Dharma Talk: The Habit of Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Upper Hamlet, Plum Village June 19, 2012


Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is Tuesday, the nineteenth of June 2012, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall, Upper Hamlet. This is our nineteenth day of the twenty-one-day retreat.

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Sitting here, I can hear the sound of the rain. I know that I’m with my Sangha, sitting together, enjoying this present moment. With mindfulness, this moment must be a happy moment.

 

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The practice of non-thinking is the secret of success in meditation. When thinking settles in, you lose the first impression of contact. You do not have much chance to be in the here and the now, and to be in touch with what is in your body and around you. Instead, just become aware of contact and feelings. In this way you can be in touch with the elements of nourishment and healing available in your body and in the environment, both physical and mental.

The Universal Mental Formations

There are five mental formations called universal. They are present in every consciousness, in every mental formation.

The first one is touch, mental contact. Sparsha. When eyes and an object come together, there is contact between them, producing eye consciousness. Eye consciousness begins with contact. So mental contact is the first thing that manifests as a perception. Organ and object bring about consciousness. And consciousness is made first of all with mental contact.

It can be followed right away by feeling: vedana. The feeling may be pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.

The third mental formation is called attention: manaskara. This has the function of drawing your attention to an object. When the bell master offers the half sound, your attention is drawn to that sound. That is manaskara, attention. Several objects of at-tention may happen at the same time—three, four, a dozen—but you’re free to choose one object to bring your attention to.

And with mindfulness you can make a good choice. Instead of listening to another sound, you’re listening to the bell. Breathing in and breathing out, just focus your attention only on the bell. Listening to the bell can help you to create the energy of concentration that can help you to calm down the body and the mind. So that kind of attention is good in nature. It’s called appropriate attention. You choose to focus your attention on something that is wholesome, that will be of benefit. A good practitioner always practices appropriate attention. The Sanskrit word is yoniso manaskara.

But when we allow our attention to go to objects that do not benefit our peace and practice, it’s called inappropriate attention. It’s called ayoniso manaskara. So as a good practitioner, mindfulness helps us to focus our attention only on the objects of benefit, and that can come before contact (sparsha) or after contact. After contact, you may see that this is not a good object of attention, and you may change the object of attention. So manaskara can come before sparsha or after sparsha. These five universal mental formations are always present with consciousness, any kind of consciousness. They are a series, and they bring about a perception.

One day we had a retreat in northern California and there was a fire in the mountains. During sitting meditation and walking meditation, we heard the sound of helicopters. When you have been in a war, like the wars in Vietnam, the sound of helicopters reminds you of machine guns, bombs, and death. So it’s not pleasant. But there was no choice to avoid listening, so we chose to practice listening to the sound of the helicopters with mindfulness. With mindfulness, we can tell ourselves that this is not a helicopter operating in a situation of war. These helicopters are helping to extinguish the flames. With mindfulness, our unpleasant feelings were transformed into pleasant feelings, into feelings of gratitude. Mindfulness can transform everything.

When the feeling is pleasant, you stop all thinking and just become aware of the feeling. Like the pleasant feeling of walking barefoot on the beach, feeling the sand between your toes. Walking on the beach, you can be very happy, if you are able to let go of thinking of this or that.

The fourth universal mental formation is perception. What you are in touch with, what you are feeling, appears in your mind as a sign that suggests a name, like: flower. This is to have an idea about the object of your feeling. When this happens, bring your mindfulness to that perception, because it might be a wrong perception, like mistaking a piece of rope for a snake. Wrong perception is always possible, and can bring about fear, anger, irritation, and so on. Mindfulness can help you avoid wrong perception. The intervention of mindfulness is very important on the path of thinking, on the path of feeling.

 

The fifth universal mental formation is volition, cetana, resolution, intention. You have the concept, the idea, the perception of the object of your contact. You want to decide whether to possess it or to push it away. This is a decision, an intention, to accept or reject.

A New Neural Pathway

These five mental formations are always together. They form a neural pathway that can lead to either suffering or happiness. In your brain, there are many neural pathways that you are used to traveling on. For example, when you come in contact with something that habitually triggers a feeling in you, like the feeling of anger, your frequent traveling on that neural pathway turns it into a habit—the habit of suffering. With the intervention of mindfulness, you can erase that neural pathway and open up another pathway that leads to understanding and happiness.

 

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Suppose you are reaching for a big piece of cake. Because you have learned mindfulness, suddenly your awareness helps you to ask, “Why am I reaching for the cake? I’m not hungry.” You may have some worry, some anxiety, some irritation, and you reach for something to eat to forget, to cover up the irritation in you. That becomes a habit because a neural pathway in your brain has been created for it. As a practitioner, you have to change the neural pathway to change this pattern of suffering. You should allow mindfulness and concentration to intervene so you are not the victim of that suffering.

