Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples’ feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child’s life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “No talent. Needs to be better motivated.” This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher’s Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students’ families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words “true person” were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, “Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?” The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, “Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?” Disappointed by the monk’s question, Linchi said, “That true person? What the heck!” No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach’s acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill’s content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.

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Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother’s illness. We should tell people, “Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance.” We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. “Resis­tance” does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society’s pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society’s destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, “In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you.” The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father’s request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him “the destitute son.” No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

Photos:
First photo by Ingo Gunther.
Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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Dharma Talk – The Different Faces of Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Teachings on the Dimension of Action of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion from the Universal Door Chapter of the Lotus Sutra

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When the bodhisattva named Inexhaustible Mind heard the name Avalokitesvara, he asked the Buddha, “Why did that bodhisattva get such a beautiful name?” The Buddha replied, “Because the actions of Avalokitesvara can respond to the needs of any being in any circumstance.” Then Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind asked, “How does this bodhisattva enjoy being on this Earth? How does he enjoy walking and contemplating and going about this planet?” The word used in this question is a verb that means you relax and enjoy yourself. Answering that question, the Buddha talked about the way Avalokitesvara spends his or her time on this planet.

We all have time to spend on this planet and the question is whether we enjoy it or not. What are we doing? Do we really enjoy our time sojourning on this planet? Do we carry a lot of luggage, making it feel too heavy to enjoy our time here?

Avalokitesvara is a manifestation and any manifestation has to be situated in time and space in the historical dimension. The Buddha Shakyamuni manifested himself as a prince, as a practitioner, as a monk, and as a teacher. His manifestation lasted eighty years. We are also manifestations. We manifest ourselves in the historical dimension and there are things we want to do and we want to enjoy what we do.

The Interbeing of the Historical and the Ultimate Dimensions 

Everything has its historical dimension as well as its ultimate dimension. In the ultimate dimension we are in touch with the essence, the substance, the ground of a person or a thing. In the historical dimension we get in touch with the appearance or the form of something or someone. If we speak about a bell, the substance that makes up the bell is metal. The form of the bell is a manifestation from that ground. So in the historical dimension you can see the ultimate dimension. We also carry with us our ground of being. It’s like a wave that manifests herself on the surface of the ocean. The wave is also the water and touching the historical dimension of the wave deeply, you touch the water, her ultimate dimension.

Yesterday there was a question about God. Our friend asked, “I thought that there is no God in Buddhism. Why is Thay speaking about the Kingdom of God?” It’s true that in Buddhism we do not talk about God but we do talk about nirvana, the ultimate dimension. If God means the ultimate dimension, the foundation of all manifestations, then there is God in Buddhism. Our ground of being is the nature of no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We call that “nirvana”, the ultimate. If you understand God to be the ultimate, to be the foundation of every manifestation, then we can speak about God. If by God we mean an old man with a beard sitting in the clouds and deciding everything for us, we don’t talk about that God.

The Dimension of Action 

What is the purpose of a bell? How does the bell serve? The bell offers sound for us to practice. That is the function of the bell. This is called the dimension of action. We all have this third dimension. Although we carry within ourselves our true nature we also enjoy manifesting ourselves through our jobs and activities. The Buddha Shakyamuni wanted to do something, that is why he manifested himself. The bell wants to do something, that is why she has manifested herself as a bell. There is something we want to do, in our current manifestation. The dimension of action is connected to the dimension of history, and the dimension of history is very much linked to the dimension of the ultimate.

Our body in the historical dimension may have a beginning and an end but our body in the ultimate dimension is indestructible. It is our Dharma body. Our body in the historical dimension is the body of retribution. The form and manifestation of our physical body is a result or retribution of the lives of our ancestors and our own way of living and being in the world. While using this body of retribution we can practice touching our Dharma body. Everyone has a Dharma body and if you can touch your Dharma body you are no longer afraid of birth and death. The moment the wave realizes that she is water, she is no longer afraid of being and nonbeing, birth and death. As water she doesn’t mind going up and going down. She can ride freely on the waves of history without fear. The role of the bodhisattva in the dimension of action is to help people to touch deeply their ultimate dimension because once you have touched your ultimate dimension you lose all fear of birth and death. You realize that this manifestation is just a continuation. Before this manifestation you were already there in your ancestors and after this manifestation disintegrates you will continue in your descendants and in all forms of life.

