Dharma Talk: Living Practice

Question and Answer Session
with Thich Nhat Hanh and Monastic Brothers and Sisters

European Institute of Applied Buddhism
Waldbrol, Germany
May 20, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh: Today we have a session of questions and answers. We know that a good question can benefit many people. So please ask a question from your heart, a question that has to do with our practice, our suffering, our happiness. We know that a good question does not have to be very long. Young adults are encouraged to come and ask questions.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve been in a youth Sangha for almost two years. There are many Sanghas of young people growing in Holland and Germany, and it’s great to feel the brother­hood and sisterhood, and also the youth retreats that we have here in the EIAB [European Institute of Applied Buddhism]. I would also like to thank the EIAB for their support and their flexibility and trust in the wake-up group. As young people, we have this dream to create wake-up, living communities, but I wonder, how do we know that we have enough practice to make this really hap­pen? Do we need to have Dharma teachers as a foundation? Do we need to have laypeople finish the five-year [monastic] program to be the foundation? How do we create successful wake-up, living communities?

Thay: I remember one time we had a retreat in Montreal, Canada, and after the first session of walking meditation, one lady came up and said, “Thay, walking meditation is so wonderful, I enjoy it so much! May I share this practice of walking meditation with other people?” And I said, “Yes, you can share the teaching and the practice if you feel happy with the practice.” So if a group of young people are able to live happily and in harmony, connecting with the practice, they can begin to share the practice with other young people, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time learning and practicing Buddhism.

Maybe Brother Phap Linh can say a few words on this, on how to expand our movement and help more young people.

Brother Phap Linh: I know that the wake-up movement is very strong; we already feel like brothers and sisters on the path. Two years ago, Thay told us we need to have a wake-up tour of Europe, to spend ten days in each country. At the time we thought that was impossible, but already this year we’ve been able to do it in England and in Italy. We went to six different universities in the United Kingdom in March, a group of seven brothers and sisters and five young laypeople. Next year we want to make that dream come true by planning events in Holland, Germany, and Belgium.

Thay has encouraged us to invite people to practice as mo­nastics for five years. Now we will also have a two-year master’s program, for a Master of Applied Buddhism. So there are many ways that young people can come and train to become solid practitioners and to have the experience of serving others and sharing the practice.

The dream of living together as young people, sharing the practice, is already coming true. There’s a wake-up house in Aus­tin, Texas, and the core of their practice is agreeing to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the house, and that way they maintain harmony. So I think we already know the way. We just need to continue.

Bell

Retreatant: Dear Thay, I would like to ask how to create a peaceful and friendly relationship with a person who hates you and wants you out of their life.

Thay: There are at least two things to do. The first thing is to be­come lovable, pleasant. Sooner or later the other person will notice that you have become more pleasant to be with. The second thing is that you may know people who are friends with the other person, who can help the other person notice that you are a lovely person, are pleasant to be with, so that he will adjust his first impression and recognize the reality that is now. So the first thing is, a flower should be a true flower. The second thing is that someone should remind us that the flower is there.

Bell

Retreatant: I have a habit to be offensive against other people in my thoughts. I want to change that, but I don’t know how. For example, when I walk down the street and see people doing things, I think to myself, “Oh, what an idiot!” Things like that.

Thay: When you see something, it might be only one aspect of that thing, the aspect that does not please you. Next time you see someone or something, do not allow just one aspect of it to seize you, but allow yourself to see the other aspects as well.

In the chanting book there is a sutra talk by Shariputra [Dis­course on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger]. He said that when you have anger, you have to look deeply in order to trans­form your anger. With a person whose way of doing things may not please you, but whose way of speaking can be very pleasant, you should pay attention more to his way of speaking, not to his way of doing. That way you can transform your anger. Even if you notice that his behavior is not pleasant and his speech is not pleasant, maybe his way of thinking is very pleasant. You can see the goodness in his heart, so you accept what is not so good in his way of speaking or acting.

Shariputra went on to say that even if his behavior is not pleasant, if his speech is not pleasant, and if his thinking is not pleasant, you can still feel compassion and transform your anger. You look deeply to understand that such a bad person must be someone who suffers very much, and you might be able to help him suffer less. If you think like that, you will accept him as he is, and the anger in you will be transformed. This sutra is very beautiful. I recommend that you read it.

Shariputra used the image of water to illustrate his teaching. First, he described a lake covered with straw and algae. If a person who is very thirsty and hot takes off his clothes and gets into the water using his arm to remove what is floating on the surface, he can enjoy the cool water. If he can see underneath the straw and algae, the water is deep and fresh.

Shariputra gave a second image of a person who is traveling and is so thirsty he is about to die, but he knows there is some water left in the footprint of a buffalo. He knows that it is a very small quantity of water, and if he uses his hands to gather the water, it might become muddy. So he kneels down and drinks the water directly and is able to survive. It means that even if the situation is difficult, if the person is not very pleasant in his way of speak­ing and acting, you can recognize the goodness in him and try to enjoy that. That is one way to transform your anger, your disap­pointment. The sutra is about five ways to put down your anger and is available in the Plum Village chanting book. If you read the sutra, next time you go out on the street, you will look at them and smile and accept them as they are. Thank you. Good question.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, yesterday you talked about nirvana and states of being and non-being, the here and now, and the true self. Lately I feel that my true self is like a drop that has been taken out of the collective consciousness, something like a cloud. And I feel, as I’m aging, that this drop has been separated, and I have this longing to reunite with the ocean. I would like to know whether you notice a longing to be reunited to the true self, and how I can live in the here and now in the face of this longing.

Thay: If the wave remembers that she is at the same time water, there is no need for the wave to go and search for water. You have the impression that you are separated from your true self, from your true nature. That is only a feeling, a wrong perception. You feel that you are away from the ultimate dimension; you do not have a connection with God. That is also a feeling born from wrong perception. We know that the ultimate dimension and the historical dimension are not two separate dimensions, they are just one. So if we say that the flower belongs to the Kingdom of God, then if we get in touch deeply enough with the flower, we get in touch with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not something outside the flower. The feeling of separation is born from the fact that you do not live your life deeply enough in each moment. If we learn how to live in mindfulness and concentration, then the Kingdom of God, the ultimate dimension, is always available to us.

So we need to train ourselves to live more deeply. If we have enough mindfulness and concentration, we can touch the ultimate with every breath, every step. Nirvana, or the Kingdom of God, can be experienced in every moment of our daily life. In fact, you can touch nirvana with your feet. You can be in the presence of God twenty-four hours a day. How? Learn to breathe mindfully, walk mindfully, eat mindfully, drive mindfully.

Bell

A written question: Dear Thay, following the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I try not to kill. So for the past two years when I saw a few little bugs in the kitchen, I left them in peace. But this summer there were so many that I began to kill them, always trying to keep a peaceful mind and friendliness, wishing a good rebirth in the next life. I remembered you saying that when we followed the North Star, it didn’t mean that we had to reach it. But to perform the act of killing again and again, doesn’t this create karmic imprints in my stream of consciousness? Or do I have to decide not to kill at all in spite of some disadvantages? Thank you.