Suppose you are in a discussion group and you have a chance to speak about your suffering. You may express your suffering in a way that will make you continue to suffer, like you have in the past. Or you may choose another way. You know that brothers and sisters in the Dharma are listening, trying to help you recognize and embrace the suffering so that you can heal and transform. While speaking, you use mindfulness and concentration in order to share. Your way of sharing changes, and after having shared, you suffer less. Otherwise, sharing in the old way, you are just rehearsing your suffering.

With mindfulness and concentration intervening in the process of perception, a new neural pathway is created that does not lead to suffering. Instead it can lead to understanding and compassion, and happiness and healing. As a good practitioner you know how to make a new pathway in your brain. Our brains have the power of neural plasticity; they can change. Old neural pathways can disappear and new ones open so that you have access to happiness and compassion.

Suppose someone says something that angers you. Your old pathway wants to say something to punish him. But that makes us victims of our habit energy. Instead, you can breathe in and say, “Unhappiness is in me, suffering is in me, anger is in me, irritation is in me.” That is already helpful, recognizing your feelings and helping you not to respond right away. So you accept that anger and irritation in you, and smile to it. With mindfulness, you look at the other person and become aware of the suffering in him or in her. He may have spoken like that to try to get relief from his suffering. He may think that speaking out like that will help him suffer less, but in fact he will suffer more.

With just one or two seconds of looking and seeing the suffering in him, compassion is born. When compassion is born, you don’t suffer any more, and you may find something to say that will help him. With the practice, we can always open new neural pathways like that. When they become a habit, we call it the habit of happiness.

During the winter retreat, Thay stayed in Upper Hamlet for three months. Every morning, when he first got up, he washed his face. The water was very cold. Thay usually opened the tap so the water came out drop by drop, and he put his hand under the water faucet and received the feeling of cold water. It helped to make him more awake. It was very refreshing. He took some of these drops of water and put them in his eyes and felt the refreshment in his eyes. He enjoyed the washing and did not want to finish quickly. He did not have to think. He wanted to be fully alive, so he took time to enjoy the pleasure of the water.

Mindfulness and understanding helped him to see that this water has come from very far away. From up in the mountain, from deep down in the earth, it comes right into your bathroom. When you develop the habit of being happy, then everything you do, like serving yourself a cup of tea, you do in such a way that it creates joy and happiness.

When Thay put on his jacket and walked, he enjoyed every step from his hut to the meditation hall. He always got in touch with the moon or the stars or the fresh air. To be alive and to be walking on this small path is a great joy. To go to the meditation hall and sit with the brothers is a great joy. So every moment can be a moment of happiness, of joy.

If you have depression, if you have some problem with your mental health, the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight will help stop you from traveling the same old neural pathways. You open a new path, a path of happiness. Focusing on your suffering is not the only way to heal. Instead, you focus on the non-suffering side that is in the here and the now.

You have many good seeds of happiness and joy in you. You have the seed of compassion, of understanding, of love in you, and you practice in order to get in touch with appropriate attention, stopping your thinking, enjoying the pleasant feeling that is possible in the here and the now. You recognize the many conditions of happiness that are here, in order to make this moment into a pleasant moment. This is possible. While you are doing so, the healing takes place. You don’t have to make any effort because you have the habit of happiness. All of us have the capacity to be happy. Suffering is not enough!

The Five Particular Mental Formations

After you have studied the five universals, you may like to learn about the five particular mental formations, which are: desire, resolution, mindfulness, concentration, understanding/insight. Chanda, adhimoksha, smrti, samadhi, prajna.

The first, desire, is intention. Intention can be positive or negative. Our good intention is our desire to practice, to open new neural pathways, to create happiness. I want to transform suffering, and I know ways to do it. Our resolution is our determination, our confidence that this is what we want. I want to practice, to change myself, to cut off the source of nutriments that lead to suffering. I want to consume only what is good for my mental and physical health. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight are the energies that develop neural pathways leading to compassion, understanding, and happiness.

Eight Levels of Consciousness

The first level of consciousness is eye consciousness. Form is the object of eyes. When eyes and form encounter each other, it brings about eye consciousness, sight. Eye consciousness always has contact, attention, and feelings, because any consciousness has the five universals within it. They happen very quickly, maybe in less than one millisecond.

The second through the fifth consciousnesses are: ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, and body consciousness. Body and touch, tongue and taste, nose and smell, ear and sound, eyes and form. These consciousnesses are a kind of flow; their nature is a continuum, always going through birth and death.

It’s like the flame of a candle. We have the illusion, the false perception, that it is one flame, but instead there is a succession of millions of flames together without interruption. When someone draws a circle with a flaming torch, you may see a circle of fire. But it is an optical illusion. When the movement is done very quickly, you have the impression that there is a whole circle of fire instead of just one flame.

