Dharma Talk: Cultivating Our Bodhisattva Qualities

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recently, I received this letter: 

Dear Thay, 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people’s suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say things you don’t like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn’t want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, “My friend was right, you don’t have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don’t think that you are a happy person. You have killed him.” The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man’s stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, “Good­ness has been born in you, so you don’t have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon.”

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don’t know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.

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Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, “My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful.” He said, “Okay,” and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don’t practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn’t allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it’s like sitting on thorns. We don’t know how to enjoy the lotus flower.

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Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.” By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: “Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.” After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That’s not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don’t want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call “energy number two.” The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of … , you don’t need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don’t stop, if you don’t become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief. 

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This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998. 

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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Dharma Talk: Taking the Hand of Suffering

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Some days the sky is completely clear, without a single cloud. When we look up, we see the blue sky – very peaceful, very powerful. The blue sky is always there for us. When it rains and storms, clouds cover the sky, but we are confident the blue sky is still there. And we are at peace, because we know that blue sky and fine weather will return after the rain.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes our mind is very clear like a blue sky. We have so much happiness. We practice walking meditation with our brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and feel so happy. Our hearts are at peace and open, with a lot of space and freedom like the blue sky. We feel light and free, and we smile. We are kind to everyone. We make ourselves happy and we make others happy. If we practice mindfulness on days like that, our happiness will increase, and so will the happiness of those around us. We know how to benefit from the times when our mind is as clear as the vault of the blue sky without any clouds. That is a very important practice.

But there are also times when our mind is not clear. It is not at peace, it is not free. We have worries, afflictions, and sadness in us, like the sky has clouds. We cannot see the blue sky of our minds anymore. We see only clouds in all directions.

Sometimes we are not angry or in despair, but our heart is full of clouds. This is a very common state of mind—the absence of happiness. Just a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of sadness, and we don’t know whether it is real anxiety or real sadness. We know that it’s not happiness, but we are not sure that it’s suffering. We’re bored. Everything is too ordinary; nothing is clear or bright. As the poet said, “Today the flowers rise high, and I am sad. I don’t know why.” When a day passes with that kind of sadness and boredom, it’s a terrible waste. We want to get beyond that sadness and boredom, and touch the blue sky.

In the sutra, the Buddha taught us the way of changing the peg. When we have a mental formation that we don’t like very much, we can change it with another mental formation, like a carpenter changing a peg that holds two planks of wood together. The carpenter hammers a new peg into the place where the rotten peg is; the rotten peg goes out. That is changing the peg. When we are bored, we can change the peg by bringing another kind of mind along, a mind that is fresher, happier. Boredom has arisen because this freshness has not yet manifested. Now, what can we do for this freshness to take the place of our sadness and boredom? An elder brother or sister can help us, or a younger brother or sister can help us. They can rescue us from our sadness. That person is as fresh and joyful as a morning bird. That person comes and takes our hand, and leads us out of our sadness, our darkness. Thanks to the presence of the Sangha, thanks to a fellow practitioner, we are able to get out of this darkness. Or maybe we can do it on our own. We have the sutras, poems, practices, and short stories that can help us develop positive mental formations. In this way, we “change the peg.”

There is another aspect of the practice. Instead of changing the peg, we allow the feeling to stay, because our desire to change the peg immediately sometimes has a negative side to it. When we have some kind of sadness or anxiety, no happiness, we should embrace our sadness, our anxiety. Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. We should ask, “My mental formation, are you suffering or not? Are you my enemy, my little mental formation?” Don’t treat it like an enemy. Don’t be in a hurry to find a way to oppress it. Embrace it and allow it to stay. “Dear mental formation, I know you are there. Now stay with me a little bit. Are you really suffering?”

Our mind is like the sky. Sometimes the sky just has blueness, sometimes it has clouds. Why do we have to be so anxious? The Earth has different climates and weather, and our mind does too. The sky is changeable and people are also changeable. There is morning rain, thunder, sunshine. There are times when the sky is cloudy, times when it is dull, times when it is blue and clear. Some people have boredom or sadness from time to time. It’s quite normal. We say to our boredom or our sadness, “I know you are there.” It’s okay. And we have to be happy, although the feeling is sadness. We accept that this is real. This sadness is real, this anxiety is real. It couldn’t be anything else. So our new attitude is to embrace it, to be its friend. And then, it becomes very easy to bear. It’s just anxiety or sadness, and it’s not so difficult to bear.