The Universal Door 

The twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra is called “The Universal Door Chapter.” This chapter is about the dimension of action of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The Universal Door refers to the kind of practice that can respond to all situations of suffering in every place and in every time. This chapter is about love, and Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of love and compassion.

Amb32-dharma2valokitesvara is translated as Quan Tu Tai or Quan The Am in Vietnamese. Quan means to observe, to look deeply or to recognize. In Sanskrit this word is the same as vipasyana, to look deeply. Vipasyana goes together with samatha, or stopping and concentrating. You select a subject, you stop and concentrate on that subject and you look deeply into it. It may be your anger, your despair or a difficult situation you find yourself in. Tu Tai means freedom. Thanks to looking deeply you get the freedom you need. In the Heart Sutra the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara found out that everything is empty of a separate existence. Upon having that realization he became free from all afflictions. The Am means the sounds of the world. Quan The Am is the one who looks deeply into the sounds of the world.

Living beings express themselves in different ways. Whether they express themselves well or not, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can always understand them. If a child doesn’t have enough words to express herself the bodhisattva is still able to understand the child. If the person expresses himself in spoken language or in bodily expression the bodhisattva also understands.

Avalokitesvara has the power of manifesting herself in so many forms, and she is capable of being present everywhere at the same time. When you go to a temple, whether it is in Vietnam or Tibet or China you might have a chance to see a statue of a bodhisattva with 1,000 arms. Each arm holds an instrument. One of her hands is holding a book; it may be a sutra or a book on political science. Another hand is holding a bell. Another hand is holding a flute or a guitar. And a bodhisattva of our time may hold in one hand a computer. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book there is an English translation of the verses of this chapter made by Sister True Virtue. In this translation the bodhisattva is called a she. And in Asia many people think of Avalokitesvara as a she. But in fact the person can be a he as is explained in the sutra. The bodhisattva can manifest herself as an artist, a politician, a musician, a Dharma teacher, a gardener, a little boy, a little girl, even as a millionaire or the head of a big corporation. If the situation needs his or her presence she will be there in the appropriate form to respond to the situation. Compassion can take so many forms.

Cultivating Compassion 

“Whoever calls her name or sees her image, if their mind is perfectly collected and pure, they will then be able to overcome the suffering of all the worlds. When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” 1

Calling the name of Avalokitesvara may give rise to something in your mind. Your mind becomes concentrated, mindful, calm, and lucid. If you call her name in such a way that your mind becomes still then you will be able to overcome your suffering. Evoking the name of Avalokitesvara is one of the ways to allow understanding and compassion to be born in our hearts. When something or someone can offer you freshness, joy, and loving kindness, the image of that person becomes the object of your contemplation. Every time you think of her or of him, suddenly the elements of compassion and understanding are born in your heart and you can overcome the suffering you are experiencing at that moment.

A place can also embody compassion and understanding. Suppose you come to Plum Village and you enjoy the beauty of the nature and the lifestyle. When you leave, every time you think of Plum Village you have a pleasant feeling. That is the meaning of mindfulness or contemplation. The object of mindfulness is the image or the sound that can inspire us and can produce the element of understanding and compassion in us. It is not just devotion. We should not invoke the name of Avalokitesvara or visualize the form like a machine; doing that will not provoke any calmness or mindfulness. To evoke the energy of Avalokitesvara is the practice of calming and concentrating our mind to bring back the nectar of compassion and understanding in us. That practice can help us avoid all kinds of dangers.

Avalokitesvara can also manifest himself in many names. The message of Jesus is love. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” Avalokitesvara may say, “I am the Universal Door.” We all have our Avalokitesvara, of different names and forms. What is essential is that that name can help us to calm down and to make understanding and compassion possible.

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“When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” How can we understand this statement? If you are pushed into a pit of fire and you know how to be mindful and to recollect the powerful energy of Avalokitesvara then the pit will be transformed into a cool lake. The cool lake is inside and it is also outside.