Consciousness has the nature of cinematography, with one image following another, giving the impression that there is something continuous. So all the five consciousnesses operate like that. When you see an elephant walking, there is a succession of images of the elephant, subject and object always changing. These five consciousnesses can stop operating and manifest again when there are the right conditions. They are not continuous like other consciousness. When you go to sleep, maybe three, four, or five stop operating altogether.

According to Buddhist teaching, when they operate alone without mind consciousness, they might have the opportunity to touch the Ultimate. There’s no thinking. The first moment of touching and feeling can help these five consciousnesses touch the ultimate, touch reality. That is called in Sanskrit pratyaksha. There is direct contact, with no discrimination or speculation. But when the five collaborate with mind consciousness, then the thinking, the discrimination, the speculation settle in and they lose contact with the ultimate, with reality.

The sixth is called mind consciousness. It can be interrupted also, if you fall into a coma, or sleep without dreaming, or enter a meditation called no thinking, no perception. If you dream while sleeping, your sixth consciousness still operates, but it does not get the form, the sound, etc. from these five, but from the eighth, the store consciousness. The store consciousness contains the seeds of everything, so the world of dreams is created from store consciousness.

All the consciousnesses manifest from the base, from the seeds in the store. The seed of eye consciousness gives rise to eye consciousness. The seed of nose consciousness gives rise to nose consciousness. Object and subject arise at the same time.

The seventh is manas, the ground for the sixth to lean on in order to manifest. Manas has a wrong view about self. It is always seeking pleasure and trying to avoid suffering. Manas ignores the goodness of suffering and the dangers of pleasure seeking. Manas ignores the law of moderation. A practitioner should try to instruct manas to transform wrong views concerning self. We have to instruct manas that there is a lot of danger in pleasure seeking; that we shouldn’t try to run away from suffering because if we know how to make good use of suffering, true happiness will become possible. That is the work of meditation.

Mind consciousness with mindful concentration can help open up a new path in store consciousness. Every action that we have performed is preserved by store consciousness. Any thought we have produced today or yesterday, whether in the line of right thinking or wrong thinking, is always stored. Nothing is lost, and it will come back at some point as retribution.

Store consciousness receives information, receives action, and processes it and allows it to mature, to ripen. Maturation can take place at every moment. The seeds of information can manifest on the screen of mind consciousness. The store can be compared to a hard drive, which maintains and stores information. But the information on your hard drive is static; it’s not alive, while all the seeds in store consciousness are alive and changing every moment, going through birth and death, renewing all the time; they are living things.

Characteristics of Seeds in Store Consciousness

The bija, the seeds, have characteristics. The first characteristic of a seed is in Sanskrit kshanakarma. It means going through birth and death every moment, cinematographic, always changing, always evolving. Not like the information you store in your computer that stays the same. They are alive, growing, maturing. Their nature is instantaneous (Sanskrit: kshana); it means they only subsist a very short unit of time.

The second aspect of the seeds is in Sanskrit sahabhu. It means that the seed of a mental formation and a mental formation co-exist, serving as cause and effect for each other. They are always together like the left and the right. For example, cause and effect manifest at the same time. Like subject and object, left and right, above and below.

The third aspect of seeds is in Sanskrit bhavangasrota. It means it forms a continuous series. It engenders its own fruit and seeds, again and again. It makes a continuum. It is not a static object; it is a flow. It has its own nature: a seed of corn manifests only as a corn plant. The seed of anger has anger as its nature; you cannot mix it with the seed of compassion.

The fourth aspect of seeds is in Sanskrit vyakrta. It means their nature as wholesome, neutral, or unwholesome is determinate. Every thought, word, or action that you perform can be classified either as neutral, wholesome, or unwholesome.

The fifth characteristic is that seeds are always ready to manifest when conditions are right. The manifestation of a seed can be helped or blocked by other conditions.

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The sixth nature of seeds is that seeds always bear fruit. A seed brings about its own fruit. That’s the law of retribution. A good act will bring a good result. Happy, compassionate speech will bring a good result. So the seed of corn only manifests as a plant of corn, and not something else.

Retribution

Store consciousness operates in a way that is not known to mind consciousness. It’s difficult for mind consciousness to see clearly how store consciousness operates. Store consciousness has the duty to maintain, to hold these seeds. Store consciousness has the ability to receive and preserve every act, whether it is speech, a thought, or a physical action.

 

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We continue as a body, as a series of consciousnesses, because store consciousness has the capacity to hold that for us. What we perform as karma, as action, through our thinking and speaking and acting, will always have retribution, and retribution can be seen in the here and the now. Your body, your feelings, your perceptions are a certain way because you have acted in a way that will bring those results. So that is the fruit, the retribution, of your action. The state of your body, the state of your mind, and the state of your environment are the results of your action.

