after you have neutralized the negative feeling, you still have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy the weekend and each other.

Let me offer another illustration of practicing the fourth precept. Suppose you have some kind of internal formation regarding a member of your family or your community. It may not be very deep, but because of it, you don’t feel much joy when you are with that person. You don’t mind talking to him to settle a number of minor things, but you don’t like to confront him about the deeper things that are troubling you. Then one day, while you are doing housework, you notice that he is not sharing the work that needs to be done. You feel uneasy and begin to wonder, “Why am I doing so much while he is not doing anything?” You should be practicing mindful working, but because of this comparative thinking, you lose your happiness, comparing yourself with another person, expecting that person to share the work with you. But for some reason you are unable to go to him and tell him, “Please brother, come help with the work.” Instead, you say to yourself, “He is an adult. Why should I have to say something to him? He should be responsible enough to help without my asking.” You behave like that because you already have some internal information about him. In fact, the shortest way to deal with it is directly. You go to him and say, “Brother, please come help.” But you don’t do that. Instead you keep it to yourself and blame him.

The next time that kind of thing happens, your feeling is even more intense. Your internal formations have grown little by little, until you suffer so much that she needs to talk about it with a third person (“C”). You (“B”) look for sympathy in order to share your suffering. Instead of talking directly to “A,” you talk to “C,” who you think has a similar internal formation. You look at “C” as a kind of ally who will agree with you that “A” is not good enough in the practice.

Since you already have some internal formations concerning “A,” you will be glad to hear that there is someone who feels as you do. Talking to each other makes you feel better. You don’t know that you are becoming allies—”B” and “C” against “A.” Suddenly “B” and “C” feel close to each other and distant from “A.” Very soon “A” will notice that. He may not be at all aware that “B” feels some resentment towards him. He is capable of helping “B” if “B” can express her feelings directly to him. But “A” doesn’t know. Suddenly “A” feels some coolness between himself and “B,” but he does not know why. He sees that “B” and “C” are very close to each other, and they are looking at him in a cold way. “A” suffers. “They don’t want me. Why should I try to be close to them?” So he steps farther back from them, and the situation becomes worse. A kind of triangle has been set up.

If I were “C,” I would try to practice like this: First of all I would try to listen to “B” attentively. I know that “B” needs to share her suffering. So I listen deeply in order to relieve “B” of her suffering. The second thing I would do is to offer my help to “B.” “My sister, why don’t you go directly to talk to him? If needed, I will go with you to talk with him.” After practicing the art of deep listening, “C” will try to practice mindful, loving speech with “B” and convince her to go directly to “A.”

The third thing “C” can do is also very important. She is determined not to transmit what “B” has told her to another person. She knows that if she is not mindful, she will transmit to others what “B” has told her, and very soon the family or the community will be in a mess. If “C” can do these three steps, she will be able to break the triangle. She will help solve the problem, and peace and joy can be assured in the family, the society, or the community. It is best to do this as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. We shouldn’t let things drag on for a long time. They will become much more difficult to solve. 

“Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.” When we tell someone something that makes him or her happy, that is a great gift. When we say something that is cruel or distressing, the other person may lose hope, even the joy to live. Our speech can be constructive or destructive. This is linked to the first precept, not to kill. When we advocate an ideology, we may feel that our way of thinking or of organizing society is the best. We can even put anyone standing in the way of our realizing our ideology into a gas chamber, because of our beliefs. Ideology, a kind of speech, can be used to kill millions of people.

The fourth precept is also linked to the second precept, not to steal. Just as there is a “sex industry,” there is also a “lying industry.” Recently, a corporate executive whose job is to write articles about his company’s products told me that he has to practice lying in order to earn his living. If he tells the truth about the products, people will not buy them. There are many people like that in business and in politics. Communists, capitalists, socialists, and others lie all the time. Even in regards to the third precept, when someone says “I love you,” it may be a lie. It may be just some desire. Advertisements are also linked with sex.

We must use words that inspire self-confidence, espe­cially with our children. If we treat our children as worth­less, they will suffer in the future. If we encourage them with positive words, they will flower.

In the Buddhist tradition, the fourth precept is described as refraining from: (1) lying, (2) exaggerating, (3) saying one thing to one person and something else to another person, and (4) using insulting, abusive language. 

“I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

We can practice reconciliation with our deep listening and our mindful, loving speech. To reconcile means to bring peace and happiness to nations, people, and members of our family. This is the work of a bodhisattva. In order to reconcile, we have to refrain from aligning ourselves with either party in order to understand both parties. This is not just the work of diplomacy. It is not because we travel by air a lot and meet with foreign ministers that we can do the work of reconciliation. We have to use our bodies. We can be suppressed or even killed by the people we want to help. We have to listen to both sides and then tell each side of the suffering of the other. This work takes courage. We need people to do this in South Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

The fourth precept is a bodhisattva precept. We need to study it deeply in order to be able to practice within our­selves, our family, our community, and in the world.

The Fifth Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future genera­tions. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

I would like to explain the “emptiness of transmission.” In the formal meals at Plum Village, the monks and nuns pick up their bowls, look into the emptiness that is inside it, and recite this gatha: “This bowl was handed down to me by the Tathagata. I now have the honor of holding it in my two hands. I vow to realize the threefold emptiness.” The Buddha gives us transmission, and we receive it. Between the two, there is the object of transmission. When we eat the food in our bowl, we contemplate the emptiness of the one who made the offering, the one who received the offering, and the offering itself. These three things are empty, empty of a separate self. When we look deeply, we can see that the three are one.

The gift, the giver, and the receiver are one. We are practicing not only for ourselves, but also for the one who made the donation. This is the true practice of giving and the true practice of receiving. The giver should give in that spirit and not think, “I am the one who gives, and you should be grateful to me.” She knows that she is one with the recipient. And the recipient does not think only that this is a gift given by someone. He knows that what has been given is for him to maintain himself for the practice, and the practice will benefit everyone, not just himself. In that kind of spirit, we are grateful, and this is called the “emptiness of giving.”

When we hear the words, “Love your enemy,” we may ask, “How can we love our enemies?” When we are able to love our enemies, they will stop being our enemies. We are practicing the “emptiness of loving.” There is no distinction between lover and beloved. The other person is not our enemy, but ourselves. Loving our enemy means to love ourselves. When we look at our father with anger, we do not see that we and our father are one. At the moment we understand and love our father, we realize the emptiness of loving. Loving ourselves is to love our father, and loving our father is to love ourself. The fifth precept needs to be practiced in this spirit.

We take care of our body and our consciousness and keep ourselves healthy for our ancestors, our parents, and future generations. We do it for everyone. We are not practicing as separate entities. When we take a glass of wine, we are doing it for our ancestors. All of our ancestors and all future generations are taking the wine with us. That is the true spirit of the emptiness of transmission.

People who drink alcohol and get drunk are destroying their bodies, their families, and their society. They really should refrain from drinking. But what about drinking two glasses of wine a week? Why should you stop? What is the use of refraining if your drinking does not hurt you or other people? The answer is that, although you have not harmed yourself, your drinking may have an adverse effect on your children, your grandchildren, and your society. We only need to look deeply to see it. We are not practicing for ourselves alone. We are practicing for everyone. What if your children have seeds of alcoholism in them? When they see you drinking wine, they may think that it is completely natural, and later, they may become alcoholic. If you give up your two glasses of wine, even though they have not brought any harm to your body, you are showing your children, your friends, and society that your life is not only for yourself, that it is also for your ancestors, the future generations, and society. This is a very deep practice. It is the insight of a bodhisattva. That is why the emptiness of giving is the basis of the fifth precept.

In modern life in the West, young people have the impression that their body belongs to them, that they can do anything they want to their body. They feel they have the right to live their own lives however they please. And the law supports them. That is individualism, but according to the teaching of emptiness, your body is not yours alone. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations, and it also belongs to society and all other living beings. All of them have come together to bring about the presence of this body—the trees, clouds, every­thing. Keeping your body healthy is to express gratitude to the whole cosmos—to all ancestors and to future genera­tions. We practice this precept for everyone. If you are healthy, physically and mentally, all beings will profit from it, not just men and women, but animals, plants, and the whole cosmos. The practice of the fifth precept should be based on that kind of insight. This is a bodhisattva precept. When we practice the Five Precepts, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva.

When it is clear to you that you are practicing not only for yourself, you will stop drinking even one or two glasses of wine a week. At a reception, when someone offers you a glass of wine, you can smile and decline. “No thank you. I do not drink alcohol. Do you have any juice or mineral water?” You do it gently, with a smile. This is a true act of a bodhisattva—setting an example by your own life.

Everything a pregnant woman eats, drinks, or fears has an effect on the baby inside her. If she is not aware of the nature of interbeing between her and the child, she may cause damage to both at the same time. If she drinks alcohol, she can destroy herself and also the child. Modern research has shown that when expecting mothers drink alcohol, it creates brain damage in the fetus. Studies at the University of Vancouver and elsewhere have proven that mothers who drink alcohol during certain periods of their pregnancy give birth to children with Fetal Alcohol Syn­drome.

We are what we consume. If we look deeply into the items we consume, we will know our own nature. Mindful consumption is the main object of the fifth precept. We all have to eat, drink, and consume, but if we do so unmindfully, we can destroy our bodies and our conscious­ness, expressing a lack of gratitude to our ancestors, parents, and future generations.