Sister Jina: We say the Five Mindfulness Trainings are like the North Star. They give us a direction in life, the direction of non- violence. And we do our best. One of the main things is to keep our mind open, not to think we have to do it this way or that way. Every time I am confronted with a situation, I look again and say, “What is the wisest thing to do?” If you do that, then you may learn to focus on prevention. In this case, we can see what we do that brings the little beings into our kitchen. Then we can determine what we can do to prevent them from coming in. This goes for all aspects of our daily life. If we did kill the insects, then we have to know we may not choose to do the same thing next time. In the meantime, practice being mindful in your daily life. Then you will have more concentration and more insight about how to protect life and how to go in the direction of nonviolence.

If we start to feel guilty, then we may get to a state where we cannot do anything anymore because guilt overtakes us. It is better to look and to say, “I regret that I did this. What can I do now?” Then we have learned something from the situation, and this will benefit many people and many beings.

Thay: When we went to Hong Kong, we had to use a mosquito net in order to sleep during the night because there were a lot of mosquitoes. It is impossible for you to kill all the mosquitoes! So using a mosquito net is a good prevention technique.

In Plum Village our brothers and sisters used to pick up the insects in the garden and release them outside instead of using pesticides. If we allowed the insects to share our vegetables, there would not be enough vegetables left for us. So at night we went to the vegetable garden and we picked up all these small insects and released them far away. Our neighbors were very surprised to see us and wanted to know what we were doing in the dark!

But that does not mean that we have the best way. We are still learning better ways to protect life. Thank you for asking the question so that we can continue our reflection on that.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear brothers and sisters, I would like to ask a question regarding my superiority complex. All my life when I’ve met people, I’ve automatically judged them and found something in them that made me feel superior. I used to go to a school where at the end of each year we had the custom to invite the best of each year onto a stage before the entire school and honor them with a golden plaque. There is still this voice in me that would really like to share that I, too, once received one of those golden plaques. But I have also discovered how in this way I create a distance between myself and other people.

I have discovered that one reason for my feeling of superior­ity is that I’ve tried to protect myself from a feeling of inferiority. Because of this discovery, things are changing a little bit. However, this feeling of having to create a distance between me and other people is still an obstacle in my way. I would like to ask you for more advice on how to manage this better. Thank you.

Thay: This morning when I touched the earth with the Sangha, I saw all the non-me elements coming together and touching the earth. I did not see me at all, only the non-me elements. That created a lot of space inside. Because you believe in a self, you compare that self with other selves. Out of it come the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, the equality complex. If you touch the truth of non-self in you, you are free.

When I was ordained, I was told how to bow to the Buddha. Bowing to the Buddha because you have the impression that the Buddha is perfect and you are not perfect is not the best way. As a young novice I was told that before you bow, you have to look deeply into yourself and into the Buddha to whom you bow. There is a verse you can recite while breathing in and out, before you bow. The verse is: “Dear Buddha, I know I have no self and you have no self. That is why I can see me in you and you in me.”

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not two separate entities. So when you remove the barrier, the distinction between the one who bows and the one who is bowed to, then the experience of the bow can be very deep. Although you conceive of the Buddha as the perfect one, your teacher, the fully enlightened one, you have no complex whatsoever.

Then there is the insight that our ancestors have transmitted to us many wonderful qualities. If we have some talent, there’s no “our own” talent. That is something that has been transmitted to you by your father or your grandfather or grandmother. You should be proud of it. If another person does not seem to have that talent, that doesn’t mean that talent is not in him or her. That person has been in an environment that has not helped that talent to manifest. You are luckier, because you have been in an environment where that talent had a chance to manifest. If you can see that, you won’t have any superiority complex over him.

Also, our ancestors have transmitted to us negative things, habit energies, sufferings. If we happen to be in a good environment where there are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we will be able to transform them more quickly than another person can. I know that the negative things in me may have been transmitted to me by my ancestors, and I know that with the Dharma, with the Sangha, I may be able to help transform them. Not only for myself but for my ancestors at the same time.

So the environment is very important. We should pay attention to how to create a good environment for us and for our children so that the good things can come out easily and the negative things can be transformed more easily.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, twelve years ago I had a crisis, and when I was in most need of the help of my friends, I was let down and even attacked by them. I became very ill and lost all my trust in other people. I have tried to look into the causes of all that happened, and I have tried to forgive myself and others. Now I am on a new path, trying to open myself up and to trust other people again. Much has changed for the better. But my old wound is being opened again by some recent interactions with people, and now I feel that people cannot be counted upon and I need to protect myself. So, dear Thay, how can I live in an open and trusting way, even with people who are not very mindful, and how can I at the same time protect myself?

Thay: We speak of protection with mindfulness. When you do things mindfully, you are in a safer situation. When you walk mindfully, you don’t risk falling down. When you speak mind­fully, you know what you are saying, and you know that what you say is going to create danger or safety. Most of the time the dangers come from ourselves, and not from others. We should learn to think mindfully, because our thoughts can draw danger to ourselves. When we do things, when we say things, when we think from a basis of anger and fear, we bring danger to ourselves and to the people around us. That is why when we notice that fear or anger is coming up, we should not say anything, we should not do anything. We should only go back to our mindful breathing and mindful walking in order to calm down these emotions. Learning to act mindfully, to speak mindfully, and to think mindfully is the best way to protect ourselves, and we can help protect the people around us at the same time.

If someone asks you to do something, to say something, you say, “Dear friend, I’m not in a position to do or say anything, because there is anger or fear in me. I risk making myself suffer more, and I risk making you suffer more.” If we can practice that, we are in a safer situation, and we can help another person to feel safer at the same time. And we can suggest that the other person, suffering from anger, do the same.

The second thing is that you are in a situation to help people in that negative environment, who have become the victims of such behavior. Mindfulness gives you that insight. These people did not have the intention to make you suffer, but they don’t know how to handle the suffering in them. That is why they do things and say things that make themselves suffer, and the people around them become victims. With that insight you are free and you are in the situation to help, because you have compassion in your heart.

Dear friends, it’s time for us to do walking meditation. Enjoy the Kingdom of God. Thank you.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Forgiveness Is the Path

By Ankit Rao

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“I don’t think this is working.”

My life was turned upside down by these few words. My girlfriend of five years, the person I had bought a house with not more than a year before, and the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, let me know that things weren’t exactly as I had presumed them to be. Not only had she decided to leave, but she had been seeing someone else without my knowledge.

All the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—would visit me in the years to come. I spent the next several months in what I call my “lost year.” I drank, sometimes six days out of seven. I spent as little time as possible in the house we had shared. There were times when I cried, times when I had so much anger and hate within me that I felt like I was going to explode.

What did I do? I threw myself into my work. My job entailed raising the general public’s awareness of environmental issues. I loved every second of it. I felt so much passion for helping to inspire people to take care of the world. I spent the weekends waiting for Sunday night to arrive so I could once again do what I cared about. I worked more than I ever had, with a lot of zest and a lot of denial. At work I was enthusiastic, full of life and vigor, but after work, as I neared home, I could not help feeling the expectation that what I had experienced was a dream and that I would finally wake up, that I would find my girlfriend waiting for me. That time never came. The house became like a living tomb, and the memories racked my mind every night. For four years, I could not escape them.

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You Cannot Help but Love 

I finally reached out for what I thought was my freedom by taking a post as an environmental education coordinator in Thailand. My job required me to spend weeks with children out in the rainforests, mangroves, mountains, and river systems of Thailand, and I found the work to be very inspiring. In my free time, I visited temples, swam, relaxed by getting massages, and felt a world away from where I had once been.