In the same chapter of the Lotus Sutra we read, “If there is a person who is a victim of ignorance and that person knows how to be mindful of the great compassion of Avalokitesvara then he will free himself from ignorance. If a person is a victim of anger and she knows how to practice mindfulness of the great energy of Avalokitesvara then she will be free from her anger.” We have to understand all of these verses in that spirit.

Sometimes a whole nation is plunged into a pit of fire made of anger. Imagine how big that pit of fire must be. If you know how to be mindful of compassion, and of Avalokitesvara who is the symbol of compassion and understanding, then you will calm yourself down. You will be able to see more clearly and your anger will subside. After September 11th, I recommended that America engage herself in the practice of stopping, calming and looking deeply to see what to do and what not to do to respond to the situation with compassion and lucidity. This is the action of Avalokitesvara.

Drawing Dangers into Ourselves 

In the Universal Door Chapter we read about many dangerous situations such as: caught in a fire, caught in a flood, caught in a war, caught in a situation where we suffer so much. Usually we believe that dangers come from the outside. We do not realize that most of the dangers we are afraid of come from within us and not from some objective situation. When you do not have a clear view, a right understanding of reality, you create a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and danger. When you have the element of anger, delusion, and craving within yourself, you draw danger into yourself. You create your own suffering. The practice of compassion, the practice of deep looking helps you to be lucid, to be loving, and that lucidity and that loving kindness is a protection from all kinds of dangers.

It is clearly stated in the sutra that if you are caught in a situation of anger and you know how to produce mindfulness of love then you will be free from that situation. If you are caught in the situation of delusion and you know how to practice mindfulness of compassion then you can get out of that situation. That is the Universal Door.

The Fierce Bodhisattva and the Gentle Bodhisattva 

Is it possible to carry a gun and yet remain deeply a bodhisattva? This is possible. When you enter the gate of a temple, you see the statue of a very gentle bodhisattva on your left, smiling and welcoming. But looking on your right you see a figure with a very fierce face, holding a weapon. His whole face is burning. Smoke and fire are pouring out of his eyes and his mouth. He is the one who has the capacity to keep the hungry ghosts in order. Every time we organize a ceremony to offer food and drink to the hungry ghosts, to the wandering souls, we need to evoke the bodhisattva with the burning face (Dien Nhien Vuong) to come and help. The hungry ghosts only listen to him because he has that fierce, “You behave, otherwise you will get it!” look. He is a kind of Chief of Police bodhisattva. That is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. So when you see someone carrying a gun, you cannot necessarily say that he or she is evil. Society needs some people to carry guns because there are gangsters, there are people who would not behave if there were no one embodying strict discipline. It is possible that someone carrying a gun can be a real bodhisattva because the bodhisattva of the burning face is a real bodhisattva, a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. It is possible for the director of a prison or a prison guard to be a bodhisattva. He may be very firm with the prisoners but deep inside of him there is the heart of a bodhisattva. Our job is to help prison guards and police officers to have a bodhisattva heart.

Today there is a police officer here; she took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 1991. She knows a lot about the suffering of members of the police force in America. You are supposed to be a peacekeeping force but sometimes you are looked upon as the oppressors, as a symbol of violence. There is violence, there is suppression in society and you have been appointed to keep the peace. It’s very hard to do your job if you don’t have enough skillful means. If you don’t have enough understanding and compassion, a lot of anger, frustration, and despair may grow within you. Then it is possible that you can become the oppressor. The door of your heart is closed. No one understands you; they look upon you as an enemy. There is no communication between you and the world outside that you are supposed to serve. So the suffering of the police may be immense, the suffering of prison guards may be immense. They don’t enjoy their job and yet they have to continue. Avalokitesvara must appear in their midst and try to open their hearts. Avalokitesvara says that you can carry a gun, you can be very firm, but at the same time you can be very compassionate.

