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.

Together We Are One

Excerpted from Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery
September 10, 2011

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Question: Dear Thay and dear community, as a survivor of rape, how do I forgive my attackers? 

Thich Nhat Hanh: The criminals, those who have made us suffer, also are victims. They were born and raised in an environment that was  not loving enough to nurture them. And they had difficulties, but no one, including their parents, could help them. So they are victims of their environment. If we had been born and raised in that same environment, we may have become like them. That’s why, when we look deeply, understanding comes and compassion arises in our hearts. We can forgive.

Many people in Vietnam escaped the Communist regime by boat, and many of them died during the trip crossing the sea to Thailand or to the Philippines. Many of their deaths were caused by sea pirates.

The sea pirates were often born into families of poor fishermen in the coastal areas of Thailand or the Philippines. They heard that when the boat people fled their country, they may have had their family valuables, like gold or jewelry, with them. So if the sea pirates could rob them of their valuables, they could escape the poor, desperate situation they and their families had been stuck in for so long.

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Your grandfather was a poor fisherman. Your father also was a poor fisherman. And you are a poor fisherman, and you have no opportunity to get out of this situation. Your father and your grand­father couldn’t get good educations, so they had no opportunity to get jobs that would enable them to live easier lives. So if your mother did not know how to read and write, and your father was drunk every day, then it is very difficult for you to get an education and get out of this terrible cycle. It’s difficult for you to learn to have a loving heart. So when people tell you that if you go out one time and rob the refugees of their gold and their money, this will get you out of your desperate situation, you are tempted. In this way, the poor young fisherman becomes a sea pirate because of his ignorance, because of his background, because of his desperation.

I was in France when I heard stories about boat people. Many of us tried to go to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines to help. They encountered a lot of suffering.

Suppose you are on the refugee boat. Of course, you can protect yourself. You can shoot the sea pirate. Otherwise, the sea pirate will throw you into the ocean, rape your daughter, and take your valuables. Every time you hear that a boat person has been raped and killed by a sea pirate, you suffer, and you believe that if you had a gun and you were on a boat, you would be able to shoot that person. But if you shoot the sea pirate, he will die and you will not be able to help him. He’s a victim of his environment, and he did not have any education, any opportunity for a better life. So the sea pirate is also a victim.

If we meditate, we know that today there will be babies born on the coastline into these poor families. If educators, politicians, and others do not do anything to help these babies get better food and education, when they grow up they will become sea pirates. We can see that if we are born and raised in that way, we too may be­come sea pirates. That kind of meditation allows us to understand, to see that these criminals are also victims of their environment, and that allows the nectar of compassion to be born in our hearts, and we can forgive. Not only do we not want to kill them or punish them, but we are motivated by the desire to do something to help them. We can see that those who rape us are also victims. With that kind of understanding, we know that there are things we can do to help rapists and to prevent people from becoming rapists.

That is something parents, teachers, educators, and politicians have to meditate upon. We have to take the kind of action that will help change the situation and prevent these babies from becoming sea pirates and rapists.

Forgiveness is possible with understanding. You cannot for­give if you only have the desire, the intention to forgive. In order to truly forgive, you have to see the truth, to understand that that person is a victim. When you see that, compassion arises, and naturally you can forgive, and you feel lighter. And you don’t want to punish him anymore. You want him and his children to have a better environment in order not to continue like that, generation after generation.

So many of us in society are victims of violence, anger, fear,  and discrimination. The only answer is compassion. Compassion arises from understanding. Understanding is the fruit of medita­tion, namely, the practice of looking deeply in order to understand why things become the way they are. When you respond with compassion, you suffer less, and you are able to help. 

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Dharma Talk – Bat Nha: A Koan

By Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Thich Nhat HanhDo not just look for what you want to see,
that would be futile.
Do not look for anything,
but allow the insight to have a chance to come by itself.
That insight will help liberate you.

– Nhat Hanh

 

Bat Nha is a monastery in the central highlands of Vietnam. It is a community of monks and nuns being persecuted by the Vietnamese government, and it is the great crisis of Vietnamese Buddhism at the dawn of the 21st century.

A koan (known in Chinese as a gong an, and in Vietnamese as a cong an) is a mediation device, a special kind of Zen riddle. Koans are solved not with the intellect but with the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. A koan can be contemplated and practiced individually or collectively, but as long as it remains unsolved, a koan is unsettling. It is like an arrow piercing our body which we cannot take out; as long as it is lodged there we can neither be happy nor at peace. Yet the koan’s arrow has not really come from outside, nor is it a misfortune. A koan is an opportunity to look deeply and transcend our worries and confusion. A koan forces us to address the great questions of life, questions about our future, about the future of our country and about our own true happiness.

