Cultivating Our Blue Sky Nature

Skillful Means for Emotional Healing

by John Bell

In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.

John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay specific attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.

Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.

Each year, more people attend.   In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.

This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difficult feelings.

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Feelings

There are some things we know about feelings.  They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.

Five Practices for Handling Feelings

In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the five are:

  • “Blue sky”: Ground ourselves in the ultimate The blue sky is a metaphor for the nature of things, ultimate reality, our home. It is always there behind the local, historical dimension that we get conditioned to think is reality. The blue sky is the is-ness, the ok-ness. To describe it, we use words like “spacious, free, happy, connected, oneness, well-being, no separation, no separate self ”. Each of us has experienced our blue sky nature many, many times. Perhaps in music, love-making, nature, a moment of being “awake.” In C.S. Lewis’s happy phrasing, “surprised by joy!”
  • “Noting:” Learn to observe feelings coming and going. After establishing ourselves solidly in the breath, we allow the different feelings to arise and fall away like waves on the We can use helpful phrases like “feeling sad” (or, “angry, jealous, fearful”, and so on), or “this feeling too” to whatever comes. Relating back to the “blue sky” practice, we can be aware of different feelings like clouds moving across the blue sky.
  • “Change the peg”: Move attention off suffering, onto something positive or interesting, or at least In older methods of carpentry, pieces of wood were attached with a peg. Sometimes a rotten peg would have to be replaced by pounding a new one into the same hole. Originally taught by the Buddha, Thay uses this metaphor to point to the many tools at our disposal for “watering the positive seeds.” When a negative feeling seems to dominate our awareness, we can deliberately choose to get our attention off our troubles by reading a poem, listening to music, taking a walk, reciting a sutra, caring for another person. This list is unlimited.
  • “Taking the hand of suffering”: Embracing what Accepting, befriending feelings. Thay urges us not to treat our sadness or unhappiness as an enemy. “Dear anger, I recognize you. Come, stay with me. I know you are suffering. I know how to care for you.” The practice is to just be with the feeling, not get overwhelmed or swept away, and not run away. This is a variation of “noting.” “So this is what sadness feels like. Hmm.  Very interesting.”  Kind and gentle.
  • “Look deeply”: Examine the roots of With persistent feelings that seem to have a deep hold on us and won’t go away, we can practice exploring the roots of distressed feelings. In my experience, the roots are either in repeated experiences of hurt beginning early in our lives, or in a severe incident of trauma or hurt at any vulnerable moment along the way. What is helpful is to have a friend listen warmly and attentively while we explore the past. Typically tears and fears and laughter and anger will accompany the release of deep and long-lasting hurts. The emotional release will allow understanding to arise. “Oh, that’s why I have always felt like that!” Insight.

Each of these five practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the five practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the first and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”

Blue Sky Practice

In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Blue birds singing a song
Nothing but blue birds from now on

We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.

To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.

After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.

We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.

In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of

the moment. For some, tears flowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.

Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering

Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.

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Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:

There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the first truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”

There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.

There is a way out of suffering.  For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identifies with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of purification as a step towards liberation.

The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.

  • Cultivate a noble view of human beings. Know that every human being, by nature, is Buddha I use this description: By nature, human beings are
    • inherently valuable
    • deeply caring
    • enormously intelligent
    • immensely powerful
    • infinitely creative
    • naturally cooperative
    • innately joyful

Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the first set of words!

  • Listen deeply. What are the elements of deep listening? We practice these in our Sanghas.
    • Hold the person in high regard; visualize their Buddha nature.
    • Treat the person with complete respect.
    • Be present and
    • Assume the person knows best how to lead his or her life.
    • Communicate acceptance and lack of judgment.
    • Give your undivided attention, focused concentration, and mindful
    • Encourage awareness and recognition of feelings; recognize that release is a key component of healing.