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If you play the role of a tender bodhisattva, you have to have real compassion and understanding in you. Usually the First Lady, the wife of the Prime Minister, the wife of the President or the Queen, should play the role of the tender bodhisattva, the figure of a mother, a gentle sister caring for the sick and the poor. While her husband is doing things like conducting the army, conducting war, the First Lady plays the role of a tender bodhisattva. But if she is a real bodhisattva her action will not be just a decoration, she will manifest real compassion and real understanding.

If you have to play the role of the fierce, burning face bodhisattva, even if you carry a weapon and demonstrate your firmness, you have to have a tender heart and deep understanding. If you look for Avalokitesvara only in a nice appearance, you will miss her, because she can manifest herself in all kinds of forms. She can manifest herself in all kinds of bodies: as a child, as an adult, as a judge, as a mother, as a king, as a schoolteacher, as a businessman, as a politician, as a scientist, as a journalist, or as a Dharma teacher. So you have to look deeply in order to recognize Avalokitesvara.

The Eye of Understanding 

The ten thousand arms of the bodhisattva are needed because love can express itself in many forms with many kinds of instruments. That is why every arm is holding a different instrument. But if you look closer, you see that in each hand there is an eye. The eye signifies the presence of understanding. Very often by loving someone we make that person suffer because our love is not made with understanding. The other person may be your son, your daughter, or your partner. If you don’t understand the suffering, the difficulty, the deep aspiration of that person, it is not possible for you to love him or her. That is why you need an eye for your arm to really be an instrument of compassion. It is important to check whether your loving has enough understanding and compassion in it. You can ask for help. “Darling, do you think I understand you enough? Do I make you suffer because of my love?” A father should be able to ask his son, a mother should be able to ask her daughter that question. “Daughter, do I make you suffer because of my lack of understanding? Please tell me so that I can love you properly.” That is the language of love. If you are sincere, your daughter will tell you about her suffering and once you have understood you will stop doing things that you thought would make her happy but really make her suffer. Understanding is the substance with which you can fabricate love.

Transformation Bodies of Avalokitesvara 

Several of us are acting like bodhisattvas with several arms. We are taking care of members of our family, and we also participate in the work of protecting the environment and helping the hungry children in the world. We think we have only two arms but many of us are present a little bit everywhere in the world. You can be at the same time here and in a prison. You can be at the same time here and in a far away country where children suffer because of malnutrition. You don’t have to be present with this body because you have other transformation bodies a little bit everywhere. And that is why it is very important that you recognize your transformation bodies. When I write a book I want to transform myself into thousands of me in order to go a little bit everywhere. Every book of mine becomes one of my transformation bodies. I can go to a cloister in the form of a book; I can go to a prison in the form of a cassette tape. Each of us has many transformation bodies. That is what the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara does. She can manifest herself in so many bodies. Being a bodhisattva is not something abstract; it’s something concrete that you can do.

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When I was young I read a book written by a French tourist who went to Africa and enjoyed hunting tigers in the jungle. He didn’t believe in God. One day, late in the afternoon, he got lost in the jungle. He didn’t know how to get out; he began to panic. He wanted to pray for help but because he didn’t believe in God he had never prayed before. In his panic, he said, “God, if you really exist, then this is the time to come and rescue me!” There was some arrogance in his way of praying. Right after he said that, there was some noise in the bush and an African gentleman appeared wearing nothing but a loincloth and thanks to that person the Frenchman was saved. Later in his book he wrote an ironic sentence that showed he was not very grateful. He said, “I called for God but only a Negro came.” He was not able to recognize God in the person of a native African. He didn’t know that the “Negro” who came to him was God, was Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. You have to be very awake in order to recognize the beautiful bodhisattva in an unfamiliar form.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara might be very close to you. You may be able to recognize her in the here and now and yet you are looking for him or her in the clouds. Compassion does exist; understanding does exist. It is possible for us to cultivate the energy of compassion and understanding so that the bodhisattva can be with us all the time in our daily life. Then we will be well protected.

Four Skillful Means for Embracing Living Beings

How does the bodhisattva act in order to help living beings to overcome their suffering and to realize their ultimate dimension? We speak of four skillful means used by the bodhisattva, in the dimension of action, to embrace living beings. They are: (1) making offerings, (2) using loving speech, (3) doing things to benefit the other person, and (4) “doing the same thing” or becoming one with the people you want to help.