One day, however, I felt more than a little challenged. A coworker who I was managing on a trip spent the whole five days angrily disputing every decision I made. It’s not that I was not open to hearing constructive criticism, but I felt she could have found ways to communicate her ideas that did not disrupt the whole group. For the first time in a while, I felt anger rise up inside me.

I needed some peace, and as I inwardly asked for it, the whole universe seemed to assist me by offering me a book from the work library, the first book I laid my eyes on: Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh. Little did I know that my life would change the moment I picked up that book.

The section entitled “Understanding” explains that if someone has shouted, acted badly, or cursed you, you should look for the reasons why he has acted in this way as opposed to getting angry yourself. Once you have done this, you will start to understand the reasons for the person’s behavior. It may be due to his relationship with his parents or friends, or some disruptive event that happened in his life. The underlying message is that once you understand, you cannot help but show love.

So I tried to find out more about my colleague and what she was going through, and gradually I began to understand why she would shout at people when she did not get her way. Instead of having negative feelings toward her, I forgave her and started to show her love, even when she continued to shout. An amazing thing happened: the ice that had developed between us started to melt and the shouting stopped. It was a wonderful way to end my time in Thailand. I also realized that I had not thought about my ex-girlfriend for a whole year. I had moved on.

True Emancipation 

I left my job and traveled for fifteen months through India, Nepal, and Canada, going on many treks, volunteering on organic farms, and teaching. For a time I helped teach English to Tibetan students. These people had been denied their independence and forced out of their country, but I witnessed no anger or recrimination in them. I had seen the same attitude in people in Burma earlier that year, and I felt humbled. I wanted to know how people could endure great wrongs without being consumed by anger and blaming. It was during an Introduction to Buddhism course in Dharamsala, India, that I found the answer.

During a meditation session at the course, my thoughts came back to my ex-girlfriend. I looked back to my experience in Thailand and remembered Thich Nhat Hanh’s wise advice to try to understand the reasons why someone has treated you badly. For the first time in a year, I actually started to think about the process and the reasons that led her to do what she did. As much as I thought that she did not conduct herself well, I started to look at what I may have done that could have influenced her to make these choices. For the first time, I started to see what I had done: taking her for granted, complaining, not listening, arguing, and getting angry when she would not act as I expected her to. I was shocked and saddened. I realized for the first time that we were both to blame.

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I started to understand, and as I understood, I accepted, and then something happened that was bigger than anything I had ever experienced in my life: I forgave her for everything she had done and how she had done it. I felt at peace with her for her actions and sent her a ream of love. I released a deep sigh of relief. Yet for the remainder of the meditation session, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and guilt for how I had acted and what I had done. I knew that if I was to truly emancipate myself from the past, I had to do one more thing: I had to forgive myself.

I forgave myself for all that I had done, for the mistakes that I had made, and for how I had made her feel. I made a promise to be more mindful of my actions and their effects in the future. Intense emotion filled my body, and I cried like a baby. In front of fifty other meditators, I cried as if none of them were present. And in this moment of forgiveness and surrender, my pain started to release. Forgiveness, like a pair of scissors, cut the cords that had bound me for so long.

As I left the meditation course several days later, the light seemed to shine on me from on high. However, looking into the sky I could not see the sun, nor blue skies, nor white wispy clouds. The light was from within. I forgave and I was free.

My fifteen-month journey ended with a retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. I felt as if I had come full circle. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings had helped me many months before in Thai- land and India, and set me upon this course of self-discovery and forgiveness. Now here I was, immersing myself in his teachings. It was wonderful not only to hear Thay speak and to participate in group walking meditation, but also to hear others relate their life experiences and the ways Thay’s teachings had helped them. The message of forgiveness came up many times during conversations, and it was beautiful to hear others talk about having been healed by the same advice: whenever there is a potential argument or confrontation, stop, take a few deep breaths, listen, understand, accept, and show love.

Forgiveness is not a one-stop final destination. We must continue to practice it on our daily journey. If we are to have peace in every step, then forgiveness is the path on which we tread.

mb63-Forgiveness4Ankit Rao works to inspire people to care more for the planet’s resources, explore their relationship with nature, and see a positive change in their own personal development and wider community as they immerse themselves in the earth’s natural environment.

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A Love Letter to the 1%

By Brother Phap Ho 

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Dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%,

I have heard much about you, dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%, but I am not sure if we have ever met. My name is Brother Protection and I am a six-foot-two-inch Buddhist monk with a shaved head, brown robes, and glasses. I just turned forty this year, and it’s been eleven years since I lived and worked as a lawyer in Stockholm, Sweden. If you see me around, please stop and say hello. I would love to meet you in person.

Last year I was interviewed by Occupy Boston’s newspaper, together with some other monks and nuns. I remember saying that as we practice walking and sitting meditation, we make happiness and peace possible in the present moment. We also wish for everyone, the 100%, to be happy and peaceful. I looked up toward the tall high-rise buildings and prayed that everyone up there would be free of worry, stress, and frustration.

I know that you must have studied and worked very hard to become part of the 1%. I can also imagine that you have a lot of responsibilities toward many people. Money and power offer not only liberty, but a lot of responsibility. I hope this is not burdening you too much.

As a Buddhist monk, I do not have a lot of money or power, but I do feel much responsibility toward the Earth and the people, animals, and plants on this planet. We all understand that there is just this one planet that is inhabitable in our solar system. When I look up at the full moon, I also look with the eyes of my ancestors and future generations of people of this Earth. I hope they will be able to enjoy the peaceful radiance of the full moon soaring through the dark sky. I hope that everyone on all continents will have enough food to eat and access to clean water. I hope that all people will be able to feel safe in their family, society, and country, and will not have to go through the devastation and suffering of war. I wish for all of us to reflect on what can we do to make this a reality and then to act on our insights and the insights of scientists, on which we rely. We need your help!

Our Earth 

Our natural environment is undergoing great stress due to the way we humans are using the resources of this Earth. Our air, water, and the Earth itself are becoming polluted. As carbon dioxide levels increase, the planet is warming up, causing desertification, extinction of many species, and stronger and more frequent natural disasters, all leading to hardship for so many. Were we to use all the identified fossil fuel resources, including the tar sands, the climate of this planet would change so dramatically that we would no longer recognize it as our Earth. We know that everything changes and nothing lasts forever, but wouldn’t it be nice to take care of the natural environment so that many more generations of people will be able to enjoy the wonders of glaciers, vast forests, an abundance of animal species, and reliable seasons which make agriculture possible? Together we can reduce our emissions and support initiatives and research into renewable, sustainable energy sources. The Earth needs our caring support. We receive everything we have from our planet. Let’s see what we can do for the Earth.

Our Children 

Thousands of children die every day from malnutrition and lack of clean water. I try to imagine a young mother with children who are crying from hunger and getting sick from dirty water. Here in Southern California, where I currently live, people play golf in areas that get only ten inches of rain a year! The golf courses are kept green with water from the Colorado River, which no longer reaches the ocean. On this planet we grow more than enough food for everyone to have plenty to eat, but we throw much of it away. Many crops and water resources are also used for animal food production. Even in this rich country, one-sixth of the population has issues with hunger at the same time that obesity rates are soaring. There is something strange, something scary, about this situation. It seems that with our advancing technology, we have lost some of our common sense. I am sure that together we can find ways to share the resources of this planet so that everyone has enough conditions to feel safe and at ease.

