Occupy Oneself, Occupy the World

By T. Ambrose Desmond

When my wife Annie and I first arrived at Occupy Wall Street in New York, I felt a powerful sense of arriving in the beautiful present moment. Surrounded by towering stone and glass buildings in which so much wealth is exchanged, Zuccotti Park was overflowing with a sense of hope. The park was crowded with people and signs, drums and brass bands, a medical station, information tables, and an outdoor kitchen that fed everyone. It was also swarming with television crews.

Annie and I walked mindfully to the southeast corner of the park, where about a hundred people were sitting down for a silent meditation. I sat with one hand on my heart and one hand touching the earth. As I breathed, I took the grounding energy of the earth into my heart and radiated it out to everyone in the park. After forty minutes, a woman took out a Native American drum and played a heartbeat while we chanted over and over, in English and then in Spanish: Because we love you so much. Porque te queremos tanto.

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The heart of the Occupy movement is deep listening, despite how the media chooses to portray it. It’s about creating spaces where people who are concerned about “the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression” (1) come together and dialogue about what to do. The movement offers no demands because demands would end the discussion. So many people in the world are concerned about the suffering caused by our economic and political system, but we may not agree about how to respond to this suffering. Before the Occupy movement, public political discourse was largely relegated to the media, which had created a situation of increasingly deepened division. The Occupy movement provides spaces for people with different views to meet in person and connect. Although many people who come to these spaces are not yet skilled in listening, there are many others who are trying to help us all “renounce fanaticism and narrowness through compassionate dialogue.”(2)

Room for Everyone

Most of my involvement with Occupy Wall Street has been in facilitating consensus meetings and mediating conflicts. One of the most difficult conflicts was about the nearly constant drum circle on the west side of the park. The neighbors had begun to complain about the drums, which often continued at high decibels into the night. Many of the working groups (which did all the organizing) were complaining too, because it had become nearly impossible to have a meeting anywhere in the park due to the noise. Complicating the situation, many of the drummers had been homeless for a long time before coming to the park, and many were mentally unstable.

We held a meeting with several drummers, a representative from the working groups, and a representative from the neighbors in a kosher cafe near the park. At one point, the local woman who represented the neighbors talked about how hard it was for her kids to do their homework while the drummers played. Jim, one of the drummers, started screaming at her. He told her she was “collateral damage” and was trying to oppress him, and that there was no place for her in the revolution. When the representative from the working groups said he wanted there to be a place for her and that she was part of the 99%, Jim shouted that he didn’t care about the 99% and was here for his own revolution.

The other customers in the cafe looked afraid and began leaving. The cafe manager also looked upset. I felt angry at Jim and wanted to make him stop yelling. Thanks to the practice, I have a strong habit of stopping and breathing when I feel anger. As I breathed, I heard a voice within me ask for love and support. I sent the energy of compassion to myself and my heart softened.

When I looked at Jim again, he no longer looked like a bully who needed to be stopped, but like a man in deep pain who wanted to be loved. I made eye contact with him and his face softened immediately. I said, “Jim, I’m so happy to see how deeply you care about changing the world for the better. I also know that it will be possible to do that in a way that makes room for everyone’s needs. Can we start focusing on figuring out how to work together?” Everyone nodded and looked anxiously at Jim. He smiled and his face resembled a scared child’s, but he nodded too. The tone of the meeting changed, and a week later we had an agreement that the drummers would play for two hours each day at the park and then march around the city for the rest of the day.

I feel so deeply fortunate for this practice that transforms not only my life, but also the world.

1 From the 13th of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings
2 From the 3rd of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings

mb63-Occupy2T. Ambrose Desmond, True Mountain of Joy, lives part- time in New York, working as an organizer in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and part-time at MorningSun Mindfulness Center in New He also works as a psychotherapist.

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To Enjoy the Craic

Receiving Spiritual Practice in Ireland 

By Paul Lavender

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As I stepped off the plane and into Dublin on a wet and windy April Tuesday to hear Thay’s public talk, “Cooling the Flames,” I was somewhat curious how a teetotal pacifist Buddhist monk would be received in a hard-drinking, strongly Christian culture just beginning to get over years of bloodshed. Well, the answer to my question—at least if the sell-out crowd of two thousand people was anything to go by—was: very well indeed.

Following a calming meditation, Thay clearly and gently explained how the happiness we seek is a direct result of generating understanding and compassion. Moreover, as everyone has the seed of understanding and compassion, everyone has the potential to be happy. However, this seed needs to be watered by people who have first watered it in themselves. This gives our life a spiritual dimension.

For Happiness, Embrace Suffering

Thay went on to explain that nations, not only individuals, need such a spiritual dimension. After all, as the great Irish writer James Joyce put it: “Nations have their ego, just like individuals.” For a nation, the first step in this practice is the same as for an individual: to embrace one’s own suffering. Without doing this, it’s impossible to understand the suffering of others.

Thay explained that he was in New York during 9/11. His advice to a nation bound tightly by immense pain and in deep shock was clear: first, calm the overwhelming fear and anger that had taken hold. Without doing this, both the individuals and the nation would engage in destructive actions. I glanced at a leaflet a lady had pressed into my hand outside the building barely an hour earlier that read: “One day’s war in Afghanistan could fund 100,000 nurses in the UK.” I’m sure a lot of politicians who failed to hear or heed that warning were regretting it now.

Once the mind is calm, Thay explained, the process of deep listening begins. Here, we just listen, attempt to understand, and say nothing. Even if the person has distorted ideas, we say nothing until we have understood their view. I was instantly reminded of another of Ireland’s great literary sons, Oscar Wilde, who said, “If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society here would be quite civilized.” I wondered if he’d be happy to know the second part was currently underway.

Thay, seemingly aware that embracing one’s own suffering may not sound like the most fun to have on an evening in Dublin, clearly explained how this practice is both pleasant and easy. Understanding comes from being aware or mindful. If we’re mindful of the causes of our suffering, we’re also aware of the conditions for our happiness that are present: our eyes, our healthy heart, or simply having enough food for breakfast. When we get hurt, mindfulness protects us by stopping our own conceptions that exaggerate the pain. Mindfulness allows us to see that the causes of our happiness greatly outweigh the causes of our suffering, and we naturally become happy and appreciative. Thay pointed out that when one experiences this, then it’s impossible to view fame, wealth, and so forth as causes of happiness. Looking at the beaming and peaceful monks and nuns on the stage, it was hard to argue.

Towards the end of the talk, Thay described his studies of the gospels, and how he saw Jesus as a teacher of mindfulness. He lamented that the view of Jesus as a teacher offering practical advice is sometimes lost. This struck me particularly hard. Thay had perfectly laid out the need for a spiritual path in the lives of nations and individuals, but instead of pulling out a new, ready-made spiritual path like some television chef, he showed how these qualities are present in the religion already here.

And how did this go down with the audience? Well, I never thought I’d witness a rush on Zen calligraphy in my life, but the one I saw after that talk would have shamed hordes of old ladies on sales day. Everybody wanted, as Sister Chan Khong put it, to “take a piece of Thay home” with them. As if by way of confirmation, at breakfast the next morning I was greeted by a large picture of Thay looking serene on the front page of The Irish Times.

All Potential Buddhas

It was clear to me that the baggage I’d arrived with was not merely the suitcases. I’d brought a whole bunch of stereotypes that led me to see contradictions between the archetypal Irish and archetypal Zen practitioner. Thay had blown those out of the water, and now, in the warmth of an Irish bar, I wondered what else my preconceptions had caused me to miss. What are the parts of Irish culture entwined with understanding and compassion?

I glanced around the bar at the people enjoying themselves and the singer clearly loving his job, and realized places like these are probably Ireland’s most successful export. Irish bars spring up over the world like mushrooms. But why? I hardly know anyone outside of the UK who would order Guinness, so it’s not for the beer. Then, it hit me—the craic (pronounced “crack”)! A word so associated with Ireland that there’s no translation to English. It means the easygoing, constant laughter and chatter. The next person through the door is welcome, wherever they come from. Ireland has basically exported places where you can go, enjoy companionship, and if you’ve had a bad day, hopefully get some understanding and compassion.

Then, like dominoes, the pieces started to fall: surely there is almost no greater example of reconciliation and deep listening than the Northern Ireland peace process. A four-hundred-year-old bloody conflict over governance was laid to rest through the power of diplomacy. When Thay described how America could practice deep listening with the perpetrators of 9/11, I intellectually understood and agreed. Simultaneously, I physically felt my anger towards those people. I don’t know if I could sit opposite one of them and remain calm. But that’s exactly what had happened here. Each group had infinite amounts of “righteous anger” to direct at the other, but they put this aside for peace. Gerry Adams, leader of Republican Sinn Fein, recognized at the conclusion of the peace talks that all conflicts can be solved by dialogue.