When we are mindful, we know that the food we eat comes from the cosmos, nature, and all living beings. If we can touch even one piece of fruit with our eyes and our mindfulness, we show our gratitude and experience great joy. If we look at our food for just half a second before putting it into our mouth and chewing it mindfully, we see that one string bean is the ambassador of the whole cosmos. This is the practice of being in touch.

When we are mindful, we see whether there are toxins in our food. Before eating, we can look at our food mindfully, perhaps even calling out the name of each dish: “tofu,” “tomato,” “rice.” Calling something by its name is a good way to touch it deeply, to see directly into its true nature. At that moment, mindfulness will reveal to us whether the food is nutritious and healthy, or whether it contains toxins. Children can enjoy doing this if we show them how.

We can also talk about a diet for our consciousness. (See Mindfulness Bell #5.) We should refrain from ingesting intellectual and spiritual food that brings toxins into our consciousness. Some television programs contain toxins; others can educate us and help us lead a healthy life. We should make time to watch good programs, but there are other programs that can poison our consciousness, and we should refrain from watching them. This can be a practice for everyone in the family.

We label cigarette packs: “Warning: Smoking may be hazardous to your health,” but we still have to be strong, because smoking advertisements are so compelling that they make us feel that if we don’t smoke, we are depriving ourselves of everything worth living for. Smoking is linked with nature, expensive cars, beautiful women, high standards of living, and airplanes. This kind of advertising penetrates into our consciousness. There are so many wonderful and healthy things to eat and drink. We have to show our young people how this kind of propaganda creates a very wrong impression. Now it is possible to take an airplane without suffering from the smoke. We have to make more effort in that direction. We have to write articles and do everything in our power to step up these kinds of campaigns against smoking and drinking alcohol. There is the danger that even if we don’t drink alcohol ourselves, we may get killed by a drunken driver. In persuading one person to refrain from drinking, you make the world safer for all of us.

I know that drinking wine is an important element running deep in Western civilization, as is evident in the ceremony of the Eucharist and the Passover meal. I have spoken with Catholic priests and nuns to see whether it might be possible to substitute grape juice for the wine, and they think it is possible. I suggested that they use real bread—not just symbolic bread—in the Eucharist for people to enjoy eating. We can make the ceremony into real life, something like a tea meditation. We really enjoy the cookie, not just as a symbol but truly.

Sometimes we don’t need to consume as much as we do. But consuming has become a kind of addiction, because we feel so lonely. It is similar to the third and fourth precepts. We feel lonely, and we want to engage in a conversation or a sexual relationship, hoping that our loneliness will go away. Drinking and eating may be the result of our loneli­ness. When we feel truly alone, we may want to drink to forget our loneliness. Loneliness is one of the afflictions of modem life. When we are lonely, we ingest food in our body and into our consciousness that can bring toxins into us. We watch television, read magazines or novels, or pick up the telephone. We make our condition worse by unmindful consumption. If we spend one hour watching a film filled with violence, we water the seeds of violence, hatred, and fear in us. We do that, and we let our children do that. We need to have a family meeting to discuss an intelligent policy for television watching. We may have to label our TV sets the same way we label our cigarette packages: “Warning: Watching television can be hazardous to your health.” Many children have become violent, some have even joined gangs. They have seen so many violent images on television. We must have an intelligent policy concerning the use of television.

Of course there are many healthy and beautiful programs, and we should arrange our time so that the family will benefit from these. You don’t have to destroy your televi­sion set. You only have to use it with wisdom and mindful­ness. There are a number of things that we can do, such as asking the television stations to establish healthier programs and suggesting to manufacturers to offer us TV sets that only transmit the signals from television stations that broadcast healthy, educational programs. During the war in Vietnam, the American army dropped hundreds of thou­sands of radios in the jungle that could only receive the station that broadcasted anti-communist propaganda. This is not psychological warfare, but I think many families would welcome a kind of television set that would allow us to see healthy programs. We need to be protected because the toxins are overwhelming, and they are destroying our society, our families, ourselves. Dharma discussions on this subject can generate ideas as to how we can protect ourselves from destructive programs.

We also have to discuss in our family and our commu­nity the kinds of magazines we and our children read. We have to boycott the magazines that spill toxins into our society. Not only should we refrain from reading these magazines, we should also make an effort to warn people of the danger of reading and consuming these kinds of products and conversations. From time to time, after speaking with someone, we feel paralyzed by what we have heard. The same is true of what we read or see. Mindfulness in TV watching, reading, and conversations will allow us to stop the kinds of activities that overwhelm us with their toxins.

The idea of a diet is the essence of this precept. War and bombs are the fruit of our collective consciousness. Our collective consciousness has so much violence, fear, craving, and hatred in it, it manifests in war and bombs. We hear that the other side has very powerful bombs, so we try to make bombs that are more powerful. When the other side hears that we have powerful bombs, they try to make even more powerful bombs. Bombs are a product of the fear in our collective consciousness. Just to remove the bombs is not really the work of peace. Even if we were able to transport all the bombs to the moon, we would still be unsafe, because the roots of the war and the bombs are still in our collective consciousness. We cannot work to abolish war with angry demonstrations. Transforming the toxins in our collective consciousness is the only way to uproot war.

Therefore, we have to practice a diet for ourselves, our families, and our society, and we have to do it with every­one else. To have healthy television programs, we have to work with artists, writers, filmmakers, lawyers, and law­makers. We have to step up the struggle. Awareness should not be only in us, but in our families and in our society. We have to stop the kind of consumption that poisons our collective consciousness. I don’t see any other way than the practice of these bodhisattva precepts to produce the dramatic changes that we need. To practice as a society will not be possible if each of us does not vow to practice the Five Precepts.

The problem is very big. It is the survival of our species on the Earth. It is not a question of enjoying one glass of wine. If you stop drinking your glass of wine, you do it for the whole society. The fifth precept is exactly like the first one. If you are not able to entirely stop eating meat, at least make an effort in order to reduce eating meat. If you reduce eating meat by 50%, you perform a miracle. You will solve the problem of hunger in the Third World. Practicing the precepts is to make a little progress every day. That is why, during the recitation when we are asked whether we have made an effort to study and practice the precept read, we answer just by breathing deeply. That is the best answer. Mindful breathing means, “I have made some effort, but I can do better.”

The fifth precept can be like that also. If you are unable to stop drinking completely, then stop 75% or 50%. But alcohol is not the same as meat. Alcohol is addictive. That is why I encourage you to stop drinking even one glass of wine. When you see that we are in great danger, refraining from the first glass of wine is a manifestation of your enlightenment. You are doing it for all of us. You set an example for your children and your friends. On French television they say, “One glass is alright, but three glasses will bring about destruction.” They don’t say that the first glass brings the second, and the second brings the third, because they belong to a civilization of wine. In Plum Village, we are surrounded by wine. Many of our neighbors are surprised that we don’t profit from living in an area where the wine is so good. We are a pocket of resistance. Please support us.

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When I was a novice, I learned that from time to time we had to use alcohol in preparing medicines. There are many kinds of roots and herbs that have to be macerated in alcohol so that they will have an effect. In these instances, alcohol is allowed. When the herbs have been prepared, they are put in the pot and boiled. Then they no longer have an intoxicating effect on us. I think if you use some alcohol in cooking, it is the same. After the food is cooked, the alcohol in it will not have an intoxicating nature. So I am not narrow-minded about this.

I know that no one can practice the precepts perfectly, including the Buddha. The vegetarian dishes that were offered to him were not entirely vegetarian. Boiled veg­etables contain dead bacteria, and the vegetables themselves were also alive. But because of the real danger in our society—alcoholism has destroyed so many families and has brought about so many unhappy people, old and young—we have to do something. We have to live in a way that will eradicate that kind of damage. That is why even if you can be very healthy with one glass of wine every week, I still urge you with all my strength to abandon that glass of wine.

We need to have Dharma discussions to share our experiences and deepen our understanding and practice of the Five Wonderful Precepts.

This is excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s forthcoming book on the Five Wonderful Precepts.

Photos:
First photo by Tran van Minh.
Second photo by Michele Hill.
Third photo by Simon Chaput.

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Dharma Talk: New Century Message From Thich Nhat Hanh

Tu Hieu Temple and Plum Village December 7, 1999 

To All Venerable Monks, Nuns, Lay Men And Lay Women Of The Sangha In The Tu Hieu Lineage, Inside And Outside Of Vietnam:

Dear Friends,

The Twentieth Century has been marred by mass violence and enormous bloodshed. With the development of technology, humanity now has the power to “conquer” Nature. We have even begun to intervene in the chemistry of life, adapting it to our own ends. At the same time, despite new and faster ways to communicate, we have become very lonely. Many have no spiritual beliefs. With no spiritual ground, we live only with the desire to satisfy our private pleasures.

We no longer believe in any ideology or faith, and many proclaim that God is dead. Without an ideal and a direction for our lives, we have been uprooted from our spiritual traditions, our ancestors, our family, and our society. Many of us, particularly young people, are heading towards a life of consump­tion and self-destruction.

Ideological wars, AIDS, cancer, mental illness, and alcohol and drug addiction have become major burdens of this century. At the same time, progress in the fields of electronic and biological technology are creating new powers for mankind. In the 21st century, if humans cannot master themselves, these new powers will lead us and other living beings to mass destruction.

During the 20th century many seeds of wisdom have also sprouted. Science, especially physics and biology, has discovered the nature of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self. The fields of psychology and sociology have discovered much of these same truths. We know that this is, because that is, and this is like this, because that is like that. We know that we will live together or die together, and that without understanding, love is impossible.