We Are All Human Beings 

In the past, the 1% has not always clearly understood the situation of the 99%, but today information and technology make such understanding possible. When we understand clearly the situation of people in difficult circumstances, we can no longer blame them or say that they are the cause of their own misery. In this country, we might feel that the poor and uneducated just have to make more effort to overcome their difficulties, and some miraculously do. But we also have to be aware of many challenging conditions, such as how unevenly educational resources are distributed, and how much energy teachers in under-served neighborhoods expend in dealing with the social problems of the children in their care. What would we have done if we had grown up in a neighborhood with drugs, gangs, and violence, with a father in jail and a drug- addicted mother? What are the sufferings of a mother addicted to crack? Did she receive love, respect, and education when she was a little girl?

Many studies show that every person has the capacity to transform her life and to learn the skills needed to become capable of taking care of herself and her family. But due to difficulties and lack of opportunities for many generations, people need our help to get back on their feet. They need our acceptance and love to be able to feel good about themselves again. Discrimination causes so much suffering around the world, but when we stop to listen and look deeply, we recognize that we are all human beings, wishing to be able to love and care for our families, wishing to live in peace and freedom. The great diversity of colors, languages, cultures, and views becomes a wonderful asset for a more prosperous human existence on this planet.

I thank you, dear Mr. and Mrs. 1%, for listening to my thoughts and feelings. I know that you have the means and influence to do great things for our planet and all people. But don’t worry or feel burdened. You are not alone. Many of us are very eager to help you. We are all part of the 100%, and remembering and caring for all of us is a great joy. If we support all people in developing their talents and positive qualities, we will make our planet an even more amazing place to live.

It is not easy to be part of the 1%, and therefore I truly wish you happiness and ease. I hope you are able to enjoy the tremendous gift of being alive as a human being on this precious planet.

In joy and gratitude, Brother Protection

mb63-LoveLetter2Brother Phap Ho (Brother Protection) is very grateful to have found his path of practice and service. This article is, in many ways, a fruit of two Wake-Up tours in 2012. “It’s time to wake up,to be the change in the world you want to see” (from the Wake-Up song).

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Dharma Talk: The Habit of Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Upper Hamlet, Plum Village June 19, 2012


Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is Tuesday, the nineteenth of June 2012, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall, Upper Hamlet. This is our nineteenth day of the twenty-one-day retreat.

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Sitting here, I can hear the sound of the rain. I know that I’m with my Sangha, sitting together, enjoying this present moment. With mindfulness, this moment must be a happy moment.

 

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The practice of non-thinking is the secret of success in meditation. When thinking settles in, you lose the first impression of contact. You do not have much chance to be in the here and the now, and to be in touch with what is in your body and around you. Instead, just become aware of contact and feelings. In this way you can be in touch with the elements of nourishment and healing available in your body and in the environment, both physical and mental.

The Universal Mental Formations

There are five mental formations called universal. They are present in every consciousness, in every mental formation.

The first one is touch, mental contact. Sparsha. When eyes and an object come together, there is contact between them, producing eye consciousness. Eye consciousness begins with contact. So mental contact is the first thing that manifests as a perception. Organ and object bring about consciousness. And consciousness is made first of all with mental contact.

It can be followed right away by feeling: vedana. The feeling may be pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.

The third mental formation is called attention: manaskara. This has the function of drawing your attention to an object. When the bell master offers the half sound, your attention is drawn to that sound. That is manaskara, attention. Several objects of at-tention may happen at the same time—three, four, a dozen—but you’re free to choose one object to bring your attention to.

And with mindfulness you can make a good choice. Instead of listening to another sound, you’re listening to the bell. Breathing in and breathing out, just focus your attention only on the bell. Listening to the bell can help you to create the energy of concentration that can help you to calm down the body and the mind. So that kind of attention is good in nature. It’s called appropriate attention. You choose to focus your attention on something that is wholesome, that will be of benefit. A good practitioner always practices appropriate attention. The Sanskrit word is yoniso manaskara.

But when we allow our attention to go to objects that do not benefit our peace and practice, it’s called inappropriate attention. It’s called ayoniso manaskara. So as a good practitioner, mindfulness helps us to focus our attention only on the objects of benefit, and that can come before contact (sparsha) or after contact. After contact, you may see that this is not a good object of attention, and you may change the object of attention. So manaskara can come before sparsha or after sparsha. These five universal mental formations are always present with consciousness, any kind of consciousness. They are a series, and they bring about a perception.

One day we had a retreat in northern California and there was a fire in the mountains. During sitting meditation and walking meditation, we heard the sound of helicopters. When you have been in a war, like the wars in Vietnam, the sound of helicopters reminds you of machine guns, bombs, and death. So it’s not pleasant. But there was no choice to avoid listening, so we chose to practice listening to the sound of the helicopters with mindfulness. With mindfulness, we can tell ourselves that this is not a helicopter operating in a situation of war. These helicopters are helping to extinguish the flames. With mindfulness, our unpleasant feelings were transformed into pleasant feelings, into feelings of gratitude. Mindfulness can transform everything.

When the feeling is pleasant, you stop all thinking and just become aware of the feeling. Like the pleasant feeling of walking barefoot on the beach, feeling the sand between your toes. Walking on the beach, you can be very happy, if you are able to let go of thinking of this or that.

The fourth universal mental formation is perception. What you are in touch with, what you are feeling, appears in your mind as a sign that suggests a name, like: flower. This is to have an idea about the object of your feeling. When this happens, bring your mindfulness to that perception, because it might be a wrong perception, like mistaking a piece of rope for a snake. Wrong perception is always possible, and can bring about fear, anger, irritation, and so on. Mindfulness can help you avoid wrong perception. The intervention of mindfulness is very important on the path of thinking, on the path of feeling.

 

The fifth universal mental formation is volition, cetana, resolution, intention. You have the concept, the idea, the perception of the object of your contact. You want to decide whether to possess it or to push it away. This is a decision, an intention, to accept or reject.

A New Neural Pathway

These five mental formations are always together. They form a neural pathway that can lead to either suffering or happiness. In your brain, there are many neural pathways that you are used to traveling on. For example, when you come in contact with something that habitually triggers a feeling in you, like the feeling of anger, your frequent traveling on that neural pathway turns it into a habit—the habit of suffering. With the intervention of mindfulness, you can erase that neural pathway and open up another pathway that leads to understanding and happiness.

 

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Suppose you are reaching for a big piece of cake. Because you have learned mindfulness, suddenly your awareness helps you to ask, “Why am I reaching for the cake? I’m not hungry.” You may have some worry, some anxiety, some irritation, and you reach for something to eat to forget, to cover up the irritation in you. That becomes a habit because a neural pathway in your brain has been created for it. As a practitioner, you have to change the neural pathway to change this pattern of suffering. You should allow mindfulness and concentration to intervene so you are not the victim of that suffering.

Suppose you are in a discussion group and you have a chance to speak about your suffering. You may express your suffering in a way that will make you continue to suffer, like you have in the past. Or you may choose another way. You know that brothers and sisters in the Dharma are listening, trying to help you recognize and embrace the suffering so that you can heal and transform. While speaking, you use mindfulness and concentration in order to share. Your way of sharing changes, and after having shared, you suffer less. Otherwise, sharing in the old way, you are just rehearsing your suffering.