I’ve heard Thay speak in four countries, and I’ve never seen him change his style to meet the local culture. At first I found this odd, but reasoned that he teaches universal truths, which don’t change. In Ireland, as I watched him smile at two thousand people with the opening “Dear friends,” I realized the truth is more profound. I believe he sees potential Buddhas—some speak a different language, some live farther away, some have differently colored skin—and they are all the same in their potential to develop understanding and compassion.

The stereotypes I’d brought with me were amusing and not entirely subjective (I come from Wales—an equally beer- and rugby-obsessed nation with an accent no one understands), and they probably held a grain of truth. Nevertheless, they’d also caused me to doubt whether mindfulness practice could take hold in a country that’s already shown the best examples of how to practice openness and deep listening in good times and bad. These stereotypes were more dangerous than I realized! I wondered how many times I’d been guilty of stereotyping others rather than focusing on their accomplishments and potential. Perhaps even more damaging, how many times had I done that to myself?

It seems to me that on that evening in Dublin, a nation and an individual each received a spiritual practice. To practice, you need opportunities. Ireland has them aplenty: with the appalling handling of the Euro crisis and recent revelations about widespread child abuse, righteous anger seems, well, right. On a smaller scale, my limiting beliefs about myself, others, and entire nations seem, well, unlimited. I like to take to heart Thay’s advice that the practice should be fun, or as the Irish would say, “to enjoy the craic.” And to remember Oscar Wilde’s words: “Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future.”

Paul Lavender left Wales around ten years ago to go traveling and never made it back. He now lives in Switzerland with his wife and baby daughter. He’s attended talks by Thay in several countries and a three-week Summer Retreat in Plum Village. Paul is also a volunteer copy editor for the Mindfulness Bell.

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

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Her original name is Phuong; her monastic name is Chan Khong (True Emptiness). Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong started Plum Village together in 1982. That Plum Village has become what it is today and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s teachings is, to a great extent, a result of Sister Chan Khong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath.

I first met Thay and Sister Phuong in 1984, during a meditation weekend in Amsterdam. In the evening, there was a special program with Vietnamese music. At one point, the music stopped abruptly, and Sister Phuong began to sing. I was deeply touched by her voice. Never had I heard someone sing like that. She sang my heart open, and I cried and cried, not understanding what was happening to me.

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During the first summer I spent in Plum Village, Sister Phuong wasn’t yet a nun. She had lovely long black hair that, when in her way, she would casually put up in a bun by sticking a pen through it. She warmly welcomed the few Westerners that visited Plum Village in those days, and she did what she could to make us feel at home. At that time, she was the only person able to translate from Vietnamese into English or French. When Thay gave a Dharma talk, or when there was an event in Vietnamese, she would sit next to us and translate for hours on end without ever appearing to get tired. Sister Phuong’s way of translating was so expressive that, even after having translated for hours, her voice sounded as colorful as it did when she began.

mb61-NotDifferent3Three years later, when I moved to Plum Village, I was often the only one during the winter season who didn’t understand Vietnamese. There were about ten of us by then, and after dinner, as we were enjoying countless cups of tea, there was usually a lot of conversation, all in Vietnamese. During those moments, I felt so left out, but when Sister Phuong was around she would always come sit next to me and, while participating wholeheartedly in the conversation, she would translate for me at the same time. I savored those moments in her presence.

She strengthened my confidence that there is always a solution to any problem. One winter, I had promised to make a flower arrangement for a Tea Meditation in the Lower Hamlet. I looked all over and could not find a single flower. When everyone was seated in the zendo and Sister Phuong was about to enter, I ran to her with an empty bowl in my hands, telling her, quite unhappily, that I had not succeeded in making the flower arrangement. Even before I had finished speaking, she picked up some tufts of grass that were growing along the path, added a few handfuls of pebbles from the path we were standing on, picked up a stick lying nearby, planted it in the middle, and . . . voila! Her creation was complete, and the Tea Meditation could begin. While we entered, she gave me a mischievous wink and whispered, “Pure nature.”

As the years passed, more and more people came to Plum Village, and new sleeping quarters needed to be created. One of the places chosen for a future dormitory was the attic of the house where my room was. Cleaning it was a gigantic job, with spider webs from floor to ceiling and the dust of ages everywhere. After cleaning for just a few minutes, I looked like a mineworker. Many hours of scrubbing and sweeping later, I seemed to have made no progress at all. One afternoon, after a few days of lonesome work in that cheerless place, Sister Phuong suddenly appeared, joining me in my work with great swiftness. Her help and enthusiasm were most welcome, but at the same time I felt embarrassed that she was there mopping the floor with me while she had countless other things to do. No matter what I said, she was not at all receptive to my urging that she spend her time in a different way; she continued until the job was done. She never felt that any job was beneath her.

I was often amazed by her inexhaustible energy. If something needed to be finished, she simply continued until it was done, if necessary beyond midnight, without eating and often all by herself. When packages of medicine needed to be sent to Vietnam, she sat for hours on the stone floor, addressing labels and writing uplifting words to each family. Others came and joined her in her work, but when they left she continued. And never have I detected a glimpse of self-pity in her. Despite all she has to do, I never heard her complain that she was too busy. I also never heard her complain of feeling cold, although in the wintertime in the drafty rooms of Plum Village there is certainly reason enough to do so. In early autumn, when I was already wearing two pairs of socks, I saw her walking without any. She never gave the slightest attention to her own discomfort.

mb61-NotDifferent4During a Tea Meditation, many years ago, I remember her telling us that she had just received a message from Vietnam that a number of artists had been imprisoned. She cried openly as she spoke. I felt so touched. While I suffer from my own pain, I saw her suffer from the pain of others. Far more often though, I saw her laughing, because she is very open to the comical aspects of a situation. Once a small group of very important Vietnamese monks from America paid a short visit to Plum Village. On the morning of their departure, we were all, about twelve people, called to the zendo. We sat in a circle while Thay spoke for a while in Vietnamese. We had just adopted a new routine in Plum Village; when someone was leaving, in order to say goodbye to him or her on behalf of the whole Sangha, one of the permanent residents would practice “hugging meditation” with the parting friend during a communal meeting. Hugging meditation is done in the following way: you first bow to each other, aware of your breath and forming a lotus bud with your hands to offer to the other person. Then you embrace the other person, holding him or her during three in- and out-breaths, fully aware of the fact that (1) you yourself are still alive, (2) the friend in your arms is still alive, and (3) you are lucky to be able to hold each other. Well, that morning Thay asked one of the nuns to come up to say goodbye to one of the visiting monks. In the meantime, he explained to the monk how hugging meditation was done. Only those who know the tradition well can gather how revolutionary Thay was at that moment. It was obvious to us that the monk in question was clearly not accustomed to this form of meditation. And certainly not with a nun! They both stood in front of each other. After exchanging a short, uneasy glance, they started bowing very deeply, and the inevitable happened: their heads collided. It took all of us great pains to refrain from laughing out loud; and like us, Sister Phuong sat for a long time with a twisted face that she just couldn’t manage to get back into the right expression, however hard she tried.

mb61-NotDifferent5Though countless practical things continuously demanded her attention, Sister Phuong also kept an eye on how we were doing. And if she suspected that something was wrong with one of us, she asked straightaway about it. Whatever it was she wanted to discuss, she always came immediately to the heart of the matter. When I wanted to tell her something, she usually got the point long before I had finished. Her way of listening was very attentive and without judging. When I spoke with her, I always felt a lot of space. Yet I also know from experience that her way of communicating has its own rules, and at times that has been quite difficult for me. The hardest to digest was her sudden way of stopping a conversation—completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a story, in the middle of a sentence. Since I learned that this moment could arrive at any time, I brought up what I wanted to talk about right away, or else she’d be gone long before I’d touched the topic I’d wanted to discuss. And that would be really bad luck. Because she was so busy, you’d never know when your next chance would be.

She could abruptly cut off a conversation on the telephone as well. Just like that. It has happened to me more than once. In the middle of a sentence, I would suddenly hear “beep, beep, beep” in my ear, the connection having been broken. At first I felt really hurt, but as time passed I learned to see that as her “suchness” and to simply accept it as just one of her many sides.

As far as I could see, the contact between Thay and Sister Phuong was very harmonious and without tension. Once, however, at the end of dinner, Thay spoke to her in an unusually stern voice: “Finish your meal!” Because it was so different from how Thay normally spoke to her or to any of us, I never forgot it. There were a few grains of rice (maybe eight or twelve) left on her plate, and Thay further said something like, “Many people are hungry at this moment.” To my surprise, Sister Phuong, with a look of remorse, proceeded to eat the remaining grains of rice on her plate, without any protest at having been addressed that way.

The first year I lived in Plum Village, Thay was the only monastic. But after their trip to India in 1988, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Chan Vi returned with shaved heads—they had become nuns. This unexpected change was a great shock to me. Thay must have noticed, because soon after their return, when I happened to be alone in a room with him and Sister Chan Khong, he invited me to touch Sister Chan Khong’s head to feel for myself how it felt without hair. While I was very carefully touching her head, she laughed at me in a playful way and then took me warmly into her arms and said, “I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference at all between us.”

