Dharma Talk: True Presence

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Four Mantras 

When you love someone, you have to be truly present for him or for her. A ten-year-old boy I know was asked by his father what he wanted for his birthday, and he didn’t know how to answer. His father is quite wealthy and could afford to buy almost anything he might want. But the young man only said, “Daddy, I want you!” His father is too busy – he has no time for his wife or his children. To demonstrate true love, we have to make ourselves available. If that father learns to breathe in and out consciously and be present for his son, he can say, “My son, I am really here for you.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The greatest gift we can make to others is out true presence. “I am here for you” is a mantra to be uttered in perfect concentration. When you are concentrated – mind and body together – you produce your true presence, and anything you say is a mantra. It does not have to be in Sanskrit or Tibetan. A mantra can be spoken in your own language: “Darling, I am here for you.” And if you are truly present, this mantra will produce a miracle. You become real, the other person becomes real, and life is real in that moment. You bring happiness to yourself and to the other person.

“I know you are there, and I am very happy” is the second mantra. When I look at the moon, I breathe in and out deeply and say, “Full moon, I know you are there, and I am very happy.” I do the same with the morning star. Last spring in Korea, walking mindfully among magnolia trees, I looked at the magnolia flowers and said, “I know you are there and I am very happy.” To be really present and know that the other is also there is a miracle. When you contemplate a beautiful sunset, if you are really there, you will recognize and appreciate it deeply. Looking at the sunset, you feel very happy. Whenever you are really there, you are able to recognize and appreciate the presence of the other – the full moon, the North Star, the magnolia flowers, or the person you love the most.

First you practice breathing in and out deeply to recover yourself, and then you sit close to the one you love and, in that state of deep concentration, pronounce the second mantra. You are happy, and the person you love is happy at the same time. These mantras can be practiced in our daily life. To be a true lover, you have to practice mindfulness of breathing, sitting, and walking in order to produce your true presence.

The third mantra is: “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” When you are mindful, you notice when the person you love suffers. If we suffer and if the person we love is not aware of our suffering, we will suffer even more. Just practice deep breathing, then sit close to the one you love and say, “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” Your presence alone will relieve a lot of his or her suffering. No matter how old or young you are, you can do it.

The fourth mantra is the most difficult. It is practiced when you yourself suffer and you believe that the person you love is the one who has caused you to suffer. The mantra is, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” Only five words, but many people cannot say it because of the pride in their heart. If anyone else had said or done that to you, you would not suffer so much, but because it was the person you love, you feel deeply hurt. You want to go to your room and weep. But if you really love him or her, when you suffer like that you have to ask for help. You must overcome your pride.

There is a story that is well-known in my country about a husband who had to go off to war, and he left his wife behind, pregnant. Three years later, when he was released from the army, he returned home. His wife came to the village gate to welcome him, and she brought along their little boy. When husband and wife saw each other, they could not hold back their tears of joy. They were so thankful to their ancestors for protecting them that the young man asked his wife to go to the marketplace to buy some fruit, flowers, and other offerings to place on the ancestors’ altar.

While she was shopping, the young father asked his son to call him “daddy,” but the little boy refused. “Sir, you are not my daddy! My daddy used to come every night, and my mother would talk to him and cry. When mother sat down, daddy also sat down. When mother lay down, he also lay down.” Hearing these words, the young father’s heart turned to stone.

When his wife came home, he couldn’t even look at her. The young man offered fruit, flowers, and incense to the ancestors, made prostrations, and then rolled up the bowing mat and did not allow his wife to do the same. He believed that she was not worthy to present herself in front of the ancestors. His wife was deeply hurt. She could not understand why he was acting like that. He did not stay home. He spent his days at the liquor shop in the village and did not come back until very late at night. Finally, after three days, she could no longer bear it, and she jumped into the river and drowned.

That evening after the funeral, when the young father lit the kerosene lamp, his little boy shouted, “There is my daddy.” He pointed to his father’s shadow projected on the wall and said, “My daddy used to come every night like that and my mother would talk to him and cry a lot. When my mother sat down, he sat down. When my mother lay down, he lay down.” “Darling, you have been away for too long. How can I raise our child alone? She cried to her shadow.” One night the child asked her who and where his father was. She pointed to her shadow on the wall and said, “This is your father.” She missed him so much.