With mindfulness and concentration intervening in the process of perception, a new neural pathway is created that does not lead to suffering. Instead it can lead to understanding and compassion, and happiness and healing. As a good practitioner you know how to make a new pathway in your brain. Our brains have the power of neural plasticity; they can change. Old neural pathways can disappear and new ones open so that you have access to happiness and compassion.

Suppose someone says something that angers you. Your old pathway wants to say something to punish him. But that makes us victims of our habit energy. Instead, you can breathe in and say, “Unhappiness is in me, suffering is in me, anger is in me, irritation is in me.” That is already helpful, recognizing your feelings and helping you not to respond right away. So you accept that anger and irritation in you, and smile to it. With mindfulness, you look at the other person and become aware of the suffering in him or in her. He may have spoken like that to try to get relief from his suffering. He may think that speaking out like that will help him suffer less, but in fact he will suffer more.

With just one or two seconds of looking and seeing the suffering in him, compassion is born. When compassion is born, you don’t suffer any more, and you may find something to say that will help him. With the practice, we can always open new neural pathways like that. When they become a habit, we call it the habit of happiness.

During the winter retreat, Thay stayed in Upper Hamlet for three months. Every morning, when he first got up, he washed his face. The water was very cold. Thay usually opened the tap so the water came out drop by drop, and he put his hand under the water faucet and received the feeling of cold water. It helped to make him more awake. It was very refreshing. He took some of these drops of water and put them in his eyes and felt the refreshment in his eyes. He enjoyed the washing and did not want to finish quickly. He did not have to think. He wanted to be fully alive, so he took time to enjoy the pleasure of the water.

Mindfulness and understanding helped him to see that this water has come from very far away. From up in the mountain, from deep down in the earth, it comes right into your bathroom. When you develop the habit of being happy, then everything you do, like serving yourself a cup of tea, you do in such a way that it creates joy and happiness.

When Thay put on his jacket and walked, he enjoyed every step from his hut to the meditation hall. He always got in touch with the moon or the stars or the fresh air. To be alive and to be walking on this small path is a great joy. To go to the meditation hall and sit with the brothers is a great joy. So every moment can be a moment of happiness, of joy.

If you have depression, if you have some problem with your mental health, the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight will help stop you from traveling the same old neural pathways. You open a new path, a path of happiness. Focusing on your suffering is not the only way to heal. Instead, you focus on the non-suffering side that is in the here and the now.

You have many good seeds of happiness and joy in you. You have the seed of compassion, of understanding, of love in you, and you practice in order to get in touch with appropriate attention, stopping your thinking, enjoying the pleasant feeling that is possible in the here and the now. You recognize the many conditions of happiness that are here, in order to make this moment into a pleasant moment. This is possible. While you are doing so, the healing takes place. You don’t have to make any effort because you have the habit of happiness. All of us have the capacity to be happy. Suffering is not enough!

The Five Particular Mental Formations

After you have studied the five universals, you may like to learn about the five particular mental formations, which are: desire, resolution, mindfulness, concentration, understanding/insight. Chanda, adhimoksha, smrti, samadhi, prajna.

The first, desire, is intention. Intention can be positive or negative. Our good intention is our desire to practice, to open new neural pathways, to create happiness. I want to transform suffering, and I know ways to do it. Our resolution is our determination, our confidence that this is what we want. I want to practice, to change myself, to cut off the source of nutriments that lead to suffering. I want to consume only what is good for my mental and physical health. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight are the energies that develop neural pathways leading to compassion, understanding, and happiness.

Eight Levels of Consciousness

The first level of consciousness is eye consciousness. Form is the object of eyes. When eyes and form encounter each other, it brings about eye consciousness, sight. Eye consciousness always has contact, attention, and feelings, because any consciousness has the five universals within it. They happen very quickly, maybe in less than one millisecond.

The second through the fifth consciousnesses are: ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, and body consciousness. Body and touch, tongue and taste, nose and smell, ear and sound, eyes and form. These consciousnesses are a kind of flow; their nature is a continuum, always going through birth and death.

It’s like the flame of a candle. We have the illusion, the false perception, that it is one flame, but instead there is a succession of millions of flames together without interruption. When someone draws a circle with a flaming torch, you may see a circle of fire. But it is an optical illusion. When the movement is done very quickly, you have the impression that there is a whole circle of fire instead of just one flame.

Consciousness has the nature of cinematography, with one image following another, giving the impression that there is something continuous. So all the five consciousnesses operate like that. When you see an elephant walking, there is a succession of images of the elephant, subject and object always changing. These five consciousnesses can stop operating and manifest again when there are the right conditions. They are not continuous like other consciousness. When you go to sleep, maybe three, four, or five stop operating altogether.

According to Buddhist teaching, when they operate alone without mind consciousness, they might have the opportunity to touch the Ultimate. There’s no thinking. The first moment of touching and feeling can help these five consciousnesses touch the ultimate, touch reality. That is called in Sanskrit pratyaksha. There is direct contact, with no discrimination or speculation. But when the five collaborate with mind consciousness, then the thinking, the discrimination, the speculation settle in and they lose contact with the ultimate, with reality.

The sixth is called mind consciousness. It can be interrupted also, if you fall into a coma, or sleep without dreaming, or enter a meditation called no thinking, no perception. If you dream while sleeping, your sixth consciousness still operates, but it does not get the form, the sound, etc. from these five, but from the eighth, the store consciousness. The store consciousness contains the seeds of everything, so the world of dreams is created from store consciousness.

All the consciousnesses manifest from the base, from the seeds in the store. The seed of eye consciousness gives rise to eye consciousness. The seed of nose consciousness gives rise to nose consciousness. Object and subject arise at the same time.

The seventh is manas, the ground for the sixth to lean on in order to manifest. Manas has a wrong view about self. It is always seeking pleasure and trying to avoid suffering. Manas ignores the goodness of suffering and the dangers of pleasure seeking. Manas ignores the law of moderation. A practitioner should try to instruct manas to transform wrong views concerning self. We have to instruct manas that there is a lot of danger in pleasure seeking; that we shouldn’t try to run away from suffering because if we know how to make good use of suffering, true happiness will become possible. That is the work of meditation.

Mind consciousness with mindful concentration can help open up a new path in store consciousness. Every action that we have performed is preserved by store consciousness. Any thought we have produced today or yesterday, whether in the line of right thinking or wrong thinking, is always stored. Nothing is lost, and it will come back at some point as retribution.

Store consciousness receives information, receives action, and processes it and allows it to mature, to ripen. Maturation can take place at every moment. The seeds of information can manifest on the screen of mind consciousness. The store can be compared to a hard drive, which maintains and stores information. But the information on your hard drive is static; it’s not alive, while all the seeds in store consciousness are alive and changing every moment, going through birth and death, renewing all the time; they are living things.

Characteristics of Seeds in Store Consciousness

The bija, the seeds, have characteristics. The first characteristic of a seed is in Sanskrit kshanakarma. It means going through birth and death every moment, cinematographic, always changing, always evolving. Not like the information you store in your computer that stays the same. They are alive, growing, maturing. Their nature is instantaneous (Sanskrit: kshana); it means they only subsist a very short unit of time.

The second aspect of the seeds is in Sanskrit sahabhu. It means that the seed of a mental formation and a mental formation co-exist, serving as cause and effect for each other. They are always together like the left and the right. For example, cause and effect manifest at the same time. Like subject and object, left and right, above and below.