There are two kinds of retribution. The main retribution is your body and mind, the results of your action in the past. You are your action; you are your karma. You are the way you are because you have performed the karma that has led you to this state of body and mind.

The other aspect of retribution is the environment. The environment is you. It’s you who have created that environment because of your karma, your action. There is collective karma and individual karma. Both you and the environment are the fruit of your action, are your retribution. Store consciousness has the power, the duty, to ripen and to manifest the fruit of your action.

Vijnapti has many meanings. The first meaning is to manifest. The seeds of store consciousness manifest in body and mind and environment. You have not been created by a god; you are a manifestation from your own action. You have not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being. You will not go from the realm of being into the realm of non-being. You have not been created; you are only manifested.

To manifest in this form, and then to manifest in another form, and then in another form, is like the cloud. Now it is a cloud, later on it will be rain. Later on it will be tea or it will become ice cream. There are many manifestations of the cloud. You are like that cloud, and you can choose a path of transformation that you like, that is beautiful. So vijnapti is manifesting as consciousness, as body, as environment. In Sanskrit, all words or nouns that have the “vi” prefix have to do with consciousness. “Vi” means to distinguish, to perceive.

So to manifest as body and mind and environment, and to perceive that body, that mind, that environment, that is vijnapti. In Buddhism there is a school of thought called vijnaptimatra, meaning manifestation only, no creation, no destruction. There is only manifestation. Manifesting from the seeds, from consciousness.

The Light of the Candle

We conclude this Dharma talk with the image of a candle that emits light. Light is an action of the candle. Light is the candle itself. Here we also have another candle that emits light. The candle receives its own action, because the light emitted by one candle shines upon the other candle. What you do has an effect on yourself and has an effect on another person. There are other candles that are close to you; not only do you affect yourself, but you affect the next candle. So here you see the light of this candle, but there is the participation of the other candle also. If you analyze this zone of light, you see this is the light emitted by this candle, but also some of it has been emitted by the other candle.

Imagine there are multiple candles, and one shines in every other candle. You can think in terms of force fields. Subatomic particles can be seen as energy, and they exert influence on other atoms, other subatomic particles. The candle and the light of the candle are the same. We are the same. We and our action are the same. We are only our action. Force fields are like that. Everything is made by everything else. The one is made by the all, and looking into the one, we can see all. Looking into our rose, we see the whole cosmos in it.

You can see that everywhere there is both collective light and individual light. In fact, you can no longer distinguish between the collective and the individual, to the point that you can eliminate the notion of collective and individual, so that you can be free.

Consciousness is like that. The question you may ask is whether everyone has individual store consciousness. Think of the candle, think of our suffering. Our suffering is made of non-suffering elements. Our suffering carries the suffering of our father, our mother, our ancestors, and of the world. So you cannot say that it is individual suffering; you cannot say that it is wholly collective suffering. They inter-are. So interbeing is a good term to describe everything.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

 

Further Reading on Buddhism and Science

Click the links below  to read the following articles on Buddhism, science, and mathematics:

  • While attending “The Sciences of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June, OI member Paul Tingen was encouraged by a few monastics to write down some of his insights into the parallels between new discoveries in neuroscience and our practice. The result was an essay called “Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain: How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice.It describes how mindfulness practice and the insight of neuroplasticity can help us rewire our brains and alleviate habitual patterns of suffering.
  • Seven Interbeings” is an article written by Tetsunori Koizumi, Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies, in response to Thay’s inspirational Dharma talks given during the June 2012 retreat, “The Sciences of the Buddha.” The article demonstrates how Thay’s innovative concept of interbeing is consistent with some fundamental relational principles of mathematics.

PDF of article

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

Dharma Talk: The Practice of Prayer

By Thich Nhat Hanh

What is prayer? To whom should we pray? Does prayer bring results?

Thich Nhat Hanh

A five-year-old boy who loved playing with his pet mouse was deeply wounded when his mouse tunneled deep into the earth and didn’t come back, but the mouse never returned. Later, when he was a college student, the same young man attended a class that began each day with a prayer. The prayers mostly seemed silly to him, such as, “I pray it will be sunny tomorrow so we can have a picnic.” But one day a fellow student came into class crying. She told the professor that doctors had just discovered that her mother had a brain tumor and might survive only one more week.

The professor stood up, looked deeply at each student, and said, “If you do not believe in the healing power of God, please leave the room. We are going to pray for Nancy’s mother.” The young man wanted to leave but didn’t have the courage. Then the professor asked everyone to kneel down, and he offered a short but very powerful prayer: “God, I thank you for healing Nancy’s mother right now. In the name of Christ, Amen.” Two weeks later, they learned that Nancy’s mother’s tumor had disappeared without a trace. Her healing was a miracle, and the young man’s belief in prayer was renewed.