Offering the Gift of Non-fear 

There are three kinds of gifts spoken of in Buddhism: material gifts, the gift of the Dharma, and the gift of non-fear. When you offer things to people, you are practicing compassion and you also open the way for reconciliation and healing. Giving her some beautiful music can help her to relax while listening. Giving him a book on the Dharma may help him to deal with his difficulties. The Buddha said when you are angry with someone and you are capable of giving him or her something, then your anger will die down.

The most precious gift that Avalokitesvara can offer us is the gift of non-fear. People are afraid of losing their identity, of dying, of becoming nothing. When you give the kind of teaching and practice and insight that helps people touch their ultimate dimension, they lose all their fear. But you need to have that gift of non-fear within you in order for you to be able to offer it to others.

Perhaps as a child you have played with a kaleidoscope, a very simple, wonderful toy. I have a few in my hut. In it there are loose bits of colored materials and two mirrors at one end that show many different patterns. Each pattern is a beautiful manifestation. If you turn it a little bit, that manifestation will be replaced with another manifestation. Every manifestation is beautiful. As a child, you don’t regret when one manifestation replaces another. The manifestations also, no matter how beautiful they are, do not feel sorrowful when they give their place to the next manifestation. The child just enjoys the changes without any regret because the next manifestation is as beautiful as the current one. There is no fear, no regret because all manifestations have the same ground, the little bits of colors in the kaleidoscope. The ground of all manifestations is always there. If you can touch the ground, you don’t mind the changes. You are not caught by this body, you know this is just one manifestation. You are ready to manifest in another form as wonderful as this one.

The Loving Speech of a Bodhisattva 

The second skillful means is to use loving speech. You can be very firm and uncompromising, and still use loving speech. Loving speech can convey your feeling and your idea to the other person better than shouting at them, blaming them, or being sarcastic and sour. A bodhisattva should be able to use loving speech.

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I would like to return to the example of the police bodhisattva. Seeing the way people react to the police, the police officers’ hearts harden every day. They feel very isolated; they feel they are victims of society. So the police bodhisattva can propose that the community of police officers organize an open house. They will prepare food and beverages and will invite the neighborhood to come and hear the story of the life of a police officer. You can tell them, “When I set out in the morning carrying my gun and going to the street, my spouse does not know whether I will come home safely because there is so much violence in society. Although we carry guns we can be killed or maimed by other people. So we start our day with fear, with uncertainty; we don’t know what will happen to us during that day. Our task is to impose order, but maybe we will be victims of violence on the street. If we do our job with anger and fear in us, we cannot do it well. That is why we suffer as police officers. We really want to help but we suffer very much. When we go home we cannot offer joy and compassion to the people in our home because it was so hard during the day. If there is no happiness in our home, we are not nourished.”

Then members of the community will have more understanding and compassion for you. Communication is possible. There can be collaboration between the police officers and community members. There must be a way out of even the most difficult situations. The way out is through listening with compassion and using loving speech. Once communication is restored we have hope and suffering will be lessened.

The third skillful means is to do things that benefit the other person. From your actions the other person feels safer and has more opportunities for a happy life. Showing people how to receive training to obtain a job, how to increase their family ‘s income, how to improve their health or have more security, are examples of the kinds of action that benefit people.

The Skillful Means of “Doing the Same Thing”

The fourth skillful means is, you become one of them. You look like them, you wear clothes like them, and you do exactly what they are doing, in order for them to have a chance to learn the path of understanding and love. That is the action of the bodhisattva.

Nowadays there are so many youngsters who belong to gangs. Each gang may have thirty or forty members, each with a leader. In order to help transform their hearts and minds, you have to transform yourself into a gang leader. You look like a delinquent but you are really a bodhisattva because that is the only way to approach them. You have to talk like them, you have to behave and wear clothes like them in order to be recognized and accepted, then you can begin to help transform their hearts. That is called the practice of “doing the same thing.” That is what Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can do. So in the prisons you can manifest yourself as a fellow prisoner and you become the bodhisattva among prisoners. In the police force, you have to manifest yourself as a police officer, and you play the role of bodhisattva in order to bring about relief, understanding, and compassion.