Don’t think that happiness is the absence of all suffering. If we understand it like that, we have not understood happiness. We don’t have to oppress or push all our suffering out of us in order to have happiness. We can have happiness if our suffering is still within us. It’s like gardening. If we are good gardeners, if we garden organically, we know our garden will have flowers, and it will have garbage. If there are flowers, there is garbage. A good gardener will never burn the garbage or dump it somewhere else. They keep the garbage in order to make com­post. The garbage, the compost makes the flowers and fruits of the garden grow better. If we want to have the vegetables and the fruit, we must have the garbage.

As practitioners, we know that our minds are gardens. In our minds, there are positive, pleasant mental formations, and there are negative, unpleasant mental formations. To be good gardeners, we need to have a heart of great understanding. We have to accept both the flowers and the garbage in our garden. When we see garbage, we are not angry or sad, because we know the garbage can always be transformed into flowers.

We may want to push away unpleasant mental formations, to transform them as quickly as possible. But I suggest that when the sky of your mind is cloudy, you practice to give rise to a kind of caring. Return to that mental formation, make its acquain­tance. “Mental formation, are you my suffering? Are you my enemy? I know you are my friend. You have been my friend in the past, you are my friend in the present, and you will be my friend in the future. So we should learn how to live together with peace and joy, and with a non-dualistic attitude.” It is not possible to have flowers without compost, without garbage. It is not possible to have happiness without sadness. Because of our suffering, we really know how to maintain our happiness. Some days, our cloudiness lasts a long time, and then, when the sun comes out, we see how wonderful it is. To accept the rainy days is very important.

When it rains, we are not afflicted, we are not suffering. We accept the rain. We cannot go outside. We close the door to keep warm. We have our lunch and our tea inside. Our mind is the same. When our mind is clear, we do different things than we do when our mind is cloudy. We should not be afraid. If our mind is dull, we know how to practice. If it is clear, we know how to practice. We do not oppose any kind of mind. When we sit down with our dull mental formation with all our caring and love, we will begin to understand it, and we will say, “Cloudy mental formation, I really need you. Because of you, I have the capacity to see my beautiful mental formations. And I don’t want to oppress you. You are not my enemy. I know you are necessary for the manifesta­tion and growth of positive mental formations.” When we know how to take hold of our cloudy mental formations and do walking meditation with them, then quite naturally, the situation becomes easier to bear. We no longer have a desire to push it away. We just want to take its hand and look deeply at it. Then the situation will become more bearable and we can accept a day that is rainy and windy very easily. That is my practice.

This practice is based on the non-dualistic way of looking at things. I asked a very young sister, “Is your mind sometimes cloudy like the sky today?” She replied, “Yes.” She is still very young, but she still has cloudy days in her mind. I asked, “What do you do when you have those cloudy days in your mind? Tell me.” She said she was not worried, because although she was still very young, she had the experience of those moments in the past, and they always give way to clear moments later. So they do not disturb her. She did not have to push them away, and she was not anxious about her cloudy mind. She also has the seeds of happiness. And her elder brothers and sisters have seeds of happiness and they can water her seeds. When seeds of happiness manifest, the cloudiness disappears.

A famous nun in the eleventh century wrote a gatha. She said, “Birth, sickness, old age, and death are just everyday things. Why do we always pray to be liberated from them? If we spend our whole time trying to get away from birth, sickness, old age, and death, we will just be more caught in them.” If we can take the hand of birth, sickness, old age, and death, it’s no problem. But if we want to run away, we want to push away, we will be caught even more, because in that attitude is struggling. That is the dualistic view, and we get caught.

Our method is not to have that dualistic attitude in our practice, but to find a way to look at our mental formation with the eyes of non-dualism, with love, as a friend. We must know how to invite that suffering to sit down with us, and ask, “My dear suffering, what is your nature? Are you my enemy?” We will take the hand of our suffering and do walking meditation, sitting meditation. And we know that the suffering will help us see and experience peace and joy, liberation and happiness. We have to be grateful to our suffering, because without suffering, we cannot grow up and have the capacity to accept the great joy of liberation. Therefore, the attitude of running away from, destroying, or oppressing our suffering is not an intelligent attitude.