Why do some prayers succeed and some not? Are there methods that can guarantee our prayers? If your prayers do not bring good results, is it because we do not have enough faith or love? In the Bible, is says that faith can move mountains. If we want our bulb to light up, there has to be current running through the electrical line.

Last summer a practitioner at Plum Village was very ill with cancer. Sister Chan Khong suggested that she pray to her grandmother, who had lived to be 97. Sister Chan Khong said, “The strong genes of your grandmother are in you. Ask them to help you transform the sick cells that are also in you.” Sister Chan Khong taught her for only fifteen minutes, but because she had a lot of faith, she understood the teaching and put it into practice. The young lady prayed to her grandmother in herself while she ate, while she walked, while she sat, and while she touched the earth.

When I practice sitting meditation, I always send loving energy to my students. Sister Dam Nguyen in Vietnam and Jim Fauss in California both have had cancer. Whether my students know I love them or not, when I send my energy to them, I am sure it arrives. What matters most is that my heart is open. I only need to touch the source of love in me and send my love in my thoughts and also in my actions. This is a basic form of prayer that can be practiced not just in church or a meditation hall, but in every act. You touch the deep source of beauty and goodness in yourself and share it. When you pray or chant the words of the Buddha or Christ, it encourages peace in yourself, in others, and in the environment. Behind it is the practice of mindful living.

All the Vietnamese Buddhists know this prayer (De Tu Kinh Lay): “I have been a victim of craving, anger, arrogance, jealousy, and confusion, living in suffering and darkness for thousands of generations. Thanks to the light of the Buddha, I now see the roots of my afflictions, and I vow to begin anew to transform these afflictions in order to live happily.” This prayer is a mirror, an effort to look deeply into ourselves and see the seeds of craving, anger, ignorance, and confusion in us. “The light of the Buddha” is our mindfulness. We look deeply into our negative habit energies, see our shortcomings, and try to transform them.

I vow to avoid wrong actions and to take the path of goodness. I ask for the Buddha’s compassion to help me to have a healthy body and a mind free of suffering and confusion.” We pray for a body without disease and a mind without suffering, so we can enjoy peace, stability, and liberty and be released from the cycle of suffering. This prayer helps us live a life filled with health, happiness, and stability, free from craving, anger, and ignorance. We make some effort, and outside efforts follow. In fact, there is no boundary between our efforts and those from outside.

Whom should we address our prayers to? God? Buddha? Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva? We have to look deeply into the nature of God, the nature of the Buddha, the nature of Avalokiteshvara. Whenever we join our palms and bow our heads, we can ask, “Who am I and who is the object of my venerations and what is the connection between us?” If we think there is no connection between God and us, that we are different from God, our prayer is just superstition.

When I was sixteen, my teacher asked me to memorize this sentence: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty.” I recited this sentence for ten years before I realized its meaning. The Buddha is in me, and I am in the Buddha. We are two, yet we are one. We are both empty of a separate self, so the communication between us is perfect. We can pray to God, because we are a part of God. We don’t need time or space. The deep link is immediate. There is electricity in our power line.

For prayer to bring results, the first condition is the establishment of communication and the second is the establishment of the electrical line, which is mindfulness, concentration, understanding, and love. When we have these conditions, the power line will surely work, and the result of our prayer will be realized immediately, beyond time and space. When body and mind are in oneness, when there is concentration and understanding, you can touch the actual cells of your grandmother in you, and these cells can be transformed and healed. When you touch God, the Buddha, or the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in you, their energy and your energy become one. Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is the symbol of love. Manjushri is the symbol of understanding. Samantabhadra is the symbol of action with understanding. We cannot deny their existences. When love exists, Avalokiteshvara exists.

If God’s will decides everything, what is the use of praying? How can we change the fruit of our actions? The answer is understanding. When we understand deeply that our ancestors are in us, that there is no distance at all between our cells, our grandmother’s cells and our cancer can be transformed. The will of God is also our will, because we and God are one. If we decide to change, everyone, even those hostile to us, will change also.

To pray, we must have great understanding. If we want God, the Buddha, or a bodhisattva to do something for us and if we make a kind of program for them to follow, we may think that will make us happy. We might pray that no living beings will be killed, no trees cut, or no river polluted and we create a program for God to implement point by point. But in God’s program, there is also death. If insects don’t die, millions of acres of wheat may be destroyed. Living beings eat other living beings, and the result is a kind of balance. Do we have the insight to create a balanced environment? If we do not, our prayer may be naïve. We pray for ourselves and those we love, but if God fulfills these prayers it may cause disorder in the world. Our prayers must always go together with understanding and insight. To develop insight, we practice mindful breathing to calm ourselves and restore the peace and serenity in us.