A Bodhisattva in Prison 

There is a nun who is a student of mine who has spent a lot of time in prison. When she was young she had the opportunity to study English literature in a university in America. She ordained as a nun in Vietnam. She was imprisoned because she participated in activities to promote human rights. During the time she was in prison she practiced walking meditation and sitting meditation every day, although her cell was very small. Thanks to the practice she remained calm and fresh; anger and despair were not able to seize her. She was able to help the other prisoners. Other prisoners had a lot of anger that showed on their faces when they interacted with the prison guards. But she was treated well by the prison guards, not because she was a nun, but because she had the compassionate look of a practitioner. She was smiling and fresh that is why they didn’t worry about her.

The fact is that while being in prison she was not a victim of anger and despair. She was able to make use of her time there, like a retreat. She didn’t have to do anything ,just enjoy the practice. She grew up spiritually during her time in prison. Instead of transforming her prison cell into a pit of glowing embers, she transformed her dwelling into a cool lotus pond because she knew the practice of mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. If we find ourselves in a situation like hers and we know how to practice the Universal Door of mindfulness and compassion, then we will not suffer and we can help people who are in the same situation. We can also help people like the administrators and prison guards.

Praising Avalokitesvara 

“From the depths of understanding, the flower of great eloquence blooms: the Bodhisattva stands majestically upon the waves of birth and death, free from all afflictions. Her great compassion eliminates all sickness, even that once thought of as incurable. Her wondrous light sweeps away all obstacles and dangers. The willow branch in her hand, once waved, reveals countless Buddha lands. Her lotus flower blossoms a multitude of practice centers. I bow to her, to see her true presence in the here and now. I offer her the incense of my heart. May the Bodhisattva of deep listening embrace us all with great compassion. Homage to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.” — Verses of Praise from the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.

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In this chant praising Avalokitesvara you begin to see that the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has a deep understanding of your situation, of the situation of the world. And she is able to convince you with her great eloquence to follow the path of understanding and love. She is free from the dust of craving, anger, and delusion. Her nectar of compassion can heal all kinds of sickness whether it is depression or cancer. The best kind of medicine is compassion. Without compassion it is very difficult to heal. You need compassion from the inside and from the outside. The light emitted by him or her sweeps away all kinds of dangers. You draw dangers into yourself by your craving, hatred, and delusion. But because you have the light of compassion, you can dissipate and be free from all of these dangers.

The bodhisattva holds a willow branch in her hand. When she waves it she reveals countless Buddha lands. The Buddha land is right here, right now, but because we are deluded and caught in our anger we don’t see the wonders of life, the wonders of the Pure Land in the present moment. We need her to use a willow branch in order to reveal it to us. She dips the willow branch into the nectar of compassion and as she spreads it, she transforms suffering into joy. With the nectar of compassion you can do everything. You can transform death into life, despair into hope. It is possible for you to cultivate the nectar of compassion like a bodhisattva. With her pink lotus flower she creates a multitude of practice centers. There are many practice centers in Germany, in England, in America, and in Israel. You are an arm of the bodhisattva; you are establishing Mindfulness Practice Centers everywhere. I bow my head; I praise her, I praise compassion, and I offer the incense of my heart. Please manifest yourself in the here and the now for us.

The Ten Virtues of Avalokitesvara: The Five Contemplations and the Five Sounds 

“Look of truth, look of purity, look of boundless understanding, look of love, look of compassion, the look to be always honored and practiced.”

If you want to know the nature and the practice of Avalokitesvara, you should be aware that she practices five kinds of contemplations: of truth, purity, great wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness. The first contemplation comes from the definition of her name, Quan, meaning looking deeply into the truth of reality. You have the capacity to distinguish the true from the false, the beautiful from the ugly.

