Salt in Clear Water

By Jennifer Shumaker

Driving from Arkansas through Taos and the Carson National Forest, I had plenty of time to fantasize about the next six days. I was on my way to a mindfulness retreat with Therese Fitzgerald, Wendy Johnson, and a group of practitioners from activist professions at the Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in northern New Mexico. We have been told to expect no electricity- no phones or E-mail to lure us away from the wilderness. The extraordinary blue of the Western sky with the pure white puffs of cloud promised a sense of clarity. Yes, this would be a break from everyday stresses, and a chance to clarify and strengthen my commitments among a safe and supportive group of strangers in a healing, untouched wilderness environment.

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Our retreat fantasies of balm and beauty seldom include the pain and exhaustion it takes to transform our unhealthy mental formations, nor the joy and exhilaration at insights gained as a result of this work. Therese knows some of my mental formations, and, like the caring teacher she is, refuses to let me hide behind them. The inevitable test comes on the first evening. Would I be bellmaster, as part of my Order aspirant training? What? Didn’t she remember my complete bungling of the job in Arkansas two years ago, . when we had a new bell with no ringer, and I had to use a piece of wood stripped from a log by the fireplace? With each strangled ring that was an insult to the beautiful new bell, my shame felt stronger until I had asked if I could resign my job. Of course, she said that it would be better for me to stay with it-that the bells were fine if I could just accept them, along with perhaps myself?

The second test for me was the short self-introductions we gave. Of all the things I could say in five minutes, I always end up saying something that leaves me feeling slightly vulnerable. Yes, I surely misrepresented who I am, and everyone else sounded so much more interesting. How much easier it would be if we all just kept silent with our small, private vulnerabilities. But the strangers felt less like strangers by the second day, and relationships were budding. We have made friends with the 650-year-old Ponderosa Pine-the oldest in Carson National Forest, with one of its few remaining groves of the old growth forest, and the Vallecito “river” (a stream in any other state except perhaps Arizona) that bubbles and gurgles through meadows of wild flowers. Surely this is one of the few remaining pieces of untouched heaven on earth.

The third day is the true test. The place and the people are no longer strangers, and some risky reaching-out in friendship is starting. During the walking meditation, I follow Wendy’s suggestion and offer my hand to someone. Wrong move! The gesture brings tears to the eyes of the new friend, and tears turn to sobbing that prevent her from finishing the walk with us. Besides, with two days of sitting and mindfulness under my belt, it is harder for me as well to ignore the feelings of unworthiness that constantly linger at the edges of my consciousness. My bells have not been uniformly perfect. Nothing like the beautiful sound that comes when Therese or Wendy rings it. I have become so nervous when ringing it that my hands are too sweaty to control the ringer, and it keeps slipping. This interrupts my counting of three breaths between rings, and Therese is having to help count. I wonder if she would accept my resignation this time?

During Dharma discussion that afternoon, all our smooth veneers are peeling away, and feelings start to break loose. Therese’s morning Dharma talk had been about feelings, with anger an obvious focus. One brave person in the group told of the fear that was arising in her and keeping her awake at night. She had heard of a man in the other discussion group who realized he was holding the chronic anger that is common among activists facing injustice every day. This woman was recovering from an abusive experience with an angry man, and the raw fears that resurfaced were disrupting her retreat experience. This seemed unfair-surely at a retreat like this people shouldn’t have to be afraid. Another man offered that irritation belongs in the category of anger, and that his irritation had been fierce at the lack of silence during certain periods of the day, like morning work-time and a couple of hours in the afternoon. Therese had told us we could wear a sign that indicated we would prefer to remain silent. This man didn’t want to appear aloof so he didn’t wear one, but when people spoke to him or near him he felt very annoyed with them.

For reasons I couldn’t understand, this statement started me shaking and sweating. Therese looked at me (to urge me to ring the mindfulness bell) and 1 thought she was encouraging me to speak. I mumbled something about feeling terribly sad suddenly-that I couldn’t explain it, except to say as children we had never been allowed to feel anything except happy. Something snapped in me, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. At the end of the session (I can’t even remember ringing the bell), Therese came and hugged me and told me not to hold back, to let the heaving sobs that threatened to take me over just come. She suggested I go to the grandmother Ponderosa Pine and I took her advice. While everyone else went to meditate, I stumbled to the tree and flung my arms around it. The sobs were so dramatic that I was hyperventilating, and I couldn’t even tell whether I was sad or angry, let alone what was behind all this. After lying exhausted in the field of white daisies that seemed to be trying to rock me in the breeze, I joined the others for dinner. Somehow I managed to ring the bell for the evening meditation, although my body was so exhausted that I couldn’t keep my balance during the walking meditation.

That night I had nightmares. In one particularly vivid dream, some colleagues from work were upset about my imperfect bell-ringing. I kept telling them that I am fine and feel great joy when I work with low-income community groups, but that I can’t perform among peers without feeling shameful and bungling it. During the morning walking meditation, I happened to look over at the man who was irritated by the lack of complete silence, and felt the sobs coming back. But this time, while sitting again, I followed Thay’s advice. I named the feeling-it wasn’t anger, sadness, or hurt, it was shame. Yes, hello shame, my old companion. I imagined embracing it like a small child in my arms, and tried to look deeply at it. Where did it come from?

Suddenly, in the space of my breathing, I had a great burst of insight. The irritated man and my colleagues from my dream were acting like my father and other family members in my home as I grew up in South Africa. I have always known that as the youngest child I was too noisy and excitable-singing too loudly, moving too fast, and talking too much, especially in the evenings when my father wanted silence. The new part of my insight was the realization that I was not intrinsically an irritating person. My father had his first heart attack the day I was born, and died of his fifth heart attack when I was 15 years old. This means that during my whole childhood, he was on heart medication that gave him a constant headache. My infant cries, toddler energy, and high spirits were like a constant piece of sand in his shell. Perhaps the irritated man at the retreat was not annoyed with me because I was intrinsically an irritating person, though I was certainly one of the people who talked to him when he secretly wanted silence. This toxic, chronic shame that I have worn all my life is based on an incorrect premise.

I remembered Therese telling me two years ago that maybe I just need to accept myself and whatever sound came out of the bell. My bell-ringing had actually been fine. I allowed myself to remember that a couple of people had actually told me that they had appreciated my fine bell-ringing. I hadn’t even heard them because I knew that, being noisy and imperfect, it must be irritating everyone.

That morning in outdoor walking meditation, the sky was especially clear and blue, the white daisies glistened, and the Ponderosa Pine stretched its gnarled, loving arms out to me. I wanted to run through the meadow singing about the hills being alive like the nun in The Sound of Music. Especially I wanted to throw my arms around Therese and the irritated man for bringing me to a point of understanding that would make my whole world look different from now on. I remembered Thiiy’s urging us to thank the garbage in our lives. Garbage transforms into compost when the light of mindfulness is shined on it, to fertilize all the healthy seeds in ourselves and in those around us.

As if to echo this sentiment, the woman who had struggled with sobs when I had held her hand early in the retreat came to me and offered to lend me a baby quilt her mother had given her as an infant, to keep me warm during the anticipated chill of the planned outdoor meditation that evening. I knew what she was feeling. And in Dharma discussion, the woman who was afraid of anger told us how she had realized during the retreat that she also carried around constant anger without even knowing it. Now she could work on it and perhaps finally come to grips with her past abuse. And the irritated man was amazed when I told him what he had done for me. He hadn’t felt irritated with me at all. And in spite of the lack of silence, he had decided he wants to be trained to join the Order of Interbeing.

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This was a true Sangha experience. The best Sanghas and retreats cast our mental formations into a mirror we must look into, in a safe and supportive environment that is a gem most of us don’t find anywhere else in our frantic and busy lives. Another image from Thay’s teachings became clearer. Thiiy talked about the way that meditating, being mindful, and following the Trainings help our hearts grow large and spacious so we become like huge lakes of clear water. If some hurt person throws salt into our lives, the spacious, clear water can absorb the salt without turning sour. That same amount of salt thrown into the cup of water of a constricted heart would be poisonous. So retreats and Sanghas should not try to avoid salt. That person who is angry or irritated or too affectionate might be exactly what we need to expand our hearts and transform our personal garbage into blossoms of joy. Thank you, Dharma teachers. And thank you, Vallecitos Refuge. Indeed, your hills came alive for me.

Jennifer Shumaker, Radiant Jewel of the Source, is a community development resource person and practices with the Ecumenical Buddhist Society in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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Walking on Ice

 By Jack Lawlor

Even the Buddha’s Sangha experienced difficulties. His cousin, Devadatta, once attempted to divide the Sangha and lead it himself. And the Buddha himself could not mediate the dispute over etiquette between the Precept master and the Sutra master at Kosambi-at least, not initially. The Upakkilesa Sutta describes how the bhikkhus at Kosambi were “quarreling and brawling and deep in dispute, stabbing each other with verbal daggers.” The Buddha’s verse on this dispute reveals how keenly he observed what was happening:

When many voices shout at once
None considers himself a fool;
Though this Sangha is being split
None thinks himself to be at fault.

They have forgotten thoughtful speech,
They talk obsessed by words alone.
Uncurbed their mouths, they bawl at will;
None knows what will lead him to so act.

“He abused me, he struck me,
He defeated me, he robbed me”-
In those who harbor thoughts like these
Hatred will never be allayed.

For in this world, hatred is never
Allayed by further acts of hate.
It is allayed by non-hatred:
That is the fixed and ageless law.
Those others do not recognize
That here we should restrain ourselves.
But those wise ones who realize this
At once end all their enmity.

Many Western Sanghas have also experienced difficulty. Ordained teachers in various traditions have engaged in sexual misconduct and selfish financial practices, and disputes have arisen out of personality differences and opinions on how the Sangha should be “led.” In response, we often want to reach beyond basic mindfulness practices to resources from other venues, such as conflict resolution techniques used by businesses or other spiritual traditions. If carefully modified to address the people involved, these can sometimes help lessen difficulty in a Sangha, but there are limitations on how much relief we can reasonably expect from organizational solutions, except with respect to extreme behavior and abuses. A healthy, happy Sangha ultimately depends less on structures than on consistent mindfulness practice.