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

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  • Hold some understanding of the impact of distress. Hurts lead a person to develop self-defense patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Buddhist psychology calls them “kleshas”—powerful reactions that drive our  behavior.  Initially  developed as survival mechanisms to deal with the hurt, these patterns take on a life of their own and persist long after the hurtful experiences have passed. In other words, the negative seeds have received too much water! They tend to control our vital energies and obscure our inherent nature. The most persistent of these patterns are chronic—that is, they operate almost all the time and a person tends to identify with them. Think of someone who is chronically angry, or chronically depressed, or always ready to criticize any good idea, or can be counted on to be the center of attention, or is painfully shy.
  • Practice separating a person from his or her patterns. Always view that person as wholesome and worthwhile, deserving nothing less than complete Always view their patterns as a map of the ways they were mistreated or hurt; not an inherent part of their being, but an add-on. Nurturing compassion is another form of this practice. For example, Thay suggests we practice visualizing our father or our mother as a six-year-old child. Even if we have suffered greatly from our parents, seeing them as younger can open our hearts— we might see them as innocent and pure-hearted, or we might see them already hurt at an early age, and set up to pass that hurt on to us.
  • Welcome feelings. One level of healing happens as a person releases the emotional distresses that are the glue of the patterns. Crying, laughing, shivering, feeling hot with anger are outward signs of the release of distress feelings. This release is natural to all human beings, as can be observed most readily in small children: when hurt they cry. In my experience, most people can learn how to accept and express their pent up feelings appropriately rather than suppress them or act them out. Dealing with feelings with mindfulness is a learned practice. We can learn to feel them without getting overwhelmed by them or identifying ourselves with them.
  • Practice appreciation and validation. “Violence never ceases by violence, but only by love,” said the Buddha. Our hurts have caused us to direct huge amounts of internal violence towards ourselves in the form of self-criticisms, low expectations, lack of self-worth, and so on. Such internal negative chatter cannot withstand a steady dose of self-appreciation. Repeatedly telling yourself things like “I forgive myself,” or “You are fine just the way you are,” or “I’ll never give up on you,” done with mindfulness and persistence, can bring healing tears of release and joy. Loving kindness, or metta meditation points us to our inherent well-being: may I be filled with love and compassion; may my body be peaceful and at ease; may I be safe from fear and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy.  Directed towards oneself, metta is a form of self-appreciation that serves to counter the sometimes constant drone of negative self-talk. Directed towards others, it becomes an effective practice of appreciating others that also has a deep healing effect on oneself.
  • Hold a direction towards our inherent nature. Here is where we circle back to the Blue Sky Regular practice of noticing the presence of the good, the beautiful, the true builds our strength and can put us increasingly in touch with the reality of our inherent nature. In a Dharma talk (November 25, 1999, Plum Village), Thay said: “To allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative feeling when we touch what is wrong, is not a good thing to do. Therefore we should…recognize the positive elements for our nourishment and healing.”

Skillful Means

Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing.  All it takes is practice.

mb36-Cultivating4John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation.  He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.

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Confined in Anger, Freed in Love

By Jacob Bowley

I was confined in the summer of 1999, twenty years old and more a prisoner of my own deep inner fears than the walls around me. Wrapped up in the great speed of the world, I had been able — with the help of drugs and alcohol — to maintain in my mind an impressive illusion of control. Here in prison the reins were clearly not in my hands; I knew no way to keep up my speed. Forced to stop, or at least slow down, I had to face the bitter truth: my will did not rule the world. This disappointment was too much for me to contend with day after day so I closed my eyes in anger. I would rage against the whole world until it consented to the perpetual gratification of my senses.

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By the beginning of 2001 the institution was not pleased with my method of seeking fulfillment. They expressed this sentiment by giving me an extended stay in segregation. I knew the stay would be for only five or six months, so I saw no reason to change and quickly got into more trouble. At this point they told me I would stay in the hole for three years. My party stopped. This was no game. I could feel the anger oozing out of me, reverberating in my little cell and gaining strength. We looked at each other, my anger and me, and I knew it would destroy me.

While in the depth of this personal hell I came across a few pages about Buddhism. Strangely, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find any ground on which to cut Buddhism down. What I read seemed to be simple common sense.

Truth Cuts to the Heart

I read that life contains suffering. I found this to be an insultingly obvious statement, and yet there it was, in black ink; I had no way to deny it. This was not metaphysical speculation or theological proofs, here was something which cut right to my heart. I could clearly experience this in my own life and see it in the lives of those around me.

I read that suffering has a cause. That cause is not the outside world but is within; it is ignorance and clinging. Not the outside world? This had my full attention. I was putting so much energy into the delusion that with enough effort I could bend the world to my will — could it be possible to just change myself? The prospect of putting this burden down gave me, for the first time, the courage to acknowledge how large the burden was.