I felt that something had changed in Sister Chan Khong. I felt the practice had really become number one in her life and that she had made a vow to try with all her heart to live as mindfully as possible. I noticed, for example, that in the middle of a conversation that was getting too noisy, she would become quieter, or while doing something very quickly, she would suddenly slow down. Because I so clearly felt the change that took place in her, it was quite natural for me to start calling her “Sister” instead of just “Phuong.” Speaking about her new position as a nun, she once told me that she wanted to be careful that she didn’t become proud. She explained to me that in the Vietnamese community this could easily happen because, as a monastic, Vietnamese people have the tendency to look up to you very much.

I have always known Sister Chan Khong as a jack-of-all-trades. According to her, she has much less energy than ten years ago, but when I see how much she takes on, seemingly without any effort, I am truly amazed. During a retreat some years ago in a Tibetan monastery in France, Thay fell ill. From that moment on, Sister Phuong took care of every aspect of the program, including the Dharma talk. On top of that, she cooked twice a day for Thay and the three Plum Village residents who had come to take care of the children’s program. In her remaining time, she was available for retreatants who wanted to discuss their problems with her. And when the children’s program didn’t run so smoothly, she took care of that as well. She was the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, and she continued to be in good spirits.

I have often wondered where her endless supply of energy comes from. I partly attribute it to the fact that she truly lives in the present; from moment to moment she deals with what is coming up, and she doesn’t lose energy in worrying about what may come next, which to me is a reflection of a deeply rooted faith. Even more important though, I think, is her compassion. When she became a nun, she received from Thay the name “Chan Khong,” “True Emptiness.” “My happiness is your happiness” and “your pain is my pain” is something that she truly lives. Seeing the self in the non-self is not a theory for her but the very ground of her being. 

Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I am Home  (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

mb61-NotDifferent6Eveline Beumkes, True Harmony/Peace, lived in Plum Village for three years from 1988 to 1991. She helped to organize the practice in Amsterdam, Holland and helped translate Thay’s books into Dutch. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. 

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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.

Thich Nhat Hanh

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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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Dharma Talk: Cultivating Our Bodhisattva Qualities

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Bodhisattvas are awakened beings. We also have our nature of awakening, no less than they, but we have to train ourselves. One way is to practice invoking the names of four great bodhisattvas—Avalokiteshvara (Regarder of the Cries of the World), Manjushri (Great Understanding), Samantabhadra (Universal Good­ness), and Kshitigarbha (Earth Store). When we recite their names in a deep, relaxed way, every word can touch our hearts and the hearts of those listening. In the beginning, we still feel separate from these bodhisattvas. But, practicing steadily, we realize that we are Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha. It is not important whether they were historic figures, born in such and such a year or in such and such a place. The key is to realize their qualities within ourselves. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

We invoke your name, Avalokiteshvara. We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice. We will sit and listen without judging or reacting. We will sit and listen in order to understand. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.

When we are able to communicate with another person, it is a big relief. We have e-mail, faxes, and telephones. We can send news to the other side of the planet instantly. But communication between parents and children, between those living together has become very difficult. We spend hours on our computer without really looking at the person nearby who loves and cares for us. We are alienated by so many things. Listening deeply helps reestablish the commu­nication between us.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva represents great love, great compassion, and deep listening. When you manifest these qualities, you become the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara vows to listen deeply in order to help relieve the suffering in the world. To listen deeply, you must be one hundred percent present. Listening with all your attention, you release the past and the future, and focus entirely on the other person. We have this ability, but we seldom use it. We are usually lost in the past or the future and listening with just half an ear. The practice is to be present and to listen with one hundred percent of ourselves.

Even when we listen, we may have a notion, a “preju­dice,” about the other person and what she is saying. Our habit energy is to judge whether what she says is correct or not. Then, when she speaks, it isn’t her words we hear, only our judgment. We must learn to be space. Space can hold everything. If we are like a wall, impenetrable, whatever the other person says will just bounce back to her, and she won’t feel relief. A Vietnamese musician said, “We have to be space so that love can enter.” We have to empty ourselves of preconceived ideas in order to be present in the heart of the other, in her fears and difficulties.

A philosopher came to visit a Zen master. While the master was preparing tea, the philosopher talked endlessly, showing the master how much he knew. When the tea was ready, the master poured it into the philosopher’s cup, and he continued pouring even after the cup was full. The tea was flowing all over the table, and the philosopher yelled, “Stop!” The master smiled and said, “Your mind is also overflowing. How can you receive anything from me?”

When people come to a practice center, they may act as though they are quite fine. Only after several days do they begin to share some of their difficulties. What they say, at first, is not the deepest reality, only the surface, because they are afraid of being judged. But if you listen deeply, even when they repeat themselves (not saying, “You already said that”), and try to understand what is being said and also what is being left unsaid, you may be able to see the key point and ask the right questions to help.

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One day I was weeding the garden with a teenager, and he said to me, “Sometimes I see something that is very beautiful, but my mother says it is not beautiful.” I looked deeply into his situation, and I said, “Is there a young lady you think is beautiful but your mother does not?” He was shocked. “How did you know that?” He thought I could read his mind, but when you listen deeply, with all your attention, you can understand many things right away. After that, he revealed the whole story to me, and I had the opportunity to help him. I said, “True beauty is profound. Don’t be attracted just by a smile, hair, or eyes. Try to see the depth of beauty.” I suspected this is what his mother had wanted to tell him, but had not been able to. The aim of deep listening is understanding. When someone is suffering, if she can find one person with the willingness and capacity to sit quietly beside her and listen, that is a great encouragement. Whether what she says is easy to hear or shocking, we don’t reject it. We train ourselves to listen in order to understand. When we listen deeply, we are Avalokiteshvara. When we understand deeply, we are Manjushri. Looking with the eyes of interbeing, we see that Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri are not separate. 

We invoke your name, Manjushri. We aspire to learn your way, which is to be still and to look deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of people. We will look with all our attention and openheartedness. We will look with unprejudiced eyes. We will look without judging or reacting. We will look deeply so that we will be able to see and understand the roots of suffering, the impermanent and selfless nature of all that is. We will practice your way of using the sword of understanding to cut through the bonds of suffering, thus freeing ourselves and other species.

Manjushri Bodhisattva represents great understanding. When you pay respect to the qualities of great wisdom and understanding, you are paying respect to Manjushri, and, at the same time, you are paying homage to these qualities in yourself.

These days everyone is running so quickly. We sit in a silent meal, but we might be still running. Whether we are sitting, walking, standing, or eating, we have to learn to stop. Bodhisattva Manjushri knows how to stop—in order to see deeply into the heart of things and into the hearts of those around him. We have to learn to stop our mind in order to look deeply. As Avalokiteshvara, we learn to listen without prejudice. As Manjushri, we learn to look without judging. To understand the suffering of the Palestinians, for example, Israelis have to learn to look in the way a Palestinian looks. To understand the Israelis, Palestinians must learn to understand an Israeli—his suffering and his fear. After looking deeply in that way, we see that both sides suffer, that each person has anger and fear. If we continue to punish each other, we will not go far. It is better to take the other person’s hand and work together toward a solution that is beneficial for both sides. In our Sanghas, if we notice two members who are unable to look at each other, we have the responsibility to help them communicate by practicing stopping and looking deeply, without preju­dice.

When we look deeply, we see and understand the roots of suffering. When we are angry, we say that the other person is at fault, but by looking deeply, we come to understand her suffering, her difficulties, and her fears. We un­derstand why she behaved in that way. We see that we are only the victim of her suffering and our sorrow vanishes. To cut the bonds of ignorance, we must use the sword of understanding every day. If we suffer unnecessarily, it is because we are not using the sword of understanding.

We invoke your name, Samantabhadra. We aspire to practice your vow to act with the eyes and heart of compas­sion; to bring joy to one person in the morning and to ease the pain of one person in the afternoon. We know that the happiness of others is our own happiness, and we aspire to practice joy on the path of service. We know that every word, every look, every action, and every smile can bring happiness to others. We know that if we practice whole heartedly, we ourselves may become an inexhaustible source of peace and joy for our loved ones and for all species.

Samantabhadra is the bodhisattva of great action and universal goodness. He works hard and has the willingness and capacity to help. To act deeply, we must understand and love deeply. To save the world, we need the eyes of Manjushri, the heart of Avalokiteshvara, and the hands of Samantabhadra.

People who do not practice suffer a lot. Entering a spiritual practice you feel joyful. If you aren’t a joyful practitioner, look more deeply in order to discover the joy that exists within you. Sometimes one piece of bad news invades our whole mind, and we forget the many joyful elements in us. The practice is to observe our unfortunate situation—yes, something happened—but also to stay in touch with the many joyful elements, so we will not drown in our difficulties.