Simple practice helps us penetrate the limits of conceptual thought by deepening our insight into our own and others’ motivations and needs, thus enabling us to transform our behavior and nourish the Sangha. Practicing in a Sangha that concentrates wholeheartedly on basic practice, it becomes easier to let go of some of our favorite baggage our ideology and concepts, including our concepts of what Sangha should be like. The Diamond Sutra boldly asserts that “Buddhas are called Buddhas because they are free from ideas.”

We are invited to participate in a Sangha with an open mind and heart. We should not leave a Sangha merely because it occasionally uses practices that do not appeal to us. A practice that does not appeal to us today may be of great help in the future. Practicing as a healthy Sangha involves a collective decision to practice wholeherutedly each time the Sangha convenes. As Thay reminds us, happiness is not an individual matter.

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The calm and peace produced by our mindfulness practice provides insight when uncertainty, impatience, or anger arise in us. With mindfulness, we are better equipped to watch these states arise and fall within us. We are able to respond to the actual circumstances we are in, rather than react as if compelled by habit energy. From this space, this freedom, the practice of Right Speech-so critical to any healthy Sangha-becomes possible. We find little use for gossipy or sarcastic speech, which causes so much suffering in a Sangha.

During last fall’s tele-Dharma talk to North American members of the Order of Interbeing, Thay reflected:

Causing division, juggling for power, juggling for influence, opposing each other are just the symptoms of lack of practice. You can apply mindfulness in every moment of your daily life. We should not put a lot of energy into how to organize or structure or how to settle things, as in politics. The main thing is the practice. The practice is the first thing. We should set up organizations on the basis of our practice, not the other way around. If we use our intelligence to organize our daily practice, we can get nourishment, healing, and transformation every day, and we can help our brothers and sisters do the same.

Following this advice can be difficult. It is more entertaining to play with ideas about how to graft Western organizational models onto Buddhist life. This type of integration will indeed happen. Buddhism and Western culture already interpenetrate and inform each other. But successful integration will happen more as the result of our collective experimentation with living mindfully and practicing in small local Sanghas, than as the result of structure imposed by hierarchy. We must not get lost in concepts as we work with our precious local Sanghas. Some folks get so caught up in ideas and concepts, that they slowly abandon their own daily mindfulness practices due to all the time-pressure and excitement. Even veteran practitioners cannot bargain with the essentials of mindfulness practice. We cannot cheat on our daily practice and hope to remain mindful–even in the name of Sanghabuilding, or spreading the Dharma in the West.

Balancing mindfulness practices and the desire to help is like walking on ice. Sometimes the ice is hidden or even invisible-in the Midwest, we call this “black ice.” In some places it is safe to walk, but inches away it is extremely slippery. If you fall, you learn the true meaning of dispersion! But, despite the difficulty, I recommend walking on ice as a mindfulness practice. It teaches us something about life as a layperson, as an organizer and facilitator of a local Sangha. Sometimes conditions are ideal, sometimes they are not. Sometimes we can see the obstacles and difficulties, sometimes–even if we try to look with our Sangha eyes they are hidden. When the going is slippery, it is best to slow down and return to the basics of breathing and walking. When we do, those with us are much safer, and we become less dangerous and less frustrated with the slippery, uncontrollable conditions of daily life.

When a lake freezes before a snowfall, you can sometimes look deeply into it, through the ice, and see the lily pads and roots of last summer smiling at you from below the frozen surface. When we slow down and face our difficulties, illuminating them with mindfulness before we speak or act, we may also find that much below the surface is revealed.

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The Buddha never lost faith in Sangha practice. Not long after his enlightenment, he built his first Sangha, and he continued Sangha building for forty-five years. His life reads like a Tolstoy novel. He interacted with Sangha members from every stratum of society: kings, princes, princesses, wealthy men and women and their overprivileged children, paupers, outcasts, and criminals. But, he learned from all of them, and this learning is evident in the deepening of his teachings as his Sangha practice continued. The wisdom body we share today as “Buddhism” is a result of this collective interaction.

In the wake of the difficulties of the Sangha at Kosambi, the Buddha found three monks practicing as a small Sangha in the Eastern Bamboo Park. He was favorably impressed with how considerate they were of each other, and asked how they succeeded in “living in concord, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.” The monks’ response, recorded in the Upakkilesa Sutra, inspires us even today:

Venerable sir, as to that, I think thus: “It is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me that I am living with such companions in the holy life.” I maintain bodily acts of lovingkindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: “Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?” Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind. Whichever of us returns first from the village with almsfood prepares the seats, sets out the water for drinking and for washing, and puts the refuse bucket in its place. Whichever of us returns last eats any food left over, if he wishes. He puts away the seats and the water for drinking and washing. He puts away the refuse bucket after washing it, and he sweeps out the refectory. Whoever notices that the pots of water for drinking, washing, or the latrines are low and empty, takes care of them. If they are too heavy for him, he calls someone else by a signal of the hand and they move it by joining hands, but because of this we do not break out in speech. But, every fIve days, we sit together all night discussing the Dharma. This is how we abide diligent, ardent, mindful, and resolute.

The living Dharma is in the details of living mindfully and attentively, aware of the needs of others and allowing our understanding to bloom into direct manifestations of wisdom and compassion. In the classic Mahaya text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva advises:

Those desiring speedily to be
A refuge for themselves and other beings,
Should interchange the terms “I” and “other,”
And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

When we practice this way, and recognize that others share our spiritual aspirations, it is easy to truly be present with others and to regard them as our kalyanamitra, our spiritual friends. Ananda once remarked to the Buddha, “Half of this holy life, Lord, is good and noble friends, companionship with the good, association with the good.” The Buddha reflected for a moment and then responded, “Do not say that, Ananda. Do not say that. It is the whole of this holy life.” When faced with disputes within our Sanghas, we must return to the basic practices of mindful breathing and walking, and ask ourselves the question the Buddha posed to the bhikkhus at Kosambi:

Breakers of bones and murderers,
Those who steal cattle, horses, and wealth,
Those who pillage the entire realm–
When even these can act together
Why can you not do so too?

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, has practiced law for twenty-three years and is the author of the book, Sangha Building. The book is available directly from Jack, c/o Lakeside Buddha Sangha, P.O. Box 7077, Evanston, IL 60201.

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Meditation and the Threefold Trainings

By Jack Lawlor

Our local Sangha consists of people from all walks of life, and many ethnic and religious backgrounds and age groups. When we host a potluck meal, the diversity of backgrounds and tastes is plain to see—and delicious to enjoy! For almost nine years—each of the nearly 500 times we have convened—we have regularly enjoyed one particularly good, spiritual meal: sitting and walking meditation together. While many practices help establish mindfulness and bring us together as a Sangha, meditation is perhaps the most important. We offer periodic instruction in meditation, and “veterans” as well as newcomers thrive on it.

People sometimes ask Thay how we might make our meditation practice “deeper.” On occasion, he reframes the question to ask how we might make it more “genuine,” in a way that liberates us from compulsive behavior, enabling us to look and listen deeply, understand, love, and act appropriately. Thay’s approach to meditation is based on the Buddha’s two primary texts on meditation: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing and Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. Thay discusses these sutras in Breathe! You Are Alive and Transformation and Healing. A genuine approach to incorporating meditation into our lives can be understood in terms of the traditional Threefold Trainings in Buddhism: concentration (samadhi), insight (prajna), and the Mindfulness Trainings (sila).

Concentration-Samadhi

Conscious breathing is an exercise in concentration. This simple practice can mend the aching dispersion we often feel—a dissonance between what our body is doing and what our mind is doing, as well as between our spiritual aspirations and behavior. We follow the breath, and if a thought or feeling arises, we recognize it, accept it, smile to it, and gently let it go. We return to the breath. The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness describes how this simple practice can sometimes result in the experience of joy. I believe that this joy arises, in part, from experiencing that we are more than our emotions and thoughts, that these emotions and thoughts have causes and conditions that are impermanent, and that we have the ability, the freedom, to be responsive to them rather than reactive. A verse from Tsuchiya Fumiaki puts it this way:

At long last my heart calms down as evening comes,
And in the Four Directions I hear fresh springs. 

The Buddha taught that consistent practice takes us beyond the periodic experience of joy to the consistent experience of happiness, which covers us from head to foot like a robe, or a good Midwestern overcoat!

Insight-Prajna

Many people aspire to insight and understanding. Insight meditation is intentionally more inclusive. We remain centered in the breath while continuously aware of one other phenomenon—a sensation in the body, a feeling, a thought, or our surroundings. For example, following the breath is a form of meditating on the body. We are not sitting in the high-tech control tower of our mind observing what our lowtech body is doing. We are the breathing. It’s the difference between watching your hand rub the surface of the carpet and focusing your attention into the sensation at your fingertips. Our attention penetrates and merges with what is observed. Once centered in the breath, we have the capacity to merge our bare attention in this way into the rest of our body, our feelings, and the world around us. We have a calm, direct experience of the fluid, impermanent and interrelated nature of all that exists. This is the experience of Zen Master Yamada Mumon:

Is the moon I?
Or am I the moon?
I cannot tell.
This autumn moon is so clear, so quiet.

The experience goes beyond notions and concepts, opening the way to understanding, compassion, and the ability to love and to serve. Thay explains that “seeing and loving always go together. Seeing and loving are one. Shallow understanding accompanies shallow compassion. Great understanding goes with great compassion.”