Suddenly, the young father understood, but it was too late. If he had gone to his wife even yesterday and asked, “Darling, I suffer so much. Our little boy said a man used to come every night and you would talk to him and cry with him, and every time you sat down, he also sat down. Who is that person?” she would have had an opportunity to explain and avert the tragedy. But he did not because of the pride in him.

The lady behaved the same. She was deeply hurt because of her husband’s behavior, but she did not ask for his help. She should have practiced the fourth mantra, “Darling, I suffer so much. Please help. I do not understand why you will not look at me or talk with me. Why didn’t you allow me to prostrate before the ancestors? Have I done anything wrong?” If she had done that, her husband could have told her what the little boy had said. But she did not, because she was also caught in pride.

In true love, there is no place for pride. Please do not fall into the same trap. When you are hurt by the person you love, when you suffer and believe that your suffering has been caused by the person you love the most, remember this story. Do not act like the father or the mother of the little boy. Do not let pride stand in the way. Practice the fourth mantra, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” If you really consider her to be the one you love the most in this life, you have to do that. When the other person hears your words, she will come back to herself and practice looking deeply. Then the two of you will be able to sort things out, reconcile, and dissolve the wrong perception.

The Practice of Loving Kindness

In our daily lives, we are often caught by wrong perceptions. We are human, and we make mistakes. When we listen unmindfully, we misunderstand the other person. We have to be aware of that. The Buddha said that we are caught many times a day by our wrong perceptions. We have to be careful not to be too sure of our perceptions. You might like to calligraphy these three words and put them on your wall as a bell of mindfulness: “Are you sure?”

When we look deeply, we often discover that it is we who cause ourselves the most suffering. We think our suffering is brought about by others – our parents, our partner, our so-called enemy – but when we look deeply, we see that out of forgetfulness, anger, or jealousy, we have said or done things to create our own suffering and the suffering of those around us. Suppose in the past I said something unkind to someone and made him suffer. Now, touching deeply the present, I can breathe in and out, smile to that person, and say, “I am sorry. I will never do that again.” When I practice this, I see the other person smiling to me even if he is not there, even if he has already passed away, and my wound can be healed. Touching the present deeply, we can heal the past. The practice of dwelling in the present moment can help us calm ourselves and transform our pain. If you were abused by your parents or your society, it is important to learn how to transform the violence that is within you, so that violence will stop destroying you and those around you.

Whenever there is a fight between parents and children, both sides lose. Children who have been sexually abused by adults often feel helpless. They feel that violence will eventually destroy them. It is very important to learn the art of transforming the energy of violence in you into something more positive, like understanding or compassion. If you have suffered because of violence, you may tend to use that violence against yourself. That is why it is so important to practice looking deeply to take good care of the violence that is within you. Looking deeply, you will be able to see what could have caused the other person to act so violently towards you. You see the person who sexually abused you as someone who is sick and needs to be helped. Children who have been victims of that kind of sickness also need to be helped. If you are aware of their suffering, you will be able to generate the energy of compassion and bring about healing. In the past, you may have been animated by the energies of hatred, violence, and blaming, but through the practice of looking deeply, those energies can be gradually transformed into understanding and compassion. Compassion helps us understand others, even those who have caused our suffering. With compassion and loving kindness in us, we suffer much less.

Looking deeply, we can see the other person as our mother, father, or ourself. Then it is easy to act with compassion. The hatred and anger we have towards the other person prevent us from being happy or peaceful. But if we practice looking deeply into the other person, we see that she also suffers. She may be living in hell, and she needs help. Maybe you are the only one who can help. With that kind of insight, the stream of compassion suddenly begins to flow in your heart, and you suffer much less. Your insight is the fruit of your practice of looking deeply.

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Just as there is no need to worry about the past, there is no need to worry about the future. The future is made only of the present. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment. If you walk deeply, drink deeply, and act deeply – in ways that bring real peace and joy to yourself and those around you – the future will be assured. When you have a fight with the person you love, try closing your eyes and visualizing yourself and the other person 200 years from now. After three breaths, open your eyes and I am sure you will see the other person differently. You will only want to take him or her into your arms and practice hugging meditation. Breathing deeply and holding the one you love, the energy of love, care, and mindfulness will penetrate her and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower. You will want to do everything you can to make her happy now. Don’t wait until tomorrow.

Taking care of the present moment, you recognize the presence of the sunset, the morning star, the magnolia blossoms, and the person in front of you. When you practice this way, you will not be lost in your worries or anxieties about the future, or caught by the suffering of the past. The teaching of the Buddha is clear. You only have to practice it. With the presence of a loving Sangha, it is easy.