The third aspect of seeds is in Sanskrit bhavangasrota. It means it forms a continuous series. It engenders its own fruit and seeds, again and again. It makes a continuum. It is not a static object; it is a flow. It has its own nature: a seed of corn manifests only as a corn plant. The seed of anger has anger as its nature; you cannot mix it with the seed of compassion.

The fourth aspect of seeds is in Sanskrit vyakrta. It means their nature as wholesome, neutral, or unwholesome is determinate. Every thought, word, or action that you perform can be classified either as neutral, wholesome, or unwholesome.

The fifth characteristic is that seeds are always ready to manifest when conditions are right. The manifestation of a seed can be helped or blocked by other conditions.

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The sixth nature of seeds is that seeds always bear fruit. A seed brings about its own fruit. That’s the law of retribution. A good act will bring a good result. Happy, compassionate speech will bring a good result. So the seed of corn only manifests as a plant of corn, and not something else.

Retribution

Store consciousness operates in a way that is not known to mind consciousness. It’s difficult for mind consciousness to see clearly how store consciousness operates. Store consciousness has the duty to maintain, to hold these seeds. Store consciousness has the ability to receive and preserve every act, whether it is speech, a thought, or a physical action.

 

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We continue as a body, as a series of consciousnesses, because store consciousness has the capacity to hold that for us. What we perform as karma, as action, through our thinking and speaking and acting, will always have retribution, and retribution can be seen in the here and the now. Your body, your feelings, your perceptions are a certain way because you have acted in a way that will bring those results. So that is the fruit, the retribution, of your action. The state of your body, the state of your mind, and the state of your environment are the results of your action.

There are two kinds of retribution. The main retribution is your body and mind, the results of your action in the past. You are your action; you are your karma. You are the way you are because you have performed the karma that has led you to this state of body and mind.

The other aspect of retribution is the environment. The environment is you. It’s you who have created that environment because of your karma, your action. There is collective karma and individual karma. Both you and the environment are the fruit of your action, are your retribution. Store consciousness has the power, the duty, to ripen and to manifest the fruit of your action.

Vijnapti has many meanings. The first meaning is to manifest. The seeds of store consciousness manifest in body and mind and environment. You have not been created by a god; you are a manifestation from your own action. You have not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being. You will not go from the realm of being into the realm of non-being. You have not been created; you are only manifested.

To manifest in this form, and then to manifest in another form, and then in another form, is like the cloud. Now it is a cloud, later on it will be rain. Later on it will be tea or it will become ice cream. There are many manifestations of the cloud. You are like that cloud, and you can choose a path of transformation that you like, that is beautiful. So vijnapti is manifesting as consciousness, as body, as environment. In Sanskrit, all words or nouns that have the “vi” prefix have to do with consciousness. “Vi” means to distinguish, to perceive.

So to manifest as body and mind and environment, and to perceive that body, that mind, that environment, that is vijnapti. In Buddhism there is a school of thought called vijnaptimatra, meaning manifestation only, no creation, no destruction. There is only manifestation. Manifesting from the seeds, from consciousness.

The Light of the Candle

We conclude this Dharma talk with the image of a candle that emits light. Light is an action of the candle. Light is the candle itself. Here we also have another candle that emits light. The candle receives its own action, because the light emitted by one candle shines upon the other candle. What you do has an effect on yourself and has an effect on another person. There are other candles that are close to you; not only do you affect yourself, but you affect the next candle. So here you see the light of this candle, but there is the participation of the other candle also. If you analyze this zone of light, you see this is the light emitted by this candle, but also some of it has been emitted by the other candle.

Imagine there are multiple candles, and one shines in every other candle. You can think in terms of force fields. Subatomic particles can be seen as energy, and they exert influence on other atoms, other subatomic particles. The candle and the light of the candle are the same. We are the same. We and our action are the same. We are only our action. Force fields are like that. Everything is made by everything else. The one is made by the all, and looking into the one, we can see all. Looking into our rose, we see the whole cosmos in it.

You can see that everywhere there is both collective light and individual light. In fact, you can no longer distinguish between the collective and the individual, to the point that you can eliminate the notion of collective and individual, so that you can be free.

Consciousness is like that. The question you may ask is whether everyone has individual store consciousness. Think of the candle, think of our suffering. Our suffering is made of non-suffering elements. Our suffering carries the suffering of our father, our mother, our ancestors, and of the world. So you cannot say that it is individual suffering; you cannot say that it is wholly collective suffering. They inter-are. So interbeing is a good term to describe everything.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

 

Further Reading on Buddhism and Science

Click the links below  to read the following articles on Buddhism, science, and mathematics:

  • While attending “The Sciences of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June, OI member Paul Tingen was encouraged by a few monastics to write down some of his insights into the parallels between new discoveries in neuroscience and our practice. The result was an essay called “Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain: How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice.It describes how mindfulness practice and the insight of neuroplasticity can help us rewire our brains and alleviate habitual patterns of suffering.
  • Seven Interbeings” is an article written by Tetsunori Koizumi, Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies, in response to Thay’s inspirational Dharma talks given during the June 2012 retreat, “The Sciences of the Buddha.” The article demonstrates how Thay’s innovative concept of interbeing is consistent with some fundamental relational principles of mathematics.

PDF of article

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

Letters

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

I was introduced to mindfulness during a training course at work several years ago and I have found that it has helped to transform my life. I am an artist and an art therapist and I now use mindfulness meditation a great deal with my patients. Often I begin with a mindfulness meditation and then I encourage the patient to draw their observations.

I read your story, “A Peaceful River” (Summer 2012), as the clouds were rolling past my small studio window. I became absorbed in the sky and the clouds as I reflected on your words and felt inspired to paint. My painting shows my orange mug, full of tea reflecting the clouds as they float past. Underneath the blue sky I have pasted small pieces of torn-up newspaper which were from an article that troubled me. It was about the environment and the loss of trees through constant development in England where I live. I visualised the issue attaching itself to the clouds and knew that this too, like the clouds, would pass.

Thank you for your inspiring story and for the other encouraging stories in the Mindfulness Bell.
Withnewfound peace and joy,
Michelle Edinburgh
Solihull, England

mb61-LetterToEditor Dear Mindfulness Bell friends:

I recently received my first issue and am thrilled to be brought into the circulation of your mindful readership. Keeping a mindful awareness and positive perspective here in prison is difficult but with the inspiration and support of works by Thich Nhat Hanh, IT CAN BE DONE one breath at a time. Enclosed is a compilation/composition of mine that was recently inspired by my meditation on the depths of “aimlessness.” Thanks for all you do for all of us and please know how we in prison already have the elements for happiness within us but we need frequent reminders not to try too hard. 

Trying Too Hard

Consider the lilies of the field: How they grow.
They neither toil nor spin.
The Tao abides in non-doing.
Yet nothing is left undone.
Buddha taught that there is no need to
Struggle to be free.
The absence of struggle is itself freedom.
Be Still and Know that I Am God.
How hard could it be?
Still….

Blessings & Peace,
Rob Becker
Danville, Illinois, U.S.A.