From these insights, many positive efforts have recently been made. Many of us have worked to take care of the environment, to care for animals in a compassionate way, to reduce the consumption of meat, to abandon smoking and drinking alcohol, to do social relief work in underdeveloped countries, to campaign for peace and human rights, to promote simple living and consumption of health food, and to learn the practice of Buddhism as an art of living, aimed at transformation and healing. If we are able to recognize these positive developments of wisdom and action, they will become a bright torch of enlightenment, capable of showing mankind the right path to follow in the 21st century. Science and technology can then be reoriented to help build a new way of life moving in the direction of a living insight, as expressed in terms of interconnectedness, interbeing, and non-self.

If the 20th century was the century of humans conquering Nature, the 21st century should be one in which we conquer the root causes of the suffering in human beings our fears, ego, hatred, greed, etc. If  the 20th century was characterized by individualism and consumption, the 21st century can be character­ized by the insights of interbeing. In the 21st century, humans can live together in true harmony with each other and with nature, as bees live together in their bee hive or as cells live together in the same body, all in a real spirit of democracy and equality. Freedom will no longer be just a kind of liberty for self-destruction, or destruction of the environment, but the kind of freedom that protects us from being over­whelmed and carried away by craving, hatred, and pain.

The art of mindful living expressed in concrete terms, as found in the Five Mindfulness Trainings, can be the way for all of us. The Trainings point us in the right direction for the 21st century. Returning to one’s root spiritual tradition, we can find and restore the equivalent values and insights. This is a most urgent task for us all.

I respectfully propose to all Venerable Monks, Nuns, and Lay people within our Tu Hieu lineage, in Vietnam and outside of Vietnam, to carefully reflect upon the following recommendations, and to contrib­ute some part in helping to create the direction for mankind in the New Century:

1. We should continue to set up monasteries and practice centers. These centers can organize retreats—one day, three days, seven days, twenty-one days, ninety days, etc.—for monastics and for lay people, aimed at developing our capacity for transfor­mation and healing. Activities at these centers should cultivate understanding and compassion and teach the art of Sangha building. Temples and practice centers should embody a true spiritual life, and should be places where young people can get in touch with their spiritual roots. They should be centers where the practice of non-attachment to views according to the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing can be experienced. To cultivate tolerance according to these trainings will prevent our country and mankind from getting caught in future cycles of religious and ideological wars.

2. We should study and practice the Five Mind­fulness Trainings in the context of a family, and establish our family as the basic unit for a larger Sangha. Practicing deep listening and mindful speech, we will create harmony and happiness, and feel rooted in our own family. Each family should set up a home altar for spiritual and blood ancestors. On important days, the entire family should gather to cultivate the awareness and appreciation of their roots and origins, thus deepening their consciousness of these spiritual and blood ancestors. Accepting the stream of ancestors in our own beings, we draw on their strengths and recognize their weakness, in order to transform generations of suffering. Each family should recognize the importance of having one member of their family devote his or her life to the learning and practice of the Dharma, as a monastic or a lay person. The family should invest in, support, and encourage this family member.

3. We should give up our lives of feverish consumption, and transfer all merits of action created by thoughts, speech, and work to the Sangha. Our happiness should arise from understanding, compassion, and harmony, and not from consumption. We should see the happiness of the Sangha as our own happiness.

4. We should invest the time and energy of our daily life in the noble task of Sangha building. We should share material things that can be used collec­tively by the Sangha, such as houses, cars, television, computers, etc. We should give up alcohol, drugs, and smoking. We should learn to live simply, so that we may have more time to live our daily life deeply and with freedom. Living simply, we become capable of touching the wonders of life, of transformation and healing, and of realizing our ideal of compassion in the educational, cultural, spiritual, and social domains of our lives.

The 21st century is a green, beautiful hill with an immense space, having stars, moons, and all wonders of life. Let us climb the hill of the next century, not as separate individuals but as a Sangha.

Let us go together, hand in hand, with our spiritual and blood ancestors, and our children. Let us enjoy the climb together with our songs and our smiles, and allow each step to create freedom and joy and peace.

Wishing you and your Sangha a wonderful century full of faith and happiness,

mb25-dharma1Thich Nhat Hanh
Elder of the Tu Hieu Lineage

 

 

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Dharma Talk: Cultivating Compassion, Responding to Violence

A Dharma talk offered by Thich Nhat Hanh

Berkeley Community Theatre, Berkeley, California
September 13, 2001

Thich Nhat Hanh and 80 monks and nuns began the public talk with a ceremony to send the energy of peace and compassion to all those who were suffering from the events of September — those who had passed away and those who were presently struggling to survive; the families and, friends and the whole world that was deeply affected by the violent actions in New York City, Washington, D.C. and rural Pennsylvania on that day. 

The ceremony began with an in­cense offering. Usually the incense is offered facing a Buddha altar but in this moment Thich Nhat Hanh chose to face the audience, showing that all of humanity can be an altar worthy of respect. Holding the stick of incense in two hands, Thich Nhat Hanh offered these opening words:

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Let us please offer humanity the best flowers and fruits of our practice: lucidity, solidity, brotherhood, understanding and compassion. Breathing, I am aware that most of us have not been able to overcome the shock. We are aware that there is a tremen­dous amount of suffering going on, a tremendous amount of fear, anger, and hatred. But we know deep in our heart that anger and hatred cannot be responded to with anger and hatred. Respond­ing to hatred with hatred will only cause hatred to multiply a thousandfold. Only with compassion can we deal with hatred and anger.

In this very moment we invoke all of our spiritual teachers, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, to be with us helping us to embrace the suffering of America as a nation, as a country, to embrace the world as a nation, as a country, and to embrace humanity as a family. May we become lucid and calm so that we know exactly what to do and what not to do to make the situation worse. We know that there are those of us who are trying to rescue and to support and we are grateful to them.

There are those who are crying, who are suffering terribly in this very moment. Let us be there for all of them and embrace them tenderly with all our compassion, with our understanding, with our awareness. We know that there are many of us who are trying to see to it that violence will not happen again. We know that responding to hatred and violence with compassion seems to be the only path for all of us.

Let us bring our attention to our in breath and our out breath. Those of you who find it comfortable to join your palms, please do so as we offer this incense to all our spiritual teachers and we ask them to support us in this very difficult moment.

Opening the Door for Communication 

My dear friends, this summer in Plum Village where we live and practice, there were about 1,800 people who came and practiced with us during the Summer Opening and among them were a few dozen Palestinians and Israelis. We sponsored these lovely people, hoping they would have an occasion to practice walking mediation together, to share a meal together, to listen to the Dharma and to sit down and listen to each other. They were young people ranging from twenty-five to forty years old. They spent two weeks with us. They participated in all activities with us, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma talks, everything. At the end they came up and gave a report to the whole community. It was a very lovely report. Only two weeks of practice had helped them to transform very deeply. We looked up and we saw a community of brothers and sisters. “Dear community, dear Thay, when we first came to Plum Village we couldn’t believe it. Plum Village is some­thing that does not look real to us because it is too peaceful.”

In Plum Village, our friends did not feel the kind of anger, tension and fear that they feel constantly in the Middle East. People look at each other with kind eyes, they speak to each other lovingly. There is peace, there is communication and there is brotherhood and sisterhood. That did not seem real to them. One member of the delegation wrote to me and said, “Thay, we spent two weeks in paradise.” Another person wrote to me before leav­ing Plum Village and said, “Thay, this is the first time that I believe peace is possible in the Middle East.” We did not do much. We just embraced our friends who had come from the Middle East as brothers and sisters. They learned to walk mindfully with us, to breathe in and out mindfully with us, to try to stop and to be there in the present moment to get in touch with what is pleasant, nour­ishing, and healing around them and within themselves. The practice is very simple. Supported by a practicing Sangha it was possible for them to succeed and to feel that peace and happiness could be touched within each of themselves.

The basic practice is to do everything mindfully, whether you breathe or walk or brush your teeth or use the toilet or chop the vegetables. We try to do everything mindfully, to establish ourselves in the here and the now in order to touch life deeply. That is the basic daily practice. On that ground our friends learned to practice listening deeply to the other people. We offered our support because many of us are capable of listening with com­passion. We sat with them and we practiced listening with com­passion in our heart. People had the chance to speak about their fear, their anger, their hatred and despair. They felt for the first time that they were listened to, they were being understood and that could relieve a lot of suffering within them.

Those who spoke were trained to speak in such a way that could be understandable and accepted by the other side. We have the right and the duty to tell everything within our heart. With the practice of mindful breathing we try to say it in a calm way, not condemning anyone, not judging anyone. Just telling the other side all the suffering that has happened to us, to our children, to our societies, all our fear and our despair. We learn to listen deeply, opening our heart with the intention to help the other people to express themselves. We know that listening like that is very healing. Two weeks of practice of deep listening and using loving speech brought a lot of joy, not only to the group but to all of us in Plum Village. Before going back to the Middle East, our friends promised us that they will continue the practice. On the local level, they will organize weekly meetings where they can walk, sit together and breathe together, sharing a meal and listen to each other. And every month they will have a national event to do the same. We promise that we will offer our support.

We know that the practice of compassionate listening and the practice of loving speech can bring us a lot of relief from our suffering. We can open the door of our heart and restore commu­nication. This is a very important practice. We suffer and we do violence to each other just because we cannot understand each other’s suffering. We believe that we are the only people who suffer. We think that the other side does not suffer. We believe that they only enjoy our suffering. That is why the basic practice of peace is the practice of restoring communication. For that we should use deep listening, compassionate listening and kind and loving speech. It would be very beneficial to set up an environ­ment like the one in Plum Village so that this kind of loving speech and deep listening could be possible.