One day in waking meditation, I embraced my state of mind, and I asked, “Are you really suffer­ing?” It wasn’t really suffering. It was just kind of a normal thing, like a cloud in the sky. After the rain, there will be sunshine, and after the sunshine, there will be rain. And I could see there was no need to get rid of this mental formation. “I accept you as you are. I can be happy with you.” And therefore, it didn’t make me suffer anymore. I could live with it very naturally, as something wonderful. “Your presence is natural. I accept you as you are.” I invite you to practice this way, and you will see it is a wonderful practice.

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I would like to offer you an exercise. It may take weeks to do; it may take days. It’s up to you. It’s not the kind of homework you do with a pencil and a sheet of paper. You will have to do it with a lot of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and mindful breathing. You may like to ask for help from another brother or sister, so you can do the work in a deeper way. The focus of the exercise is a period of time you considered hard for you. This difficult time belongs to the past, but you are grounded in the present moment. You bring the past into the present moment, and consider that moment as the object of your inquiry, the object of your meditation. Practice looking deeply into it. This lesson is not the work of the intellect. The intellect can play a certain role in this exercise, but you need your heart. You need your mindfulness, concentration, and insight—body and mind united—in order to practice looking deeply and to recognize every aspect of the crisis.

First, look at the event in space and time, and describe it. When did it start? How long did it last? Where did it happen? How did it happen? What triggered that difficult period? Look at the elements within you that helped trigger that difficult moment, and the elements without—around you—that helped trigger it. Did it come out of the blue? What ground served as its base for manifestation? Look deeply to recognize the roots of that affliction, of that difficult period of time. Some elements are close, and you can easily recognize them. Some elements are far away, rooted in the past, maybe in the time of your parents or ancestors.

You can always ask another person to help you to identify the elements that came together and brought you to that difficult period of time. When you feel you have finished, you may tell yourself that there must be more. If you practice looking more deeply, you can identify other elements as the roots of the affliction. And you can always rely on the Sangha eyes, on your brothers and sisters in the Dharma to help you to see more clearly. How did you feel? How did you behave in terms of thought, words, action? How did you react? You acted and reacted. You need a lot of concentration. Remember how you behaved in terms of thinking, speech, and action. And again, you can ask your friend who was there, “Dear friend, how did I look at that period of time?” You have to bow to him, “Please, please, help.” And he will help you see yourself. Your eyes alone may not be enough. You need the Sangha eyes to see the situation better. In Plum Village, we know that any exercise could be initiated by ourselves, but the work of looking deeply, of having deeper insight, deeper understanding, can be supported by our brothers and sisters in the Dharma. When you do this exercise, please go to the brothers and sisters who were with you during the difficult time, and ask them to help you look and reveal all aspects of the crisis, both inside and outside.

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You were suffering. How did you feel in your heart, in your body? Did you apply the teaching you have received in order to calm down, to get relief? Or did you just allow the suffering to overwhelm you? Did you ask for help from your brothers, from your sisters, from your teacher? Or did you just allow yourself to be seized by your suffering, and become a victim of your suffering? You have to be honest with yourself.

What if, in the difficult moment, you tried walking meditation or sitting meditation, but it didn’t help at all? Why didn’t it help? Did you ask for help? Did you tell your big brother that you tried hard with the walking, the sitting, but did not feel relief? Did you lose your faith in the practice? Because in difficult moments, you would rely on your practice to get better, and if you did not succeed, you may tell yourself that the practice is not effective, and you lose some trust in the practice. You have to look at all these things with courage.

Did you blame the other person, the person who you believe triggered Hell for you? Or did you blame the situation? You lost your confidence in the Dharma; you lost your confidence in the Sangha. Your faith in the Dharma and the Sangha became very weak, and you lost the confidence in your practice, because you did not get quick relief after some time trying. It did not happen. Did you blame the other person? Did you blame the situation? Did you blame the Sangha?

And in your suffering, did you have the tendency to punish the other person, or punish the Sangha? Did you have the idea of punishing, even if you did not do anything to punish? If you believe that the other person made you suffer, it’s natural that you want to make him or her suffer a little bit, so you can get relief. You may believe that punishing him or her, or the Sangha will give you a little relief. That’s a natural tendency of humans.

Did you have the idea of shutting off from everyone? You no longer wanted to have communication with other people. Did you have the idea of boycotting the Sangha as a form of punishment? “I don’t want to talk to them anymore. I hate everyone. They are not really my brothers or sisters. They didn’t know how to be compassionate and understanding.” Did you want to punish by shutting yourself off from the Sangha? “I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to listen to them. I have suffered so much.” Did you have the idea of running away? Just quitting? Running away is a form of punishment. “Because the Sangha is not nice to me, I run away. I don’t appreci­ate you.” If not the Sangha, but your partner or your family, your society or your church, it’s the same.