I read that the burden could be put down: if the causes of suffering are not, the suffering is not.

Finally I read that there is a path leading out of suffering. I needed to learn more about this path.

That summer and fall I immersed myself in new and exciting Eastern philosophy, ideals of compassion, and graded paths to enlightenment. Amazed by the deep and lucid wisdom I found in these teachings I nurtured a whole-hearted intention to realize their virtue. Slowly I began to experience the strength, healing, and freedom found in kindness and love.

Gradual changes were noticed by the institution and they responded by allowing me to return to the general population early. It was November 2001, and despite the excitement of moving out of segregation I was scared. I knew that the true test of my resolve to change would come when I returned to my friends. I came out of the box strong in intention, but weak in appreciation of the importance of practice. I held on to my new ideas but did not continue to meditate or study. Compared with the solitude of the past year, all the new ways to spend time provided a rich and stimulating life.

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The sponsor of our Narcotics Anonymous group, Tyrone, says “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” The opposite is also true. I was acting my wholesome thinking and intentions into the back of my mind. My way of living systematically hardened my heart, but I didn’t notice the gradual loss of my freedom until I got into a fight over being called a name. How bitter it was to find myself bound once again in anger and rage! The anguish of this prison cut deeper now that I knew a small taste of peace.

Taking Refuge in the Practice

I turned for refuge to the practice, this time not in the isolation of the hole but right in the midst of my crazy world. I faced my habit of trying to maintain a certain image in front of my peers; I faced the deep fears at the root of this habit, and I chose instead to heal. The progress was slow and cautious, but there was peace in every step.

I met a wonderful spiritual friend early in 2004. Matthew Tenney is a living Dharma talk and he shared an infectious happiness with all of us here. He didn’t spend a lot of time engaging in the intellectual speculation and analysis regarding the practice that I wrapped myself in; rather, he introduced me to Thay’s teaching and to the true miracle of mindfulness in daily life. I had read about the importance of cultivating this obscure quality of mindfulness, and I was trying. But until now the methods appeared vague and overwhelming. Thay offered very concrete and simple ways that allowed practice to become a reality of my life.

One day, not long after meeting Matthew, I shared with him a yearning that had been percolating in my heart: I would like to be a monk after I was released. He asked “Why wait? Why not live that ideal right here, right now?” The aspiration to do just that has been the center of my life ever since, a center from which peace, stability, and freedom increase every day.

Witnessing the impact these qualities have on the emotional tone of this environment, and on the hearts of people who live here, gives me the strength to continue. It seems a long time ago that someone said of me, “Man, you can feel the hate radiate off that guy.” Today it is a quiet comfort for my heart to know that I no longer radiate pain and suffering to others, and that there is freedom in love.

Jacob Bowley received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, along with Matthew, long-distance from Brother Phap Bi on January 12, 2006, “a kindness,” writes Jacob, “ which brought tears to my eyes.”

Jacob is incarcerated in the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; this essay was written for the Mindfulness Bell and submitted by his father, Freeman Bowley.

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Dharma Talk: History of Engaged Buddhism

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanoi, Vietnam – May 6 -7, 2008 

At the beginning of the seven-day English-language retreat in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh gave a rare glimpse into his early career. This excerpt from two Dharma talks reveals Thay as a teacher, social activist, and prolific writer – and revolutionary advocate of Engaged Buddhism, also called Applied Buddhism. 

In 1949 I was one of the founders of the An Quang Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, and I taught the first class of novices. The temple was very simple, built of bamboo and thatch. The name of the temple was actually Ung Quang. A Dharma teacher came from Danang, the Venerable Tri Huu, and we both built Ung Quang temple. The war was going on between the French and the Vietnamese resistance movement. 

Five years later, in 1954, the Geneva Accord was signed and the country was divided into two parts: the North was communist, and the South was anti-communist. Over one million people migrated from the North to the South, among them many Catholics. There was a lot of confusion in the country. 

At the Ung Quang temple from time to time we received French soldiers who came to visit us. After Dien Bien Phu the war with the French ended, and it was agreed that the country should be divided and the French would withdraw from the country. I remember talking to the French soldiers. Many of them came to Vietnam and died in Vietnam. 