The practice of Samantabhadra is not to talk a lot, but to act. We make the effort to bring joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the suffering of one person in the afternoon. When you are just beginning to be a bodhisattva, you can do this. When you are a bigger bodhisattva, you can bring joy to many people and help relieve the suffering of many others. Every word, every look, every act, and every smile can bring happiness to others. When you know how to walk mindfully, with happiness, kindness, and humility, you are already bringing joy to many people. Practicing diligently, we become a source of peace and joy to those we love and all living beings. The joy of others is our own joy. This is the wisdom of interbeing.

We invoke your name, Kshitigarbha. We aspire to learn your way of being present where there is darkness, suffer­ing, oppression and despair, so that we may bring light, hope, relief and liberation to those places. We are deter­mined not to forget about or abandon those who are in desperate situations. We will do our best to establish contact with them when they cannot find a way out of their suffering and when their cries for help, justice, equality, and human rights are not heard. We know that hell can be found in many places on Earth, and we do not want to contribute to making more hells on Earth. We will do our best to help transform the hells that already exist. We will practice in order to realize the qualities of perseverance and stability, so that, like the earth, we can always be supportive and faithful to those in need.

Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva represents the great vow to save all living beings, especially those who are caught in the most hellish conditions. Kshitigarbha makes the commitment never to abandon anyone. Wherever people are suffer­ing the most, that is where we will find him. Kshitigarbha will always do his best to approach and support those in jails, torture chambers, and in all the hells where people are undergoing the utmost suffering. He represents the quality of not abandoning anyone.

Kshitigarbha’s vow is, “Until all the hells are emptied, I will not become a Buddha. I will remain on Earth until every sentient being is liberated.” This is the greatest of vows. It means he will not abandon those who suffer. We cannot abandon the one we love. She may be difficult, but we cannot abandon her. When she is in hell, when she is suffering, that is the moment she needs us the most.

There are countries where people are jailed unfairly, where people are deprived of basic human rights and live in oppression, where people are so desperate to communicate the reality of their suffering to the outside world that they pour gasoline on their own bodies and burn themselves. If we don’t do anything to help them, we fail in our vow. We live in a society with plenty of material luxuries. We are covetous of this or that little thing, and we don’t realize that there are people in prison who just want to live with dignity. The practice of Kshitigarbha is to reach into these desperate situations, to do his best to be there and to help.

There are people who have never heard the name of Kshitigarbha, but who manifest these qualities every day. In big cities like Chicago, New York, Manila, and Washington D.C., there are many hells. We have to find these hells and dismantle them in order to help people and relieve their suffering. We may have the idea that we didn’t create that hell, so we are not responsible. But we are constantly creating hells by our forgetfulness, our jealousy, and our craving. When we act or speak unmindfully, we cause suffering to those around us. Hell exists everywhere, yet we continue to live in ways that harm others. By living mind­fully, we make it clear that we do not want to create more hells, that we do not want to contribute to anyone’s suffer­ing anymore. 

Kshitigarbha means “Earth Store.” The earth never discriminates. She absorbs everything and transforms it all into flowers. We want to learn to be like the earth—solid, stable, and deep. The earth has the quality of accepting and releasing everything. How can we support others if we don’t have the solidity of the earth? If we see that we are not solid, we must train ourselves to become solid.

Recently, I received this letter: 

Dear Thay, 

I have been on death row for seventeen years. During this time, I have felt a lot of suffering and despair. But within me there is still the will to transcend all these psychological and emotional wounds. There are moments when I cannot transcend my anger, when I am being crushed by my hatred. My only vow is to survive my time in prison without hatred toward those who put me in jail and those who have tortured me. I don’t know if I can do it. Sometimes I feel I am going insane. 

I never think that I am better or higher than others. I am satisfied being an ordinary person. I’m just grateful that after seventeen years in jail, I’m not crazy. With this gratitude, I can treasure whatever happens. In my last cell, for twelve years I was only able to look at a brick wall. Here there is a small window where I can see the city and a lot of trees. The first time I came in touch with trees, I was so moved that I cried. When I see the sunset through this little window, I feel a lot of happiness. 

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When I read Living Buddha Living Christ, which someone sent me, it was the first time I learned to dwell peacefully in the present moment. I understood your- teaching right away. Although I have a lot of difficulties, I have learned to treasure short moments of awareness. During these mindful moments, fear and despair cannot master me, and I tune in to my own humanness. I believe if I continue, I will find transformation. 

If one day I am executed, I can accept that. I wish that from this garbage, I can transform into a flower. During my search for peace, I have learned to accept myself as well as those around me. My only dream is that if I am ever re­leased, people will come to me and say, “How after twenty years in jail are you still a normal person, not insane?” 

I write to you hoping that these simple words can share with you the humanness in me. I write, not in the name of one person on death row, but as someone who has been sent to prison to learn and grow in a situation where there is little hope for the future. My main point is to tell you, Thay, that humanness exists in me and that a death row prisoner can find peace and joy in hell. Please take good care of yourself.

After reading this, I asked Sister Thuc Nghiem to send him the book about walking meditation, and I asked him to practice walking meditation in his cell, and, if he can, to request permission to go into the prison yard to practice. If he can help other prisoners practice walking meditation and if they can feel some peace, it can help a lot. It is encourag­ing to know that you are practicing being in the present moment and giving a chance for the best in you and others to manifest. True freedom is freedom from afflictions, such as despair, anger, and hatred. There are so many people in the world who are not free, who suffer tremendously.

Another prisoner on death row, Jarvis Jay Masters, wrote a book called Finding Freedom. Jarvis took the Five Mindfulness Trainings with a Tibetan monk. One day, a nearby prisoner was banging on his wall and shouting, and then he said to Jarvis, “Give me some tobacco!” Jarvis did not smoke, but he did have some tobacco to share with others. So he said to the other man, “When you ask for a ciga­rette, ask politely. Now sit quietly, and I’ll try to help you.”

Then he took a little tobacco and wrapped it in a photocopied page of my book, Being Peace. He had received a photocopy of Being Peace from a friend. Later, he received a real copy of the book, so he used the first page of the photocopy to wrap the tobacco. Three days later, he gave the same man a little more tobacco wrapped in the second page of Being Peace. Then the man began to ask him for just the pages. Eventually he read the whole photocopied version of the book, page by page, and he began to practice breathing mindfully and dwelling in the present moment. Soon after that, he was released, and on his way out, he stopped to thank Jarvis. The two men looked at each other, smiled, and recited this sentence from the book: “If you are peaceful, if you are happy, you can smile, and everyone in your family, your entire society will benefit from your peace.”

Kshitigarbha is not just a legendary personality. Kshitigarbha is you, me, both of these prisoners, and many others. We only need to train ourselves, and we will be able to reach into the places of utmost suffering and oppression. The ability to love, understand, act, save people, and vow not to abandon those who suffer are qualities in us that we cannot deny. If you say you have a lot of love but you don’t do anything when you are needed, that is just talk. It’s not important whether you call yourself a “Buddhist.” There are people in organizations like Medecins sans Frontieres and Amnesty International who have never heard about Buddhas or bodhisattvas, but who actualize the teachings of love and compassion every day through their lives. We know from our direct experience that these four bodhisattvas and many other luminous beings exist. We can see their qualities in many people and ourselves. The practice is to learn ways to make the Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha inside of us grow. 

From a Dharma Talk at Plum Village on January 15, 1998. Translated into English by Sister Chan Khong. Edited for publication by Brother Phap Hai, Arnold Kotler, and Leslie Rawls. 

Photos:
First photo courtesy of Plum Village.
Second photo by Yen Nguyen
Third photo by Ger-Ulrich Rump

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Dharma Talk: Brotherhood = Reunification

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Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to address the audience of a monthly Peace Forum on March 19th, 2003 held for leaders and representatives of various religious communities in South Korea on the topic of “Spiritual Reflections on War and Peace.” The following introduction was given:

Since the winter of 2002, the North Korean nuclear issue has created conflict between the North and the U.S. Since the terrorist attack that occurred in the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, many countries have tightened up their security policies. During this crisis, the people of North Korea continue to suffer from famine. Threats between the U.S. and the North have not resulted in any progress towards a workable solution. The economic blockade and nuclear tension continue. Neither North Korea nor the U.S. is ready to make any concessions. Koreans are concerned about the possibility of military conflict on the peninsula. Meanwhile, there is also a potential war in Iraq. The Peace Forum of January 28th made a national declaration that went along with the international wave of appeal for peace. People desire a world without war. The Peace Forum with Thich Nhat Hanh will address these complex issues. Based on his personal memories of the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh will share his beliefs and practice to lead Korea on the path of peace.

We are invited to enjoy our breathing. Our breath is a bridge that connects our body and our mind. When we go back to our breathing, our mind goes back to our body and we become fully alive, fully present. Breathing in, I feel I am alive. Breathing out, I smile to life.

Dear friends, peace is something that we can cultivate in our daily lives. It is possible to cultivate peace in every moment of our daily lives, while we walk, while we talk, while we sit. I know that peace is made of two elements. The first is understanding and the second is compassion. Cultivating peace means cultivating understanding and cultivating compassion. Every time we go back to ourselves we have the opportunity to do the work of cultivating peace. Every time I breathe in or I make a step I have an opportunity to go back to myself and become fully present in the here and the now.