In your suffering, you might have felt that you are completely, absolutely alone. Cut off. No one in the Sangha was able to understand you. No sharing of suffering was possible. Did you intend to look for someone who can share your anger, your suffering, your fear? Because the tendency is that when you get angry with someone, you have the tendency to blame that someone for having made you suffer, and you want someone else to support your view that that person is bad, that he or she always makes us suffer. So, did you seek for an ally? Did you find someone who supported you that way, who agreed with you that the other person is impossible, the other person is always making other people suffer? Did you get relief when you found someone like that? Or were you lucky to find someone who did not support your view, but helped you practice looking more deeply, in order to understand the problem more deeply?

Did anyone sit close to you and say, “Dear friend, I know that you suffer. I am here for you. I support you in the practice.” And did anyone tell you that the best way to handle the situation is with compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are the instruments of the bodhisattva. If you apply your compassion and your understanding to the situation, you will get relief very quickly. Anything you do will come from understanding or compassion. The act of blaming isn’t motivated by understanding and compassion. The act of punishing isn’t motivated by understanding and compassion. Shutting off from others, running away, all these things do not seem to be motivated by understanding and compassion.

What will you do if you are plunged into that situation again? Would you do the same things? Or would you behave differently? Have you learned anything from that time when you suffered so much? How did you come out of it? Did you do anything to get out, or did it just die out slowly, the difficult moment, that difficult period? Did something happen or did someone intervene so that the period of Hell ended? How did it stop—abruptly or slowly? You have to remember, because everything is imperma­nent, even your suffering.

Did anyone remind you during that period of time that the suffering is going to end? It will not last forever. Did anyone remind you of that? Suffering, like any other thing, is impermanent. And we know that suffering will end some day. You have to remember that. Because during the time of suffering, we may think that it will last forever and you will not be able to survive the suffering. It’s like a strong emotion, a storm. The storm always stays for some time, and any storm will stop after some time. Your suffering is the same. Did anyone remind you of that?

Every time you suffer, you have to remember that suffering is impermanent. Suffering will not be there forever. Seeing this, you get relief already. “I wish that it would not stay too long. I know it will die, but I wish it would die quickly.” But wishing is not the only thing you can do. You can do something in order to speed up the ending of the suffering. How did you get out of your difficult moment? Did it end by itself? Did someone help you? Did something happen to rescue you? Or did you get out of it because you had already hit the bottom? And when you hit the bottom, you begin to emerge again.

This is a very important exercise. We have to do it totally, as deeply as possible, because we can learn a lot. Through the practice of looking deeply, transformation will take place. After you finish the exercise, you know that the next time you suffer will be different. You know how to go through it in a much lighter way, smiling. And you are no longer afraid. Difficult moments may come, but you know how to handle them.

Bodhisattvas are not afraid, because they know how to deal with the storms, the difficulties. They know how to handle these difficulties. Bodhisattvas are not people who don’t have difficulties. Bodhisattvas are those who know how to handle the difficult times. You are a student of the bodhisattvas, or you want to become a bodhisattva yourself. Therefore, you have to learn to hear with your eye, to look with your ear, to listen with your tongue, to speak with your body, to take care, because bodhisattvas are always using their eyes, their ears, their tongues, their bodies, and their minds to get through the difficult moments.

When you have understanding and compassion, you only think in a way that can bring you space and relief. You will only say things that can bring more harmony and relief, and you will only do things that can bring about relief and reconciliation. And the most important thing to do is to generate more understanding and compassion. If you know how to apply them in the three levels of action—thinking, speaking, and acting—then the relief can come very quickly. Reconciliation can take place very quickly.

In the future, you are likely to be plunged into a period of time like that again. If you are not prepared, you will suffer just like the last time. So look deeply at this difficult time, and prepare so that when an event like that happens again, you’ll be more ready to handle it. And you have a brother or a sister who will be able to step in and help you go in the direction of understanding and compassion. When you begin to think and act and speak in terms of compassion, peace begins to settle in you and relief comes very quickly. These are the experiences of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And those of us who have practiced know that in these moments, understanding and compassion should be generated by you and by the people who practice with you. The energy of under­standing and compassion can bring relief right away. It can shorten the period of crisis, so you begin to experience joy again.