The practice of conscious breathing thus develops a gentle, fluid concentration. Not rigid concentration, but one that is alive and at ease. The practice of insight, in turn, deepens our concentration and breaks through the bonds of conceptual thought and our tendencies to judge and categorize, as we experience firsthand the myriad causes and conditions of this impermanent world. The practices of concentration (samadhi) and of insight (prajna) are not competing schools of meditation. They complement each other and take us along the path to understanding together, like the right and left wings of a bird. Many newcomers want to leap immediately into deep, profound insights on impermanence and interbeing. “Why do we need to develop concentration?”

Intellectually, it is not especially difficult to grasp what the Buddha and Thay are teaching. But we can see, listen, understand, and love much more deeply from a mind that is centered, at ease, and peaceful.

Suppose you want to see Jupiter. A friend tells you that the planet’s largest moons are off to one side this evening, making Jupiter appear enormous. The Earth’s moon is rising and you fear its light will interfere with your view. Racing along the highway to a hill above the city, you know you can’t get a clear view of the planet from a telescope hastily mounted on your dashboard. If you’re anxious when you reach the hilltop, your nervousness and haste will jiggle the tripod, and Jupiter will appear jumpy and blurred in your scope. If, however, as evening approaches, you prepare mindfully to view the titan, setting up your tripod carefully and using the telescope with calm and ease, you will see Jupiter clearly. When the moon lights the night sky, obscuring Jupiter, you can embrace the moon as your friend, not resent it as a competitor.

The Tao Te Ching asks, “Who can be still until the mud settles?’ Experiment. You may find that stillness, anchored in conscious breathing, is a consistent, reliable foundation for insight. When I rush into my favorite wetland, carrying my small kayak, I can journey through the reeds to a beautiful glacial lake and not see many turtles, frogs, or fish. They are there, but I miss them because my own “mud” hasn’t settled. I consistently find that sitting and walking meditation before I embark guarantees the presence of wildlife. Rooted in conscious breathing, practicing drifting boat meditation, I discover a rich world along the reedy banks—beneath me, above me, surrounding me. My practice of deep looking enhances conscious breathing, and my sense of self and other dissolves into sheer seeing, sheer listening, sheer being.

Mindfulness Trainings–Sila

The simple practice of conscious breathing can become our good friend during a retreat, where we are isolated from many temptations that feed our habit energy. But when we return home, our cravings and desires can easily be stimulated once again. It is more challenging to practice simple conscious breathing, much less insight meditation, when we return home. That is why the Third Learning in Buddhism—the Mindfulness Trainings—and consistent Sangha practice are so important.

The Mindfulness Trainings are lifelong teachers in the art of stopping—samatha. We must stop compulsion and habit if we sincerely aspire to develop mindfulness and insight. We must learn to rest, content with the present moment. If we pursue every compulsion and desire that arises during the day, we will be exhausted. How can we then reasonably expect to find calm and insight during the twenty minutes spent atop our black cushions? It is like trying to view Jupiter through a delicate telescope with someone tugging on our sleeve, or trying to see the rich life beneath the surface of a clear lake while paddling our kayak at high speeds. We need to learn to let go of our cravings, desires, and compulsions. With time and experimentation, wholehearted attention to the Mindfulness Trainings can help genuinely transform our behavior and enhance our meditation.

We are social beings. Our ability to enjoy sitting meditation and deepen our understanding of the Mindfulness Trainings is enhanced when we practice in a consistently available, local Sangha. I have seen people’s faces transform with time in the context of Sangha practice. Frowns and tension lines relax and soften in the company of good spiritual friends who share the simple practices of sitting and walking meditation, and who explore release from aversion and compulsion through group study of the Mindfulness Trainings. Active lay people have the capacity to cultivate the Threefold Trainings. Local Sanghas can develop ways to make this possible.

The interaction of the Threefold Trainings is beautifully affirmed in the insight verse of Lieu Quan, a Vietnamese Zen master who lived during the time of George Washington and founded the school of Zen in which we now practice:

The Great Way of Reality
is our True Natures pure ocean.
The source of Mind penetrates everywhere.
From the roots of virtue springs the practice of
compassion.
Precepts, concentration, and insight—
the nature and function of all three are one.
The fruit of transcendent wisdom
can be realized by being wonderfully together.
Maintain and transmit the wonderful principle
in order to reveal the true teaching!
For the Realization of True Emptiness to be possible,
Wisdom and Action must go together.

Dharma Teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, practices with Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois and leads retreats in the midwestern United States

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Dharma Talk: True Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha, today is the twenty-third of June, 2005 and we are in the Lovingkindness Temple in the New Hamlet.  

Happiness is a practice. We should distinguish between happiness and excitement, and even joy. Many people in the West, especially in North America, think of excitement as happiness. They are thinking of something, or expecting something that they consider to be happiness, and, for them, that is already happiness. But when you are excited you are not really peaceful. True happiness should be based on peace, and in true happiness there is no longer any excitement.

mb40-dharma2Suppose you are walking in a desert and you are dying of thirst. Suddenly you see an oasis and you know that once you get there, there will be a stream of water and you can drink so you will survive. Although you have not actually seen or drunk the water you feel something: that is excitement, that is hope, that is joy, but not happiness yet. In Buddhist psychology we distinguish clearly between excitement, joy, and happiness. True happiness must be founded on peace. Therefore, if you don’t have peace in yourself you have not experienced true happiness.

Training Yourself to Be Happy 

You have to cultivate happiness; you cannot buy it in the supermarket. It is like playing tennis: you cannot buy the joy of playing tennis in the supermarket. You can buy the ball and the racket, but you cannot buy the joy of playing. In order to experience the joy of tennis you have to learn, to train yourself to play. In the same way, you have to cultivate happiness.

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to train yourself to be happy. You are here, and you look in the distance and see a pine tree. You make the determination that while walking to the pine tree, you will enjoy every step, that every step will provide you with peace and happiness. Peace and happiness that have the power to nourish, to heal, to satisfy.

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There are those of us who are capable of going from here to the pine tree in that way, enjoying every step we make. We are not disturbed by anything: not by the past, not by the future; not by projects, not by excitement. Not even by joy, because in joy there is still excitement and not enough peace. And if you are well-trained in walking meditation, with each step you can experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment. You are capable of truly touching the earth with each step. You see that being alive, being established fully in the present moment and taking one step and touching the wonders of life in that step can be a wonder, and you live that wonder every moment of walking. If you have the capacity to walk like that, you are walking in the Kingdom of God or in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

So you may challenge yourself: I will do walking meditation from here to the pine tree. I vow that I will succeed. If you are not free, your steps will not bring you happiness and peace. So cultivating happiness is also cultivating freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the things that upset you, that keep you from being peaceful, that prevent you from being fully present in the here and the now.

One nun wrote to Thay that she has a friend visiting Plum Village. Her friend did not take the monastic path; instead she married, and now has a family, a job, a house, a car, and everything she needs for her life. She’s lucky because her husband is a good man; he does not create too many problems. Her job is enjoyable, with a salary above average. Her house is beautiful. She thinks of her relationship as a good one although it is not as she expected; sure, you can never have exactly what you expect.

And yet, she does not feel happy and she is depressed. Intellectually she knows that in terms of comfort, she has everything. Many of us think of happiness in these terms, as having material and emotional comforts. Not many people are as successful as that friend, and she knows that she is fortunate. And yet she is not happy.

We Are Immune to Happiness 

We have the tendency to think of happiness as something we will obtain in the future. We expect happiness. We think that now we don’t have the conditions we think we need to be happy, but that once we have them, happiness will be there. For example, you want to have a diploma because you think that without that diploma you cannot be happy. So you think of the diploma day and night and you do everything to get that diploma because you believe that diploma will bring you happiness. And you forecast that happiness will be there tomorrow, when you get the diploma. There may be joy and satisfaction in the days and weeks that follow the moment you receive your diploma, but you adapt to that new condition very quickly, and in just a few weeks you don’t feel happy anymore. You become used to having a diploma. So that kind of excitement, that kind of happiness is very short-lived. We are immune to happiness; we get used to our happiness, and after a while we don’t feel happy any longer.

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People have made studies of poor people who have won lotteries and have become millionaires. The studies found that after two or three months the person returns to the emotional state they were in before winning the lottery. From two to three months. And during the three months there is not exactly happiness; there is a lot of thinking, a lot of excitement, a lot of planning and so on––not exactly happiness. But three months later, he falls back to exactly the same emotional level as he was before winning the lottery. So having a lot of money does not mean you will be happy.

Perhaps you want to marry someone, thinking that if you can’t marry him or her, then you cannot be happy. You believe that happiness will be great after you marry that person. After you marry, you may have a time of happiness, but eventually happiness vanishes. There is no longer any excitement, any joy, and of course, no happiness. What you get is not what you expected. Then perhaps you know that what you have attained will not continue for a long time. Even if you have a good job, you are not sure you can keep it for a long time. You may be laid off, so underneath there is fear and uncertainty. This type of happiness, without peace, has the element of fear and cannot be true happiness. The person you are living with may betray you one day; you cannot be sure that person will be faithful to you for a long time. So fear and uncertainty is present also. To preserve these so-called conditions of happiness you have to be busy all day long. And with these worries, uncertainties, and busyness, you don’t feel happy and you become depressed.

So we learn that happiness is not something we get after we obtain the so-called conditions of happiness: namely, the material and emotional comforts. True happiness does not depend on these comforts; nothing can remove it from you. When we come to a practice center, we are looking to learn how to cultivate true happiness.

The Buddha’s Teaching on Happiness 

When I was a young monk people told me that the teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in four short sentences. I was not impressed when I read these four sentences. People asked the Buddha how to be happy and he said that all the Buddhas teach the same thing:

Refrain from doing bad things
Try to do good things
And learn to subdue, purify your mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas. (1)  

Very simple; and because of that, I was not impressed. I said, “Everyone agrees that you have to do good things and refrain from doing bad things. To subdue and purify your mind is too vague.” But after sixty years of practice I have another idea of the teaching. I see now it is very deep, and that it is a real teaching of happiness.

Let us consider together. The gatha I learned is in Chinese, in four lines, and each line contains four words.

