New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh
31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village
Good afternoon, dear Sangha. In the teachings of Christianity and Judaism there is the Kingdom of God. In Buddhism we speak about Buddha Land, the Buddha Field. You might like to call it the Kingdom of the Buddha. In Plum Village we say that the Kingdom of God is now or never, and this is our practice.
In Plum Village the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, is not just an idea. It’s something you can taste, you can touch, you can live in your daily life. It is possible to recognize the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, when it is there.
In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Land or the Pure Land is a practice center where the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas are teachers and all of us are practitioners.
What Is the Purpose of Practicing?
To practice is to bring about more understanding and compassion. Happiness would not be possible without understanding and compassion.
My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding, there is compassion, and where all of us can learn to be more understanding and more compassionate. On this we agree.
But there is something else that we should agree about also—whether there is suffering in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.
If we take the time to look deeply, we see that understanding and compassion arise from suffering. Understanding is the understanding of suffering, and compassion is the kind of energy that can transform suffering. If suffering is not there, we have no means to cultivate our understanding and our compassion. This is something quite simple to see.
If you come to Plum Village in the summertime, you see many lotus flowers. Without the mud the lotus flowers cannot grow. You cannot separate lotus flowers from the mud. It is the same with understanding and love. These are two kinds of flowers that grow on the ground of suffering.
I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because I know that in such a place my children will have no chance to develop their compassion and understanding. I don’t know whether my friends who come from the background of Christianity or Judaism can accept this—that in the Kingdom of God there is suffering—but in Buddhist teaching it is clear that suffering and happiness inter-are. Where there is no suffering there is no happiness either. We know from our own experiences that it is impossible to cultivate more understanding and compassion if suffering isn’t there. It is with the mud that we can make flowers. It is with the suffering that we can make compassion and understanding.
A Logical Proposition
I can accept, and many friends of mine can accept, that there is suffering in the Pure Land, in the Buddha Field, because we need suffering in order to cultivate our understanding and compassion, which is very essential for the Pure Land, for the Kingdom of God. We learn from suffering. If we are capable of cultivating understanding, that’s because of suffering. If you are able to cultivate compassion, that is because of the existence of suffering.
I think it is very important to re-examine our notion of the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, and no longer think that it is a place where there is absolutely no suffering. Logically, it is impossible.
Many of us think of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, as something that belongs to the future, after this life. In terms of time and space, the Kingdom of God is far away.
I remember about forty years ago when I first went to the United States to speak about the war in Vietnam. I was invited by many groups, and I remember speaking in a church in the vicinity of Philadelphia where the majority of practitioners were black people. I said that the Kingdom of God is right now, right here, and you don’t have to die in order to step into the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be very alive in order to step into it. For me being alive is to be mindful, to be concentrated, to be free. That is the kind of passport you need to be allowed into the Kingdom of God: mindfulness, concentration, freedom.
If you belong to the population of the Kingdom of God, you are a practitioner because you are producing understanding and love in your daily life. That makes the Kingdom of God continue to be the Kingdom of God. If the population of the Kingdom does not practice understanding and love, they lose the Kingdom in two seconds because the essence of the Kingdom is understanding and love.
It’s very easy to visualize the Kingdom of the Buddha as a practice center where there are dharma teachers teaching us, helping us to cultivate understanding and compassion. Everyone enjoys the practice, because as they produce more understanding and compassion, they suffer less. They are capable of transforming suffering into compassion, into understanding, into happiness. The practice in Plum Village is to experience the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, in our daily life.
Helping the Kingdom to Manifest
Of course, you can say that the Kingdom is now, it is here, but that’s not enough. We have to help the Kingdom to manifest. Without mindfulness, concentration, and a little bit of freedom we cannot do so.
The Kingdom of God is situated in our cerebral cortex, in our mind.
Most of us have a computer, a Microsoft PC or Apple Macintosh, and many of us just use our computer to do some work like word-processing or checking the stock market. But the average PC or Macintosh can do much more than that. We use only about ten percent of that capacity. If we know how to make use of the other capacities of the computer, we can do a lot of things.
The same is true with our cerebral cortex, with our mind and our spirit. If you know how to use the powerful energy of understanding and compassion, you can process many difficult problems of daily life. There is a very powerful computer within, and we should learn how to use that computer properly for us to be able to deal with the daily situations that make us suffer.