When you were in school writing a thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation, you spent one year or even two years to write on this project. But what you get is only a diploma. This exercise is very important. If you do it totally and deeply, you get liberation, you get happiness. So invest yourself into the practice. Out of our success and our insight, we can help many people around us. This is not a dissertation to be submitted to a teacher; this is a real practice. This is a gift you make to yourself, to society, and to the world. Whether you can help people, society, living beings in the future depends on the success you get in this kind of practice. So invest yourself entirely into the exercise, and if you want to share it with Thay, please don’t hesitate to do so. If you want to share it with another brother or sister, please do so. This is not for a degree or a diploma, this is for your libera­tion. your happiness, and the liberation and happiness of many, many people.

Photos by Nicholaes Roosevelt.

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Dharma Talk: Throwing Away

Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

June 7 – 8, 2006

Thich Nhat Hanh

During the Breath of the Buddha retreat at Plum Village, Thây focused on the Sutra on Mindful Breathing, which he had just translated from the Chinese. In this excerpt from two Dharma  talks,Thây discusses exercises 11 through 14.

Exercise 11: Skillfully he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind. Skillfully  he  practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.   

Exercise 12: Skillfully he practices breathing in, liberating his  mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

mb43-dharma2The practice of concentration helps us to understand the nature of affliction, and with that kind of insight, we can burn affliction away. Concentration as energy has the power of transformation. Concentration is something extremely important in the teaching of the Buddha. 

To concentrate means to concentrate on something. In the teaching of the Buddha, many kinds of concentration are proposed. According to our need, we can apply one or two of these concentrations to free us, like concentration on impermanence, concentration on non-self, concentration on compassion, concentration on interbeing, and so on. Each concentration, each samadhi, has its own name.

The Buddha spoke about the three doors of liberation, which are considered to be three concentrations: emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness.

Emb43-dharma3mptiness is not a philosophy, a description of reality. Emptiness is a practice. Emptiness does not mean non-being, non-existence. There’s a big difference between non-existence and emptiness. Suppose we look at the glass. It is empty. The glass is empty, but the glass is not non-existent, right? In order to be empty, you have to be there. That is one thing you can learn—emptiness is not non-existence. The second thing is that when we say the glass is empty, you have to ask, “Empty of what?” It’s not empty of air. It is empty of tea, but it is full of air. So the intelligent question to ask is, “Empty of what?” The first answer may be: empty of a separate existence, empty of a separate self.

This is the simplest description in the Buddhist scriptures about emptiness, about interbeing: this is, because that is. As practitioners, we don’t just speak of emptiness as a teaching philosophy. We have to transform emptiness into a complete practice.

Signlessness is the second door of liberation. “Sign” means the appearance or the form. We are used to seeing the form that is the object of our perception. Nimita is the form. Animita is formlessness, or signlessness. The practice is not to be attached to the form, and this needs some training.

Those of us who have lost a loved one, we know grief. But if you are equipped with the concentration of signlessness, formlessness, you can overcome your grief, your sorrow, very quickly. You are capable of seeing things in the light of signlessness: nothing is born, nothing dies. Everything continues in this new form. You also! Your nature is the nature of deathlessness.

Aimlessness is the third door of liberation. Apranihita is the Sanskrit term. Apranihita means you don’t put anything in front of you as object of your pursuit. What you are looking for is already there, not outside of you. You are already what you want to become. You are wonderful just like that. Don’t try to be something else, someone else. You don’t have to go to the future in order to get what you want. Everything you are looking for, it is right here, in the here and the now, including the Kingdom of God, your immortality, your deathlessness. Your enlightenment is right here. And that is truly the third door of liberation: aimlessness.

The Concentration on Loving Kindness 

There is a concentration called maitri, karuna—love, compassion. And the contemplation on love, on compassion, can bring you a lot of relief, can bring the nectar of healing to you.

Suppose someone has made you suffer. You think of him or her as very cruel. That person has inflicted on you a lot of suffering, on your family, on your country. And because of that you want that person or that group of persons to suffer a lot for you to get relief. You are thinking in terms of punishment. That hate, that anger, that will to revenge is a kind of fire that continues to burn your body and your mind, and you are in hell. Hell is here in the here and the now.

Just before, we spoke about the Kingdom of God being in the here and the now. But that is true of hell. Hell can be in the here and the now. If we allow the flame of affliction to burn us, there are moments when lying on our bed we cannot sleep because our whole body, our whole being is burned by the fire of hate, of anger, of despair.