The bad things, don’t do it.
The good things, try to do it.

It does not seem to be very deep: nothing spectacular about it. Everyone knows, the good things you should do and the bad things you should not do. You don’t need to be a Buddha to give such a teaching. So I was not impressed. The third line and fourth lines are:

Try to purify, subdue your own mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas.

Now I understand that the bad things you should refrain from are those that create suffering for you and for other people, including other living beings and the environment. But how can you recognize something as good to do, or as bad to do? Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you to know that this is a good thing to do and this is a bad thing to do; to know that if you do these bad things you bring suffering to you and to the people around you. So the bad things bring suffering to you and others. This is a very simple and yet precise definition of good and bad. And of course, the good things are the things that bring you joy and true happiness. Anything that is good, try to do it. That means anything that can bring peace, stability, and joy to you and to other people. It is easy to say, it is easy to understand, but it is not easy to do or to refrain from doing. The first two things depend entirely on the third thing: to purify, subdue your mind. The mind is the ground of everything.

The Most Special Thing in Buddhism 

If there is confusion in your mind, if there is anger and craving in your mind, then your mind is not pure, your mind is not subdued, and even if you want to do good things you cannot do them, and even if you want to refrain from doing bad things you cannot. And that is why the ground, the root, is your mind.

When you refrain from doing bad things you are practicing compassion, because refraining from doing bad things means not bringing suffering to you or to other people. Practicing compassion is practicing happiness, because happiness is the absence of suffering. And then:

Try to do good things: karuna, maitri. This teaching is the practice of love, of compassion, and of lovingkindness. When you understand, the first two sentences have a lot of meaning. You practice love, you practice compassion, you practice lovingkindness and you know that practicing love brings happiness. Happiness cannot be without love. The Buddhas recommend us to love, and the concrete way is to refrain from causing suffering and to offer happiness.

You can do this easily and beautifully only when you know how to subdue your mind, how to purify your mind. This is very special. If you ask the question, “What is the most special thing in Buddhism?” the answer is that it is the art of subduing your mind, of purifying your mind. Because Buddhism gives us the concrete teaching so that we can purify, subdue, and transform our mind. And once our mind is purified, subdued, and transformed, then happiness becomes possible. With a mind that still has a lot of confusion, anger, craving, and misunderstanding, there can be no love and no happiness for oneself and for the world. So the most important thing you should learn is the art of subduing and purifying your mind. If you have not got that, you have not got anything from Buddhism.

T.S. Eliot was a poet, playwright, and critic, born in Boston in 1888. When he grew up he went to Europe and he liked it there so he became a British citizen. His poetry is a kind of meditation; he tries to look deeply and many of his poems are like gathas presenting his understanding. He said that he always tried to look deeply; those are the words he used: to look deeply, to understand the roots of suffering. He found out that the mind is the root of all suffering; our own mind is the foundation of all the suffering we have. That is exactly what the Buddha said. The suffering we have to bear and undergo all comes from within our mind, a mind that is not purified, that is not transformed and subdued. But T.S. Eliot only said half of what the Buddha said. The Buddha said that all suffering comes from the mind, but also that all happiness comes from the mind. All happiness too. So the mind that remains unsubdued, untransformed, confused with hatred and discrimination, brings a lot of unhappiness and suffering; but the purified and subdued mind can bring a lot of happiness to yourself and the people around you.

When you walk from here to the pine tree you begin with one step, and you train yourself in such a way that that step has within it the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you really practice walking meditation, you will find out that every step you make can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, bringing you a lot of happiness. Because the three elements–– mindfulness, concentration, and insight–– purify and subdue your mind and bring out all the goodness of your mind. When you walk like this, you are first aware that you are making a step: that is the energy of mindfulness. I am here. I am alive. I am making a step. You step and you know you are making a step. That is mindfulness of walking. The mindfulness helps you to be in the here and the now, fully present, fully alive so that you can make the step. Master Linji said, “The miracle is not to walk on air, or on water, or on fire. The real miracle is to walk on earth.” And walking like that––with mindfulness, concentration, and insight––is performing a miracle. You are truly alive. You are truly present, touching the wonders of life within you and around you. That is a miracle.

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Most of us walk like sleepwalkers. We walk, but we are not there. We don’t experience life, or the wonders of life. There is no joy. We are sleepwalking through our own life and our life is a dream. Buddhism is about waking up from your dream. Awakening. One mindful step can be a factor of awakening that brings you to life, that brings you the miracle of being alive. And when mindfulness is there, concentration is there, because mindfulness contains concentration. You can be less or more concentrated. You may be fifty, sixty, or ninety percent concentrated on your step, but the more concentrated the more you have a chance to break through into insight. Mindfulness, concentration, insight: smirti, samadhi, prajna. Every step you make can generate these three powers, these three energies. And if you are a strong practitioner then these three energies are very powerful and every step can bring you a lot of happiness, the happiness of a Buddha.

Mindfulness and concentration bring insight. Insight is a product of the practice. It is like the flower or fruit of the practice. Like an orange tree offers blossoms and oranges. What kind of insight? The insight of impermanence, of no-self, and interbeing.

Happiness Is Impermanent 

Impermanence means that everything is changing, including the happiness that you are experiencing. The step you are making allows you to get in touch with the Kingdom of God, with the Pure Land of the Buddha, with all the wonders of life that bring happiness. But that happiness is also impermanent. It lasts only for one step; if the next step does not have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then happiness will die. However, you know that you are capable of making a second step which also generates the three powers of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so you have the power to make happiness last longer. Happiness is impermanent; we know the law of impermanence, and that is why we know that we can continue to generate the next moment of happiness. Just as when we ride a bicycle, we continue to pedal so that the movement can continue.

Happiness is impermanent but it can be renewed, and that is insight. You are also impermanent and renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. Although it is impermanent, happiness is possible; the same with you. And if happiness can be renewed, so can you; because you in the next moment is the renewal of you. You are always changing, so you are experiencing impermanence in your happiness and in yourself. It’s wonderful to know that happiness can last only one in-breath or one step, because we know that we can renew it in another step or another breath, provided we know the art of generating mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

The Insight of Interbeing

Happiness is no-self, because the nature of happiness is interbeing. That is why you are not looking for happiness as an individual. You are making happiness with the insight of interbeing. The father knows that if the son is not happy then he cannot be truly happy, so while the father seeks his own happiness, he also seeks happiness for his son. And that is why the first two sentences have a wonderful meaning. Your mindful steps are not for you alone, they are for your partner and friends as well. Because the moment you stop suffering, the other person profits. You are not cultivating your individual happiness. You are walking for him, for her, you are walking for all of us. Because if you have some peace in you, that is not only good for you but good for all of us.

With that mindful step, it might look as though you are practicing as an individual. You are trying to do something for yourself. You are trying to find some peace, some stability, some happiness. It looks egoistic, when you have not touched the nature of no-self. But, with insight, you see that everything good that you are doing for yourself you are doing for all of us. You don’t have a self-complex anymore. And that is the insight of interbeing.

If, in a family of four, only one person practices, that practice will benefit all four, not only the practitioner. When that person practices correctly, she gets the insight of no-self and she knows that she’s doing it for everyone. Just as when she cleans the toilet, she cleans the toilet for everyone, not just herself.

When a feeling of anger or discrimination manifests, the practitioner recognizes that to allow such an energy to continue is not healthy for oneself or for others in the world. The practitioner practices mindfulness of breathing, of walking, in order to recognize the feeling of anger, to embrace the anger, to look deeply into the nature of the anger, and to know that practicing in order to transform your anger is to practice happiness for yourself and other people. If you don’t practice like that, anger will push you to do things or say things that will make you and others suffer. That is not something to do, but something not to do. And when you practice looking deeply into the nature of your anger, you are doing it for yourself and you are doing it for the world and you have the insight of no-self.

With the insight of no-self you no longer seek the kind of happiness that will make other people suffer. The insight of impermanence will help bring the insight of no-self. And no-self means interdependence, interconnectedness, interbeing. This is the kind of insight that can liberate you and can liberate the world. With that kind of practice you subdue your mind, you purify your mind. A mind that is not purified or subdued contains a lot of delusion. And that is why practicing looking deeply to see the nature of impermanence and no-self means to take away the element of ignorance and delusion within yourself. That is to purify yourself. When the element of ignorance is no longer there, the element of anger will be transformed. You get angry at him or her or them because you still have the mind of discrimination. He is your enemy. He makes you suffer. He is to be punished. All these thoughts are no longer there because you have already touched the nature of no-self.

Purify Your Mind 

To purify your mind is to transform your way of perceiving things, to remove wrong perceptions. When you are able to remove your wrong perceptions you are also able to remove your anger, your hate, your discrimination, and your craving. Because if you crave something, it means you have not seen the true nature of that thing. If you think of happiness in terms of fame, profit, power, and sex, it is not a correct idea of happiness, because you have seen people who have plenty of these things but suffer so much from depression and want to kill themselves. Understanding that you have wisdom within you frees you from craving. In the teachings of the Buddha, our mind can be intoxicated by many kinds of poison: the first is craving, the second is hate or violence, and the third is delusion. The three poisons. To purify your mind is to neutralize and transform these poisons in you. You neutralize these poisons by the three powers: mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

When your mind is purified, it is so easy to do good things and to refrain from doing bad things. But if your mind is still unpurified––filled with hatred, anger, delusion, and craving––you have a hard time doing good things and refraining from doing bad things. That is why this is the ground of every kind of action that benefits you and benefits the world.

We have invented many types of machines that save a lot of time. We can do wonders with a computer. A computer can work a hundred, a thousand times faster than a typewriter. In farming, it used to take several weeks to plough the fields; now you can do it in a few days. You don’t have to wash your clothes by hand anymore, there’s a washing machine. You don’t have to go fetch the water, the water comes to your kitchen. We have found many ways to save labor, and yet we are much busier than our ancestors were. Everyone is busy; that is a contradiction. Why is that? Because we have acquired so much and we are afraid of losing these things, so we have to work so hard to keep and maintain them. That is why even if you have a lot, you still suffer and become depressed.