Buddhist meditation is, first of all, living mindfully. We practice precepts (sila), concentration (Samadhi), and insight (prajna). Being present helps us touch and look deeply into whatever is there. When you live deeply each moment of your life, you will have insight into yourself and also the person you think is the cause of your suffering. When insight is present, it is easy to love and accept, and you will see that the other person is not your enemy. He is yourself, and he needs you in order to be transformed. With that insight, the nectar of compassion is born in your heat. That nectar is the Buddha, the Holy Spirit, God, and it is available to us twenty-four hours a day.

After practicing taking ourselves as the object of love, we change the word “I” into “he” or “she.” (See The Nine Prayers, below.) We can do that only when we have some understanding, peace, and solidity within ourselves. Self-love is the foundation for the love of others. We begin with love for someone we have sympathy with; then for someone we are fond of; and then for someone who has made us suffer. The children in Somalia, the victims of war in the former Yugoslavia, the children in my mother’s native village may be considered first as neutral, people we don’t really know. But if we touch them deeply, looking into them, they are no longer neutral to us. We see that they are ourselves, and suddenly compassion and loving kindness are born in us. They become true objects of our love. Finally, we come to the person we consider our enemy, the person who made us suffer. With the practice of deep looking and deep understanding, that person can also become the object of our love.

But first, we have to learn to look at ourselves with the eyes of understanding (prajna) and love (maître). Many of us cannot accept ourselves. We are at war with ourselves and want to run away from ourselves. Practicing looking deeply into ourselves and seeing the nature of the joy and pain within us, gradually we are able to accept, love, and take care of ourselves. “Know thyself” is the practice of love. If we look deeply into ourselves, we discover the conditions that have formed us and then we can accept ourselves – both our suffering and our happiness. So first of all, we accept ourselves as we are. Then we can accept the other person as she or he is. Looking deeply, we see how that person has been formed. Just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements, that person has been made of elements that are not him – his ancestors, his parents, his society, and so on. Once we see the causes and conditions that have made him, we are able to accept him and take good care of him.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, love is made of understanding. With understanding, you can love. To understand is to see all the difficulties, pain, and problems the other person is having. If you ignore the suffering and aspirations of the other person, how can you say you love him or her? But to love and understand is also to see the aspirations and hopes of the other person. To understand him more, you can go to him and ask, “I want to make you happy, but I do not understand you. Please help.” If you want to love someone you don’t understand, you might make him or her suffer more. A father has to go to his son and ask, “My son, do I understand you enough? Or is my love making you suffer?” Husbands have to ask wives the same question. Otherwise our love can suffocate the other person. It may be just a person for him or her. The practice of mindfulness helps us be there, look deeply, and understand the other person. We need to say to the other person, “I really want to love you and make you happy, but I need your help. Tell me what is in your heart. Tell me your difficulties. Tell me whether my way of loving is making you happy or unhappy.” That is the language of true love. We need the other person’s help to love properly and deeply.

All of us are subject to wrong perceptions. We have an idea of happiness and we want the people we love to follow that idea, but by forcing them to do so, we make them suffer. True love is always made of true understanding. That is in the teaching of the Buddha. “Looking with the eyes of compassion” is an expression from the Lotus Sutra, describing Avalokiteshvara. When you look at others with the eyes of compassion, not only do they feel pleasant but you also feel very pleasant, because understanding and love pervade your heart. The amount of happiness you have depends on the amount of compassion that is in your heart. Compassion always carries with it joy and freedom. If you love someone without understanding, you deprive her of her freedom.

In Buddhist psychology, we say that our consciousness is made of two levels. The lower level is called store consciousness (alayavijnana), like the basement. We keep all our seeds down there, and every time we or someone else waters a seed, that seed will sprout and manifest itself on the upper level of our consciousness, called mind consciousness (manovijnana). Mind consciousness is like the living room consciousness. Seeds in the storehouse consciousness manifest themselves in the living room consciousness. There are also mental formations. Mental formations are of 51 kinds, according to the Northern tradition of Buddhism. Mindfulness, loving kindness, hatred, violence, fear, equanimity, and faithfulness are mental formations. They manifest themselves on the upper level of our consciousness.