A Fresh Look at Buddhism 

In 1954 there was great confusion in the minds of people in Vietnam, especially the young people – monks, nuns, lay practitioners. The North was inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the South, president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was trying to run the country with another kind of ideology called “personalism.” It seemed that the ideological war had begun. 

Buddhism is a very ancient tradition in Vietnam, and most of the people have a Buddhist seed in them. Mr. Vu Ngoc Cac, manager of a daily newspaper, asked me to write a series of articles about Buddhism. He wanted me to offer insight as to the spiritual direction we should take in order to deal with the great confusion in the country. So I wrote a series of ten articles with the title, “A Fresh Look at Buddhism.” 

It is in this series of ten articles that I proposed the idea of Engaged Buddhism — Buddhism in the realm of education, economics, politics, and so on. So Engaged Buddhism dates from 1954. 

At that time I did not use a typewriter, I just wrote in the oldfashioned way. And they came and they took the article, and the article was always printed on the front page with a big red title. The newspaper sold very, very well because people were very thirsty. They wanted spiritual direction because confusion was so huge. 

Rose Tea and Fresh Corn 

That series of articles was published as a book later on. Not long after, I visited Hue. Duc Tam, who had been in the same class as me at the Buddhist Institute, was the editor of another Buddhist magazine. His temple was on a small island in the Perfume River, Huong Giang, where they grow a very tasty kind of corn. He invited me to stay a few weeks in his temple. Every morning he offered me tea with a kind of rose — it’s a very tiny flower, but it smells nice when you put it in the tea. Every day we did walking meditation through the neighborhood, and we bought some fresh corn. He nourished me with rose tea and fresh corn, and he wanted me to write another series of articles on Engaged Buddhism! [laughs] 

In fact, I wrote another series of ten articles with the title “Buddhism Today,” which was also on the theme of Engaged Buddhism. This series was translated into French by Le Vinh Hao, a scholar who lives in Paris. The title he took for the book is Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme. 

In 1964 when I visited America to give a series of lectures, I met Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and I gave him a copy of Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme; he wrote a review. 

Buddhism That Enters Into Life 

In 1963-64, I was lecturing on Buddhism at Columbia University. The struggle led by the Buddhists for human rights ended the regime of President Diem. Maybe you have heard about the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself with fire, and who drew the attention of the whole world to the violation of human rights in Vietnam. That was a completely nonviolent movement for human rights. When the Diem regime fell, I was asked by my colleagues to come home and help. 

So I went home. I founded Van Hanh University, and I published a book called Engaged Buddhism, a collection of many articles I had written before. 

I think this is the first time you have this information. [laughs] 

This is the beginning of 1964. I had written these articles before that, but I put them together and published under the title Engaged Buddhism, or Dao society. Di vao cuoc doi. Cuoc doi here is “life” or “society.” Di vao means “to enter.” So these were the words that were used for Engaged Buddhism in Vietnam: di vao cuoc doi, “entering into life, social life.” 

Six months later I produced another book, Dao Phat hien dai hoa, “Buddhism updated,” “Buddhism renewed.” This is the Chinese — Buddhism made actual, the actualization of Buddhism. So all these terms, all these documents, have to do with what we call “Engaged Buddhism.” And after that I wrote many other books – Buddhism of Tomorrow. [laughs] 

But at that time already, my name was banned by the government of the South, the anti-communist government, because of my activities for peace, calling for reconciliation between North and South. I became persona non grata. I could not go home anymore, and I was in exile. 

So my book, Buddhism of Tomorrow, could not be published in Vietnam under my name. I used a montagnard’s name — Bsu Danlu. You may wonder where that name came from. In 1956 we founded a practice center in the highland of Vietnam called Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery, Phuong Boi. We bought the land from two montagnards, K’Briu and K’Broi. The name of the village where the Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery was situated is Bsu Danlu. 

Wisdom in the Here and Now 

I continued to publish my books in Vietnam with many other names. I wrote a history of Vietnamese Buddhism in three thick volumes and I signed the name Nguyen Lang. So although I was away from the country thirty-nine years, I continued to write books and some of them were published in Vietnam under different names. 

As we have said, the first meaning of Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there — so that you know what to buy and what not to buy! 

Also, Engaged Buddhism is the kind of wisdom that responds to anything that happens in the here and the now — global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ecosystem, the lack of communication, war, conflict, suicide, divorce. As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now. 