Negotiations for Peace 

When you come to a negotiation table you want peace, you have hope for peace. But if you do not master the art of compas­sionate listening and loving speech it is very difficult for you to get concrete results. In us there is an obstruction of hatred, fear and pain which prevents us from communicating, understanding one another and making peace.

I beg the nations and the governments who would like to bring peace to the Middle East to pay attention to this fact. We need them to organize so that peace negotiations will be fruitful. They should know that creating a setting where the practice of restoring communication can be done is a very important factor for success. They may have to spend one month or two just for people to listen to each other. We are not in a hurry to reach a conclusion or an agreement about what to do for peace to be possible. One month or two months is nothing. With the practice of deep listening and kind and loving speech it can dissolve a lot of bitterness, a lot of fear and prejudice in the hearts of the people. Then when people are capable of communicating with each other, peace will be much easier.

I remember a number of years ago when I went to India and had the opportunity to meet with the chairperson of the Indian parliament, Mr. Narayan. We discussed the practice of compas­sionate listening and kind speech in the congress. He was very attentive to what I had to say. I said, “Mr. President, maybe it is good to begin every session with the practice of mindful breath­ing. Then a few lines could be read to bring awareness into everyone’s mind, such as: ‘Dear colleagues, the people who have elected us expect that we will communicate with each other deeply using kind and respectful speech and deep listening in order to share our insight. This will enable the congress to make the best decisions for the benefit of the nation and the people.’ It may take less than one minute to read such a text. And something like the bell of mindfulness could be used. Everytime the debate is too hot, if people are insulting each other and condemning each other, then the chairperson may invite the bell of mindfulness inviting everyone to breathe in and out — breathing in calming, breathing out smiling — until the atmosphere of the congress becomes calm. Then the one who is speaking is invited to continue his or her speech.”

Mr. Narayan was very attentive to what I said. He invited me to come back and address the Indian parliament on that issue. Ten days later I was leading a retreat of mindfulness in Madras and someone brought me a newspaper. There was an article an­nouncing that the President had set up a committee on communi­cation for the parliament, to develop the practice of deep listening and loving speech in the congress. In that committee different parties were represented and also the Prime Minister was included. Mr. Narayan is no longer the chair of the parliament because he has become the president of India.

I think we may like to write our senators and representatives so that in the U.S. Congress they may try to practice deep listen­ing and loving speech. I would like to vote for those who have the capacity to listen and to use loving speech. I would suggest that in the Senate and in the House of Representatives there should be a committee on deep listening and loving speech. Not only should they listen to their own colleagues in the Congress but also they should listen to the suffering of people in their own country and to the suffering of people a little bit everywhere in the world. It is not easy to listen with compassion. The quality of deep listening is the fruit of practice. If we don’t train ourselves it is very difficult to listen to the other person or people. We know there are many couples who can not listen to each other. There are fathers who are incapable of communicating with their sons and daughters. There are mothers who are not able to talk to their children, even if they want to very much. They deeply wish that they could communicate with their daughter and their son or their partner but they can not do so. They may be determined to use loving speech and compassionate listening. But without training they may give up after just a few minutes of listening or trying to tell what is in their hearts. The blocks of pain and anger may be so big and important in their hearts that as they continue to listen, what they hear touches and waters the seeds of anger, of violence and of despair in them. They are no longer capable of listening anymore, even if they have a lot of willingness to do so.

For the person who is determined to speak with loving kind­ness, we know that goodwill is there. But as she or he continues to speak, the block of suffering, of despair, of irritation and of anger are touched in them. That is why very soon their speech will be full of judgment, blaming and irritation, and the other per­son cannot bear to listen. If we do not train in the art of compas­sionate listening and loving speech we cannot do it. But if we have a great determination, then five days may be enough to restore communication between the other person and ourselves. In the case of our Palestinian friends and our Israeli friends, two weeks was enough for them to understand and to accept each other as brothers and sisters. Two weeks was enough for them to have hope.

The Secret of Listening

The secret of success is that when you listen to the other person you have only one purpose. Your only purpose is to offer him or her an opportunity to empty his or her heart. If you are able to keep that awareness and compassion alive in you, then you can sit for one hour and listen even if what the other person says contains a lot of wrong perceptions, condemnations and bitter­ness. You can continue to listen because you are already pro­tected by the nectar of compassion in your heart. If you do not practice mindful breathing in order to keep that compassion alive you lose your capacity of listening. Irritation and anger will come up and the other person will see it and he or she will not be able to continue. We have the awareness that listening like this has only one purpose: allowing the other person a chance to empty his or her heart. If we are capable of keeping that awareness alive dur­ing the time of listening then we are safe, because compassion will always be there if that awareness is still there.

We do not try to correct the wrong perceptions of the other person while listening. We just say, “I am sorry you have suf­fered so much.” Later on, maybe in a few days or weeks, we will find an appropriate occasion to offer some information to help the other person or people correct their perceptions. But we do not try to correct all of their misperceptions at one time. Truth heals, but it should be released in small doses over time, like a medicine. If you force the other person to drink all the medicine at one time, he will die.

I am sure that all of us here know that hatred, anger and violence can only be neutralized and healed with one substance. That is compassion. The antidote of violence and hatred is com­passion. There is no other medicine. Unfortunately, compassion is not available in supermarkets. You have to generate the nectar of compassion in your heart. The teaching of the Buddha gives us very concrete means in order to generate the energy of com­passion. If understanding is there, compassion will be born, and understanding is the fruit of looking deeply. Do we have the time to stop and look deeply into our situation, into the situation of the other person, into the situation of the other group of people? If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, by our uncertainty, by our craving, how can we have the time to stop and to look deeply into the situation? How can we look into our own situation, the situation of our beloved one, the situation of our family, of our community, of our nation and of the other nations? Looking deeply we find out that not only do we suffer, but also the other person suffers deeply. Not only our group suffers but the other group also suffers deeply. If that kind of awareness is born we will know that punishing is not the answer.

Our Basic Practice

All violence is injustice. We should not inflict that injustice on us and on the other person, on the other group of people. The one who wants to punish is inhabited by violence. The one who enjoys the suffering of the other person is inhabited by the energy of violence. We know that violence cannot be ended with violence. It is the Buddha who said that responding to hatred with hatred can only increase hatred by a thousandfold. Only by responding to hatred with compassion can we disintegrate hatred. What should we do in order for the energy of compassion to be born? That is our practice every day. How to be nourished by the nectar of compassion and the nectar of understanding? That is our basic practice.

During the war in Vietnam we suffered terribly. And yet our practice allowed us to see that our world is still beautiful with all the wonders of life available. There were moments when we wished there would be a cease-fire for twenty-four hours. if we were given twenty-four hours of peace we would be able to breathe in and out and smile to the flowers and the blue sky. And even the flowers have the courage to bloom. Twenty-four hours of peace — that is what we wanted, badly, during the time of war.

When I came to the West in 1966 to call for a cessation to the war I was not allowed by my government to go home. Suddenly I was cut off from alI my friends, my disciples, my Sangha in Vietnam. I dreamed of going home almost every night. I would wake up in the middle of the dream and realize that I was in exile. During that time I was practicing mindfulness. I practiced to be in touch with what was there in Europe and in America. I learned to be with children and adults. I learned to contemplate the trees and the singing of the birds. Everything seemed different from what we knew in Vietnam. And yet the wonders of life were avail­able there. To me the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha is always available even if suffering is still there. It is possible for us to touch the Kingdom of God in our daily life and to get nourishment and healing so that we will have enough strength and hope to repair the damage caused by violence and war. If we do not receive nourishment we will be the victims of despair. That was my awareness.

During the war in Vietnam the young people came to me many times and asked. “Thay, do you think there will be an end to the war?” I could not answer them right away. I practiced mindful breathing in and out. After a long time I looked at them and said, “My dear friends, the Buddha said everything is impermanent, including war.”

Touching Suffering 

Let us practice peace and bring hope to the nation and to the world. To me the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. The Pure Land is not a place where there is no suffer­ing. I myself would not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. Because I know without suffering we will have no chance to learn how to understand and to be compassionate. It is by being in touch with suffering that we can cultivate our under­standing and our compassion. If suffering is not there, under­standing and compassion will not be there either and it will not he the Pure Land of the Buddha. It could not be the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. My definition of the Kingdom of God is the place where there is understanding and compassion. The Pure Land of the Buddha is the place where there is understanding and com­passion. We know that to cultivate understanding and compas­sion we need to be in touch with suffering.

In Plum Village we have three hamlets. In each hamlet there is a lotus pond. Every summer when you come you will see beauti­ful lotus flowers. We know that in order for the lotus to grow you need mud. You cannot plant a lotus on marble. You have to plant it on mud. Looking into the beautiful and fragrant lotus flower, you see the mud. Mud and lotus, they inter-are. Without one the other cannot be, that is the teaching of the Buddha. This is be­cause that is. Suffering is needed for understanding and compas­sion to be born. It’s like garbage and flowers. Looking into a flower, you see that a flower is made only of non-flower elements: sunshine, rain, the earth, the minerals and also the compost. You can see that the element garbage is one of the non-flower ele­ments that have helped the flower to manifest herself. If you are a good practitioner, looking into the flower you can see the gar­bage in it right in the here and the now, just as you can see the sunshine and the rain in it. If you remove the sunshine from the flower, there will be no flower. If you remove the rain from the flower, the flower cannot be there. If you remove the garbage from the flower, then the flower cannot be there. Look at the beautiful lotus flower. If you remove the mud from it, it cannot be there for you. This is because that is.