A koan cannot be solved by intellectual arguments, logic or reason, nor by debates such as whether there is only mind or matter. A koan can only be solved through the power of right mindfulness and right concentration. Once we have penetrated a koan, we feel a sense of relief and have no more fears or questioning. We see our path and realize great peace.

If you think Bat Nha is only a problem for 400 monks and nuns in Vietnam, a problem that simply needs a “reasonable and appropriate” solution, then that is not a koan. Bat Nha truly becomes a koan only when you understand it as your own problem, one that deeply concerns your own happiness, your own suffering, your own future, and the future of your country and your people. If you cannot solve the koan, if you cannot sleep, eat, or work at peace, then Bat Nha has become your koan.

“Mindfulness” means to recollect something, to hold it in our heart day and night. The koan must remain in our consciousness every second, every minute of the day, never leaving us even for a moment. Mindfulness must be continuous and uninterrupted; and continuous mindfulness brings concentration. While eating, getting dressed, urinating and defecating, the practitioner needs to bring the koan to mind and look deeply into it. The koan is always at the forefront of your mind. Who is the Buddha whose name we should invoke? Who is doing the invoking? Who am I? You must find out. As long as you haven’t found out you haven’t made the breakthrough, you are not yet fully awake, you have not understood.

I AM A MONASTIC FROM THE BAT NHA COMMUNITY. Every day I contemplate the koan of Bat Nha—I sit with it in meditation, I walk with it in mindfulness, I am with it when I cook, when I wash my clothes, peel vegetables or sweep the floor; in every moment Bat Nha is my koan. I must produce mindfulness and concentration, because for me it is a matter of life and death, of my ideals and my future.

We know we’ve been successful in our practice, because despite all the oppression and harassment, many of us in our community are still able to generate peace and love, and not be dragged down by worries, fears, or hatred. One young nun offered an insight poem to our teacher: “The Bat Nha of yesterday has become rain, falling to the earth, sprouting the seed of awakening.” She has successfully penetrated the koan of Bat Nha.

All we want is to practice—why can’t we? The senior monks of Vietnam want to protect and sponsor us—so why does the government stop them? We don’t know anything about politics—so why do they keep saying Bat Nha is a threat to national security? Why was dispersing Bat Nha so important that they had to resort to using hired mobs, slander, deceit, beatings, and threats? If the government forbids us from living together and forces us to scatter in all directions, how will our community be reunited? Why is it that in other countries people can practice this tradition freely, and we can’t? These questions come up relentlessly. But the energy of mindfulness is like fire that burns away all these haunting thoughts and questions.

The Bat Nha of yesterday was happiness. For the first time in our lives we were in an environment where we could speak openly and share our deepest thoughts and feelings with our brothers and sisters—without suspicion, without fear of betrayal. We had the opportunity as young people to serve the world, in the spirit of true brotherhood and sisterhood. This was the greatest happiness. Then Bat Nha became a nightmare, but no one will ever take from us the inner freedom we discovered there. I have found my path. Whether or not Bat Nha exists, I am no longer afraid.

We already have the seed and we already have our path, so we are no longer afraid for the future—our own or that of our country. Tomorrow we will have the chance to help those who persecute us today. We know that many of those who attacked us and made us suffer have already begun to see the truth. Prejudices and wrong perceptions eventually disintegrate. There is no need to worry or despair. We can laugh as brightly as the morning sun.

I AM A CHIEF OF POLICE IN VIETNAM. At first, I believed that the order from my superiors to wipe out Bat Nha must have been justified. However, as I carried out the order, I saw things that broke my heart. Bat Nha has become a koan for my life. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I toss and turn throughout the night. I ask myself: what have these people done, that I should treat them as reactionaries and threats to public safety? They seem so peaceful— but I have no peace at all. If I don’t have peace in my heart, how can I keep the peace in my society?

The young monks and nuns have not broken any laws. We forced them to leave the place they helped to build, where they had been living peacefully for years. They lived with such integrity. They ate vegan food, sat in meditation, listened to sutras, shared with each other, and did no harm to anyone. How can we say they are dangerous? And yet we have threatened and harassed them, we cut off their electricity and water, we did everything we could to break their spirit. But they never said a reproachful word, they offered us tea, they sang for us and asked to take souvenir photos with us.