A Fresh Take on the Four Noble Truths 

We can speak about Engaged Buddhism in terms of the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is dukkha, ill-being. Traditionally Buddhist teachers have spoken of the First Noble Truth in this way: old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, separation from those you love is suffering. Leaving all those you love; wishing for something but never obtaining it. But these are old ways of describing the First Noble Truth. Now as we practice mindfulness we have to identify the kind of ill-being that is actually present. First of all we know there is a kind of tension in the body, a lot of stress. We can say that suffering today involves tension, stress, anxiety, fear, violence, broken families, suicide, war, conflict, terrorism, destruction of the ecosystem, global warming, etc. 

We should be fully present in the here and the now and recognize the true face of ill-being. 

The natural tendency is to run away from suffering, from ill-being. We don’t want to confront it so we try to escape. But the Buddha advises us not to do so. In fact he encourages us to look deeply into the nature of the suffering in order to learn. His teaching is that if you do not understand the suffering you cannot see the path of transformation, the path leading to the cessation of suffering. 

All of us know that the First Noble Truth is ill-being and the Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. Without understanding the First you never have the opportunity to see the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. 

You should learn to come home to the present moment in order to recognize ill-being as it is; and as we practice looking deeply into the First Noble Truth, ill-being, we will discover the Second Noble Truth, the roots or the making of ill-being. 

Each of us has to discover for himself or herself the cause of ill-being. Suppose we speak about our hectic life — we have so much to do, so much to achieve. As a politician, a businessman, even an artist, we want to do more and more and more. We crave success. We do not have the capacity to live deeply each moment of our daily life. We don’t give our body a chance to relax and to heal. 

If we know how to live like a Buddha, dwelling in the present moment, allowing the refreshing and healing elements to penetrate, then we will not become victims of stress, tension, and many kinds of disease. 

You can say that one of the roots of ill-being is our incapacity to live our life deeply in each moment. 

When we have a lot of tension and irritation in us we cannot listen to the other person. We cannot use loving speech. We cannot remove wrong perceptions. Therefore wrong perceptions give rise to fear, hate, violence, and so on. We have to identify the causes of our ill-being. This is very important work. 

Suppose we speak of suicide, of broken families. We know that when communication becomes difficult between husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, people are no longer happy. Many young people fall into despair and want to commit to suicide. They don’t know how to handle despair or their emotions, and they think that the only way to stop suffering is to kill oneself. In France every year about 12,000 young people commit suicide, just because they can’t handle their emotions like despair. And their parents don’t know how to do it. They don’t teach their children how to deal with their feelings, and even school teachers don’t how to help their students to recognize and hold their emotions tenderly. 

When people cannot communicate they don’t understand each other or see the other’s suffering and there is no love, no happiness. War and terrorism are also born from wrong perceptions. Terrorists think that the other side is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a way of life, as a nation. If we believe that the other person is trying to kill us then we will seek ways to kill the other person first in order not to be killed. 

Fear, misunderstanding, and wrong perceptions are the foundation of all these violent acts. The war in Iraq, which is called anti-terrorist, has not helped to reduce the number of terrorists. In fact the number of terrorists is increasing all the time because of the war. In order to remove terrorism you have to remove wrong perceptions. We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism. 

So looking deeply we can see the making of ill-being, the roots of ill-being, by recognizing ill-being as the truth and looking deeply into its nature. 

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of ill-being, which means the presence of well-being — just as the absence of darkness means the presence of light. When ignorance is no longer present, there is wisdom. When you remove darkness, there is light. So the cessation of ill-being means the presence of well-being, which is the opposite of the First Noble Truth. 

The teaching of the Buddha confirms the truth that well-being is possible. Because there is ill-being, well-being is possible. If ill-being is described first in terms of tension, stress, heaviness, then well-being is described as lightness, peace, relaxation – la détente. With your body, breath, feet, and mindfulness you can reduce tension and bring about relaxation, lightness, peace. 

We can speak of the Fourth Noble Truth in very concrete terms. The methods of practice enable us to reduce tension, stress, unhappiness, as seen in the Fourth Noble Truth, the path. Today’s Dharma teachers may want to call it the path of well-being. The cessation of ill-being means the beginning of well-being — it’s so simple! 

From Many Gods to No God 

I would like to go back a little bit to the history of Engaged Buddhism. 