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I wanted to pass on my appreciation for a recent story in the Summer 2012 issue of the Mindfulness Bell. In June 2012 I became a new mom. In the early weeks I struggled with my role as a mom. Then I read Sister Trang Moi Len’s “Mama, Today Is a Special Day.” Through my tears that is. Her words helped me reconnect to Thay’s teachings and find the strength and courage to love my baby daughter. Thank you for such a wonderful publication and for the reminder to find our true selves. 

Warm regards
Vanessa
Chirgwin Massachusetts, U.S.A

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Dharma Talk: Life is a Wonder!

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

On May 10, 2008, during the “Engaged Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century” retreat at the Kim Lien Hotel in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh answered questions from retreatants. Here are a few of those questions and answers.

Thich Nhat Hanh

A Beautiful Continuation 

A written question: My father is retiring after fifty-five years of leading companies. He has decided that unless he can remain a very important person by having a high position or being affiliated with a prestigious institution, he is “irrelevant.” As a result he does not want to live. He has said he cares about no one and has no interests left in life. I’ve tried watering his good seeds and spending time with him. But his anger is very deep and his manas is 72 years strong [laughter]. How can I help him?

We might help him by telling him to learn to look deeply into his own person, to understand himself. We are usually caught in our notion of self. We are not aware that a self is made only of non-self elements, just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements. Sometimes we notice that we have certain talents and skills, but we should know that these talents and skills have come from our ancestors. When you know that your own talents, as well as your suffering and your happiness, have come from your ancestors, you are no longer caught in the idea that all these things belong to you.

In the Buddhist tradition when we Touch the Earth we make the gesture of opening our two hands to show that we have nothing in us. Everything has been transmitted through our ancestors. There is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be proud of. We inherit many things from our ancestors. In that light we can release everything very quickly. The insight that self is made up of nonself elements can be very liberating. Then it will be possible for us to see ourselves in our children and in our friends.

We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean our end — we always continue! We continue beautifully or not so beautifully, depending on how we handle the present moment. If in the present moment we can produce thoughts of loving kindness, forgiveness, and compassion, if we can say inspiring words, if we can perform beautiful acts of compassion, then we will have a beautiful continuation. We have sovereignty over the present moment.

If your father has access to that kind of insight he will change and he will suffer less. He will have joy in living. He will see that he is in you and that you will carry him into the future. All his talents and experiences are not lost — you will continue to have them, and you will do your best to transmit these qualities into the future through your children and grandchildren.

A Deep Grievous Longing 

A lay woman asks: My husband and I have been trying to conceive a child for a long time. My sister and her husband have recently had a pregnancy loss, so we’ve both been experiencing a lot of suffering. One of my highest aspirations is to experience the miracle of having a child. Sometimes it’s very intense emotionally, the intensity of life wanting to continue itself, it causes a deep grievous longing. I work in a clinic that practices Chinese medicine to help couples with infertility. So it’s very difficult not to water those seeds of suffering. It is my most sincere intention to nourish my healing practice and my patients’ healing from the heart of my own experience. It’s from here that I ask for your guidance. 

Someone said that happiness is something that you don’t recognize when it is there. You feel that, once it is gone, you have lost it. Happiness can occur in different forms. We might focus our attention on one thing and we call it the basic condition for our happiness. If we don’t have that thing then we don’t have happiness. But there are many other conditions for happiness that are present in the here and the now, and we just ignore them. We think that only the other object is a true condition for happiness, which now we don’t have. 

Someone looking at you may recognize all the conditions of happiness that he does not have. That person may wonder why with plenty of conditions for happiness like that you do not enjoy your life and you are looking for something else. So the practice is first of all to say that happiness can be found in many forms. 

Looking deeply into the human person we see that the human person wants to continue long into the future. We want to have children and grandchildren; we want to last a very long time. That is also the nature of animals and vegetables. Every living thing wants to be continued long into the future, not just human beings. 

Someone like myself, a monk, also has the desire to last into the future, to be continued. That is very normal — every human being wants to be continued, and to be continued beautifully. 

We know that there are those who have children but who are not happy with their children. They say if they had not given birth to these children they would be happier. You have to take into account all these things. 

I myself do not have blood children but I have a lot of spiritual children and they make me very happy. They carry me into the future and I am very satisfied! I do not need to have a blood child. 

Transmission can be done in many ways. You want to transmit the best thing you have into the future. You can transmit yourself genetically or spiritually. When you look into my disciples and friends and spiritual children you can see me. 

We are not blood children of the Buddha but we feel that we are real children of the Buddha because we have inherited a lot from the Buddha. He has transmitted himself to us not genetically but spiritually. If you take into account these different modes of transmission you will see that we need not suffer because we cannot transmit ourselves genetically into the future. 

But who knows?! Enjoy the conditions of happiness you actually have and one day you may enjoy that happiness also. But I think that if you enjoy this you may be completely satisfied. Every door is open. Good luck! 

Treating Depression

Sr. Tung Nghiem speaks: Dear Thay, we had a few friends who wrote to Thay after Thay spoke about depression and how nothing can survive without food. They wrote either from their own experience or the experience of a loved one or a client if they wrote as a psychotherapist. They shared their belief that there’s also a physiological aspect causing depression and some people truly need to take medication. The friends who wrote were concerned that Thay’s teaching could be misunderstood by the people who still need to have medicine and who may stop taking their medicine if they think they only need to stop consuming those things that are harmful to their mind and that’s enough. So they ask Thay to clarify.

In the teaching of the Buddha the biological and the mental inter-are. They manifest based on one another. Our emotions and feelings are very connected to the chemicals in our bodies. Our emotions and feelings can produce chemicals that are toxic or that inhibit the production of certain chemicals like neurotransmitters, and create an imbalance in your body. The mental can create the biological and the biological can have an effect on the mental. We don’t reduce the importance of one side.

All of us have the seed of depression, all of us. All of us have the seed of mental illness. We have received these genes from our parents and our ancestors, and we know from science that genes don’t turn on by themselves. They are turned on by our way of thinking, our feelings, our perceptions, and our environment. It is the environment that helps turn on the negative and positive genes. The genes are equivalent to the bijas, the seeds that we talk about in the teachings of the Buddha.

Neuroscientists ask the questions: Is it true that the brain produces the mind? How could the activities of neurons bring about the subjective mind? But the brain and the mind inter-are. This is because that is; this is not because that is not. It’s not that the body produces the mind or the mind produces the body, but mind and body are two aspects of the same thing. The mind always relies on the body to manifest. It’s like a coin — there is the head and the tail. Without the tail the head cannot exist and vice versa.

The seed of depression that now manifests may have been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors. There may have been generations when that seed did not manifest. But now, because of the new environment, that seed has a chance to manifest. That is why we have to take into account the element of environment.

The environment is an object of consumption because elements of the environment touch and turn on the genes in us. That is why the teaching of the Buddha on food is very important. We consume not only edible food but also what we see, hear, feel, and touch; sensory impression is the second kind of food. The third kind of food is intention, our volition, the deep desire in us. The fourth kind of nutriment is consciousness; we consume consciousness. If we live with a number of people around us, we consume their collective way of thinking and perceiving. For instance we may see something as not beautiful but because everybody around us sees it as beautiful, slowly we also come to see it as beautiful. We are influenced by the collective thinking around us and that is also consumption. Our depression has to do with all these sources of nutriments.

Medication can help but don’t rely on medication alone. You have to change your way of life and your environment, and one day you’ll be able to stop taking medication. If you don’t change your way of life and you continue to use the medication, at a later time it will not work because your body gets used to it.