Our practice is to accept suffering and to learn to transform suffering hack into hope, into compassion. We work exactly like an organic gardener. They know that it is possible to transform garbage back into flowers. Let us learn to look at our suffering, the suffering of our world, as a kind of compost. From that mud we can create beautiful, fragrant lotuses — understanding and compassion. Together we can cultivate the flower of understand­ing and compassion together. I am sure that everyone has had the feeling that the Kingdom of God is somewhere very close. The Pure Land of the Buddha is also close. All the wonders of life are there.

Nourishing Peace and Joy 

mb30-dharma2This morning I picked up a branch of flowers on the path of walking meditation and I gave it to a monk who was on my left. I told him. “This belongs to the Pure Land of the. Buddha. Only the Pure Land of the Buddha has such a beautiful branch of flowers. Only the Kingdom of God has such a miracle as this branch of flowers.” The blue skies, the beautiful vegetation, the lovely face of your child, the song of the birds, all of these things belong to the Pure Land of the Buddha. If we are free enough we can step into the Kingdom of God and enjoy walking in it. It is my practice to enjoy walking in the Kingdom of God every day, to enjoy walking in the Pure Land of the Buddha every day. Even if I am aware that suf­fering is there; anger and hatred are there, it is still possible for me to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. I can tell you that there is no day when I do not enjoy walking in the Kingdom of God.

Every step should bring me peace and joy. I need it in order to continue my work, my work to build up more brotherhood, more understanding, and more com­passion. Without that kind of nourishment, how can you continue? Going back to the present moment, become fully alive. Don’t run anymore. Go back to the here and the now and get in touch with the wonders of life that are available for our nourishment and healing. This is the basic prac­tice of peace. If we can do that we have enough strength and joy to help repair the damage caused by the war, by violence and hatred, by misunderstanding. And we will know exactly how to live our daily life in order not to contribute to the kind of action leading to more discrimination and more war, to more violence. Living in such a way that we can embody peace, that we can be peace in every moment of our daily life. It is possible for everyone to generate the energy of peace in every step. Peace is every step. If you know that the Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, why do you have to run anymore?

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In the Gospel there is a parable of a person who discovered a treasure in a field. After that he got rid of everything in order to buy this field. When you are able to touch the Kingdom of God, to get in touch with the wonders of life that are available in the here and the now, you can very easily release everything else. You do not want to run anymore. We have been running after the objects of our desire: fame, profit, and power. We think they are essential to our happiness. But we know that our running has brought us a lot of suffering. We have not had the chance to live, to love and take care of our loved ones because we cannot stop running. We run even when we sleep. That is why the Buddha advises us to stop. According to the teaching, it is possible to be happy right in the here and the now. Going back to the here and the now with your mindful breathing and mindful walking, you will recognize many conditions of happiness that are already avail­able. You can be happy right here and now.

You know that the future is a notion. The future is made only with one substance, that is the present. If you are taking good care of the present moment, why do you have to worry about the future? By taking care of the present you are doing everything you can to assure a good future. Is there anything else to do? We should live our present moment in such a way that peace and joy may be possible in the here and the now — that love and under­standing may be possible. That is all that we can do for the fu­ture.

When we are capable of tasting true happiness and peace. it is very easy to trans­form the anger in us. We don’t have to fight anymore. Our an­ger begins to dissolve in us because we are able to bring into our body and into our con­sciousness elements of peace and joy every day. Mindfulness helps us not to bring into our body and into our consciousness elements of war and violence. That is the basic practice in order to transform the anger, the fear and the violence within us. 

Mindful Consumption 

The Buddha spoke about the path of emancipation in terms of consumption. Perhaps you have heard of a discourse called The Discourse on the Son’s Flesh. In that discourse the Buddha described four kinds of nutriments. If we know the nature of our food, if we are aware of what we are consuming every day, then we can transform the suffering that is inside of us and around us. I would like to tell you a little bit about this discourse. I wish to translate it and offer concrete exercises of practice.

The first kind of nutriment the Buddha spoke about is edible food. He advised us to eat mindfully so that compassion can be maintained in our heart. He knew that compassion is the only kind of energy that helps us to relate to other living beings, in­cluding human beings. Whatever we eat or drink, whatever we ingest in terms of edible food should not contain the toxins that will destroy our body. He used the example of a young couple who wanted to flee their country and to live in another country. The young couple brought their little boy with them and a quan­tity of food with them. But halfway through the desert they ran out of food. They knew that they were going to die. After much debate they decided to kill the little boy and to eat his flesh. The title of the sutra is, The Son’s Flesh. They killed the little boy and they ate one piece of that flesh and they preserved the rest on their shoulders for the sun to dry. Every time they ate a piece of flesh of their son they asked the question, “Where is our beloved son now? Where are you, our beloved son?” They beat their chests and they pulled their hair. They suffered tremendously. But finally they were able to cross the desert and enter the other country.

The Buddha turned to his monks and asked, “Dear friends, do you think the couple enjoyed eating the flesh of their son?” And the monks said, “No, how could anyone enjoy eating the flesh of their own son?” The Buddha said, if we do not consume mindfully we are eating the flesh of our own son or daughter.

This body has been transmitted to us by our parents. If we bring into it poisons and toxins we destroy this body and we are eating the flesh of our mother, our father and our ancestors. If we destroy our body by unmindful eating and consuming we eat the flesh of our son and daughter and their children also. UNESCO reported that 40,000 children die every day because they do not have enough to eat. And many of us overeat in the West. We are eating the flesh of these children. We have been using a lot of wheat and oats in order to fabricate meat. The way we raise animals for food is very violent. We destroy Mother Earth. Eat­ing can be very violent.

Report on U.S. Resources

I have a report on how we use our land and water and for­ests in the United States of America for food.

Land: Of all agricultural land in the U.S., 87% is used to raise animals for food. That is 45% of the total land mass in the US.

Water: More than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. for all purposes is used to raise animals for food. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat. That is 25 versus 2,500 gal­lons of water. A totally vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat eating diet requires 4,000 gallons of water per day.

Pollution: Raising animals for food causes more water pollu­tion in the U.S. than any other industry. Animals raised for food produce 130 times the excrement of the entire human population, 87,000 pounds per second. Much of the waste from factory farms and slaughterhouses flows into streams and rivers, contaminat­ing water sources.

Deforestation: Each vegetarian saves an acre of trees every year. More than 260 million acres of the U.S. forests have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat. An acre of trees disappears every eight seconds. The tropical rain forests are being destroyed to create grazing land for cattle. Fifty-five square feet of rain forest may be cleared to produce just one quarter pound burger.

Resources: In the U.S. animals raised for food are fed more than 80% of the corn that we grow and more than 95% of the oats. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on earth.

Mindfulness helps us to be aware of what is going on. Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent. We are eating our mother, our father, and our children. We are eating the Earth. That is why the Buddha proposed that we look back into our situation of consumption. We should learn to eat together in such a way that compassion can remain in our hearts. Otherwise we will suffer and we will make ourselves and all species around us suffer deeply. A Dharma discussion should be organized so that the whole society can sit down together and discuss how we produce and consume food. The way out is mindful consump­tion.

The Second Nutriment

The second kind of food that the Buddha spoke about is sensory impressions. We eat with our eyes, our ears, nose, tongue, body and mind: our six sense organs. A television program is food. A conversation is food; music is food; radio is food. When you drive through the city, even if you don’t want to consume you consume anyway. What you see, what you hear is the food. Magazines are food. And these items of consumption might be highly toxic. An article in a magazine or a television program can contain a lot of violence, a lot of anger, a lot of despair. We continue to consume these poisons every day and we allow our children to consume these toxins every day. We are bringing into our consciousness a lot of poisons every day. The seeds of violence, of despair, of craving and hatred in us have been nour­ished by what we consume and have become so important. The country is getting angrier and angrier every day.

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When a child finishes elementary school she has watched about 100,000 acts of violence on television, and she has seen 8,000 murders on television. That is too much. That is the sec­ond kind of food that we consume. We consume thoughts of despair. We consume ideas of craving, of hatred, of despair ev­ery day. The Buddha advises us to be mindful, to refuse the items that can bring craving, despair, hatred and violence into our con­sciousness. He used the image of a cow with skin disease. The skin disease is so serious that the cow does not seem to have any skin anymore. When you bring the cow close to a tree all the tiny living beings will come out and suck the blood on the body of the cow. When you bring the cow close to an ancient wall, all the tiny animals living inside the wall will come out and suck the blood of the cow. The cow has no means for self-protection. If we are not equipped with the practice of mindful consumption we will be like a cow without skin and the toxins of violence, despair and craving will continue to penetrate into us. That is why it is very important to wake up and to reject the kind of production and consumption that is destroying us, destroying our nation, and our young people. Every one of us has to practice. As parents, as schoolteachers, as film makers, as journalists we have to practice looking deeply into our situation and see if we are creating violence every day and if we are offering that not only to the people in our country, but also to people around the world.