In the end we hired mobs to destroy their community, to assault them, and expel them. Not once did they fight back. Their only weapons were chanting the Buddha’s name, sitting in meditation, and locking arms to stop us from separating them as we forced them into the waiting cars.

My orders came from above and I had to obey; but I feel deeply ashamed. At first I thought they were just temporary measures, for the greater good of the country, for the sake of preserving national unity. Now I know that the whole operation was deceitful, cruel, and offensive to human conscience. I am forced to keep these thoughts to myself. I don’t dare to share them with the officers in my unit, let alone my superiors. I can’t go forward and I can’t go back; I am a cog in a machine and I can’t get out. What must I do to be true to myself?

I AM A MEMBER OF THE BUDDHIST CHURCH OF VIETNAM. Bat Nha haunts me night and day. I know those young monastics are practicing the true Dharma. So why are we powerless to protect them? Why do we have to live and behave like government employees? When will I realize my dream of practicing religion without political interference?

We are brothers and sisters, children of the Buddha. Is it because our practice of brotherhood is not solid enough that they have been able to divide us, that we have fallen into blaming and hating each other? But surely we have learned a lesson: if we can accept each other and reconcile with one another, we can still resurrect our brotherhood and sisterhood, inspire the confidence of our fellow citizens, and be role models for everyone. Even though we’ve left it so long, the situation can still be saved. Just one moment of awakening is enough to change the situation. If we in the Buddhist Church have been cornered into betraying our own brothers and sisters it is because our spiritual integrity is not yet strong enough. How can we be wholehearted and determined enough in our daily practice to attain the spiritual strength we need?

Vietnamese Buddhists have respected and followed the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha for the last two thousand years. But now groups of people hired by government officers wore shoes into the Buddha Hall, put up offensive banners on the altar, yelled and cursed, threw human excrement at venerable monks, and destroyed sacred objects. They violently attacked, beat, and expelled monks and nuns from their temple. This is an ugly stain on the history of Buddhism in Vietnam. It disgusts us and sickens us, yet why don’t we dare to speak out? Can the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, whose members were slandered, falsely accused, and framed by the government, shake off this insult and prove the innocence of Vietnamese Buddhists?

I AM A HIGH RANKING MEMBER OF THE COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT OF VIETNAM. Bat Nha is an opportunity for me to look deeply at the truth and find peace in my own heart and mind. But how can I have peace when I don’t really believe in the path I walk on, and especially when I don’t have faith or trust in those I call my comrades? Why can’t I share my real thoughts and feelings with those I call my comrades? Am I afraid of being denounced? Of losing my position? Why do we all have to say exactly the same things when none of us believe it?

My greatest dream is for my own happiness to be in harmony with my country’s. Just as trees have their roots and water has its source, our homeland has its heritage of spiritual insight. The Ly dynasty was the most peaceful and compassionate dynasty in our country’s history. Under the Tran dynasty, the People’s unity was strong enough to enable them to push back the attacks from the North. This unity was possible thanks to Buddhism’s contribution as an inclusive and accepting spiritual path that could co-exist with other spiritual and ethical traditions, such as Taoism and Confucianism, and so build a country that never needed to expel or eliminate anyone.

How can we eradicate the hideous social evils of drug abuse, prostitution, gambling, violence, corruption and abuse of power, when the officials responsible for abolishing them are themselves caught up in those very evils? How can the government’s policy of “cultural districts” and “cultural villages” ever be successful if it is based merely on perfunctory inspections and punishment? Who is the one that needs to be inspected and who is the one that needs to be punished?

For the last two thousand years, Buddhism has been teaching people how to live ethical lives, be vegetarian, and keep the trainings. At this very time, the young monks and nuns of Bat Nha are reinvigorating this ethical way of living. They have the potential to succeed. Why can’t I open my heart to practice like them, to be one with them and benefit from their support? Why can’t we do as the kings of the Tran and Ly dynasties did? Just because we are Marxists, does that mean we don’t have the right to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, to be vegetarian and practice the mindfulness trainings?

I know that corruption and abuse of power have become a national catastrophe. We have been lamenting it for so many years already, and yet the situation just gets worse with every passing day. Why? Is it because I’m only able to proudly boast of my ancestors’ glorious past, and am not in fact able to do as they did? And today, when there are young people actually doing it, why do we block and suppress them?