An American doctor has said that God is like a communications satellite. Our wishes and aspirations are sent to that satellite, and then God sends back grace to those we pray for. Buddhists would call that satellite our collective consciousness (alaya vijnana). Whenever there is a transformation in our individual consciousness, there is also a transformation in the collective consciousness, including the consciousness of those we pray for. In this way, our mind is a creator of the collective consciousness. So we have to go back to our mind and transform ourselves. When we do so, it is quicker than a satellite. When you send a prayer to a satellite, it takes a few ksana (a fraction of a second) to arrive. Even light takes time. But when we touch our store consciousness and thereby the collective store consciousness, the part of God that is within us, we touch God right away. This satellite is not out in space; it is within us. As long as we have the notion that we and God are separate entities, it takes time for our prayer to reach the satellite and for God to receive and send it to the one we pray for. But in deep Christianity and deep Buddhism, we see that the one we pray to and the one we pray for are both in the same satellite, which is in us. Collective consciousness and individual consciousness exist simultaneously. When we are in touch with our own consciousness, we are already in touch with the collective consciousness. Touching the collective consciousness, we also touch our individual consciousness.

We think that those who have passed away no longer exist, but according to Buddhism, that is not correct. They are still there, everywhere, including in us. Although your grandmother has passed away, she is still in you. When you understand this, your prayers will be effective. Buddha is the nature of beauty and goodness in you. When you touch the Buddha in you, you can do what he had done. When you are angry or sad, if you touch those seeds of beauty and goodness in you, you will see more clearly. The Buddha in you helps you overcome difficulties. He helps you accept thinks that are difficult to accept. He transforms you.

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If you hear that the Buddha will lead a walking meditation on Gridhrakuta Mountain and if you want to fly to India to join him, I would certainly understand. But if you practice walking meditation every day and know how to be deeply in touch with life, you will not need to fly to Gridhrakuta Mountain. Buddha is not a concept, but the true nature of awakening. You can take a step right here and now, and you are already walking hand in hand with the Buddha.

We can pray not only to God, the Buddha, or our ancestors, but also to those who are still alive. When we have difficulties, if we think of someone who has stability, joy, peace, and a clear mind, we feel supported. These living bodhisattvas have the ability to listen to us and use their energy to help us. We should pray no only to bodhisattvas who are in the clouds, like Avalokiteshvara, but to those who are alive on earth. Your own roommate may be a bodhisattva, but if you don’t hold her in high enough esteem, you will not see her. If she listens with all her heart, with all her attention and compassion, she is Avalokiteshvara. If you open your heart only to bodhisattvas in the clouds, you may miss many real bodhisattvas here who have love and care, who listen to you deeply. Bodhisattvas are people who have practiced day after day so that their insight has grown. When you walk in mindfulness and have more peace and joy, your insight is growing. It is not only the Buddha who has insight. You also have your insight. You might have been less compassionate in the past, but through the practice your compassion has grown.

I often pray to those who are still alive. There are many small Sanghas everywhere of people who really practice and transform their suffering. I feel deeply supported by them. This is real prayer. I also pray to trees, the moon, and the stars. They are strong and stable, and they can support us. Do not pray to God as a concept. Touch God in His creations. You are a creation, so you can touch God in yourself and in those around you. Let us look at The Lord’s Prayer: 

Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Amen. 

“Thy Kingdom come.” The best way to chant, sing, or pray is to touch the kingdom of God right here and now. ”Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the key. The Lord’s will must be realized not only in heaven, but also on earth. Don’t wait until you reach the kingdom of God – until you pass away – to obtain stability, peace, and joy. Touch it here and now. A Zen master was asked, “Where do you find the world of no-birth and no-death?” And he said, “Right in the world of birth and death.”

Give us this day our daily bread,” is the practice of mindfulness. We only need food here and now. “Form is emptiness” is not enough. Emptiness is also form. We always want to save for the future, but to live in the present moment deeply is most important. We have to pray throughout the day, not only before going to sleep. How can there be eternity if there is no present moment?

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Trespasses are the mistakes we have made with those we love. We have said something unkind; we have acted or thought in ways that have caused suffering. We have made many mistakes and hurt others. We have to live in a way that allows us to forgife ourselves and forgive those who have hurt us. We have not been mindful, and we have to release our hurts and the hurts of others. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of action.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” What kinds of temptation? – craving, anger, arrogance, doubt jealousy, suspicion. Practice is much easier with a Sangha, a community of friends. When you are alone, you are easily tempted, but with a Sangha, when you become angry or afraid, your brothers and sisters will help calm you down. With a Sangha, you are very stable and will not fall into the lower realms. Many people are in hell right now, living in loneliness, anger, or despair. Others are in heaven, living beautifully.