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When you drink water, mindfulness helps you to see that the glass of water that you hold in your hand is real. In that moment of mindful drinking, you have no other thought, you are present just for the act of drinking. Mindfulness is the kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is happening in the present moment. What is happening in the present moment is that I am breathing in or I am making a step or I am drinking water. The energy of mindfulness brings the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration you have the opportunity to understand reality deeply.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. I would not like to live in a place where there is no suffering. I know very well that without suffering there is no way for us to cultivate understanding and compassion. It is by getting in deeply touch with suffering, it is by understanding suffering that compassion arises in our hearts.

Understanding is the Basic Work for Peace 

The Buddha advised us not to run away from suffering. Instead we have to confront suffering and look into the heart of suffering. Understanding the nature and cause of suffering is our practice. Suffering is the first Noble Truth; understanding is the second Noble Truth. Without understanding of suffering, the fourth Noble Truth, the path leading to the cessation of suffering, would not be possible.

Suppose we talk about terrorism as suffering. Looking into the nature of terrorism we see fear, we see anger, we see wrong perceptions. If you want to wage a war against terrorism you have to identify the causes of terrorism, namely fear, anger, and wrong perceptions. With fear, anger, and wrong perceptions in you, you become an instrument of terrorism, of war. Your action is motivated by that fear, that anger, and that wrong perception but you think you are acting in the name of truth, the name of justice, and the name of God.

The people who destroyed the twin towers in New York City on September 11th believed they were acting in the name of justice, in the name of God. The people who have gone to drop bombs in Afghanistan, who are going to drop bombs in Baghdad think they are acting in the name of justice, of civilization, of God. But the fact is that we cannot remove fear with fear, we cannot remove anger with anger, and we cannot remove violence with violence.

Imagine you are a citizen of Baghdad and you feel that your country is surrounded by troops and guns ready to attack your country at any moment. Sleeping in Baghdad for just one night with that kind of fear and despair is very damaging to our physical and mental health. Imagine our children who have to live in that situation of fear and despair for several months. In the last few months the people of Iraq have lived in such a situation of anguish, of fear, and of anger. Although the United States of America has not dropped any bombs, the damage can already be seen. It is the U.S. army that is terrorizing the people of Iraq.

If the population of America understood that the people in Iraq are living in anger, in despair, and fear they would not support their government starting a war there. I have many friends who are U.S. citizens who are enlightened, who know that waging a war against Iraq is a wrong thing, but they belong to a minority. They are doing their best to wake up their fellow citizens and they need our help. It is not by shouting against the American government that we can help the cause of peace. It is by doing whatever we can to help the American people to understand what is really going on – that is the basic work for peace.

Reducing Fear 

We know very well that the cause of terrorism is fear and wrong perception. I don’t think that the bombs and the guns can identify the cause of terrorism. I don’t think that the military forces can remove wrong perceptions; in fact they can strengthen wrong perceptions. The only way to remove wrong perceptions is to establish a dialogue. The two instruments that you need to use to restore communication are deep listening and loving speech.

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The government and the people of the U.S. can say, “Dear people, we don’t know why you have done such a thing to us. You must have suffered a lot, you must have hated us a lot in order to have done such a thing to us. Have we done something wrong? Please tell us of your suffering, of your anger, of your despair so that we understand and we will be more skillful in the future. If you tell us about your suffering, your difficulties, maybe we shall be able to do something to help. Now it is our deep desire to listen to you, to understand your suffering, your difficulties. We want to understand why you have done this to us.” The government of the United States of America has not used the peaceful methods of deep listening and loving speech. Every time there is a problem, right away they think of using armed forces to solve the problem.

Our political leaders have been trained in political science but not in making peace, inner peace and outer peace. We have to support them to bring a spiritual dimension to our political life. The United States of America may ask this question: Why, when the people of North Korea do not have enough to eat, do they spend money to make nuclear weapons? If we ask this question with all our heart we will find the answer. The answer may be something like this: We are hungry but we have to spend a lot of money and time to make weapons because we are afraid that you will attack us someday. If the Republic of Korea makes it very clear that they are not going to attack North Korea, that declaration will transform fear into brotherhood. I think that the path of peace can be seen clearly if we make some effort to look deeply into the situation. We have to make efforts to help people realize that North and South Korea are brothers, sons of the same mother.

The government and the people of South Korea might like to use an instrument of peace called loving speech. “Dear people in the North, we know that we are brothers and we do not want to see you suffer. As your brother in the South we will make the commitment not to attack the North. It is based on the realization that you are our brother and it would not be correct for a brother to attack a brother. If anyone makes an attempt to attack you, as your brother we will try to protect you.” The people and the government of South Korea can make such a pledge and that will reduce the amount of fear in North Korea. The Government and the people of South Korea can do better; they can convince the United States of America to make the same kind of commitment. I am sure that after the commitment is made, the people of North Korea will not spend more money on armaments but will use that money to better the lives of the people in the North.

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A Proposal for Peace and Reunification 

I propose that the Buddhist communities, the Christian communities, and other spiritual communities in South Korea come together and make this proposal to the government and the parliament. You may want to buy a portable telephone and send it to the president of North Korea as a gift. The people of South Korea can request, “Mr. President, please use this phone to talk to our president in the South for ten minutes. We have also sent our president in the South a portable telephone and we have urged him to talk to you for ten minutes every day.” If communication is restored then fear will diminish and the hope for peace will grow. This is an example of skillful means to promote the cause for peace. This is an act of watering the seed of brotherhood that is in everyone, North and South. If we follow this practice of peace then peace will be possible in just a few weeks. This proposal is something that we can do. Religious communities in the South can come together and offer the presidents of North and South Korea one portable telephone and urge their presidents to talk to each other every day about peace, about the hope for reunification.

Dear friends I would like to leave time for some questions and discussion.

Questions and Answers 

Q: I am Sister Kim Sunan and I am a Catholic sister. About ten years ago I learned walking meditation from you when you came to Korea. Since then I have been practicing and I have taught some of my students; Christian, non-Christian, and Buddhist and they really appreciate it.

This evening you said that you don’t want to live in a place where there is no suffering because suffering is one way we can learn compassion. I agree and I try to accept suffering and to find meaning in it. In Christianity we have the mystery of the cross, but I have never thought about not wanting to live where there is no suffering. I agree but at the same time I wonder about those people who are not able to bear their suffering, and are deeply hurt by it. What would you suggest for them?

Thay: This is a very good question. First of all, suffering and happiness go together. Without suffering there is no happiness; without happiness there is no suffering. They inter-are. If you don’t know the suffering of separation it is impossible for you to realize the joy of reunification. If you don’t know what hunger feels like, you don’t know the joy of having something to eat. It is against the background of suffering that we can recognize the existence of happiness.

Happiness is made of nonhappiness elements. Suffering is made of non-suffering elements. It is like a flower – a flower is made only of non-flower elements. Nonflower elements are the sunshine, the clouds, the seed, and so on. A flower is made only of non-flower elements; it does not have a separate self. I always remind my students that Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhist elements. If you return the non-Buddhist elements to their source there is no longer such a thing as Buddhism. That is what we call the non-self of Buddhism.

If there is no garbage there cannot be flowers, because garbage is used to make compost which will bring the flowers to us. If you can look deeply, then when you look into a flower you can see the garbage that has helped to make the flower possible. If you look into a heap of garbage you can see cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes because you know that it is possible to transform garbage into vegetables.

There is garbage in us, namely violence, jealousy, and anger. But if we are good gardeners we will not be afraid of this garbage because we know how to transform the garbage in us into flowers, the flowers of understanding and compassion. The practice of spirituality is not one of running away from suffering. It is the practice of learning how to transform suffering into well-being. A good practitioner knows the exact amount of suffering that she or he needs. If we allow suffering to overwhelm us we will die; that is why we need the exact amount of suffering that will help us to understand and to love. If the amount of suffering is huge in our society, it is because not many of us know how to transform the garbage back into flowers.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion. And it is thanks to the amount of understanding and compassion that we have that we can transform suffering into well-being. I think that a healthy spiritual tradition dispenses the teaching and the practice that can help us to transform suffering with the instruments of understanding and compassion.

Restoring Communication, Restoring Harmony

Q: Thay, I would like to make a very honest, heart-felt confession to you. When I listened to your Dharma talk, I felt deep shame, guilt, and humiliation as a Korean religious person. Our president called Mr. Bush and said, Korea supports American policy on Iraq and we will send soldiers in case you start war against Iraq. The U.S. government told us, if Korea does not support the U.S., we will pull our soldiers from the Korean peninsula. I feel a deep shame because people all around the world protest against war in Iraq, but my government supports it. I feel guilty when I think about the Iraqi people and what is happening to them. I also feel humiliation because when the U.S. says they will pull out of Korea, this is a hidden threat.