Scientists know full well that it is our environment and our attention that turn on the seeds in us. There is a practice called yoniso manaskara, appropriate attention, where we focus our attention only on things that turn on the good seeds in us. For example, when we hear the sound of the bell, if we are a practitioner we naturally stop thinking and go back to our breathing and enjoy the present moment. The sound of the bell helps with appropriate attention, to turn on the good seeds.

We should create an environment where the good seeds and genes in us have many chances to turn on. If you are in a bad environment you know that even if you are taking medication it will not be a long-term solution. So go on and take the medication that you need but you should do something more. Change your way of life. Look at the source of nutriments you are using to feed yourself. Look at your environment to see if it is turning on the negative things in you. And if possible, just change your environment — even if you need to live in a smaller house, drive a smaller car, have a meager salary. If you can move to a better environment do not hesitate to do so because your health depends on it.

Why Are We Here? 

A lay woman asks: What is the purpose of life? 

That is philosophy! [laughter]

No, but there must be a reason! Why are we here? 

This is a chance to discover the mystery of life. Very exciting! [laughter] You have something to discover, something very deep, something very wonderful. That practice of looking deeply can satisfy your curiosity, and that is one reason to be alive — to discover yourself, to discover the cosmos. This is a joy.

You might like to focus your question on “how” and not be caught always in the “why”. Life is a wonder! We are here to experience the wonder of life. If you have enough mindfulness and concentration, you can have a breakthrough and get deep into the reality of the wonder.

Life is a wonderful manifestation. Not only is the rose wonderful, not only are the clouds and the sky wonderful, but the mud and the suffering are also wonderful. So enjoy touching life; discover the mystery of life. And don’t spend your time asking metaphysical questions! [laughter]

Defusing the Bombs in the Heart 

A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, before I came to Vietnam I had the privilege to spend several weeks in Laos where I was able to meet with many people who had been affected by the war. As I stood in fields that still had a lot of unexploded ammunition, sometimes forty or fifty bombs in a small field, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and anger. Speaking to people who continue to be affected, whether it’s friends or family who are killed by the unexploded ammunition, or a poor farmer who had his arm and his leg blown off at a young age, plunging his family into further poverty, I felt very sad. This young farmer said to me that this experience was his luck. I find it hard to accept that such experiences can be luck! Is this karma? And is this a time when we can be righteously angry? What is the mindful way to deal with these intense emotions?

Many social workers we trained in the School of Youth for Social Service died because of bombs, guns, and assassination. Some lost one foot, one arm. A young lady got more than 300 shards of metal in her body, from a type of bomb called anti-personnel bomb dropped by the American bombers. The doctors helped to extract many pieces of metal but there are still hundreds of them in her body. When she was in Japan for treatment she could not use an electric blanket because of these pieces of metal in her body. And they are my own students, my disciples.

I know that there are many unexploded land mines and bombs in Vietnam and in Laos, that continue to kill people. We need to get the attention of people in the world and ask them to help remove these engines of death. There are dedicated professionals who are helping. What is essential is to learn how to do it with compassion because that amount of violence is part of our legacy, our heritage. We should make the strong aspiration not to repeat that kind of action from now on.

But the bombs are not only embedded in the land, they are in the hearts of many people today. If you look around you see that many people, even young people, are ready to die and are ready to punish others.

How to defuse the bomb in the heart of man is very important work also, how to remove the hate in the hearts of so many people. So far the war on terrorism has not diminished the number of terrorists. In fact it has increased the number of terrorists, and each of them has a bomb inside his or her heart. Terrorists want to die for a cause, they want to punish others. That is why cultivating compassion and helping these people to remove their hatred and anger is also very important work. That is also to defuse the bombs.

You can see that the situation in the Middle East is very difficult. Not only are there bombs that explode on the land but there are bombs in the hearts of very many people. Compassion is the only answer.

As we help to defuse the bombs, whether in the land or in the heart, we should keep our compassion alive. I admire those of us who continue to help removing those death engines from the soil, but I also urge my friends to practice in order to defuse the bombs in the hearts of many people around us. We pray to the Buddha, to Jesus Christ and all our spiritual ancestors to support us in this compassionate action. We should think of our children and their children, and we should clean the Earth and our hearts, so that our children will have a better place to live.

Thank you for reflecting on this.

An Inoculation of Suffering 

A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha: Yesterday you taught us that we should never give the negative seeds a chance. I agree with just 90% of that. [laughter] Ten percent of that is this question: there are young people who grow up in a very loving and supportive environment but when they go to big cities or other countries to study or to work, they will face some really negative pressure and the challenge is so big that they cannot deal with it. My suggestion is that we should vaccinate their mind and we should give them a bit of challenge when they are still young, so that their immune system is ready. What do you think of this? [laughter]

Thay says sometimes that each of us needs a certain dose of suffering. Remember? Suffering can instruct us a lot and help us cultivate compassion and understanding. So the art is to give each person an appropriate dose of suffering. [laughter] With too much suffering people will be overwhelmed and their heart will be transformed into stone. That is why parents and teachers have to handle this with care and intelligence.

In fact we cannot grow without experiencing suffering. When we say we should not give the negative seeds a chance we are referring to the teaching of Right Diligence. This means first of all that when positive seeds are present we should keep them alive as long as possible. One example of a positive seed is compassion. We should keep the seed of compassion alive in our hearts and our minds. One way to keep this seed alive is to be aware of the suffering. The practice of Right Diligence secondly means that we do not give negative seeds like hatred and anger a chance to increase by watering them everyday. If you are experienced in the practice of mindfulness you can complete the practice of Right Diligence by the practice of embracing strong emotions.

From time to time there is a mental formation that refuses to be replaced, like a CD that plays over and over. Even if you have a strong intention to replace it, it is too strong. If you are a skillful practitioner you will not try to change the CD. You will say, “You want to stay? It’s okay!” [laughter] You accept the CD; you accept the feeling, you embrace it tenderly and look deeply into it. That is also the teaching of the Buddha, to recognize the painful emotion, not to fight it but to recognize and embrace it in order to get relief. Look deeply into its nature in order to find all the roots of that feeling or emotion, because understanding is the way of liberation. Mindfulness and concentration lead to insight that is liberating.

Suffering exists in the context of family and school. There should be collaboration between parents and teachers, between parents and children, between teachers and students, to teach them how to handle their suffering. This is very clear in the tradition of Asia. When you come to learn from a teacher, what you have to learn first is how to behave – how to behave with others and with the teacher. You learn ethics first. And then after that you learn to write, to read, to study literature, history, mathematics, and so on. It is possible for us to do that in the context of family and school.

Making a living is important but that is not everything. Parents should show their children that although they are busy making a living for the whole family, they also devote enough time to make sure that harmony and happiness exist in the family. You can bring home a lot of money but that is not enough. You have to be there for your partner, your spouse, your children.

Their happiness depends on your way of being around them. The same must be true with school teachers. Not only do they need to transmit technical knowledge so that students will get a job later on, but we have to transform school into a family, into a Sangha. We should devote enough time to just being together. If there is deep communication between school teachers and children, the atmosphere of school will be pleasant. This helps the learning process to happen easily. So we have to offer retreats to parents and school teachers so they can take better care of their families and their students.

And that is part of Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from Barbara Casey and Sr. Annabel, Chan Duc. 

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