The Buddha proposed that we practice according to the Noble Eightfold Path. If we follow his instructions to practice right view, right thinking, right speech, and right action, we’ll be able to explore the vast territory of our mind and allow these wonderful powers to come and rescue us. In fact, we limit ourselves in a very small circle. Our thinking is very narrow, and that is why we suffer much more than a Buddha or a bodhisattva.
The Power of Right Thinking
We think all the time, and many of our thoughts are not very positive; they make us into a victim of negative thinking. When you say, “I’m good for nothing,” that is the kind of thought that has the power to make you suffer. “I can never finish that. I cannot meditate. I cannot forgive. I am in despair. I will never succeed in doing that.” Or, “He wants to destroy me. I am not loved by anyone.” This kind of thinking is not what the Buddha called right thinking.
In us there is the capacity of understanding and of loving. Because we are not accustomed to touching the ground of understanding and compassion, we cannot produce wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.
Suppose your friend, or your brother or sister does not understand you. Suppose you think that your teacher does not love you. When you entertain that kind of thought, you suffer. That thought may not correspond at all to reality. You continue to ruminate upon that thought and other thoughts of the same kind, and very soon you fall into a state of depression because you are not practicing right thinking.
“My brother must have said something about me to my teacher. That is why this morning he did not look at me.” Your thinking may be totally wrong, and you have to be aware of the fact that your thought is just a thought. It is not the reality.
If you think, “My teacher doesn’t understand me, but I am capable of helping him to understand me,” that is a positive thought. You are no longer a victim.
The Buddha proposed the practice of right thinking. During sitting meditation or during the time of working, thoughts like that might arise, but you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of negative thoughts. You just allow them to come and you recognize them. This is a thought, and this thought is just a thought; it’s not reality. Later on you might write it down on a piece of paper, and you have a look at it. When you are capable of recognizing your thought, you are no longer a victim of it. You are yourself, even if these thoughts are negative.
The Territories of the Mind
A thought does not arise from nothing. There is a ground from which it arises. In our mind there is fear, anger, worry, misunderstanding. And a thought might arise from these territories.
But in our mind there is also the vast territory of compassion, of understanding. You might get in touch with the Kingdom of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in your mind. Then these territories will give rise to many wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.
When you recognize a thought, you may like to smile to it and ask the question, on what ground has this thought been produced? You don’t have to work hard. You just smile to your thought, and you now recognize that the thought has arisen from the territory of wrong perception, fear, anger, or jealousy. When you are able to produce a thought that goes in the direction of understanding and love, in the direction of right thinking, that thought will have an immediate effect on your physical and mental health. And at the same time it has an effect on the health of the world.
When you produce a negative thought that has arisen from your fear, anger, or pessimism, such as, “I’m not worth anything, I cannot do anything, my life is a failure,” that kind of thought will have a very bad effect on your mental and physical health. The practice offered by the Buddha is not to suppress this negative thought, but to be aware. “This is a negative thought. I allow it to be recognized.” When you are able to recognize that thought you reach a degree of freedom because you are no longer a victim of that thought.
But if you are not a practitioner, you continue to ruminate about the negative situation and that will make you fall into a state of depression.
To recognize the presence of a thought or feeling is very important. That is the basic practice of a practitioner of meditation. You do not try to suppress the feelings and the thoughts. You allow your feelings and your thoughts to manifest. But you have to be there in order to recognize their presence. In so doing, you are cultivating your freedom.
In our daily life we may allow these thoughts and feelings to appear, and we are not capable of recognizing their presence. Because of that we become the victim of these thoughts and feelings and emotions. We get lost in the realm of feelings and thoughts and perceptions because we are not truly present. The practice is to stay present in the here and the now and to witness what is going on, to examine it, to be aware. That is the practice of freedom.
Being on Automatic Pilot
We are accustomed to allowing our mind to chase after the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. Our thoughts follow this habit pattern: running, following, searching for the pleasant; and trying to run away, to avoid the unpleasant. Because of that we lose all our freedom. We do not know that we are running after something and trying to avoid something. We are carried away by our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.
Imagine an airplane on automatic pilot. The plane can reach its destination, can do the things that it has been asked to do, with no need for any human being on the plane. Very often we behave like that. We are on automatic pilot. We are not present to witness what is happening. The practice that is proposed by the Buddha is to be there, to stay present, to be truly alive. You know the value of each thought, of each feeling, of all your perceptions. You know that there are territories you have not discovered within yourself. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. You want to be yourself. You don’t want to be on automatic pilot.