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In South Korea we have fifty years of suffering due to the division of our country. We have had this contract of military support with America because they helped us during the Korean War and we are very afraid of future war and violence. After fifty years of meditation and practice you have attained liberation and enlightenment. But we don’t have long years to practice. Within fifteen to twenty days we have to make a decision in our congress whether we will send our soldiers to Iraq and I don’t know whether we Korean people have enough courage to oppose sending soldiers to Iraq if it results in the American soldiers leaving Korea. Please advise us Korean people who have only fifteen days to make a decision. Teach us what to do.

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Thay: Enlightenment is not a matter of time. You cannot talk about enlightenment in terms of months or years because enlightenment can come in an instant. We call that sudden enlightenment. Enlightenment to me is a deep understanding of our true situation. There is division, discrimination, and suffering in our countries. That is true everywhere. Even in the United States of America there are many people who feel they are victims of discrimination and injustice. Separation, hatred, and anger are present within the population of America. This is because there is a lack of understanding and compassion, based on the lack of communication. Even in a tradition like Buddhism there is separation, there is misunderstanding, there is anger. The same is true in the Christian religion. There may be separation, anger, and hatred between members of the same family. That is why restoring communication is the most urgent practice for peace.

If there are feelings of shame, of unhappiness, that means there is not true communication within ourselves. We don’t understand ourselves; there is no harmony between the elements of our body and our mind. Restoring harmony within our body is very important for a good practitioner. Restoring harmony in the realm of our feelings and emotions is a very important practice. Without communication, there is no harmony and no well-being. In this state, you cannot do anything to help your family or society. If we know how to bring peace within ourselves, then we know how to bring peace to our family. Once we have restored harmony and communication within ourselves, we will be able to help society. That is why it is very important that different factions of our community should try to communicate with each other. If there is harmony within the people of the South then communication to people of the North will be much easier. If there is harmony and mutual understanding between people of the North and the South, no country in the world can be a threat. Thank you for the question.

Can There Be Peace Without War? 

Q: You have mentioned that there is no happiness without suffering. When I change these words we might consider that there is no peace without war. Does this mean that we cannot avoid war; we should just accept it as unavoidable karma? Should we just keep silent and breathe in and out mindfully? What would you do when there is war?

Thay: This is an excellent question. War is not just the bombs falling on us. Every time you have a thought that is full of anger and misunderstanding – that is war. War can be manifested through our way of thinking, our way of speaking, and our way of acting. We may be living in war, not knowing that we are fighting with ourselves and the people around us. With the war in yourself and the war that you inflict on other people, there is suffering within you and there is suffering around you. Maybe in your daily life there are a few moments of ceasefire. But most are moments of war.

Suppose there is a couple who quarrels all the time except when they are very tired; these moments of not quarreling are not exactly peace, they are a ceasefire. Then suppose a friend comes to visit and asks, “Why are you living in war twenty-four hours a day? Why don’t you try living in peace?” And the couple says, “We don’t know. Tell us, what is peace? What can we do in order to have peace?” And the friend tells the couple how to practice in order to bring back harmony into their bodies and into their emotions and feelings and they begin to have a taste of peace. Supported by the friend, the couple’s peace grows every day until one day they say, “It is wonderful, we know what peace is now.” But if there had been no experience of living at war, then how could they experience peace?

Thanks to the mud, the lotus flower is able to grow. The feeling of well-being and peace is possible only when you have experienced the feeling of war. As someone who has lived many decades in the midst of war, I know what war is. And elements of suffering in war have helped me to arrive at the state of being in peace today. If I did not know some practice of peace I would have died in the war of suffering.

We know that we are co-responsible for the situation of our society. By the way we live our daily life we contribute to peace or to war. It is mindfulness that can tell me that I am going in the direction of war and it is the energy of mindfulness that can help me to make a turn and to go in the direction of peace. That is why I have translated mindfulness and concentration as the Holy Spirit; it can transform your life.

The Light of Compassion 

Q: Today you told us to imagine we are living in Baghdad and to understand the hearts of the people there. Yesterday I read that Mr. Bush wants to start the war in Iraq, and I couldn’t sleep. I went up into the mountains and I walked all night. I did not have fear; I did not have anger; I did not have misunderstanding. I was frustrated and sad. I have a strong feeling that I want to send a word of consolation and encouragement to the people in Baghdad, but I cannot find any words. I want to hear your consolation and encouragement to us and to the people in Baghdad. I also want to hear what is your action of consolation and encouragement to us and to people in Baghdad?

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Thay: It is very important to maintain compassion in your heart and not to allow anger and frustration to take over. On that foundation you will find things to do to help the cause of peace. You can write a love letter to your congressman and to your president, urging them to help with the cause of peace. You can contact a friend and urge him or her to do the same. Allow the light and the compassion in your heart to go out to many people around you. In the Bible it says, “If you have the light, display it in a place where many people can see it.” That light is the light of understanding and compassion. Live your daily life in such a way that understanding and compassion can be shared with as many people around you as possible. Cultivating peace is not a matter of days; it should be cultivated generation after generation. Your children and your grandchildren will be your continuation as practitioners of peace. The question is not how much you can do; the question is whether you are doing your best. If you are doing your best then you are in the Pure Land of the Buddha, in the Kingdom of God. You don’t have to worry anymore.

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Thich Nhat Hanh Answers Questions at the Library of Congress

September 10, 2003

On September 10, 2003 Thich Nhat Hanh  offered a talk at the Library of Congress  in Washington, D.C., to members of  Congress and their staffs.  Two days later,  Thay and monks and nuns led a three- day mindfulness retreat for Congress  members and their families. 

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I would like to answer any question that you might have concerning this practice.

Q: How do you practice with anger? 

Thay: Two days after the events of September 11th I spoke to 4,000 people in Berkeley. I said that emotions are very strong now and we need to know how to calm ourselves, because with lucidity and calm we will know what to do. And we will know what not to do, to keep from making the situation worse.

I have suggested a number of things that can be done to decrease the level of violence and hate. The terrorists who attacked the twin towers must have been very angry, they must have hated America a lot. They must have thought America was trying to destroy them as a people, as a religion, as a nation, and as a culture. We have to find out why they have done such a thing to America. A political leader of America who has enough calm and lucidity can ask the question, “Dear people over there, we don’t know why you have done such a thing to us. What have we done that has made you suffer so much? We want to know about your suffering and why you have hated us so much. We may have said something or done something that has given you the impression that we wanted to destroy you. But in fact that is not the case. We are confused, and we want you to help us understand why you have done such a thing to us.” We call that kind of speech loving or gentle speech. If we are honest and sincere they will tell us and we will recognize the wrong perceptions they have about themselves and about us. We can try to help them to remove their wrong perceptions. All these acts of terrorism and violence come from wrong perceptions. Wrong perceptions are the ground for anger, violence, and hatred. You cannot remove wrong perceptions with a gun.

While we listen deeply to the other person, not only can we recognize their wrong perceptions but we can see that we also have wrong perceptions about ourselves and about the other person. That is why mindful dialogue, mindful communication is crucial in removing wrong perceptions, anger, and violence. It is my deepest hope that our political leaders can make use of such instruments to bring peace to themselves and to the world. I believe that using force and violence can only make the situation worse. To me during the last two years America has not been able to decrease the level of hate and violence from terrorists. In fact, the level of hate and violence has increased. That is why it is time for us to go back to the situation, to look deeply, and to find a way that is less costly and will bring peace to everyone. Violence cannot remove violence; everyone knows that. Only with the practice of deep listening and gentle communication can we help remove wrong perceptions that are at the foundation of violence.

America has a lot of difficulty in Iraq. I think that America is caught in Iraq just as America was caught in Vietnam, caught with the idea that we have to seek and destroy the enemy, wherever we believe they are. That idea will never give us a chance to do the right thing to end violence. During the Vietnam War, America thought that they had to bomb North Vietnam, that they had to bomb Cambodia. But the more America bombed, the more communists they created. I am afraid that situation is repeating itself in Iraq. I think it is very difficult for America to withdraw now from Iraq. Even if you want to leave, it is very difficult. I think that the only way for America to get emancipated from this situation is to help build the United Nations into a real body of peace so that the United Nations will take over the problem of Iraq and of the Middle East. America is powerful enough to do that. America should allow the other big powers to contribute positively to building the United Nations as a true organization for peace with enough authority to do her job. In my point of view, that is the only way out of the current situation.

Q: Thank you for coming here.  When we see so many  lands in this country being destroyed, the forests, the rivers, and the mountains, by policies in this government, how  might we approach our members of Congress mindfully, in  the name of peace, and on behalf of the land and all living  things?

Thay: I think that we should bring a spiritual dimension into our daily life. We should be awakened to the fact that happiness cannot be found in the direction of power, fame, wealth, or sex. If we look deeply around us, we see many people with plenty of these things but they suffer very deeply and many of them have committed suicide. When you have understanding and compassion in you, you don’t suffer. You can relate well to other people around you and to other living beings. That is why a collective awakening about that reality is crucial.