Manufacturers of medicine will tell you that the kinds of medicine we consume the most in our society now —tons and tons––are tranquilizers and antidepressants, sedatives. The whole world is under sedation. We need a lot of tranquilizers because we have created a world that has invaded us. We can no longer be peaceful and happy, and that is why we want to forget ourselves. You want to protect yourself from the world, you want to protect yourself from yourself, and that is why you take tranquilizers, antidepressants, sedatives. We are not capable of touching the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, the wonders of life that have all the powers of healing and nourishing. We have brought into ourselves so many toxins, poisons. The world we have created has come into us. We cannot escape anymore. Not even in our dreams, in our sleep. And the drugs we take are to help us forget the world we have created for a few hours or a few days. When we go in this direction we are no longer civilized, because we are not going in the direction of peace, of solidity, of awakening. The drugs help us not to be awake to reality, because we want to forget reality–– the reality of the world, and the reality of the confusion, the craving, and the violence in us.

Peace and happiness are still available, once you are capable of seeing that the conditions we think are essential to our happiness may bring us the opposite of happiness—depression, despair, forgetfulness. And that is why we have to listen to the Buddha. We have to begin with our breath. We have to breathe in mindfully to know that we are alive, that there are still wonders of life around us and in us that we have to touch every minute for our transformation and healing. We have to use our feet to learn how to walk in the Kingdom of God, because each step like that will be transforming, healing, and nourishing. It is still possible.

So from here to the pine tree, I wish you good luck. Make a step in such a way that mindfulness, concentration, and insight can be generated, so that you are capable of being in touch with the here and the now, of touching the wonders of life. Forget about the conditions of happiness that you have been running after for a long time, because you know that once you get them, you will still be unhappy, and then you will have to use the drugs that other people are using. Buddhism is about awakening. We should be awakened to the fact that the situation of the world is like that, and we don’t want to go in that direction. We want true life, true happiness.

Translated from Vietnamese by Chan Phap Tue; edited by Barbara Casey. 

(1) This translation is from the Chinese version of the Dhammapada.

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

This is an excerpt of a talk at the Sandy Beach Hotel in Da Nang on April 10, 2007. Thay spoke in Vietnamese to an audience of intellectuals and answered some fascinating questions from the audience. 

Thich Nhat HanhMost of us think that happiness is made of fame, power, money. Every one of us wants to have more power. We want to have more fame and money, because fame and money give us more power. We keep believing that when we have more money, fame, and power we’ll be happy. I have met a lot of people with great power, with a lot of money and fame, but their suffering is deep. They are so lonely.

William Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company in America, is the fourth generation of the billionaire Ford family. He came to practice with us in our practice center in Vermont. I offered him the gift of a bell, and I taught him how to invite the bell each day. He told me stories of millionaires and billionaires in America who have a lot of fear, sadness, and despair.

mb46-dharma2Who has more power than the President of the United States? But if we look into the person of President Bush we see he’s not a happy person. Even President Bush doesn’t have enough power to take care of all the problems that confront him. He’s so powerful — he has a great army, a great amount of money — but he cannot solve the problems in Iraq. He can’t spit it out and he can’t swallow it. You’re very lucky that you’re not the President of the United States! If you were the President of the United States you would not sleep all night long. How can you sleep when you know that in Iraq your young people die every day and every night. The number of American young people who have died there has gone up to more than three thousand. In Iraq — in that country that you want to liberate — nearly a million have died. The situation in Iraq is desperate.

The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the people with the most power feel that they never have enough power, and this is true. We believe that if we have power, we will be able to do what we want and buy what we want. We can buy a position, buy our enemies, buy anything. If we have power in our hands, we can do anything we want. We have to re-examine that belief, because in reality, I have met people who have great power and money and fame, and who suffer extremely.

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

In Buddhism we also talk about power. But power in Buddhism is very different; it is a kind of energy that can bring us a lot of happiness and bring a lot of happiness to others.

In Eastern philosophy and literature, we talk about the spiritual path. Each one of us has to have a spiritual direction in our lives. Whether we are business people, politicians, educators, or scholars, we should have a spiritual dimension in our daily lives. If we do not have that spiritual dimension, we cannot take care of tension and despair, or the contradictions in our mind. We can never establish good communication with our co-workers, our family, our community. Each one of us must have the power of the true spiritual path.

In Buddhism, we talk about the three powers that we can generate through our practice: cutting off afflictions, insight, and the capacity to forgive and to love.

The first one is the power to cut off our afflictions — to sever our passions, hatred, and despair. If we cannot cut off passion and hatred, we cannot ever have happiness. We can learn concrete practices to do this. Once we sever the ties of passion and hatred that bind us, we become light and free and spacious. If we have passion and hatred we suffer — both men and women, you have experience with this. We cannot eat, we cannot sleep; that is hell. So the first power is the capacity to cut off afflictions.

The second power is the power of insight — in Buddhism it is called prajna. It is not knowledge that we have accumulated from reading books or learning in school. Knowledge can be beneficial, but it can also become an obstacle. In Buddhism we say that the only career of a practitioner is insight. The insight of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas — what we call enlightenment — has the capacity to cut off afflictions and to generate the noble sentiments of compassion, loving kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity. That’s our only career, to give rise to insight. Once we have insight we can unravel our afflictions and help others to take care of their difficulties very quickly, just like a medical doctor. You only need to listen to the symptoms and you’ll be able to make a diagnosis and give the appropriate treatment.

mb46-dharma3The third power in Buddhism is the capacity to forgive. When we have the capacity to accept and to love, we do not have reproach or enmity. That love manifests in the way we look, in the way we speak. When we look with the eye of compassion and loving kindness, when we speak loving words, we are the ones who benefit first of all. In the Lotus  Sutra, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks at all beings with compassion. Looking at all beings with the eye of compassion is a wonderful way of behaving like the bodhisattva — without reproach, without hatred. And the person that we are looking at in this way feels forgiven and loved. We can help others to be liberated from ignorance and from the traps they are caught in.

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

When we have these three powers — the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to accept, love, and forgive — then fame, money, and power become wonderful tools. It is then that the more money we have the better, the more power the better, because they become means to help people, to enhance life. Buddhism does not accuse or judge people who want to become rich or successful in politics or business, but while you’re pursuing these things you should have a spiritual dimension. We must behave on a foundation of love, insight, and wisdom.

In the time of the Buddha, Anathapindika was an example of this kind of businessman. If you are a business person or a politician and you have love and compassion, then you become a bodhisattva. You have the capacity to cut off your passions and your hatred; you have insight to help resolve problems at your work; you have the capacity to accept and forgive people’s mistakes. You have a lot of power — spiritual power.

As Buddhist teachers we should not abuse our power. It is not because you are the abbot of a temple or the eldest in a temple that you have power. It is because you have the capacity to cut off afflictions, to forgive, and to love. It’s not because you are the abbess or the teacher that people listen to you, it’s because of your love and compassion.

In the political or business arena, the power of the owner or the leader has to be based on the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to love and forgive. Then you use your position skillfully and the things you do will not cause dissension. If you do not generate these three virtuous powers, power and money will corrupt everything, including the life of the owner or the leader. That is why spiritual direction is very important.

The Greatest Success 

The Buddha taught that we do not have to hurry towards the future to have happiness; we can be happy right now and right here. The greatest success is to live with love right in the present moment. We have the time to take care of ourselves. If we have pain, tension, irritation, and agitation, we suffer and naturally we cause others to suffer, including our loved ones. That is why we have to have time for ourselves. Then we’ll have time for our family and our community.

Come back to the present moment, do not allow the future to occupy all your energy and time. That is a very important principle from Buddhism. To come back is not easy, because we have the habit energy of running towards the future. Stopping that momentum, coming back to each step, to each breath — that is the basic practice. By living each moment of daily life, living in a way that is deep and free, we can be in touch with the wonders of life.

In a practice center, the basic practice is to use the breath and the steps to bring us back to the present moment. For example, when you listen to a bell you stop all your thinking and speaking and you come back to your breath. You breathe and you bring the mind back to the body, you are truly present in the present moment. In our daily life there are a lot of times our body is here but our mind is wandering in the past and the future. Our minds are not truly present in the body and we’re not present for ourselves. How can we be present for our loved ones, for our wives and husbands? These practices are very practical and clear, and they’re not difficult if we have the chance to begin.

I would like to leave the rest of the time so that you can pose questions related to the topic that we discussed today. Thank you for listening.

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

Man from audience: First, I’m very surprised when your disciples still keep their religion. For example, if they are priests or pastors or ministers, do they keep their religion? Second, I know that besides being a monk, you are also a scholar. I have read a few of your writings, and I see that you have done work to spread and explain Vietnamese Buddhism to the world, just like Master Van Hanh (1). How have you contributed to the development of Vietnamese Buddhism as a scholar?

Thay: Back when Christian missionaries came to Vietnam, they often tried to convert the Vietnamese people and force them to give up their tradition to embrace the new religion. This caused a lot of suffering.

mb46-dharma4When we had boat people dwelling in refugee camps in Thailand or in other countries, there were also missionaries. They wanted to help those boat people and also tried to lure them to follow their religions. It’s a great pity to force somebody to lose their roots. That is why when we bring Buddhism to Westerners, we tell them, “Do not give up your religion; you can study Buddhist practices to help you take care of your difficulties of body and mind and to learn great love and compassion. You do not have to lose your root religion, because we don’t think that’s the best way.”

In the West, there is a great number of young people who leave their Christian religion because that tradition does not provide the practices that people need today. A lot of people give up their religion and many of them come to practice with us. I have told them, “Once you practice with us, you can go back to help renew your own tradition and religion.” If a country does not have a spiritual foundation, that nation will not endure. So the Westerners see that Buddhism is very inclusive, accepting all and embracing all without denying other traditions.