Every time a thought, feeling, or emotion arises, you want to be there to control the situation. You don’t want to be carried away. You smile to your thinking, to your feelings, to your emotions. You don’t want to react right away because the habit energy in you pushes you to respond right away to the feelings, to the emotions, to the thought that just arose. This is extremely important.
You tell yourself: “Well, this is a thought, this is a feeling, this is an emotion. I know they are in me, but I am not just that thought, that feeling, that emotion. I’m much more than that. I have a treasure of understanding, compassion, love, wisdom in me, and I want these elements to come forward to help me to sort out this situation, to help me to be on the right path.”
You give yourself the time to breathe in and out. You don’t hurry to react or take action. And while you are breathing in and out you give the wonderful positive elements within yourself a chance to intervene.
There is a computer within us, and this computer has a lot of power. If you know how to make use of this power you can transform the situation. You can bring a lot of light, joy, and compassion into the situation. By not allowing yourself to be carried away, you give yourself an alternative perspective from which you can see things more clearly. You are not in a hurry to react, to jump to a conclusion. You just become aware of the situation, what is manifesting in you and around you. The practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking gives you space, which allows the positive elements to intervene. You allow the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in you to have a chance.
Within us there is a territory of depression, a territory of hell, and our negative thinking and emotions spin out from these territories. But we know that in us there is also the territory of the Kingdom of God, of the Buddha Land. There is the powerful seed of compassion and wisdom in us. If we give them a chance, they can come and rescue us.
The Way Out of Depression
We have the power to recognize our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions. We don’t have to suppress them. But we want to have the time and space to look at them and recognize them as they are. This is the basic practice. To do that we have to stay present in the here and the now. Very often our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere. Our children do not feel that we are truly present.
Very often we are not home. We are lost in our thinking, our worries, our projects, our anxiety, our fear. We are completely lost. We are not there to be aware of what is going on. The practice offered to us by the Buddha is not to be on automatic pilot, but the practice of conscious, mindful living.
If you are depressed or if you are afraid that you will fall back into depression, this is the way out. If you can stay present, if you can identify the kind of feelings and thoughts that are responsible for your depression, you can be free. You know that this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling will cause a relapse, and that awareness is the beginning of the healing, of your freedom. You are not afraid. If you are truly present, you can allow the difficult materials to come for you to recognize them. And you can do something to invite the wonderful materials to come and to stay with you, to help you to process the materials that you need to process.
The Kingdom of God is not an idea. It is a reality. Every time we are mindful, every time we are concentrated, we can get in touch with the Kingdom of God for our transformation and healing. Of course, hell is there in the present moment, but the Kingdom of God is also there in the present moment, and we have to choose between the two.
A few days ago I said that many people who are born in France have not had a chance to see all the beauties of France as a country. But many of us who come from other countries, we have the chance to enjoy the beauty of France. The fact is that the territory of wisdom and compassion, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha, is available. But we are too concerned with our narrow territory of success and failure, with our daily life and our anger, worries, despair. So we have not had a chance to unlock the door of the Kingdom of God.
The Key to the Door of Happiness
In order to unlock the door of happiness, the door of the Kingdom, the door of compassion and love, we need a key. That key, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the triple training on mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Kingdom of God is a place where we can cultivate insight and compassion.
When you grow corn, you have corn to eat. When you grow wheat, you have wheat to eat. When you grow understanding and compassion, you have compassion and understanding, the ground of your own peace and freedom and happiness. And in order to grow understanding and compassion, we have to be there. Understanding our suffering, anger, and depression is very important. Being aware of suffering and understanding our suffering is the door into the domain of happiness. Unless you understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, you see no path leading to the transformation of suffering into happiness.
The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths. The first one is to be aware of ill-being. By looking deeply into the nature of ill-being, you find the second Noble Truth: the lack of understanding, the lack of compassion.
There is a path leading to suffering: the ignoble path of wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action. There is a path that leads to happiness, the cessation of suffering: the path of right thinking, right view, right speech and right action. We are capable of stopping, of leaving the path of suffering and beginning to take up the path of happiness. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.
A New Year’s Resolution
Suppose you look at a brother or a sister and you just had the thought that maybe this brother or sister has said something to Thay, which is why Thay does not look at you this morning. You know that this kind of thinking brings suffering because it is wrong thinking. But if you are aware that this kind of thinking can lead to anger, despair, and hate, you are free. You tell yourself: “I have to produce another thought that is worthy of a practitioner. Thay might have a wrong perception of me, but because he is my teacher I need to help him.”