The concentration on maitri, on karuna, on compassion, will help you to suffer less.

With your attention focused on the other person, you can see that the other person suffers a lot also. The fact is that when someone suffers a lot and is not capable of handling his or her own suffering, she will spill her suffering all over, and you become a victim of that.

And you may be like that. You are suffering a lot, and if you don’t know how to manage your suffering, you continue to suffer and you will make others around you suffer, including the people you love.

Looking deeply, we see that the other person, as a child, did not have a chance to learn love and compassion from his or her parents. The parents have caused a lot of wounds in him, in her, as a child; and no one has helped him or her to heal the wounds in the child. And then when they went to school, the teacher did not help, and the students around did not help. The seeds of anger, suffering, and hate continued to grow.

Such a person needs help, not punishment. By looking deeply and recognizing the presence of suffering in that person, you might see the truth that that person needs help. And now if we punish him, he will suffer more.

This insight may motivate you to do something to help that person. With that kind of insight, the hate and anger vanish, because that insight brings the nectar of compassion. And the nectar of compassion is wonderful. You stop suffering right away. The fire that has been burning, stops burning. That is the effect of metta meditation, the meditation on compassion.

Compassion for a Suicide Bomber 

Nowadays we learn that there are many young people in the Mideast, they are ready to die, to blow themselves up with a bomb in order to kill as many as possible. We call them terrorists, and we believe that in order for the world to be peaceful, you have to kill all these terrorists. So you invest a lot of money and energy into what you call the war against terror. The more you kill, the more terrorists you create, because the killing is an act of punishment. Then the family and the friends of the one who is killed burn with the flame of anger, the will to punish. In killing one so-called terrorist, you create three, four terrorists more. That is what is happening.

There are many young people who suffer so much hate and despair, not only in Iraq, but also in Europe, in America. The number of young people who kill themselves every day is enormous. When you are burned by the flame of despair, of hate, of violence, you suffer so much. And as a young person, you don’t know much about your mind, about the practice. You believe that the only way to stop the suffering, the burning, is to kill yourself.

I guess for many young people, to die is much easier than to live, because they are overwhelmed by the emotions—of hate, of despair. And then you are told that by dying you might help the cause of justice, and you can go to paradise right away after death.

These kinds of perceptions and feelings lead to the act of suicide bombing. If you look deeply, you see that these people need help. And the operation to kill them is not the right answer. We have to help them to see there is a way out of suffering, that only love and compassion and understanding can solve the problem.

One side is using violence. The other side is responding with violence. And the situation goes on without a chance to stop. The way out is shown by the Buddha. Hate cannot respond to hate. Violence cannot respond to violence. There must be another way. The meditation on compassion is essential.

During the war in Vietnam we were able—myself and many friends of ours—to see that the young Americans who came to Vietnam to kill or to be killed were also victims of a wrong policy. With that kind of insight we tried to work for reconciliation rather than supporting one side of the war.

In my experience, the concentration on compassion is a wonderful practice. You may need only fifteen minutes of breathing deeply and looking deeply to recognize that the other person is a victim of his or her own suffering. That person needs you, needs your help, and does not need your punishment. Suddenly the nectar of compassion is born, your heart is blessed with that nectar, and you don’t suffer any more. Instead, you want to do something, to say something, and if you are not capable of loving speech you can write a letter. You can say something kind in order to help that person. But you cannot help that person until you have been able to help yourself. Peace and compassion always begin with yourself.

The Reality of Impermanence 

Exercise 13: Contemplating impermanence, I breathe in. Contemplating impermanence, I breathe out.

Impermanence is a key that can unlock the door of reality. It is also a concentration, a practice. Intellectually we know that things are impermanent. We can agree with the truth of impermanence. Our scientists also agree that things are impermanent. But in reality we still behave as though things are permanent.

We have to keep the insight of impermanence alive. When we come in touch with anything, we should be able to see the nature of impermanence in it.

mb43-dharma4We have to distinguish between the notion of impermanence and the insight of impermanence. We may have the notion of impermanence, we may have understood what impermanence is, but we do not have the insight of impermanence. The insight is something alive.

Impermanence is a fact that science has to recognize. When you are able to see the nature of impermanence, you’ll begin to see the nature of non-self. Because non-self is not different from impermanence. Since everything is changing in every second, nothing can remain itself in two consecutive moments. So impermanence means non-self. They are the same thing.