The second contemplation is the contemplation on purification. Like a cloud in the sky, she has to purify herself so that when she becomes the rain, the rain will be pure for the sake of the world. To be a cloud floating in the sky is wonderful, but it is also wonderful to be the rain falling on the mountains and the rivers. To become the snow on the top of a mountain is also wonderful. To be a drink in a glass of water for a child is also wonderful. So water can manifest herself in many forms and every form is wonderful. That is why bodhisattvas are not caught in one form of manifestation, in one body. We know that this manifestation is linked to the next manifestation in terms of cause and effect.

If the cloud is polluted then the rain will be polluted also. That is why, while being a cloud you purify yourself so that when you become the rain you become very pure, delicious water. You know that there are many clouds that carry within themselves a lot of dust, a lot of acid. The clouds that hang over big cities are quite polluted. When they become snow the snow is not clean; when it becomes rain, it can carry a lot of acid and destroy the forests. So while you are a cloud try to practice self-purification so that when you are transformed into snow and water you will be more beautiful. By self-purification, you help with the purification of the world.

We know we draw dangers to ourselves because of the way we look at things and because we have craving, anger, and delusion in us. That is why self-purification, learning to look deeply to remove our anger, our craving, and our delusion is to remove danger. Especially when you touch the ultimate, you are no longer afraid of anything.

The third contemplation is the contemplation on the great wisdom, maha prajna paramita. The object of your contemplation is not just knowledge, but the great wisdom that has the power of bringing you to the other shore, the shore of safety, the shore of non-fear, the shore of well-being.

The fourth contemplation is the contemplation on compassion, the energy with which we can embrace all beings whether they are sweet and lovable or unkind and cruel. The fifth contemplation is the contemplation on loving kindness, the energy that is the opposite of what we feel towards an enemy. When we contemplate on loving kindness we feel our association and friendship towards all beings. We should practice contemplation of these five objects.

The Five Sounds of a Bodhisattva

“Sound of wonder, noble sound,
sound of one looking deeply into the world,
extraordinary sound, sound of the rising tide,
the sound to which we will always listen.”

This verse in the Universal Door Chapter speaks about five kinds of sounds that characterize the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The five sounds are the sound of wonder, the sound of he or she who understands the world, the noble sound, the sound that is powerful like the sound of the rising tide, and the sound that surpasses all sounds in the Locadhatu, the mundane world.

First is the sound of wonder: you yourself are a wonder, the tree in the front yard is a wonder, the Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder, and the galaxy is a wonder. You should listen in such a way that you can hear the sound of the wonders. Otherwise you are living in a dream. You are in the kingdom of wonders and yet you are not in touch. That is why you have to listen. You listen to the mountain, you listen to the flower, you listen to the birds, you listen to yourself, and you become aware that everything is a wonder.

The second sound is the sound of he or she who practices looking deeply into the world. The Buddha is described as “he who deeply understands the world.” All of us who are friends, disciples, continuations of the Buddha, do the same. We try to look deeply into the world in order to understand better. That is the meaning of meditation. To meditate is to have the time to look deeply at what is there. And looking like that we come to understand the world, to understand ourselves, and we are free from afflictions, from making mistakes.

The third sound is the sound of nobility. There are sounds that are heavy, that carry a lot of craving, a lot of despair. But when you are a practitioner you are on a path of self-purification and the sound you emit every day becomes finer and finer, because every cell in your body, every mental formation in you is on the way to self-purification and transformation. That is why the sound emitted by our cells becomes more and more noble. That is what happens with the bodhisattva; her sound is a wonderful sound, that is high and noble. If you are mindful and concentrated, you can tune in to that sound for your pleasure, for your transformation, and for your healing.

The fourth kind of sound is the sound of the rising tide. When I was a student at the Buddhist Institute I invited other students to produce a newsletter for the students of the seminary and I proposed the title, “The Voice of the Rising Tide.” But because we wrote so many radical thoughts, later on we were forbidden to continue with our publication. The sound of the rising tide is very powerful. If you can tune in to that sound, you receive transformation and healing. That sound can embrace and take away the sounds that are vulgar, that are low. The fifth kind of sound is the sound that can transcend all the other sounds of the world. The Locadhatu emits the sound of the world, while the sound emitted by the bodhisattva reveals to us the Dharmadhatu, the realm of ultimate reality, the Pure Land.