Our store consciousness is described as the soil, the earth, containing many positive and negative seeds. We have to be aware of all these seeds and their importance. We have seeds of suffering in us, but not only seeds of suffering. When we look deeply into ourselves, we hay touch the suffering first, but we should know that there are other seeds present. Our ancestors have transmitted to us seeds of suffering, but also seeds of peace, freedom, joy, and happiness. Even if these seeds are buried deep in our consciousness, we can touch them and help them manifest.

To touch the seeds of joy, peace, and love within you is a very important practice. You can ask your friends to do the same for you. If you love someone, you acknowledge their positive seeds, and practice touching them every day. Touching and watering the seeds in one person is a very concrete practice of love. If you love me please refrain from watering only the seeds of anger, despair, and hatred in me. If you love me, recognize the seeds of joy, gladness, peace, and solidity in me also and touch them, several times a day. That will help me grow in the direction of health, joy, and happiness.

To practice mindfulness is to practice selective touching. Your happiness and suffering depend on you and the people around you. If they refrain from touching your negative seeds, if they know the art of touching the positive seeds in you, you become a happy person and your suffering will gradually be transformed by that kind of selective touching.

We learn how to touch the beauty of the sky and the autumn leaves even if pain and sorrow are still there. If it is difficult, we have to rely on the presence of a Dharma sister or brother ot help us do so. If one mindful person, capable of joy and happiness, sits close to us, her energy of mindfulness and joy will support us and help restore our balance. Suddenly, with her sitting close, we are able to touch the blue sky and the colors of autumn again. I think all of us have had that kind of experience. Alone it may be difficult. But with someone beside you, solid and free, it is less difficult. We profit very much from his or her presence. If you find yourself in a desperate situation and that person is far away, you go to her, because her presence can help you restore your balance and get in touch with the positive elements that are within and around you. That is why a Sangha and a practice center are so crucial.

You need a practice center where you can find brothers and sisters, so that in difficult moments you know where to go to get support. Even if you cannot come, just thinking about it can give you some relief. Building a practice center, building a small Sangha in your city so that you have the opportunity of meeting other brothers and sisters for the practice of walking meditation, mindful breathing, tea meditation, and recitation of the precepts is very important. It is a raft that can rescue us.

One young American who practiced during the Winter Retreat at Plum Village was asked to write down all the positive traits of his father and his mother. He found it easy to list positive things concerning his father, but he was having difficulty with his mother. He was able to write only two or three positive things about her. But when he began to look deeply, he was surprised to find that he could touch many positive things in his mother. He practiced walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindful breathing, and all the activities of the Sangha. Then when he sat down to write, the insight came very naturally. In a few days he discovered dozens of positive qualities in his mother. The more his discovered, the more his resentment toward his mother vanished, and he reestablished his deep connection with her. Compassion and love flowed in his heart. Then he sat down and wrote a love letter to her.

When his mother received the letter, she was very moved. Her son had never talked to her that way, in the language of true love. He recognized all her qualities and felt grateful for her presence. She rediscovered her son and her own happiness. She regretted that her mother was not still alive so she could write the same kind of letter to her. The son then wrote another letter, saying, “Mother, my grandmother is still alive in you. You think that she has passed away, but she is still alive in you. You can touch her deeply. So why don’t you write that letter now? I am sure Grandmother will read your letter, even as you are writing it.” That was the insight he got in the practice – that all our ancestors are still alive in us. Our parents, even if we hate them and do not want anything to do with them, are still inside us. We are only a continuation of them. The son wrote the second letter to his mother, and his mother practiced writing the same letter to her mother. One person practicing may help the whole family to practice.

The practice of Buddhist meditation is the practice of true love. True love has the power to liberate us ad bring happiness to ourselves and to living beings around us. True love is the love that retains liberty and creates joy. We cannot be peaceful and happy if we do not have true love in us.

The Nine Prayers

  1. May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
  2. May I be free from injury. May I live in safety.
  3. May I be free from disturbance, fear, and anxiety.
  4. May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and of love.
  5. May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
  6. May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
  7. May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
  8. May I be able to live fresh, solid and free.
  9. May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

NOTE: After practicing “May I be…”, you can practice, “May he (or she) be…”, visualizing first someone you like, then the one you love the most, then someone who is neutral to you, and finally the person whom thinking of makes you suffer the most. Then you can practice, “May they be…’, beginning with the group, the people, the nation, or the species you like, then the one you love, then the one that is neutral to you, and finally the one you suffer the most when you think of.

Photos:
First photo by Simon Chaput.
Second photo by Debora Faust.

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