We have to learn the art of praying deeply. Usually, when we have some difficulty, we call upon God and say, “Help me.” This is okay, but we also have to learn to pray on a large scale. Our aim is to cross the ocean of birth and death without fear. Asking God to do something for us is too superficial. At other times we bargain with God: “If you give me such and such, I will shave my head and be a vegetarian for three months.” When they cross the ocean, many Vietnamese boat people say that if they survive they will shave their heads for three months. There is nothing wrong with that. I only want you to practice more deeply, so you can smile to that bargaining part of you.

We usually pray for good health, success, or harmony. But it is a dream to think our health can be perfect. We are alive now because we were sick in the past. Thanks to our illnesses, we have immunity from certain diseases. Don’t dream of perfect health. Please learn to live with these little diseases, and enjoy the 98% health you have.

There has been a lot of progress in medicine in the past fifty years. People now see that the health of the body is deeply linked to the health of the mind. If we learn how to resolve the blocking points in our mind, many of our diseases will be cured. A good physician must look deeply.

We are at the gateway to a new step in medicine, that can be called “collective-manifestation-medicine” or the “medicine of one mind.” We see that many elements, near and far, make us sick and cure us. We may suffer from something our grandfather did two generations ago, or from the effects of an atomic bomb that was dropped in the South Pacific, or from someone else’s unhappiness. When someone is unhappy, he may hurt us deeply. Because we don’t have a separate self, we are connected in all directions, through time and through space.

Success is also usually seen as an element for our happiness. But our success may requires another person’s failure. When we are able to pray for ourselves, for those we love, and also for those who cause us problems, the energy of mindfulness, concentration, understanding, and love in us grows stronger. If you cannot pray for those who cause us difficulty, do not blame God or the Buddha if you do not have good results.

We also pray for harmony in the world. But life is filled with harmony and disharmony, successes and failures, ups and downs. When we are in touch with the ultimate dimension, harmony or disharmony, success or failure are all okay. We try our best to make life more harmonious. That’s all. When you step into the world of the Avatamsaka, into the Kingdom of God, whatever happens to your health is okay, whether you have so-called success or failure is okay, whether you live one or ten more years is okay. When you have touched the ultimate dimension deeply, you can dwell in the cycle of samsara with a smile.

In the past, if you had a success, you were happy. If you had a failure, you were unhappy. But once you have touched the ultimate dimension, you see that failure is also fine. Because of your failure, other people may succeed. Others may see disharmony, but you see harmony. The deep aim of a practitioner is to touch the ultimate dimension in daily life. Everywhere you go, you see that you and others are one. Even if your health is not perfect, even if your success is not great, it’s okay. The prayer of the practitioner is very deep and not on the level of the historical dimension and touch the ultimate reality. Then your relationships with others, your relationship with God, and your relationship with the Buddha will be relationships of oneness.

At Plum Village, we try to open many doors of happiness to help you keep your balance. When you return home, you have to establish your own breathing room, your own Sangha, where you can breathe, listen to Dharma talks, and have Dharma discussions, so you have more peace to help you cope with the unhappiness of people. When others are unhappy and thrown their unhappiness on you, you have to receive it and transform it.

In the collective consciousness is the collective consciousness of many bodhisattvas, many buddhas, you yourself, and also those who are not happy. Try to use the new step in medicine to bring you to that realm of buddhas and bodhisattvas, where you will not be drowned in the sickness of negativity. This new medicine is not limited by time. It can happen millions of years in the past or the future. It is not limited by space. When Kepler discovered that the tides on earth are influenced by the moon, no one believed him. Even Galileo thought Kepler had imagined it. Now we know that the gravity of the moon influences the earth, and the stars influence us.

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Our health is the same. Those who live far from us can make us very happy or unhappy. In “oneness-of-mind medicine,” the doctor also has to pray for his or her patients, because we know that the mindfulness and compassion of our physician influences us. A physician cannot be just a mechanic: “Here is a prescription. Open your mouth.” She must go the next step. After making her best prognosis, she must say, “I will pray for you, too.” And she sends her love, care, and compassion to her patients. Before seeing a patient, she has to breathe, calm herself to restore the peace and happiness of her own body and mind, and then look deeply into the patient, diagnose, and while giving the patient a prescription, say, “Follow this, and I will pray for you. I will send my love to you.” We have to do this also, not just physicians. When your brother is sick, you cannot just say, “The hospital will take care of him.” You also have to send your love and care to your brother in the hospital. You have to send your love and care to all who are in danger. You cannot just say, “They will take care of themselves.” We deeply influence each other.

Dr. Larry Dossey says that in our time we have to open the door to this new step in medicine. He proposes that every physician encourage his patients to pray, and physicians who forbid their patients from praying be subject to suit. Physicians have to care not only about medicine and the body, but also about spirit. For your happiness with yourself and the happiness of your brothers and sisters in the Dharma and in your blood family, you have to send your love everywhere. With every step I take, I send compassion to myself and to brothers and sisters near and far away. It heals me and it will heal them. Even though Sister Dam Nguyen is in Hanoi and Jim Fauss is in California, when I send my love to them, I am sure they receive it right away.