In Buddhism, we call that spirit of inclusiveness equanimity or non-discrimination. It means that we embrace all. If we say that you have to leave your religion so that you can take refuge in the Three Jewels — that’s not very Buddhist. Buddhism is very open. That is why we have been able to help the pastors and ministers. In their hearts they still love their religion, but they practice wholeheartedly because in Buddhism we have very concrete practices to help them take care of their tension and stress, and help them to help people. If we hold that only our religion has the right view, and other religions do not have absolute truth, this will cause war. Buddhism does not do that.

When we organize retreats or have public talks in the West, many thousands of people come to listen to me, but they’re not Buddhists. Most of them come from a Christian or Jewish background. Sometimes I give a teaching in a church and more people come than at Christmas time, because they see that Buddhism is very noble, very open. It is inclusive and non-discriminative. Moreover, now scientists find inspiration in Buddhism because they see interdependence and emptiness; these teachings attract a lot of scientists to Buddhism.

The second question addresses the issue of learning. In truth, each time we have a new retreat designed for a specific group of people, for example a retreat for police officers or Congress people or business people or environmentalists or war veterans, I have to do research. I have to study beforehand to understand their difficulties and suffering so I can offer appropriate practices. That’s why during all my years in the West I have learned a lot. If you do not understand the teachings and practices of the Jewish or Christian traditions, you cannot help those people. If you do not see the suffering of business people, you can never teach them to practice so they can take care of their tension and stress.

You do not need to become a scholar. As a monastic, we do not aim to become scholars, but we have to know enough in these areas to speak their language, to bring people into the practice. When you say that I’m a scholar and I spread Vietnamese Buddhism, that is not quite correct. When I taught at Sorbonne University [in Paris] about history or Vietnamese history or Vietnamese Buddhism, I had to do research. Just for that occasion I read books on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. I had to use the pen name Nguyen Lang because I was not allowed to publish under my name Thich Nhat Hanh. The government said that I called for peace and that I was a friend with the Communists, so they didn’t allow my books to be published. My aim was not to become a scholar or a historian, but the truth is I had to teach in the university. And I just wrote it down, so that younger generations could benefit.

The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and whose mother was a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. An artist drew his picture for me so we could have it on the altars at our different centers.

In Vietnam we have the Mahayana tradition and the Hinayana tradition. I was lucky that when I was trained in the Mahayana tradition I also had time to research the stream of original Buddhism. I discovered that Zen Master Tang Hoi had used the original Buddhist sutras with a very open view of the Mahayana tradition. That is why when we organize retreats in Europe or North America, many people come from different traditions and they feel very comfortable. Our practice combines both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions and the basic sutras we use in meditation are present in all different schools — in the Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, Korean, and Tibetan Canons of Buddhist scriptures. I have translated and written commentaries on sutras about meditation like Learning  the Better Way to Live Alone and The Mindfulness of Breathing. Even though I didn’t talk about them tonight, the spirit of my talk was based on the insight of these sutras.

Our true aim is not to spread Vietnamese culture in the world, but I want to help people to relieve their suffering by sharing with them the methods of practice. That’s why they know about meditation and practices that have Vietnamese roots. I say this so that you see clearly that when I go to the West it’s not to spread Vietnamese culture to other countries. I just want to help people.

When I went to the West to call for peace, I only asked to go for three months. The chief of the police station asked me, “What do you plan to do there? Whatever you do is okay, just don’t call for peace, okay?” And I did not reply. Because my aim was to call for peace, for the world to end the war, I just stayed quiet. Then I went to the United States and called for peace — how can we end the Vietnam war? So they didn’t allow me to come back to Vietnam. That’s why we cannot say that I left Vietnam to spread Vietnamese culture in the West. I only wanted to go for three months. Who would have suspected that I would stay forty years! The truth is that during the time I was in exile in the West, as a monk I had to do something to help people. If I couldn’t help my own people, then I could help Westerners. It seems like I had this aim to spread Vietnamese culture, but it happened naturally.

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

Man from audience: On this trip you came to Da Nang. How do you think we can help develop our city, including the Buddhist practice in Da Nang? And do you plan to have a monastery in Da Nang, where we have monastics and lay people, and where scholars in Da Nang can participate?

Thay: Da Nang is already very beautiful. It’s developing very quickly, very well. But we know that economic and technological development comes in tandem with social evils, such as gangs, suicide, and prostitution. If we know that, we should work to prevent it. The scholars and humanitarians, the monks and nuns, you have to sit down together and make a very concrete plan to prevent these social evils. That is something I can share.

The second issue has to do with our Buddhist path. Even though Buddhism has been in our country for many years, we have to renew it. If we do not, it does not have enough strength and it cannot carry out its mission. Our learning is still too theoretical, and mostly we still practice by worshipping or praying. That’s very important, but Buddhism is not just a devotional religion. If we can break through the shell of religious ritual, we can touch the deep source of insight. With that insight we can contribute a path for our nation that will bring true civilization, true culture. It will bring harmony, prosperity, auspiciousness. In the time of the kingdoms of the Ly and Tran dynasties (2) they also praticed with koans; they did not just worship and make offerings. Those were very auspicious eras, with love and understanding between the king and the people.

If Buddhism played such a role in the past, helping the country to be powerful and to dispel invaders, it can contribute to the country in the same way now and in the future. To that end we have to renew Buddhism in the way we study, teach, and practice. It is very necessary to establish monasteries, training new Dharma teachers and lay people to help young people with their problems in their families.

We think that Plum Village can contribute in this area. If the great venerables, the high venerables here in your Buddhist Institute want to stop these young people from getting corrupted, you need to establish monasteries. You can train five hundred or a thousand monks and nuns so that they can help people in society. They can help people in their districts and bring balance to those areas. They can help re-establish communication in the family so that young people do not go out to look for some sort of relief and then fall into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and drug addiction. That is the mission of Buddhism in this modern age. We can send Dharma teachers to you to help you train a generation of new monks and nuns. I think that our country is waiting for this rising up — to “uncloak the old robe” — and to renew Buddhism.

Question: Thinking About the Future

Man from audience: Respected Zen Master, from the beginning of this talk I listened to your teaching about meditation. My understanding — I don’t know if it’s correct or not — is that meditation is only for people who have suffering or misfortune, or people who have a lot of extra time. People who work, study, or have normal activities, they need to think about the past so that they can do certain things that are good for the present, but in meditation you talk about liberating yourself from the past. And they need to look to the future — only you know your dreams, how to be successful in your career— but in meditation you cut off thinking about the future. So the people who need to think about life, about society, about themselves for the future, should they practice meditation?

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

Thay: We can learn a lot from the past. We have to reexamine the past and learn from it. But that does not mean that we are imprisoned by the past. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.

While we are looking into the past, we can still establish our body and mind stably in the present moment. It is because we establish our body and mind stably in the present moment that we have the capacity to learn from the past. Otherwise we just dream about the past, or we are haunted by the past. The future is the same way. If we sit there and worry about the future, we only spoil the future. We have the right to design projects, to plan for the future. But this does not mean that you are frightened and worried about the future. These two things are completely different.

mb46-dharma5The future is made up of only one substance, and that is the present. If you know how to take care of the present with all your heart, you are doing everything you can for the future. Thinking and dreaming about the future does not take a long time — you don’t need twenty-four hours to dream about it! You only need one or two minutes, and that’s fine.

What is meditation? Meditation is not something you can imagine. Meditation first of all means you have to be present in the present moment. Earlier I brought up an image that the body is here but the mind is wandering elsewhere. In that moment you’re not present. You’re not present for yourself. You’re not present for your husband, your wife, your children, your brothers or sisters, your nation, or your people. That is the opposite of meditation.

In the present moment there are needs; for example, you have certain pains and difficulties. Your loved one has certain pains and difficulties. If you cannot be present in the present moment, how can you help yourself and the other person? That is why meditation, first of all, is to be present in the present moment. Being present in the present moment means you are not imprisoned by the past and your soul is not sucked up by the future. Meditation is not thinking, not something abstract.

Sitting meditation, first of all, is to be present, to sit still. Once we have that stillness, we’ll be able to see the truth. We can have projects and take actions that are appropriate to the truth in order to take care of a situation. That is why dwelling peacefully, happily in the present moment, is so important. You come back to the present moment to be nourished, to be healed, and also to manage the problems and issues in the present. If we can take care of the issues in the present, then we’ll have a future.

Dreaming about the future and planning about the future are two different things; one is a scientific way, the other one is running away. For example, perhaps there is sadness in the present and we want to run away. Dreaming about the future is a kind of calming medicine, like barbiturates, that can help you temporarily forget about the present.

We have to practice. Taking steps in freedom, with ease, is something that you have to practice. Once you have joy and happiness in the present moment, you know that these moments of happiness are the foundation of the future.

Please remember this for me: If you don’t have happiness in the present moment, there is no way to have happiness in the future.

To the friends practicing Pure Land tradition I say that the Pure Land is a land of peace, of happiness. There are those among us who think that the Pure Land is in the west and in the future. The west is not about Europe or North America — the western direction! Those who practice Pure Land, especially beginners, believe that the Pure Land is in the future. They think that only when we die we go there, and then we go in a western direction, the direction of extreme happiness.

People who have practiced Pure Land for a long time go more deeply. The Pure Land is not in the west or in the east, but right in our mind. When we practice meditation, and we practice properly, we practice in the Pure Land. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look can bring us happiness in the present moment.

The Buddha, wherever he went, never left the Pure Land. If now we can live in the Pure Land with each step, each breath, each smile, everything can give rise to the Pure Land; with certainty the Pure Land is something in our hand. But if we suffer day and night, and we think when we die we’ll go to the Pure Land, that something is not so sure.

That’s why I want to remind you once again: If you have no capacity to live happily right in the present moment, in no way can you have happiness in the future.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

1 This is the master who helped the first Ly king in the eleventh century when Vietnam had just gained independence from the Chinese.