I have gone along with the false reports and allowed the people I supervise to use lies, deception, and oppression against these gentle people who never have caused any disturbance to society. In the end, I am put in a position where I become the enemy of the very things I once cherished. Are my true enemies really outside of me? My enemies are within. Do I have enough courage and intelligence to face my own weaknesses? That is the fundamental question.

The Plum Village practices offer a rare opportunity to modernize Buddhism in Vietnam; the last four years have proved their effectiveness. Why are we allowing ourselves to be pressured by our powerful neighbor into persecuting and destroying such a precious living treasure? What will we get that is so precious, in return for destroying this treasure we already have?

I AM A HEAD OF STATE OR FOREIGN MINISTER. My country is or is not a member of the Security Council or the UN commission on human rights. I know that events like Bat Nha, Tam Toa, Tiananmen Square, and the annexation of Tibet are serious violations of Human Rights. But because of national interest, because our country wants to continue to do business with them, because we want to sell arms, airplanes, fast trains, nuclear power plants, and other technologies, because we want a market for our products, I cannot express myself frankly and make real decisions that can create pressure on that country so they stop violating human rights.

I feel ashamed. My conscience is not at peace but because I want my party and my government to succeed, I tell myself that these violations are not serious enough for my country to take a stance. It seems that I too am caught in a system, a kind of machinery, and I cannot really be myself. I’m not able to give voice to my real feelings or to speak out about the situation. What do I have to do to get the peace that I so badly need? Bat Nha is of course a situation in Vietnam, but it has also become a koan for a high-ranking political leader like me. What path can I take in order to really be myself?

The koan Bat Nha is everyone’s koan; it is the koan of every individual and every community. Bat Nha is an opportunity, because Bat Nha can help you see clearly what you couldn’t—or didn’t want to—see before.

In the Zen tradition, there are retreats of seven, twenty-one, and forty-nine days. During these retreats, the practitioner invests their whole heart and mind into the koan. Every moment of their daily life is also a moment of looking deeply: when sitting, walking, breathing, eating, brushing their teeth, or washing their clothes. At every moment the mind is concentrated on the koan. Every day the practitioner gets the chance to interact with the Zen master in the direct guidance session. The Zen master offers guidance to help the practitioner direct their concentration in the correct way, opening up their mind, and helping them to see, showing them the situation so the truth can reveal itself clearly.

In the direct guidance sessions the truth is not transmitted from master to practitioner. Practitioners must realize the truth for themselves. The Zen master may give about ten minutes of guidance, to open your mind and point things out, and then everyone returns to their own sitting place to continue to look deeply. Sometimes there are hundreds of practitioners, all sitting together in the meditation hall, facing the wall. After a period of sitting meditation, there is a period of walking meditation. Practitioners walk slowly, each and every step bringing them back to the koan. At meal times, practitioners may eat at their meditation cushion. While eating they contemplate the koan. Urinating and defecating are also opportunities to look deeply. Noble silence is essential for meditative enquiry; that is why outside the meditation hall there is always a sign that reads ‘Noble Silence.’

If you want to be successful in your practice of koans, you must be able to let go of all intellectual knowledge, all notions, and all points of view you currently hold. If you are caught in a personal opinion, standpoint, or ideology, you do not have enough freedom to allow the koan’s insight to break forth into your consciousness. You have to release everything you have encountered before, everything you have previously taken to be the truth. As long as you believe you already hold the truth in your hand, the door to your mind is closed. Even if the truth comes knocking, you will not be able to receive it. Present knowledge is an obstacle. Buddhism demands freedom. Freedom of thought is the basic condition for progress. It is the true spirit of science. It is precisely in that space of freedom that the flower of wisdom can bloom.

In the Zen tradition, community is a very positive element. When hundreds of practitioners silently look deeply together, the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration is very powerful. This collective energy nourishes your concentration in every minute and every second, giving you the opportunity to have a breakthrough in your practice of the koan. The firm discipline of your meditation practice, the favorable environment for concentration, as well as the guidance of the Zen master and silent support of fellow practitioners, all provide you with many opportunities to succeed.

The suggestions given above can be seen as direct guidance to help you in your practice of looking deeply. You have to see these words as an instrument, not as the truth. They are the raft that can bring you to the other shore; they are not the shore itself. Once you reach the other shore, you have to abandon the raft. If you are successful in looking deeply, you will have freedom, you will be able to see your path. Then you can just burn these words or throw them away.

I wish you all success in the work of looking deeply into the Bat Nha koan,

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Sitting Still Hut, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village, France
19 January 2010

 

This excerpt from Bat Nha: A Koan was edited by Barbara Casey. 

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