Looking from the angle of time, you say, impermanence. Looking from the angle of space, you say, non-self. They are exactly the same thing.

In the Pali canon, non-desire comes next. In the Chinese canon, throwing away is next.

Throwing Away What?

Exercise 14: Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go. Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

Throwing away is a wonderful practice. You might like to ask, “Throwing away what?” What is to be thrown away?

We have learned that wrong perceptions are the ground of all afflictions— fear, anger, discrimination, despair. So it’s easy to know that throwing away here means to throw away wrong perceptions—ideas or notions—that are at the base of our suffering. It is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation. You have an idea, and you entertain that idea for a long time, and you continue to suffer.

Every one of us entertains an idea about happiness. It may be because of that idea of happiness that we’ve never been happy. So it’s very important to throw away that notion of happiness.

A nation is a community of people, and they may entertain together one idea, one ideology. Each political party—the socialist party, for instance—entertains an idea. And we might get caught in that idea. An ideology may be a trap, and your nation may be caught in it for sixty, seventy years, and during that time you create a lot of suffering. Those who do not agree with that ideology, you put them in psychiatric hospitals. The moment you release that idea, happiness begins to be possible.

So throwing away is very important. It takes insight and courage in order to throw away an idea.

The word is “throwing away.” It’s very strong; it’s not just letting go. The Sanskrit, the Pali term, is “throwing away” in a very strong way. The Vietnamese meditation master Tang Hoi, he used the word phong xa for throwing away. Tang Hoi was the first teacher of meditation in Vietnam, who lived in the first half of the third century.

Insights from the Diamond Sutra 

The Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away four notions. The first notion is the notion of self. It is by intensive training that you can throw away the notion of self.

If a couple knows how to live in a spirit of non-self, there will be no difficulty, no anger, no discrimination, no despair, because they have realized the truth of non-self. If a father and son, mother and daughter, have the insight of non-self, they look at each other as interbeing.

mb43-dharma5There is the idea that I am this body. This body is mine, belongs to me. This is a notion that does not correspond to reality. When we say the words “I am,” we say it on the ground of the notion “I am,” and still people do not believe very much in that statement. That is why they try to justify it with a kind of argument.

In order to demonstrate that “I am” is a reality, René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” One day I saw a cartoon picturing Descartes touching a horse. He declared, “I think, therefore I am.” And the horse asked back, “You are what?” That is a good question. If you can answer what you are, you may have a better idea that is closer to reality.

In the scripture it is written, “This is, because that is.” This is a statement about interbeing. If you are not there, I cannot be here.

So it is very important to throw away the notion “I am,” the notion of self, because it does not reflect the truth. By looking deeply into the nature of reality, you are capable of throwing away that notion of “I am.”

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away is the notion “man,” human being. This is not too difficult. When we look into the human being, we see human ancestors, we see animal ancestors, we see vegetable ancestors, we see mineral ancestors. We see that the human is made of non-human elements. We see that we are at the same time a rock, a river, a cloud, a squirrel, a rose. And if we take away all the non-human elements, the human being is no longer there.

This is the deepest teaching on deep ecology. In order to protect the human being, you have to protect elements that are not human, because these elements are our ancestors, and if you destroy them there is no way we can be here. That is why discrimination between man and nature is a wrong view. You have to see you as nature, one with nature.

That is why harmony, respect of life, is possible. So throw away the idea that the human being is the boss, man is the boss, man can do anything to nature. The key is contemplation on impermanence of non-self.

The first to be thrown away is the notion of self, the second is the notion of man. With liberation from that notion, we become less proud, less arrogant as a species. We have to respect and protect other species in order for us to have a chance. That is why we said the Diamond Sutra is the oldest text on deep ecology.

We have the notion of la matiere inerte. But if you look deeply into the notion that matter is something without soul, without life, we see that is not true.

First of all, matter is the object of our perceptions. For a long time we believed that matter exists as a separate entity, and matter is something that does not move. But now as science advances, we see that matter is not static and immobile as we thought. In fact, the atoms, the electrons, move a lot. They are very alive. And looking more deeply, we see a lot of our mind in it, and we are not sure that they are there, in the way we imagined. So the distinction between living beings and non-living beings disappears after meditation. There is no longer any discrimination.

The fourth notion to be thrown away is the notion of lifespan. We believe that there is time, and we are born at one point of time. Our birth begins here, and we shall die at another point of time—death. I’ll only spend seventy, eighty, ninety or one hundred years on this planet. After that, I’ll be gone. This is what we believe. But as we look deeply, we see that this is a notion, a wrong perception. Birth is a notion, and death is also a notion. It’s not reality.