2 The Ly and Tran eras spanned the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries in Vietnam.

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

Sangha News

The Sciences of the Buddha
A Twenty-one Day Retreat for Buddhists and Scientists

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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In Buddhism there are two kinds of truth: conventional truth (samvrti-satya) and absolute truth (paramartha-satya). In the framework of the conventional truth, Buddhists speak of being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going, inside and outside, one and many, etc. The Buddhist teaching and practice based on this framework helps reduce suffering and bring more harmony and happiness. In the framework of absolute truth, the teaching transcends notions of being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going, inside and outside, one and many, etc. The teaching and practice based on this insight help practitioners liberate themselves from discrimination and fear, and touch nirvana, the ultimate reality. Buddhists see no conflict between the two kinds of truth and are free to make good use of both frameworks.

Classical science, as seen in Newton’s theories, is built upon a framework reflecting everyday experience, in which material objects have an individual existence and can be located in time and space. Quantum physics provides a framework for understanding how nature operates on subatomic scales, but differs completely from classical science, because in this framework, there is no such thing as empty space, and the position of an object and its momentum cannot simultaneously be precisely determined. Elementary particles fluctuate in and out of existence, and do not really exist but have only a “tendency to exist.”

Classical science seems to reflect the conventional truth and quantum physics seems to be on its way to discover the absolute truth, trying very hard to discard notions such as being and non-being, inside and outside, sameness and otherness, etc. At the same time, scientists are trying to find out the relationship between the two kinds of truth represented by the two kinds of science, because both can be tested and applied in life.

In science, a theory should be tested in several ways before it can be accepted by the scientific community. The Buddha also recommended, in the Kalama Sutra, that any teaching and insight given by any teacher should be tested by our own experience before it can be accepted as the truth. Real insight, or right view, has the capacity to liberate and to bring peace and happiness. The findings of science are also insight; they can be applied in technology, but can be applied also to our daily behavior to improve the quality of our life and happiness. Buddhists and scientists can share with each other their ways of studying and practice and can profit from each other’s insights and experience.

The practice of mindfulness and concentration always brings insight. It can help both Buddhists and scientists. Insights transmitted by realized practitioners like the Buddhas and bodhisattvas can be a source of inspiration and support for both Buddhist practitioners and scientists, and scientific tests can help Buddhist practitioners understand better and have more confidence in the insight they receive from their ancestral teachers. It is our belief that in this twenty-first century, Buddhism and science can go hand in hand to promote more insight for us all and bring more liberation, reducing discrimination, separation, fear, anger, and despair in the world.

In the beautiful setting of Plum Village, from June 1-21, 2012, scientists and Buddhists will practice sitting together, walking together, and sharing their experience and insight with each other. The practices of mindfulness and concentration can help scientists to be better scientists and in this way, Buddhism can act as a source of inspiration, suggesting directions for future investigation and discovery. Conversely, we will explore how insights from science can be useful, not only to develop technology and improve our material comfort, but to reduce the suffering of individuals, families, and society. This retreat will bring a lot of joy and confidence in both traditions as we find out that good science and good Buddhism can be much and do much for the well-being of the world.

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Thirty Years of Plum Village

On June 16, 2011, during lunchtime in the Assembly of Stars Meditation Hall in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, Thay called the brothers and sisters who were twenty-nine years of age, including the lay friends, to come up in front of the Sangha. Thay shared that the year they were born, Plum Village was also born—that they were the same age as Plum Village. Next year, they will be celebrating their birthday along with the 30th Anniversary of our beloved Plum Village community. Thay invited this group, and the whole community of the Plum Village tradition in France and the world, to help contribute to an anniversary celebration. Let us come together to nourish our brotherhood and sisterhood and to deepen our practice. Let us look into how we can celebrate Plum Village in a meaningful and deep way. Let us find ways to record and share the history of the Plum Village manifestation as a gift for our beloved teacher, Thay. To contribute your ideas and energy, please contact Brother Phap Dung at phapdung@dpmail.net.

Love Resounds
Remembering Nathaniel (Nacho) Cordova, True Mountain of Compassion

By Jerry Braza

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On July 16, 2011, our brother Nacho Cordova died in a motorcycle accident near the Oregon coast. Nacho continues to ripple like a wave through the hearts of his family, the worldwide academic community, and the Sangha. At his memorial service, one word resounded like a bell of mindfulness: LOVE.

Nacho clearly wanted the best for every person, as demonstrated by his deep, mindful presence and practice of loving-kindness. His Dharma name, True Mountain of Compassion, exemplify his ability to be there for others, especially when they were suffering. Despite his busy schedule, he found time to listen deeply and often followed the listening with compassionate action. His warm smile was a reflection of his open and loving heart. Nacho had the unique ability to bring joy and water the seeds of love in every person he met, and he left everyone feeling that they were his best friend. Through his practice he found a refuge within, and he had the ability to see all perspectives clearly, which allowed him to be centered and available with a clear mind and loving presence.

Nacho’s favorite quote was by Basho: “The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming out of the flowers.” Nacho continues in all that is beautiful in our world as well as in the hearts and spirits of his wife, Michelle, and his children, Alex, Phoenix, and Terra.

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In remembrance of Nacho, please consider honoring the family with a comment or reflection on the beautiful blog that began the day he died: http://nacho-cordova.blogspot.com/

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Dharma Talk: A New Teaching on the Twelve Nidanas

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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Editors’ note: This is Part II of the Dharma talk from November 29, 2012.

We know that there is a dimension of reality called the historical dimension. We live in our time; we live in history. Therefore, in the historical dimension, we recognize birth and death, being and nonbeing, you and I, as different things. The father is not the son. The father has one passport, the son has another passport.You cannot mix them. The left is not the right, the above is not the below. That is what happens in the historical dimension.

In the historical dimension, we see things as separate; they exist outside of each other. Father is outside of son. A cloud is outside a flower. That is what we call the conventional truth. The conventional truth is helpful; it works in the historical dimension. It’s like classical science represented by Newton. We can apply that kind of science in technology and so on.

But now we have another kind of science, quantum physics, that goes deeper, and we begin to discover another kind of truth. In quantum physics, things are quite different. In classical physics, a wave can only be a wave; it cannot be a particle. But in quantum physics, a wave can be a particle and a particle can be a wave. And a particle can be everywhere at the same time, not just in one place. Its nature is non-local. So this other kind of science seems to contradict the truth seen in the historical dimension.

In meditation, we also see two kinds of truth. We see the conventional truth, but if we look deeper, we can see differently. We see that the cloud is not outside of the flower and the father is not outside of the son. Looking deeply into the son, you see the father. There is a way of practice that leads us from the historical dimension to the ultimate dimension.

In the ultimate dimension, we touch the ultimate truth, where you cannot take the left out of the right, where you cannot take the father out of the son, because things inter-are. In order to understand, to touch this ultimate dimension, we have to learn how to release the notions that we use in conventional truth.

What the Buddha said concerning the genesis of the world is very simple. He did not say that the world is created by God. He said that the world comes into being because of the interconnection between things. He said: This is because that is. So simple. This is the teaching of genesis in Buddhism.

In Plum Village we have a simple image to illustrate this: the left and the right sides of a sheet of paper. The left cannot be by itself alone. The left has to lean on the right in order to be. The right has to lean on the left in order to be. They are connected. Without the left, there is no right; without the right, there is no left. This is because that is. The same is true with above and below, father and son, and flower and cloud. Everything.

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The Buddha taught that in the historical dimension, we follow the principle of identity: “A” is only “A,” it cannot be “B.” He used the notions of the historical dimension to lead us slowly into the ultimate dimension. That is skillful means. We begin by believing this is not that. But the Buddha slowly shows us that this is in that. He uses the notion of this and that to lead us to a dimension where this and that are one, are inside of each other. The notion of being and nonbeing can be removed. This is the teaching of conditioned genesis, the teaching of inter-arising, of co-arising.

This teaching uses notions and concepts to help us release notions and concepts. It has the power to connect us with ultimate truth. The teaching has to be careful, leading us slowly to the ultimate dimension. In this way it can connect us with the ultimate truth.

Interbeing

In the ultimate truth, we use words like “emptiness.” “Emptiness” is an expression that is equivalent to “God.” God is the ultimate, emptiness is the ultimate. Emptiness is the absence of notions and concepts. You cannot describe God with notions and concepts. You cannot say that God is or is not. To say that God exists is nonsense, to say that God doesn’t exist is nonsense, because notions of being and nonbeing cannot be applied to the ultimate. The notion of being and nonbeing can be used in the historical dimension, but not in the ultimate dimension. We need some skillfulness to move from the historical to the ultimate. The term “interbeing” is skillful, because it still uses the word “being,” but it helps us to get out of the notion of being.

To get out of the notion of being and nonbeing, you use the insight of interbeing. Nothing can be by itself alone. Everything has to inter-be with everything else. So the notion of interbeing, although it is a notion, helps to lead you to the ultimate truth. It helps you to be connected with emptiness. Interbeing means you cannot be by yourself alone; this is because that is. You can only inter-be. Interbeing is a kind of notion that can help you get the insight that will free you from the notion of being and nonbeing. Interbeing can connect the conventional truth to the ultimate truth, so it can lead you to emptiness.

Sunyatapratisamyukta. Pratisamyukta is “connected with.” Sunyata is “emptiness.” Connected with emptiness. There is a kind of wisdom called wisdom of adaptation, or wisdom of conformity, that helps you to connect with emptiness. This wisdom is the insight into interbeing or conditioned genesis. With this insight, you are on the way that can lead you to the ultimate truth. You need the wisdom of adaptation because this teaching can help you conform and be connected with the ultimate truth. So the Buddha and the patriarchs deliver the teaching on interbeing that can adapt and connect you with the ultimate truth represented by emptiness.