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We think that happiness is possible when we have the power to consume. But by consuming we bring a lot of toxins and poisons into us. The way we eat, the way we watch television, the way we entertain ourselves is bringing a lot of destruction into us and into our children. The environment suffers when we consume so much. Learning to consume less, learning to consume only the things that can bring peace and health into our body and into our consciousness is a very important practice. Mindful consumption is the practice that can lead us out of this situation. Mindful production of items that can bring only health and joy into our body and consciousness is also our practice. I think one of the things that Congress may do is to look deeply into the matter of consumption. By consuming unmindfully we continue to bring the element of craving, fear, and violence into ourselves. People have a lot of suffering and they do not know how to handle it, so they consume in order to forget. Families, schools, and communities can help people to go home to themselves and take care of the suffering inside. The spiritual dimension is very important. When we are able to touch joy by living with compassion and understanding we don’t need to consume a lot and we don’t need to destroy our environment. Consuming in such a way that can preserve the compassion and understanding in us is very important.

The Buddha said if we consume without compassion it is as though we are eating the flesh of our own son and daughter. In fact we destroy our environment and we destroy ourselves through unmindful consumption. I think Congress can look into the matter and find ways to encourage people to consume mindfully and to produce mindfully, not producing the kind of items that can bring toxins and craving into the hearts and bodies of people.

We have the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. But in the name of freedom people have done a lot of damage to the nation, to the people. They have to be responsible for that. I think there should be a law that prohibits people from producing the kind of items that bring toxins into our body and our mind. To produce with responsibility: that is our practice. I think we have to make a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast of America in order to counterbalance liberty. Liberty without responsibility is not true liberty. You are not free to destroy. Through films, movies, and entertainment we are producing food for the souls of people. If we know how to forbid the kind of food that can bring toxins into our bodies, we also have to forbid the kind of food that can bring toxins into our consciousness and the collective consciousness of the people. I think these things have to be looked into deeply by people in Congress. The people in Congress have to see where our suffering comes from. I think unmindful consumption and production of items of consumption are at the root of our problem. We are creating violence and craving by consuming and producing these items. If we continue we can never solve the problem. The way out is mindful consumption, mindful production of items of consumption. My deepest desire is that the members of Congress will look into this matter. This is how we can protect our environment. 

Q: Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr.  said  that we  are  all  caught in an inescapable web of mutuality.  Whatever affects one of us affects all of us.  In light of that view, that all  of us on the planet are connected, what would you recommend as some first steps for people of different races and  backgrounds to begin to close the gap of racism and bigotry  that we are in right now, that is really expanding right now  to Arab Americans because of the issue of 9-11.  My question  is really a two-part question.  One is, what are some beginning practical steps that individuals can take to close the gap  that keeps us disconnected despite our denial?  Secondly,  how do we deal with  that  in  light  of  the  legitimate  fears  after  9-11 that cause  us to  look at even our Arab  American citizens in a  hostile, distant way?  How would  you  see  individuals  begin  to  close the gap?

Thay: I think we have to wake up to the fact that everything is connected to everything else. Safety, well-being cannot be individual matters anymore. If others are not safe there is no way that we can be safe. Taking care of others’ safety is at the same time taking care of our own safety. Taking care of others’ well-being is to take care of our own well-being. It is the mind of discrimination and separation that is at the foundation of all violence and hate.

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My right hand has written all the poems that I composed. My left hand has not written any poems. But my right hand does not think, “You left hand, you are good for nothing.” My right hand does not have the complex of superiority at all. That is why it is very happy. My left hand does not have any complex at all including the complex of inferiority. In my two hands there is the kind of wisdom called the wisdom of nondiscrimination. One day I was hammering a nail and my right hand was not very accurate and instead of pounding on the nail it pounded on my finger. It put the hammer down and it took care of the left hand in a very tender way as if it were taking care of itself. It did not say, “You left hand, you have to remember that I, the right hand have taken good care of you and you have to pay me back in the future.” There was no such thinking. And my left hand does not say, “You, the right hand have done me a lot of harm, give me that hammer, I want justice.”

The two hands know that they are members of one body; they are part of each other. I think that if Israelis and Palestinians knew that they are brothers, that they are like two hands, they would not try to punish each other any more. The world community has not helped them to see that. If Muslims and Hindus knew that discrimination is at the base of our suffering they would know how to touch the seed of nondiscrimination in themselves. That kind of awakening, that kind of deep understanding will bring about reconciliation and well-being.

I think it is very important for individuals to have enough time to look deeply into the situation to have the insight that violence cannot remove violence. Only kind, deep listening and loving speech can help restore communication and remove wrong perceptions that are the foundation of all violence, hatred, and terrorism. With that kind of insight he or she can help others to have the same insight. I believe that in America there are many people that are awakened to the fact that violence cannot remove violence, that there is no way to peace, peace is the way itself. Those people have to come together and voice their concern strongly and offer their collective light and insight to the nation so that the nation can get out of this situation. Every one of us has the duty to contribute to that collective insight. With that insight compassion will make us strong and courageous enough to bring about a solution for all of us in the world.

Every time we breathe in and go home to ourselves and bring the element of harmony and peace into ourselves, that is an act of peace. Every time we know how to look at another living being and recognize the suffering that has made her speak or act, and we are able to see that she is the victim of suffering that she cannot handle—that is an act of compassion. When we can look with the eyes of compassion we don’t suffer and we don’t make the other person suffer. These are the actions of peace that can be shared with people.

In Plum Village we have had the opportunity to practice together as a community. We are several hundreds of people living together like a family in a very simple way. We are able to build up brotherhood and sisterhood. Although we live simply we have a lot of joy because of the amount of understanding and compassion that we can generate. We are able to go to many countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and America to offer retreats of mindfulness so that people may have a chance to heal, transform, and to reconcile. Healing, transformation, and reconciliation is what always happens in our retreats.

We have invited Israelis and Palestinians to our community to practice with us. When they come they bring anger, suspicion, fear, and hatred in them. But after a week or two of the practice of mindful walking, mindful breathing, mindful eating, and mindful sitting they are able to recognize their pain, embrace it, and bring relief to themselves. When they are initiated to the practice of deep listening they are able to listen to the other group and to realize that the other group suffers the same way they do. When you know that the others also suffer from violence, from hatred, from fear, and despair you begin to look at them with the eyes of compassion. At that moment you suffer less and you make them suffer less. Communication becomes possible with the use of loving speech and deep listening. The Israelis and Palestinians always come together as a group at the end of their practice in Plum Village and report to us the success of their practice. They go back to the Middle East with the intention to continue the practice and to invite others to join them so that they suffer less and they help others to suffer less. For the last three years this has been a very effective practice. We believe that if this practice can be done on the national level it will bring about the same kind of effect.

Unfortunately our political leaders have not been trained in the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and embracing pain and sorrow to transform their suffering. They have been trained only in political science. It is very important that we try to bring into our life a spiritual dimension, not vaguely, but in concrete practices. Talking like this will not help very much. But if you go to a retreat for five or seven days the practices of breathing mindfully, eating mindfully, walking mindfully, and going home to yourself to take care of the pain inside becomes a daily practice and you are supported by hundreds of people practicing with you. When you are in a retreat, people who are experienced in the practice offer you their collective energy of mindfulness that can help you to recognize and embrace, heal and transform the pain in you. That is why in a retreat we always bring enough experienced practitioners to offer the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration for healing. A teacher, no matter how talented she or he is, cannot do that. You need a community of practice where everyone knows how to be peace, how to speak peace, how to think peace so that practitioners who are beginners are able to profit from the collective insight.

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Dharma Talk: Our Vietnamese Spiritual Ancestors

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

Hungry Ghosts 

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

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

In Touch with My Father

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

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

How to Connect with Our Ancestors

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

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

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

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

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

A Question of Superstition

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

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

Lighting Incense on the Ancestral Altar

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

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

Cloning

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

King Tran Thai Tong 

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

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

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

Deep Listening and Loving Speech 

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

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

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

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

Conditions for Happiness

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

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

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

This is What We Do 

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

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

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

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

We are the Communists 

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

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

 Corruption 

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

Engaged Buddhism

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

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

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

Marxism 

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

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

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

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

The Heart of the Practice 

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

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

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

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

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

Our Vietnamese Spiritual Ancestors 

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

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

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

Transcribed by Terry Barber, Edited by Barbara Casey.

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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: Leading with Courage and Compassion

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Unexpectedly, while on tour in India, Thay was invited to speak to the Parliament of India. On October 17, Thay addressed the assembly and many dignitaries.

THich Nhat Hanh

Honorable Speaker, honorable Secretary-General, distinguished Members of Parliament,

In this time of turmoil, in this time of violence, anger, fear and despair, every one of us suffers. The people suffer and also the leaders suffer. A spiritual dimension developed in our leaders may help to bring more insight and peace so that our leaders can find a way out for all of us. Is it possible to bring down the level of violence, fear, anger, and pain? To me, the answer is yes.