The truth may be that the teacher has not misunderstood you, but in case he does misunderstand you, you don’t mind because he is your teacher. You can help him to correct his misperception. And with that you have peace, you have love. That kind of thinking brings you happiness. You are not a victim of your thinking.
If you learn to look at people and think like that, you will suffer less right away. You look at your partner, your son, your daughter, your father, with eyes of compassion and understanding. Even if you see a shortcoming in that person, even if that person has said something or has done something that makes you suffer, you’ll say that he or she is a victim of wrong perceptions and you need to help him or her. That kind of thinking will free you from your suffering. You know that with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, you can help him or her to correct the wrong perception.
At the beginning of the talk I said that right thinking—thinking in the direction of understanding and compassion—has a good effect on your physical and mental health and a good effect on the health of the world. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.
Maybe the resolution that you would like to make today on the last day of the year 2005 is: “I decide that next year, starting tomorrow, I will learn to produce positive thoughts and practice right thinking. I want my thinking to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Even if the person in front of me is not happy, is acting and speaking from the ground of suffering, I am still capable of producing thoughts in the line of right thinking.”
And when you make such a resolution you are making it on the ground of right view, because right view is the foundation of right thinking.
What Is Right View?
Right view is that everyone has suffering. And if people do not know how to handle their suffering, they will say things or do things that make people around them suffer. As a practitioner, however, you don’t have to suffer, even if the action or speech of another person is negative. If you are capable of touching compassion and right view in yourself, you won’t suffer. You say: “Well, I have to help him. I don’t want to punish him, I want to help him.” That is right thinking. And right thinking makes you feel much, much better. It has a positive effect on your health and the health of the world.
So I make the vow, “I have decided that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2006, I will do my best to practice right thinking.” Right thinking consolidates your right view. Right speech also helps you consolidate right view.
What is right view? When you are fully present in the here and the now, and observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you recognize that they are thoughts, feelings, and emotions; they are not reality. You are not sucked into it. You retain your freedom, and that is very important. Even if a negative thought arises, you are fully present in the here and the now. If you remember that your thought is just a thought, this will allow your wisdom, your compassion to come into action to help you. This will keep you free.
The Buddha is someone made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight bring you freedom. The practice of mindfulness helps you to live your life. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the negative things and to touch the positive things, and we can open the door of the Kingdom of God in us. It is possible for us to touch the wonders of the Kingdom of God all day. The key to the Kingdom is to stay present in the here and the now, and to allow ourselves the time to get in touch deeply with what is going on and not to react right away the way we did in the past.
Tasting the Wonders of Life
There are very concrete things that we like to do that might bring us a lot of happiness and freedom. Whenever I walk, I walk in such a way that each step can bring me freedom. I don’t lose myself in walking. I don’t lose myself in the past or in the future or in my projects while walking. While walking, I want to taste the wonders of life, the wonders of the Kingdom of God. There are those of us who are capable of walking like that.
While breathing, whether in a sitting position or standing position, we may breathe in such a way that we recognize that we are alive, we are present. We can get in touch with the wonders of life.
While eating, we know that we are fully present. It is us who do the work of eating and not the machine. We are not on automatic pilot. We are on conscious living. We are on mindful living.
The greatest success, the most meaningful kind of success is freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. It’s not by going somewhere, or in the future, that we have freedom; it is right here and now. The way to begin is to stay present, to stay alive, to be yourself in every moment.
When you brush your teeth, for instance, you may choose to brush your teeth in such a way that freedom, joy, and happiness are possible. You can be in the Kingdom of God brushing your teeth, or you can be in hell brushing your teeth. It depends on how you live your life.
Freedom is the ground of happiness, and the way of freedom is the way of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness as it is presented in Plum Village is to learn how to live mindfully each moment of our daily life. That kind of training should be continued if you don’t want to fall into the abyss of suffering and depression.
Because we have a Sangha that is practicing mindful living, we are supported by the Sangha. The Sangha that is practicing mindfulness, concentration, and freedom carries within itself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God.
As we gather together on this New Year’s Eve, we become aware that the Sangha is always there for us. We can take refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Sangha means taking refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma. It means to live always in the Pure Land of Buddha, in the Kingdom of God.
Transcribed by Greg Sever
Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel, True Virtue