In the nineteen-fifties I began to write because people needed to have spiritual direction to help them overcome their confusion. One day I wrote about the relationship between religious belief and the ways we organize our society. I described the history of the evolution of society. 

First, our society was organized in groups of people called tribes. Over time, several tribes would come together and finally we set up kingdoms, with a king. Then the time came when we had enough of kings and we wanted to create democracies or republics. 

Our religious beliefs had been changing along the way. First of all, we had something parallel to the establishment of tribes — polytheism, the belief that there are many gods and each god has a power. You are free to choose one god to worship, and that god will protect you against the other gods and the other tribes. 

When we form kingdoms, then our way of belief changes also — monotheism. There’s only one God, the most powerful God, and we should worship only one God and not many gods. 

When we come to democracies, there’s no king anymore. Everyone is equal to everyone else, and we rely on each other to live. That is why monotheism is changing to the belief in interdependence — interbeing — where there is no longer God. We are fully responsible for our life, for our world, for our planet. I wrote things like that during the time I was trying to build up Engaged Buddhism. 

Birth of the Order of Interbeing 

In 1964, we established the Order of Interbeing. The birth of the Order of Interbeing is very meaningful. We need only to study the Fourteen Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings in order to understand why and how the Order of Interbeing was established. 

At that time the war was going on very fiercely. It was a conflict between ideologies. The North and South each had their own ideology; one side was Marxism-Leninism, the other, personalism and capitalism. Not only did we fight with ideologies imported from the outside, but we also fought with weapons imported from the outside — guns and bombs from Russia, China, and America. As Buddhists who practice peace and reconciliation, brotherhood and sisterhood, we did not want to accept such a war. You cannot accept a war where brothers are killing brothers with ideologies and weapons imported from the outside. 

The Order of Interbeing was born as a spiritual resistance movement. It’s based completely on the teachings of the Buddha. The First Mindfulness Training — non-attachment to views, freedom from all ideologies — was a direct answer to the war. Everyone was ready to die and to kill for their beliefs. 

The First Mindfulness Training: “Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones…” 

This is the lion’s roar!

“Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.” 

The teaching of the Buddha from the Nipata Sutra concerning views is very clear. We should not be attached to any view; we have to transcend all views.

Right View, first of all, means the absence of all views. Attachment to views is the source of suffering. Suppose you climb on a ladder, and on the fourth step you think you are already at the highest level. Then you are stuck! You have to release the fourth step in order to be able to get up to the fifth step. To be scientific, scientists have to release what they have found in order to come to a higher truth. This is the teaching of the Buddha: When you consider something to be the truth and you are attached to it, you must release it in order to go higher. 

The basic spirit of Buddhism is non-attachment to views. Wisdom is not views. Insight is not views. We should be ready to release our ideas for true insight to be possible. Suppose you have notions about impermanence, non-self, interbeing, the Four Noble Truths. That may be dangerous, because these are only views. You are very proud that you know something about the Four Noble Truths, about interbeing, about interdependent origination, about mindfulness, concentration, and insight. But that teaching is only a means for you to get insight. If you are attached to these teachings, you are lost. The teaching about impermanence, nonself, interbeing, is to help you to get the insight of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. 

The Buddha said, “My teaching is like the finger pointing to the moon. You should be skillful. You look in the direction of my finger, and you can see the moon. If you take my finger to be the moon, you will never see the moon.” So even the Buddhadharma is not the truth, it’s only an instrument for you to get the truth. This is very basic in Buddhism.

War is the outcome of attachment to views, of fanaticism. If we look deeply into the nature of the war in Iraq, we can see that it is also a religious war. People are using religious belief to back up the war. Mr. Bush was supported by many [right-wing Christian] evangelists. The resistance fighters and the terrorists in Iraq are backed up by their Muslim belief. So this is somehow a religious war. Peace cannot exist if we maintain our fanaticism concerning our views. 

Lotus in a Sea of Fire 

In 1965 I wrote a small book on the war in Vietnam, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, published by Hill and Wong in America. The war in Vietnam was raging, it was an ocean of fire. We were killing each other; we allowed American bombers to come and destroy our forests, our people. We allowed weapons from China and Russia to come. But Buddhism was trying to do something. Those of us who did not accept the war wanted to do something to resist the war. 