Those in the society who believe that they are victims of discrimination and injustice blame it on the society and their leaders. They have the impression that no one has listened to them. They have tried but they have never succeeded in making themselves understood. So, the practice of deep listening should be used in order to give them the sense of being heard and understood.

Compassionate Listening 

In a nation, there are those of us who are capable of being calm, who can sit down quietly and listen with compassion. Our leaders may like to invite those people to sit and listen to the sufferings of the nation, to the sufferings of the people. This kind of practice is needed for everyone – not just for the political leaders. Suppose a father does not have time to listen to his son or daughter. That father would not be able to understand the suffering and the difficulties of his son or daughter and will not be able to make them happy. Even if the father has time to sit down and listen, if in the father there is too much anger, pain, and despair, the quality of listening will not be good enough.

That is why, to listen to the suffering of other people, we should listen to our own suffering. But in our society not many people have the time to listen and understand their own suffering and difficulties. If we are able to listen to our own suffering and if we understand the true nature and roots of our suffering, then we will suffer less. We will be able to see a way out.

After that, we can listen to our loved ones, our community, our nation. And listening like that can bring relief because the people who are listened to in that spirit feel that they are now understood.

The Parliament could organize a session of deep listening, inviting wise and skilled spiritual people to come and sit down with our political leaders. Then we can invite those who think they are victims of social injustice and discrimination to come and we can say to them: “Dear people, we are here. We are ready to listen to what is in your heart and to hear about your suffering, your difficulties, and your despair.” Preparation like that may take some time.

The session of deep and compassionate listening can be televised so that the whole nation can participate in it. If the quality of listening is deep and good, people will feel that they are beginning to be understood, and then the level of anger, violence, and suspicion in our society will come down.

Practicing with Israelis and Palestinians 

In our community of friends, we have tried this practice in many ways. We always succeed. Every year, we invite a group of Palestinians and Israelis to come and practice with us at Plum Village. Of course, at first they cannot look at each other, they cannot talk to each other. There is a lot of fear, anger, and suspicion. First, we offer them the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and learning to recognize the pain, sorrow, fear in themselves. Supported by the practice of the whole community, they get some relief in their body and emotion from practicing in this way.

After about ten days, we teach them the practice of deep listening and loving speech. One group is given the time to tell the other group about all the suffering it has undergone, what kind of pain, injustice, fear, and despair it has experienced. They are asked to tell everything using the practice of loving speech. They do not condemn, blame, or accuse each other. You can tell everything in your heart but refrain from accusing, blaming, and using bitter language.

When you are in the group that listens, you have to practice mindful breathing and remind yourself to listen with compassion. We know that if we can sit and listen calmly like that for one hour, the speakers will suffer less and will feel that they are being understood. Many sessions of listening and loving speech can transform the situation.

When a group of people are expressing themselves, there may be a wrong perception or misunderstanding — a fear or anger that has no foundation — but we do not interrupt or correct them because interruptions will make them lose the inspiration to speak out. So, we continue to listen and we tell ourselves that later on, maybe several days later, we will provide them with some information so that they may correct their perceptions. Now we only listen.

While listening we can gain many insights into how the speakers have gotten the wrong perceptions that they have; and how fear, anger, violence, and hate are born from those wrong perceptions. We tell ourselves that later on we will help them by offering them information that will help correct these wrong perceptions that are the foundation of their anger, hate, and violence.

Discovering Our Wrong Perceptions 

While we listen, we might find out that we ourselves have been victims of our own wrong perceptions, that we have misunderstood ourselves and that we have misunderstood the others. In the process of listening we can correct our own perceptions and later on we might tell them that we have had wrong perceptions that have brought about fear, anger, and hate; and that now that the wrong perceptions have been removed, we feel much better.

After a few sessions of listening like that, one begins to see the other side as human beings who have suffered exactly as we have. You feel sorry that they have undergone such suffering. When you begin to look at the other group with that kind of understanding and compassion, they feel very much better because you are looking at them with the eyes of understanding and compassion. You feel much better within yourself and they suffer less. So, the practices of deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving speech always bring reconciliation and always help to remove wrong perceptions.

By the third week together, groups of Palestinians and Israelis are able to sit down and share a meal, they can hold hands during walking meditation and enjoy nature together. Reconciliation has taken place. At the end of the retreat, they come as one group to report about the progress of their practice and always inform us that when they go back to the Middle East, they will organize sessions of practice like this for other Palestinians and Israelis.

The difficulties between husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son can be resolved with that kind of practice of deep listening and loving speech. If a father does not understand the suffering or the difficulties of the son, how can he love him and make his son happy? Understanding is the foundation of love — understanding the sufferings and difficulties of the other person. But we have seen that if we do not understand our own suffering, our own difficulties, it will be hard to understand the suffering and difficulties of another person.

Terrorists Are Victims 

In France where we live and practice, thousands of young people commit suicide every year because they do not know how to handle strong emotions like anger and despair. When you speak of terrorists, we know that in a terrorist, there must be a lot of anger and despair; that anger, violence and despair have come from somewhere. They have become victims of the kind of information they have been given. When people have the impression that they are not understood, no matter what they have tried.

To me terrorists are victims of wrong perceptions and many people become their victims. In order to help the terrorists, we have to listen to them, try to understand them, and help them to remove their wrong perceptions. They may think that we are trying to destroy their way of life, their civilization; based on that conviction they want to punish.

Looking deeply into the matter, I see that the roots of terrorism are wrong perceptions that have brought us to anger, fear, suspicion, and the willingness to punish. Our political leaders should be able to listen, to help the terrorists remove their wrong perceptions. We cannot remove wrong perceptions by using bombs and guns. How can you bomb a wrong perception? That is why violence does not work. Removing terrorism needs to be done with the practice of compassionate listening and the practice of loving speech. If we think we are too busy, if we do not take the time, we cannot heal the violence in our society. We must make the time to listen to our own suffering and to the suffering of our own family and our own nation.

Just by listening deeply with compassion, we can bring relief and reduce the suffering in the family, in the community, and in the nation.

The Role of Journalists 

I was invited by the Times of India to be a guest editor for the edition of October 2. On the day I was working with the journalists, there was a series of blasts in the city. I was asked: What should journalists do when such a thing happens? After sitting quietly in contemplation, I said that we have to report about events in a way that helps to explain why such violent actions continue to happen. We have to show that anger, violence, and fear are born from wrong perceptions. If we ourselves understand, then we may be able to do something to help remove wrong perceptions, fear, and anger. If we do not know how to do this skillfully, then we will create collective fear and collective anger that will be very dangerous for the whole nation. The role of journalists is to report in a way that promotes understanding and compassion.

I also told the journalists that they need to report more on positive things in order to balance all the negative things that we are reading in newspapers and seeing on television. After finishing elementary school children have viewed one thousand acts of violence on television. They consume violence and fear every day. We have allowed the producers of television and films to poison our minds with fear and violence. When another person expresses a lot of fear and anger, we may take that poison into us. When we are reading an article or watching a program on television we may consume the fear. I suggest that the members of Parliament make time to discuss this, because the anger and violence we are consuming every day is causing us to react violently in our families and in society.

Non-Discrimination 

I would like to offer a story about non-discrimination. My right hand can do many things that my left hand does not do. When I write, I always write with my right hand. When I use a bell, I use my right hand. Yet my right hand does not ever complain to the left hand saying, “Well I do everything and you do not seem to be very useful.” My right hand has the wisdom of non-discrimination. And my left hand does not suffer from the complex of inferiority.

One day I was hanging a picture. I was not very mindful and I hit a finger on my left hand with the hammer. Immediately my right hand threw down the hammer and held my left hand gently. It did not tell the left hand, “You must remember that I have helped you and in future you have to do something to help me.” My left hand did not tell my right hand, “You have done me an injustice. You have made me suffer by hitting me with that hammer.” My left hand and right hand have the wisdom of non-discrimination. That is why my left hand and right hand live in perfect peace and harmony.

If the father and the son look deeply at one another, they can see that the son is the child of the father and it is the son who brings the father into the future. If the father makes his son suffer then he himself suffers. When you are able to make your father smile, you are happy because your father is happy. It is your own happiness because happiness is not an individual matter.

Regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians, we can say that the peace, joy, and safety of one side have very much to do with the peace, joy, and safety of the other side. So, to take care of the peace, well-being, and safety of one side is to take care of the peace, joy, and safety of the other side. The same thing is true with Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus. We are all like hands of the same body. If we know that our happiness is not an individual matter, then we can take care of the happiness and safety of our brethren. So, the insight of non-discrimination is the foundation of harmony and peace. We must educate our young people about this. Once we realize that either we live together or die together as a planet, as a nation, we can reconcile and transform the anger and suffering in us.

Transcript courtesy of Bureau of Parliamentary Studies and Training, India.
Edited by Barbara Casey, Janelle Combelic, and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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