We have spoken of the deathlessness of a cloud. The cloud can never die. It can only become rain or snow. In our mind, to die means from something you become nothing; from someone you become no one. But if you look deeply you don’t see anything like that. A cloud can never die. If we look deeply we see that the nature of the cloud is also the nature of no birth. In our mind, to be born means from nothing we become something. From no one we suddenly become someone.

The cloud does not come from nothing. It has come from the water in the river, in the ocean. It has come from the sunshine, the heat. And you know that the birth of a cloud is a poetic image. It is a new manifestation. Before being a cloud, the cloud has been many other things.

Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Birth and death are notions that cannot be applied to reality, because nothing can be born from nothing, and nothing can become nothing at all. This meditation practice of looking deeply will bring about insight. It will dissipate our fear and our despair.

Those are the four basic notions that are at the foundation of our fear, our desperation, our suffering. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to practice looking deeply, so that we can throw them away. The practice of throwing away your notions, your views, is so important. Emancipation and liberation would not be possible without this practice of throwing away.

If we suffer a lot, it’s because we still entertain a number of ideas. The practice of meditation helps us to get free from these ideas.

Our World Needs Wisdom 

So the object of our meditation is not something alien to our daily life. The way proposed by the Buddha is to help yourself and to help the people around you. It is to practice looking more deeply in order to be liberated from these notions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence.

Writing a letter to a suicide bomber is true meditation. Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight. As a teacher, as a parent, a journalist, a filmmaker, you are capable of sharing your insight so that you can wake up your nation, your people. And if your nation, your people, are awake, then your government will have to act according to the insight of the people.

Meditation is essential for our survival, our peace, our protection. In fact, it is wrong views that are at the base of our suffering, and throwing away wrong views is the most important, most urgent thing.

To come to a retreat is not to get away from it all. To come to a retreat is an opportunity to look deeper, and to see exactly where we are.

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

 

The Sutra on Mindful Breathing

This is what I have heard at a time when the Buddha was residing in the Jeta Grove in the town of Sravasti.

On that day, the World-Honored One told the Bhikshus:

“Dear friends, let us enjoy the practice of Mindful Breathing. If a Bhikshu knows how to skillfully practice Mindful Breathing, and does so consistently, he will find his body and mind peaceful; he will acquire positive investigations and reflections; his mind will be calm and pure; and he will have perceptions leading to Wisdom and be able to bring his practice to completion.

“This is how a bhikshu should proceed:

“Whether the bhikshu lives in a village or in a town, in the morning he puts on his sanghati, holds his begging bowl, and goes into town for alms round. While doing so, he knows how to protect his body and his six senses, his mind skillfully focused on whatever is present. After the alms round, he returns to his dwelling, puts his sanghati and begging bowl away, washes his feet, goes into the forest, to an empty room, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty space in the open air, and sits down in an upright position. He holds his mindfulness in front of him, releases all worldly pursuits, and lets go of his anger, torpor, restlessness, regret and doubt, his mind determined to be in accord with wholesome dharmas, leaving far behind the five hindrances that cause afflictions, weaken his wisdom and constitute an obstacle on the path of Nirvana.

1. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his out-breath.

2. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in a long or a short in-breath, fully aware of his long or short in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out a long or a short out-breath, fully aware of his long or short out-breath.

3. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his whole body.

4. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, relaxing his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, relaxing his whole body.

5. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing joy.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing joy.

6. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing happiness.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing happiness.

7. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his feelings.

8. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, calming his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, calming his feelings.

9. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his mind.

10. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, gladdening his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, gladdening his mind.

11. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

12. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, liberating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

13. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating impermanence.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating impermanence.

14. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

15. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating non-desire.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating non-desire.

16. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating cessation.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating cessation.

“Bhikshus! That is how the practice of Mindful Breathing helps make our body and mind peaceful, helps us acquire positive investigations and reflections, makes our mind calm and pure, helps us have perceptions leading to Wisdom, and brings our practice to completion.”

After the Buddha had finished his teaching, the bhikshus, having listened to the Buddha, happily put the teachings into practice.

Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 2, No. 99, Tsa A Han (No. 29) 803.
Chinese translated from Sanskrit by Gunabhadra, A.D. 435-443 ( Liu Song period ).
Translated from Chinese by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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