Restoring the Meaning of the Nidanas

The teachings of the twelve nidanas, or twelve links, presented in many sutras do not seem to help us connect with the ultimate truth. They belong to the category of conventional truth. They aim more at explaining samsara, reincarnation. That is why we have to restore the nidanas so they will lead us to the ultimate truth. Instead of twelve nidanas, we can use five nidanas; that is enough.

The twelve nidanas begin with avidya, which is ignorance, delusion. Delusion is the better word. According to this teaching, avidya gives rise to samskara, which has been translated as “impulses,” “action,” or “disposition.” Action, here, is like karma. With karma, there are three kinds of action: action by the body, action by the mouth, and action by the mind. So avidya, delusion, gives rise to wrong action, wrong impulses, the kind of energy that is blind and that will bring suffering.

Then because of samskara, there is vijnana, consciousness. Based on consciousness, there will be body and mind, nama-rupa: name-form. Name means mind, form means body. Because we have body and mind, we have six sense organs and their objects. Sadayatana, sense organ and object. Mental consciousness is one of the six. Because we have the sense organs and their objects, we have contact, sparsa. Contact, touch.

Because of contact, there will be feeling, vedana. Because there is feeling, there is attachment, trsna. Craving. Because you have craving, you are caught. Upadana. Grasping. Because there is grasping, there is existence. Bhava. Being. Because there is being, you have to be born, jati. And to suffer samsara, reincarnation. Because you are born, you have to grow old and die, jaramarana.

So that is the classical way of presenting the nidanas. But as we study Buddhism, we hear the Buddha speaking of nidanas in different ways. Sometimes he says there are only three, sometimes four, sometimes five, sometimes six. Twelve is only one of the ways to explain co-arising, interconnection.

When Thay was a student in the Buddhist Institute, he learned that these twelve links represent three times and two layers of cause and effect. The first two links, the first two nidanas, belong to the past. For example, in a former life I became deluded and did many actions, so I had to be reborn into this life. This life is represented by eight nidanas: consciousness, name-form, sense organs, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, being. After this body disintegrates, I will continue with the next life; I will be born again and die again. It’s very clear that the twelve nidanas, when taught in this way, aim to explain reincarnation, rebirth, but are not aiming to help us touch the ultimate dimension.

As a student, I also learned that there are two layers of cause and effect. What I have done in the past is the cause: the effect of those actions is this consciousness, this body and mind, these six organs, this contact, and these feelings. Because of the deluded actions in the past, I had to inherit all this. This is the first layer of cause and effect. Because I produce craving and grasping, and create being, these three nidanas serve as cause again, which will lead to the effect of birth and death in the future. This is the second layer.

This is the teaching of three times and two layers of cause and effect. As a student, I believed my teacher and I accepted the teaching, but as I continued to learn and to practice, I found that this teaching can be used only on the level of conventional truth. It is not Buddhism at its best, because its aim is not to lead us to ultimate truth, but only to explain the mechanism of rebirth.

Correcting Misinterpretations of the Buddha’s Teachings

Thay has found many problems with the traditional interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. The first problem is that we have to understand the word “samskara” differently. The basic meaning is “formation.” “Samskara” means phenomena, things. A flower is a samskara. A tree is a samskara. A body is a samskara. Anger is a samskara. Anything that relies on everything else to express itself is a samskara. That is why the word “formation” is a very good English translation of “samskara.”

We know that all formations are impermanent. The flower is a formation because it is made only of non-flower elements. The non-flower elements have come together and produced the flower. The flower has no private essence, no nature of its own. Its existence depends entirely on non-flower elements, and if you remove any of the non-flower elements, the flower cannot be. A flower is a formation. The same thing is true with a cloud, with a human being, with a tree, with everything. Everything we see is a formation. That is the actual meaning of the word “samskara.”

Because of our ignorance, we see formations as having a separate existence, as having their own nature. We see formations as existing outside of each other, independently. The world we are observing in us and around us is the world of our mental construction rather than the world of reality itself. We don’t see samskara as they truly are. So samskara are formations, understood as selves and dharmas, as things that exist by themselves, having their own true nature, and they exist outside of each other. We see things that way because of delusion.

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In the case of an enlightened being, a buddha or a bodhisattva, delusion is transformed, and when the darkness is removed, the light is there. So in the case of the Buddha, instead of having avidya, he has vidya—wisdom, or insight. He still sees samskara, formation, but when he looks at a flower, he sees the flower in the light of interconnection, inter-arising, co-arising. He sees the flower not as its own self, or as something that can exist by itself. He can see all things, all formations, as they are: namely, without self, without permanence.

We also see samskara, but we see a formation as permanent, as having a self which exists separately from other formations. So there are two ways of looking at samskara, the enlightened way and the deluded way.

Because we see samskara as having true nature, we solidify our delusion; and because of our delusion, we see formations as having separate existence, self, and permanence. Samskara, for us, is having a self and an own nature; samskara, for the Buddha, does not have self or its own separate nature. That is the difference between delusion and wisdom.

The Five Skandhas Are Not of Themselves Suffering

The second weakness of this presentation is that if we have craving, grasping, and attachment to being, we blame our five skandhas as the cause. It is taught that because we have a consciousness, a body and mind, six sense organs, contact, and feelings, we have craving and gasping and being. This is the second set of cause and effect.

But look at a Buddha. He also has consciousness, he also has body and mind. He also has six sense organs, contact, and feeling. But why doesn’t he have craving? We have craving and aversion, like and dislike. When you like this world, you want to survive. When you hate this life, you want to commit suicide. So you crave for being or you crave for nonbeing. Those who suffer so much, who do not like to be alive, they also have a craving—craving for nonbeing, very tempting sometimes.

A buddha has all these links, but he can produce freedom, non-attachment, compassion, loving kindness. So you cannot blame your body and mind for your afflictions. That is the second shortcoming of the teaching.

When I see the suffering all around me, if I have mindfulness and concentration, I allow myself to get in touch with the suffering, and I allow compassion and loving kindness to be born. These are very good things to allow to develop. That is why to say that contact and feelings can only bring craving and grasping is not true. It can bring enlightenment, it can bring understanding, it can bring love. That is why the traditional teaching on the twelve nidanas aims only at explaining reincarnation, samsara, transmigration, and can be used only on the level of the conventional truth. It does not belong to the set of teachings and practice that can be adaptive and connected with the ultimate truth.

So you have delusion. You look at a formation and you don’t see its true nature. You see formations as having a self, as being permanent, as existing outside of each other. When you see formations in that way, as things that exist outside of each other, you think that they have a beginning and end, that there is birth and death. However, when you contemplate a cloud, you see that it is not possible for a cloud to die. To die means that from something you become nothing, and that is not the case of the cloud. A cloud cannot become nothing. A cloud can become snow or rain, or ice, but it’s impossible for a cloud to die.

With wisdom, the Buddha looked at formations and saw that their true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. If you touch the nature of no-birth and no-death in a formation, you are truly seeing that formation as it is. Science is capable of finding no-birth and no-death. The first law of thermodynamics, the law of the conservation of matter and energy, tells us that the nature of matter and energy is no-birth and no-death. You cannot create matter; you cannot destroy matter. You cannot create energy; you cannot destroy energy. You can only transfer matter into energy, energy into another kind of energy, or energy into matter. But you do not have the power to create new matter, or to destroy energy. In this way, physicists, chemists, scientists can understand the nature of no-birth and no-death.

In the realm of meditation, if we look deeply with mindfulness and concentration, we can see the nature of no-birth and no-death of a cloud. A cloud hasn’t come from nothing, from nonbeing; a cloud has come from steam or from water.

The notion of birth and death always goes along with the notion of being and nonbeing. The shortcoming of this presentation is to blame suffering on being. But how can being be possible without nonbeing? So being, here, should be understood as being and nonbeing. In fact, we suffer not because of being, but because of the notion of being and the notion of nonbeing. Contact and feelings can bring either craving or aversion, or compassion or freedom. It depends on how we use the sense organs and contact.

So the traditional presentation is not complete. Contact and feeling can give rise to grasping, but also to releasing and freedom. We suffer because we cling to the notion of being and nonbeing; either we are afraid of being or we are afraid of nonbeing. But with wisdom, not only are you free from the notion of birth and death, you are also free from the notion of being and nonbeing. No being, no nonbeing.

In the historical dimension, to be or not to be is the question, but in the ultimate dimension, to be or not to be is no longer the question. You are free from both notions, and there is no fear anymore. You are not drowned in the waves of birth and death, being and nonbeing. You are free, and that is nirvana. Nirvana is perfect freedom, because you see formations as they truly are. And the true nature of these formations is no-birth and no-death, no being and nonbeing. With that kind of insight you enjoy nirvana, without fear, without craving.

But with delusion, you see formations as self and as permanent. You see them in the light of birth and death, being and nonbeing. That is why you navigate always in the realm of samsara.

So we need only five nidanas:

  1. delusion/wisdom
  2. formations
  3. birth–death/no birth–no death
  4. being–nonbeing/no being–no nonbeing
  5. samsara/nirvana

Five nidanas. If you don’t have delusion, then you see formations as they really are, and then you don’t see birth and death anymore. You are not caught in the notion of being and nonbeing anymore, and you get out of samsara: you are in nirvana. You don’t have to go to nirvana, nirvana is right there. Nirvana is already, since the non-beginning.

With some skillfulness, we can always begin here on the level of the conventional truth. With that skillfulness, we slowly get out of the conventional realm of truth. We use the wisdom of adaptation, we use the wisdom of conformity, to see the nature of reality, and to help people to slowly get out of these notions and concepts using the Middle Way. The Middle Way helps you to be free from pairs of opposites, birth and death, being and nonbeing, inside and outside, object and subject, and so on.

It will be very interesting if scientists of our time learn how to go the Middle Way, because many of them are still asking questions like, “What is the cause of the universe, the cosmos? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why?” So they are still caught in these notions of beginning, ending, being, and nonbeing. The wisdom of adaptation, the wisdom of conformity, help us to practice and to offer the practice in a way that helps us to be con- nected with the ultimate dimension presented by emptiness.

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Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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