Buddhists did not have radio or television stations. There was no way for them to express themselves. 

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I do not accept this war,
let me say this one more time before I die.  

These are lines in my poems.

Our enemies are not men. 

Our enemies are hate, fanaticism, violence. Our enemies are not men. If we kill men, with whom shall we live?

The peace movement in Vietnam badly needed international support, but you could not hear us over there. So sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to tell you that we didn’t want this war. Please help stop this war, this killing of brothers by brothers! Buddhism was like a lotus flower trying to survive in an ocean of fire.

I translated the book into Vietnamese, and an American friend in the peace movement helped bring that book to Vietnam. The book was printed underground and many young people tried to circulate that book as an act of resistance.

Sister Chan Khong, who was a professor of biology in Hue University, brought a copy to Hue for a friend. She was arrested and put into prison because she owned one copy of that book. Later on she was transferred to a prison in Saigon.

The School of Youth for Social Service

Young friends came to me and asked me to publish my poems about peace. They called it anti-war poetry. I said okay, if you want to do it, please do. They collected about fifty or sixty poems of mine on this topic and submitted them to the government of South Vietnam. Fifty-five of the poems were censored. Only a few were left. But our friends were not discouraged and they printed the poems underground. The book of poetry sold very, very quickly. Even some secret police liked it, because they also suffered from the war. They would go to the bookstore and say, “You shouldn’t display them like this! You should hide them behind the counter!” [laughs]

Radio stations in Saigon, Hanoi, and Beijing began to attack the poems because they called for peace. No one wanted peace. They wanted to fight to the end.

In 1964 we also established the School of Youth for Social Service. We trained thousands of young people, including monks and nuns, to go to the countryside and help the peasants rebuild their villages. We helped them in four aspects: education, health, economics, and organization. Our social workers went to a village and played with the children and taught them how to read and write and sing. When the people in the village liked us, we suggested building a school for the children. One family gave a few bamboo trees. Another family brought coconut leaves to make a roof. Then we began to have a school. Our workers did not receive a salary. After setting up a school in the village, we set up a dispensary where we could dispense rudimentary medicines to help the people. We brought into the village students of medicine or a doctor and tried to help one or two days. We also organized cooperatives and tried to teach people the kind of handicrafts they could do in order to increase the income of the family.

We have to begin with ourselves, from the grassroots. The School of Youth for Social Service was founded on the spirit that we don’t need to wait for the government.

A New Youth Organization in Europe 

We trained many young people, including young monks and nuns. Finally we had more than ten thousand workers working from Quang Tri to the south. During the war we helped sponsor more than ten thousand orphans. That is part of Engaged Buddhism — the young people.

This year we intend to set up an organization of young Buddhists in Europe: Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society. So many young people have come to us, to our retreats in Europe, America, and Asia. Now we want to organize them. They will use the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their practice, and they will engage themselves into society — to help produce a healthier society, one with more compassion.

If my friends here are inspired by the idea, then please, when you go home, invite the young people to set up a group of Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society.

Last month we went to Italy, and we had one day of practice with the young people in the city of Napoli [Naples]. The five hundred young men and women who came to practice with us loved it! They are ready to engage in the practice of peace, helping to produce a healthier, more compassionate society.

Our young monks and nuns will also be involved in that organization.

Foundation of an Institute of Applied Buddhism 

We have also set up a European Institute of Applied Buddhism. I hope that during this retreat, Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, will offer a presentation on the Institute of Applied Buddhism. We shall have campuses in America and Asia also. Everyone who has successfully completed the three-month retreat in Plum Village or Deer Park will be given a certificate of completion issued by the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

The Institute of Applied Buddhism will offer many interesting courses. You might like to help organize a course in your area; we will send Dharma teachers. One example is the twenty-one-day course for young men and women who are preparing to set up a family. There they learn how to make their conjugal life into a success.

There will be courses for those who have been diagnosed with AIDS or cancer, so that they can learn how to live with their sickness. If you know how to accept and live with your sickness, then you can live twenty, thirty more years.

There will be courses for businesspeople, for school teachers, and so on.

This kind of certificate will help you to become an official Dharma teacher. One day you might be inspired to become a Dharma teacher, to go out and help people, to be a continuation of the Buddha.

Nowadays we are using the term “Applied Buddhism,” which is just another way of referring to Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel. 

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