The Third Nutriment 

The third nutriment that the Buddha spoke of is volition. Volition is what you want to do the most, your deepest desire. Every one of us has a deepest desire. We have to identify it, we have to call it by its true name. The Buddha had a desire; he wanted to transform all his suffering. He wanted to get enlightened in order to be able to help other people. He did not believe that by being a politician he could help many people, that is why he chose the way of a monk. There are those of us who believe that happi­ness is only possible when we get a lot of money, a lot of fame, a lot of power, and a lot of sex. That kind of desire belongs to the third category of food spoken of by the Buddha.

The Buddha offered this image to illustrate his teaching: There is a young man who loves to be alive, he doesn’t want to die. And yet two very strong men are dragging him to a place where there is a pit of burning charcoal and want to throw him into the glowing embers so he will die.

He resisted but he had to die because the two men were too strong. The Buddha said, “Your deepest desire will bring you either to a place where there is happiness or to hell.” That is why it is very important to look into the nature of your deepest desire, namely volition. The Buddha said that craving will lead you to a lot of suffering, whether there is craving for wealth, sex, power, or fame. But if you have a healthy desire; like the desire to protect life, to protect the environment or to help people to live a simple life with time to take care of yourself, to love and to take care of your beloved ones, that is the kind of desire that will bring you to happiness. But if you are pushed by the craving for fame, for wealth, for power, you will have to suffer a lot. And that desire will drag you into hell, into the pit of glowing embers, and you will have to die.

There are people everywhere in the world that consider ven­geance as their deepest desire. They become terrorists. When we have hatred and vengeance as our deepest desire, we will suffer terribly also, like the young person who has been dragged by the two strong men to be thrown into the pit of glowing em­bers. Our deepest desire should be to love, to help and not to revenge, not to punish, not to kill. And I am confident that New Yorkers have that wisdom. Hatred can never answer hatred; all violence is injustice. Responding to violence with violence can only bring more violence and injustice, more suffering, not only to other people but suffering to ourselves. This is wisdom that is in every one of us. We need to breathe deeply, to get calm in order to touch the seed of wisdom. I know that if the seed of wisdom and of compassion of the American people could be watered regu­larly during one week or so, it will bring a lot of relief, it will reduce the anger and the hatred. And America will be able to perform an act of forgiveness that will bring about a great relief to America and to the world. That is why my suggestion is the practice of being calm, being concentrated, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already in us, and learning the art of mindful consumption. This is a true revolution, the only kind of revolution that can help us get out from this difficult situation where violence and hatred prevail.

Looking Deeply 

Our Senate, our Congress has to practice looking deeply. They should help us to make the laws to prohibit the production of items full of anger, full of craving and violence. We should be determined to talk to our children, to make a commitment in our family and in our community to practice mindful consumption. These are the real practices of peace. It is possible for us to practice so that we can get the nourishment and healing in our daily life. It is possible for us to practice embracing the pain, the sorrow, and the violence in us in order to transform.

The basic practice is to be aware of what is going on. By going back to the present moment and taking the time to look deeply and to understand the roots of our suffering, the path of emancipation will be revealed to us. The Buddha said, what has come to be does have a source. When we are able to look deeply into what has come to be and to recognize its source of nutriment you are already on the path of emancipation. What has come to us may be our depression, our despair and our anger. We have been nourished by the kinds of food that are available in our market. We want to consume them. It is not without reason that our depression is there. We have invited it in by our way of unmindful consumption. Looking deeply into our ill-being, the ill-being of our society and identifying the source in terms of con­sumption — that is what the Buddha recommended. Looking deeply into our ill being and identifying the source of nutriment that has brought it into you — that is already the beginning of healing and transformation.

We have to practice looking deeply as a nation if we want to get out of this difficult situation. And our practice will help the other nations to practice. I am sure that America is very capable of punishment. You can send us a bomb; we know you are very capable of doing so. But America is great when America knows how to act with lucidity and compassion. I urge that in these days when we have not been able to overcome the tremendous shock yet, we should not do anything, we should not say anything. We should go home to ourselves and practice mindful breathing and mindful walking to allow ourselves to calm down and to allow lucidity to come, so we can understand the real roots of our suf­fering and the suffering of the world. Only with that understand­ing can compassion arise. America can be a great nation if she knows how to act with compassion instead of punishment. We offer peace. We offer the relief for transformation and healing.

Building a Spiritual Alliance between Vietnam and the United States 

The trade agreement between the United States and Vietnam has been approved by the Congress. It is my deep wish that the American people and the Vietnamese people can be spiritual al­lies. We can practice compassion together. Vietnam and other countries need development, but we also badly need spiritual growth. That we can do together. We have been able to offer mindfulness retreats for war veterans. We have been able to visit prisons in America and to offer the practice and bring hope to the people in prisons. We have offered retreats for peace activists, psychotherapists, and people who work for the environment. We are trying to be your allies in spiritual growth. We know that without a spiritual dimension we cannot really improve the situa­tion of the world. We come together, like tonight, as a family in order to look deeply into our own situation and the situation of the world. There are things we can do. Practicing peace is pos­sible with every step, with every breath. It is possible that we practice together and bring hope and compassion into our daily lives and into the lives of our family, our community, our nation and the world. 

Concrete Steps That America can take to Uproot Terrorism 

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

The proposal in brief:

Following are concrete steps that could be taken by the U.S.A. to uproot terrorism and to ensure the peace and safety of the American people and of people in nations around the world that are in relationship to America. The foundation of the whole pro­cess is communication, listening to the difficulties and experi­ences of those involved and using that understanding to inform our actions.

The first step of the process is to listen to and understand the difficulties of American people. A national Council of Sages could be created. The national Council of Sages would be com­posed of people who have experience in the practice of reconcili­ation and peace making and who are in touch with the suffering and the real situations of people in America. This national Coun­cil of Sages would function as a support for the American govern­ment and the Congress by offering advice and insight as to how to reduce the suffering of people within America.

Secondly, an international Council of Sages would be formed to create a forum for listening to the difficulties and the real situ­ations of groups and nations who are believed to be the base for terrorist activity towards the U.S.A. The understanding gained from listening and looking deeply into the situation would be the foundation for implementing concrete strategies to uproot the causes for terrorism and to begin to take actions to heal the wounds of violence and hatred that have been inflicted on the parties involved.

1. The Practice of ListeningNon 

A Council of Wise People (sages) could be formed to prac­tice listening deeply, without judgement or condemnation to the suffering of people in America. Representatives of people in America who feel they are victims of discrimination, injustice and exclusion should be invited to express themselves before the Council of Sages. People who experience exclusion may include poor people, minorities, immigrants, homeless people, Jews, Mus­lims, the elderly, people with HIV/AIDS and so on.

The Council of Sages should be made up of non-political people who have lived closely with and understand the suffering of the above mentioned people. This practice of deep listening (or compassionate listening) should be conducted in an atmo­sphere of calm and non-fear. It could last from five to eight months or longer. These sessions could be televised so that the Ameri­can people could participate in the practice. The practice will be a success if the concerned people are able to describe their fears, their anger, their hatred, their despair and their hope.

The question could be asked, “What concrete steps can the American Congress and government take to reduce the suffering of the people living in the U.S.A.?” Representatives of diverse groups in America could answer this question with details in the presence of the Council of Sages. After which the Council of Sages could make a presentation to the American government and Congress offering insight into the current situation and con­crete recommendations based on what they have heard from the representatives and their collective wisdom.

Result of the practice: Even before the government and Con­gress begins to do anything to reduce the suffering, a relief will already be obtained, because the people who suffer, for the first time, will feel that they are being listened to and are being under­stood. This practice can already inspire respect on the interna­tional level, because other nations will see that America is ca­pable of listening to the suffering of her own people.

We can learn from the experience of other countries such as South Africa where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to heal the wounds of apartheid. The Commission was headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu and received the support of both blacks and whites as a legitimate forum for understanding and reconciliation to occur. Televised sessions were organized where members of the different racial groups were able to listen to and to be heard by each other, bringing the tangible result that blacks and whites could begin to find a way to coexist peacefully and respectfully together in South Africa. This is a concrete example of the powerful effect that direct and compassionate com­munication can have on a national and international level.

2. The Practice of Non-violent Communication 

In interpersonal relationships we know that open and caring communication is essential for a healthy relationship. On the national and international level honest and non-violent communi­cation is also essential for healthy and supportive relationships to exist between members of a society and between nations.

Following is an example of how the government of the U.S.A. might address the people and countries who are believed to be the base of terrorism:

“You must have suffered terribly, you must have hated us terribly to have done such a thing to us (the September 11, 2001 attack). You must have thought that we were your enemy, that we have tried to discriminate against you and to destroy you as a religion, as a people or as a race. You may believe that we do not recognize your values, that we represent a way of life that op­poses your values. Therefore you may have tried to destroy us in the name of what you believe in. It may be that you have many wrong perceptions about us.

“We believe that we do not have any intention to destroy you or to discriminate against you. But, there may be some things that we have said or done that have given you the impression that we want to discriminate against you or to destroy you. We may have taken actions that have brought harm to you. Please tell us about your suffering and your despair. We want to listen to you and to understand your experience and your perceptions. So that we can recognize and understand what we have done or said that has created misunderstanding and suffering in you.

“We ourselves do not want to live in fear or to suffer and we do not want your people to live in fear or to suffer either. We want you to live in peace, in safety and in dignity because we know that only when you have peace, safety and dignity can we also enjoy peace, safety and dignity. Let us create together an occa­sion for mutual listening and understanding which can be the foundation for real reconciliation and peace.”