When you practice being aware of Avalokitesvara, you get in touch with these five kinds of sounds and these five kinds of contemplations. This is the essence of Avalokitesvara. Avalokitesvara is not the name of a god. Avalokitesvara is a real person having real qualities characterized by these five contemplations and five sounds.

Compassion Like Thunder

“Strength of Thunder, Calmness of Clouds
Heart of compassion like rolling thunder,
heart of love like gentle clouds,
water of Dharma nectar raining upon us,
extinguishing the fire of afflictions.”

The element of karuna, of compassion, is like thunder. Compassion is not something soft, it is very powerful, like thunder. The element of maitri, of loving kindness, is like a wonderful great cloud causing the rain of the Dharma to fall down like nectar, extinguishing all the fire of afflictions. You have two images, the thunder and the cloud. When these two things come together, it produces the compassionate Dharma rain falling down, extinguishing all kinds of afflictions.

Taking Refuge in Holiness

“Contemplation on Holiness:
With mindfulness, free from doubts,
in moments of danger and affliction,
our faith in the purity of Avalokita
is where we go for refuge.”

In every moment, dwelling in mindfulness without any doubt, we have great confidence in the power of compassion and understanding. Avalokitesvara becomes the object of our mindfulness, of our recollection. Even in danger or dying, you maintain that kind of awareness because Avalokitesvara is a holy entity, a saint. Wherever there are the elements of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, there is the element of holiness. Avalokitesvara is a holy person and if we make him or her into the object of our mindfulness, we get the element of holiness in us. That is why we don’t have to be afraid of dangers anymore, even prison or death. She is the element of holiness and she is our refuge and our protection. That is the next to the last verse.

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Looking at All Beings with the Eyes of Compassion

“We bow in gratitude to the one
who has all the virtues,
regarding the world
with compassionate eyes,
an Ocean of Well-Being
beyond measure.”

The last verse says, fully equipped with all kinds of merits, she is capable of looking at living beings with compassionate eyes. I think this is the most beautiful sentence in the whole Lotus Suta. Use the eyes of compassion to look at living beings. When you understand the suffering of the other person, you can accept him or her and suddenly compassion flows out of your eyes and you will help that person to suffer less. Using compassionate eyes to look at living beings is the most beautiful practice. You have a compassionate eye; the Buddha eye has been transmitted to you. The question is whether you want to make use of that eye.

The merits are accumulating into an infinite ocean. Merits can also be translated as happiness or well-being. You cannot describe the great ocean of happiness. Happiness is made of one substance, called compassion. That is why in cultivating compassion you cultivate happiness for yourself and for the world. Happiness is described not in terms of pounds or kilograms but in terms of oceans. Our happiness accumulates and becomes an infinite ocean. We touch the feet of the bodhisattva with our forehead to express our deep gratitude and respect.

On the Gridakuta Mountain where the Buddha delivered the Lotus Sutra, Shakyumani was playing the main role, the role of the Buddha, and Avalokitesvara played the role of a bodhisattva. But in many sutras we have learned that Avalokitesvara became a Buddha a long time before and is a fully enlightened person. Yet coming to the Gridakuta Mountain, he played the role of a disciple of the Buddha. This is a kind of play because if there is a teacher, there must be students. If there are students, there must be a teacher. So you take turns in order to be a teacher or a student. Some time later you will become a teacher and I will be your student. This is the tenth door of the Avatamsaka Sutra. It’s like a formation of wild geese in the sky. If the leader gets tired, he slows down and lets another lead. Sometimes you play the role of the leader, sometimes you play the role of a follower and you don’t discriminate at all, you are equally happy. With that we can conclude the Universal Door chapter and we know that Avalokitesvara has played the role of the student very well. But if we look deeply into her personality, her action, her wisdom, we know that no one can surpass her in terms of compassion and understanding.

From Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh on June 9th, June 14th, and June 15th, 2002 during the twenty-one day Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village, France. Transcribed and edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Steadiness.

PDF of this article

1 “Discourse on the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma: Universal Door Chapter” found in Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2000). All following quotes in this article are from the same source unless noted otherwise.

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

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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