3.The Practice of Looking Deeply 

Looking deeply means to use the information and insights gained from listening to the suffering of others to develop a more extensive and in depth understanding of our situation.

A safe and peaceful setting should be arranged for represen­tatives of conflicting groups and nations to practice looking deeply. An international Council of Sages facilitated by spiritual leaders could create such a setting and help conduct the sessions of deep listening and deep looking. Plenty of time should be given to this practice. It may take half a year or more. Sessions of deep looking should be televised so that people in many parts of the world can participate and gain a deeper understanding of the experience and real situations of the participants.

This practice should be conducted as a non-political activity. Therefore, it should be supervised by humanist, humanitarian and spiritual leaders who are known to be free from discrimination and partisanship.

Countries representing the six continents (Africa, North America, South America, Asia, Australia and Pacifica, and Eu­rope) should be invited to sponsor and support this practice.

4. Political, Social and Spiritual Solutions to Conflicts 

Negotiations for peace, reconciliation and mutual coopera­tion between conflicting peoples and nations should be made based on the insights gained from this process, namely deep lis­tening and mutual understanding in order to maintain the peace and safety of all nations. People from various sectors of society in the involved countries should be able to participate in each step of the process by expressing their insights and their support for a peaceful resolution.

Military and political leaders could also participate in these processes by listening to the representatives of various peoples from the nations that are in conflict. But priority would be given to listen to those voices that are not represented already in the decision making processes of the involved nations, for example, citizens who are not military or political leaders. These might include schoolteachers, spiritual leaders, doctors, parents, union workers, business people, artists, writers, children, social work­ers, experienced mediators, psychologists, nurses and so on.

By taking these steps America will show great courage and spiritual strength. If America is capable of such acts of listening and understanding she will be making a great contribution to the peace and safety of the whole world. America will be acting in the spirit and with the support of her forefathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln who made great efforts to pro­mote democracy, mutual respect and understanding among peoples of different backgrounds and beliefs, for the peace and security of everyone.

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Dharma Talk: Immediate Protection

By Thich Nhat Hanh

In the 1960s, American young people marched in the streets, shouting “Make love, not war.” I reflected deeply on this. What kind of love were they speaking of? Was it true love? If it were true love, it would be the opposite of war. If it were only craving, one could not call it “true love.” Making love out of craving is making war at the same time. In 1971, during the war for Bangladesh indepen­dence, soldiers raped 250,000 women; ten percent of these women became pregnant. These soldiers made love and war simultaneously. That kind of love is not true love.

True love contains the elements of mindfulness, protection, and responsibility. It carries the energy of enlightenment, understanding, and compassion. A church has to dispense the teaching on true love to all members of the church and to the children. In the Buddhist teaching, detailed in the third Mindfulness Training, a sexual relationship should not take place without true love and a long-term commitment. We must be aware of the suffering we bring upon ourselves and others when we engage in unmindful sexual activities. We destroy ourselves. We destroy our beloved. We destroy our society.

Mindfulness in the act of loving is true love. This practice of mindfulness can take place today and serve as our immediate protection. All church members should begin today the practice of mindful sexual behaviors. This is what I call immediate protection for ourselves, our community, and our society. The role of church leaders, in my belief, is to first protect themselves and their own community. If not, they cannot help protect others. When we are on an airplane, the attendant reminds us that if there is not enough oxygen, we must put on our own oxygen mask before we help another person. Similarly, our self, our own family, and religious community should be the first target of our practice and action. The elements of awakening and enlightenment need to take place immediately in our own religious commu­nity.

Children and adults should be well-informed about the problems of HIV infection and AIDS. They should be aware of the suffering that can be brought upon the individual, as well as the family, commu­nity, and society, through unmindful sexual activities. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on. What is going on now is a tremendous amount of suffering. In the year 2000, more than five million people died of AIDS; many still weep over this loss. Members of the church must wake the church up to the reality of suffering.

The awareness of suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths emphasized by the Buddha. Next, every member of the church and of the temple has to be aware of the roots of the suffering. This is the second Noble Truth. During the forty-five years of his teaching, the Buddha continued to repeat his state­ment: “I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.” Only when we recognize and acknowl­edge our suffering, can we look deeply into it and discover what has brought it about. It may take one week, two weeks, or three weeks of intense activities before the whole community, the whole church, or the Sangha will wake up to the tragedies of HIV and AIDS in its own community, as well as in the world at large. When the church and all its mem­bers are aware of the reality of suffering and its root causes, we will know what to do and what not to do for protection to be possible. The appropriate course of action can transform our suffering into peace, joy, and libera­tion.

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Daily unmindful con­sumption in our society has contributed greatly to the present suffering. The Buddha said, “Nothing can survive without food.” Love cannot survive without food; neither can suffering. Consequently, if we know to look deeply into the nature of our suffering and to recognize the kind of nutriments that have fed and perpetuated it, we are already on the path of emanci­pation. Entertainment in the media is a deep source of suffering. Movies, television programs, advertise­ments, books, and magazines expose us and our children to a kind of unwholesome nutriment, which we ingest every day via our sense organs, namely eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All of us are subject to invasions of these images, sounds, smells, tastes, and ideas. Unfortunately, these sorts of sounds, sights, and ideas in the media often water the seeds of craving, despair, and violence in our children and in us. There are so many items in the realms of entertainment that have destroyed us and our children. Many are drowned in alcohol, drugs, and sex. Therefore, to be mindful of what we consume—both edible foods and cultural items—is vital. The Fifth Mindfulness Training guides us to look at each nutriment we are about to ingest. If we see that something is toxic, we can refuse to look at it, listen to it, taste it, touch it, or allow it to penetrate into our body and our consciousness. We must practice to ingest only what is nourishing to our bodies and minds. The church has to offer this teaching and practice to all its members. The practice of protecting ourselves and our family is difficult, because the seeds of craving, violence, and anger are so powerful within us. We need the support of the Sangha. With the support of the Sangha, we can practice mindful consumption much more easily. Mindful consumption can bring us joy, peace, understanding, and compassion. We become what we consume.

Mindfulness also plays a critical role in relation­ships and communication. Relationships in the family are only possible if we know how to listen to each other with calm and loving kindness, if we know how to address each other with loving speech. Without the practice of loving speech and mindful listening, the communication between members of the family becomes tenuous. Suffering may result from this lack of communication. Many lose themselves in forget­fulness, and take refuge in sex, alcohol, violence, and tobacco. The problems of HIV infection and AIDS are intricately linked to these issues of poor relation­ship in the family and reckless consumption of sex and drugs. The layman Vimalakirti said, “Because the world is sick, I am sick. Because people suffer, I have to suffer.” The Buddha also made this state­ment. We live in this world not as separated, indi­vidual cells, but as an organism. When the whole world is devastated by the pandemics of HIV infection and AIDS, and many fellow humans are in desperate situations, our sense of responsibility and compassion should be heightened. We should not only call for help from the government and other organizations. Religious leaders need to take active roles in rebuilding our communities and reorganizing our churches by the embodiment of their own practice. The practice should aim to restore the communication between church members, between family members, and between ethnic groups. Com­munication will bring harmony and understanding. Once understanding is there in the church and the community, compassion will be born.

We know that with diseases, medical therapy alone is inadequate. We know that many people with HIV and AIDS are alienated from their own families and society. The church can offer understanding and compassion to people who suffer. They will no longer be lonely and cut off, because they will see that understanding is there, awakening is there, and compassion is there, not as abstract terms or ideas, but as realities. To me, that is the basic practice of the Sangha; that is the basic practice of the church. Without understanding and compassion, we will not be able to help anyone, no matter how talented and well-intentioned we are. Without understanding and compassion, it is difficult for healing to take place.

Thus, the practice of mindfulness should take place in the context of a Sangha—a community of people who strive to live in harmony and awareness. There are many things that we cannot do alone. However, with the presence and support of members of the community, these things can become easier for us to achieve. For example, when we have the Sangha to support us and shine light on us, we can have more success in the practices of sitting medita­tion, walking mediation, mindful eating, and mindful consumption. To me, Sangha building is the most noble task of our time.

In the Buddhist tradition, after we have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we come together every fortnight and recite them. After the recitation, we gather in a circle to have a Dharma discussion, learning more about these Five Trainings. We also discuss and share our personal experiences, in order to find better ways to apply the teaching and the practice of these trainings into our daily life. The Dharma teacher, the priest, or the monk attends the entire discussion session, contributes and guides the Sangha with his or her experiences and insights. If an individual in the Sangha has difficulties, the whole Sangha is available to support that person.

A true Sangha is a community that carries within herself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Dharma. The living Sangha always embodies the living Buddha and the living Dharma. The same must be true with other traditions. The Sangha, with her Sangha eyes, through the practice of mindfulness and deep looking, will be able to understand our situations and prescribe the appropriate course ofpractice for the protection of ourselves, our families, and society.

Today, many young people are leaving the church because the church does not offer them the appropri­ate teaching and the appropriate practice. The church does not respond to their real needs. Renewing the church by dispensing the appropriate teachings and practices is the only way to bring young people back to the church. We need to renew our church, rebuild our communities, and build Sanghas. This is the most basic and important practice. Again, in order to carry out this task, church leaders, whether clergy or laity, should embody the teaching and the practice. Young people do not only listen to our verbal messages. They observe our actions. Thus, we teach not with our sermons or our Dharma talks alone, but we teach through our behavior and our way of life.

Some people contract HIV or AIDS from blood transfusions, but often, the issue of HIV infection and AIDS is an issue of behavior. If mindfulness practice is there, and each person has the Sangha to help him or her be mindful, then we should be able to avoid bringing suffering upon ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society.

I often tell my students and others that the energy of mindfulness, generated by the practice in daily life, is equivalent to the Holy Spirit. The seed of mindfulness is there in each one of us. Once we know how to touch the seed of mindfulness in us through the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful thinking and consuming, then it will become a living source of energy in us. Mindfulness always brings about concentration, insight, understanding, and compassion. The practice brings back the energy of awakening and generates the energy of God in our daily life. I have trained people with terminal illness to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. If you know how to dwell in the here and the now, and invest 100% of yourself into your in-breath and out-breath, you become free of the past and of the future. You can touch the wonders of life right in the present moment. The Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, if you are a free person. This is not political freedom that I am talking about. This is freedom from worries and fear, freedom from the past and the future. If you can establish yourself in the here and the now, you have the basic condition for touching the Kingdom of God. There is not one day that I do not walk in the Kingdom of God. Even when I walk in the railway station, along the Great Wall, or at the airport, I always allow myself the opportunity to walk in the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is where stability is, mindfulness is, understanding is, and compassion is.

Each person has the energy of mindfulness within. Each person has the capacity of dwelling in the here and the now. Once you are fully in the present moment, you touch all the wonders of life that are available within you and around you. Your eyes are wonders of life. Your heart is a wonder of life. The blue sky is a wonder of life. The songs of the birds are wonders of life. If you are available to life, then life will be available to you. All the wonders of the Kingdom of God are available to you today, at this very moment. The Kingdom of God is now or never. Thus the question becomes, are you available to the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God can be touched in every cell of your body. Infinite time and space are available in it, and if you train yourself, it will be possible for you to walk in the Kingdom of God in every cell of your body.

When we are able to touch the Holy Spirit through the energy of mindfulness, we will also be able to have a deeper understanding of our true nature. The Buddha taught that there are two dimen­sions to reality. The first is the Historical Dimension, which we perceive and experience chronologically from birth to death. The second is the Ultimate Dimension, where our true nature is revealed. In Buddhism, we may call the ultimate reality “Nir­vana,” or “Suchness.” In Christianity, we may call it “God.” If you are a Christian, you know that the birth of Jesus does not mean the beginning of Jesus. You cannot say that Jesus only begins to be on that day. If we look deeply into the nature of Jesus Christ, we find that his nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. Birth and death cannot affect him. He is free from birth and death. In Buddhism, we often talk in terms of manifestations rather than creation.

If you look deeply into the notion of creation in terms of manifestation, you may discover many interesting things. I have a box of matches here with me, and I would like to invite you to practice looking deeply into this box of matches, to see whether or not the flame is there. You cannot characterize the flame as nonbeing or nonexistent. The flame is always there. The conditions for the manifestation of the flame are already there. It needs only one more condition. By looking deeply, I can already see the presence of the flame in the box, and I can call on it and make it manifest. “Dear flame, manifest your­self!” I strike the match on the box, and there, the flame manifests herself. It is not a creation. It is only a manifestation.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a manifestation, and the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is also a manifestation. If we know this, we will be able to touch the Living Christ. In the Buddhist teaching, not only the Buddha has the nature of no-birth and no-death, but every one of us, every leaf, every pebble, and every cloud has this nature. Our true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death.

I have learned from my practice that only by touching the Ultimate Reality in us can we transcend fear. I have offered this teaching and practice to numerous people with terminal illness. Many of them have been able to enjoy the time that is left for them to live with joy and peace, and their lives have been prolonged. In certain cases, the doctors told them that they had just three months or so to live, but they took up the practice and they lived fifteen to twenty more years. My wish is that the church will dispense teaching and practice on how to touch our Ultimate Reality to people who have been struck with the HIV/ AIDS, and also to those who have not. We should be able to help members of our community live in such a way that we can all touch Nirvana, that we can all touch the Ultimate Dimension within us in our daily lives. With the learning and the practice, we will be able to touch our true nature of no-birth and no-death. That is the only way to remove fear. Once the wave realizes that her nature—her ground of being—is water, she will transcend all fear of birth and death, being and nonbeing. We can help the people who do not have much time to live, so that they are able to live deeply with joy and solidity for the rest of their lives.

Once we can establish ourselves in the here and the now, and the fear of death is removed, we become the instruments of peace, of God, of Nirvana. We become bodhisattvas—enlightened beings working to free others from their suffering. Those of us who have been struck with HIV/AIDS can become bodhisattvas, helping ourselves and other people, and acquire that energy of healing called bodhicitta, or the mind of love.

During the Vietnam War, numerous Vietnamese and American soldiers and civilians died, and many who survived were deeply affected. Twenty-five years later, the survivors continue to be devastated by this war. I have offered a number of retreats to American war veterans. I tell them that they can become bodhisattvas because they already know what the suffering of war is about. I advise them that they should play the role of the flame on the tip of the candle. It is hot, but it will help create the awareness, the realization, that war is what we do not want. We want the opposite. We want true love. Each person can transform into a bodhisattva, creating the awareness in his or her own people, so that we will never have a war like this one again. Your life will have a new meaning and the energy of true love will guide you.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to end suffering and attain well-being. This path you have chosen to end suffering—your own and others’— is the bodhisattva path. Not only can you transcend the suffering of the past, but you bring joy and peace to yourself and your beloved ones, because you are helping to awaken people in your own community and society. The war veterans can practice creating awareness and waking people up, and the people who have been struck by HIV and AIDS can do likewise. Once motivated by the desire to work for true love, we can engage our daily lives in the activities that awaken and embrace others as well as ourselves. The work of a bodhisattva will help our healing process to take place very quickly. Our lives may become longer and of deeper quality than the lives of many who do not have HIV or AIDS.

Everything I have said comes from the experience of my own practice. I do not tell you things that I have read in books. It is possible for us to install immediate protection today, for ourselves, our families, and our communities. It is possible to provide understanding and compassion to those who suffer, so that everyone has the appropriate opportu­nities and conditions to heal. It is possible to experi­ence the Kingdom of God in the here and the now. It is possible to help the world heal as we are healing ourselves. Whatever our religious background, we must practice in such a way that we bring forth understanding, compassion, true love, and non-fear, so that possibilities become actualities. If our practice does not yield these flowers and fruits, it is not true practice. We must have the courage to ask ourselves: “Is our practice correct? Do we generate understand­ing, awakening, and compassion every day?” If we do not, we have to change our way of teaching and our way of practicing.

To me, the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, representing the energy of mindfulness, of awakening to the reality of suffering. We have to bring the Holy Spirit back to our religious communities in order for people to have true faith and direction. I sincerely believe that Sangha building is the way. It is the most noble task of the twenty-first century. Not only church leaders, but health professionals, gays and lesbians, schoolteachers, and members of different ethnicity should build Sanghas. Please reflect on this. The practice of Sangha building is the practice of giving humanity a refuge, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. When the Holy Spirit manifests in our church, God is with us.

Enjoy your breath, enjoy your steps, while we are still together as a Sangha. 

This article is from a talk given at the White House Summit on AIDS on December 1, 2000.

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Give the Priceless Gift this Season: A Holiday Letter From Br. Pháp Dung

Dear Beloved Thầy,
Dear Sanghas throughout the World,
Dear Dharma Brothers and Sisters,

Our loving Mother Earth is still there for us, right beneath our two feet. She is a miracle, a jewel in the cosmos, refreshing and healing. She has shown unlimited patience throughout human history and an uncanny ability to transform just about anything with equanimity and acceptance. She is now calling us for help. She is suffering from our human activities based on our craving, discrimination, fear, and despair.

The Gift of Practice – This holiday season, we have a chance to express our love and care for Mother Earth by the way we care for our self, our family and our environment. We can practice mindfulness to care for our inner environment, our feelings and our emotions so that we do not lose our self in worries about the future or regrets about the past, or lose our self with our feelings and thinking in the present moment. We practice in such a way that we are peaceful, free and happy right in the here and now. We can practice to be more relaxed in our body and mind as we drive our car to work, or cook for our family, or play with our friends, or even rest when we return home. We can look deeply into our relationships with our loved ones, with our environment, our neighborhood, and our workplace and find skillful ways to care, to renew and to improve them. Care is a priceless gift.

You have enough

Having Enough – Concretely this Holiday Season, we invite you to make an effort to find ways that you can give a gift that does not require you to spend a lot of money or even any at all. The greatest gift is, of course, our practice, our true presence, our understanding and love. The giving of this gift will require more effort, more creativity, and deeper looking into your beloved. You can make something. You can surprise him or her with a message that has been waiting for so long. “Dear Father, I know you are there and I am happy.” “My son, I am here for you completely.” “My dear, I am sorry; let us begin a new chapter.” “Dear Mother Earth, I take refuge in you and bow down deeply.” A reminder, a memory, a simple attention with skillfulness in expression can touch and transform. Understanding and compassion cannot be bought.

This is an invitation to all practitioners throughout the world to join us this Season for a silent resistance – to the mass pressure to consume, to the forces that cause us to run away from our self in forgetfulness. Let us change the way we spend our Holiday Season this winter. Let us show our care for the planet in concrete ways. Let us say to Mother Earth that She can have trust in us. And please share this with the larger community by writing about your priceless gift: your gift of practice; your gift of transformation.

Please post your insights below.

With trust and confidence in your own practice,

Brother Pháp Dung for the Plum Village Community