Sending love to people is not a superstition. It is based on something scientific. When we sit together, we create a great collective energy that can support many near and far. Collective consciousness can be governed by understanding or by ignorance. The more our collective consciousness is full of ignorance, the more sickness we have in our body and mind. When we have more understanding, we have more loving kindness, and health and healing are possible. In the medicine of one mind, the collective consciousness plays a significant role in the happiness of our beloved ones and ourselves.

We have to find the root causes of our diseases, most of which come from the collective store consciousness. In medical school, they don’t teach you how to go into the unconscious domain. The unconscious of Western psychology is only a small part of the collective consciousness, and the healing of most disease comes from there. If you want to heal a diseases, organize a good store consciousness. Practice mindful sitting, walking, speaking, and  eating. Water the seeds of joy and peace in yourself every day. Enjoy the present moment and share your peace and love with other. This is real prayer.

This Dharma talk was given by Thay at Plum Village in March 1996.

Photos:
First and second photo by Gloria Norgang.
Third photo by Carole Melkonian.

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 “Heart of the Buddha” retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer’s when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can’t remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don’t believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, “When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence.” Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can’t remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don’t need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It’s not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don’t want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, “Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this.” Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don’t buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, “Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?” Then, they will begin to ask, “When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn.” At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, “Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don’t know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive.” Use ord­inary language. Don’t make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don’t look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don’t need incense. You don’t need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don’t say, “I am practicing spirituality, and you don’t know anything about it!” Try to avoid saying, “Darling, I am practicing Buddhism.” Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, “Darling, how do you do it?” Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, “Who is responsible for this?”

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn’t say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one’s own life. But I don’t want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, “What happens to the consciousness before death?” If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby’s diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don’t have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby’s diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I’m going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on “the art of mindful living.”

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Dharma Talk: Immediate Protection

By Thich Nhat Hanh

In the 1960s, American young people marched in the streets, shouting “Make love, not war.” I reflected deeply on this. What kind of love were they speaking of? Was it true love? If it were true love, it would be the opposite of war. If it were only craving, one could not call it “true love.” Making love out of craving is making war at the same time. In 1971, during the war for Bangladesh indepen­dence, soldiers raped 250,000 women; ten percent of these women became pregnant. These soldiers made love and war simultaneously. That kind of love is not true love.

True love contains the elements of mindfulness, protection, and responsibility. It carries the energy of enlightenment, understanding, and compassion. A church has to dispense the teaching on true love to all members of the church and to the children. In the Buddhist teaching, detailed in the third Mindfulness Training, a sexual relationship should not take place without true love and a long-term commitment. We must be aware of the suffering we bring upon ourselves and others when we engage in unmindful sexual activities. We destroy ourselves. We destroy our beloved. We destroy our society.

Mindfulness in the act of loving is true love. This practice of mindfulness can take place today and serve as our immediate protection. All church members should begin today the practice of mindful sexual behaviors. This is what I call immediate protection for ourselves, our community, and our society. The role of church leaders, in my belief, is to first protect themselves and their own community. If not, they cannot help protect others. When we are on an airplane, the attendant reminds us that if there is not enough oxygen, we must put on our own oxygen mask before we help another person. Similarly, our self, our own family, and religious community should be the first target of our practice and action. The elements of awakening and enlightenment need to take place immediately in our own religious commu­nity.

Children and adults should be well-informed about the problems of HIV infection and AIDS. They should be aware of the suffering that can be brought upon the individual, as well as the family, commu­nity, and society, through unmindful sexual activities. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on. What is going on now is a tremendous amount of suffering. In the year 2000, more than five million people died of AIDS; many still weep over this loss. Members of the church must wake the church up to the reality of suffering.

The awareness of suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths emphasized by the Buddha. Next, every member of the church and of the temple has to be aware of the roots of the suffering. This is the second Noble Truth. During the forty-five years of his teaching, the Buddha continued to repeat his state­ment: “I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.” Only when we recognize and acknowl­edge our suffering, can we look deeply into it and discover what has brought it about. It may take one week, two weeks, or three weeks of intense activities before the whole community, the whole church, or the Sangha will wake up to the tragedies of HIV and AIDS in its own community, as well as in the world at large. When the church and all its mem­bers are aware of the reality of suffering and its root causes, we will know what to do and what not to do for protection to be possible. The appropriate course of action can transform our suffering into peace, joy, and libera­tion.

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Daily unmindful con­sumption in our society has contributed greatly to the present suffering. The Buddha said, “Nothing can survive without food.” Love cannot survive without food; neither can suffering. Consequently, if we know to look deeply into the nature of our suffering and to recognize the kind of nutriments that have fed and perpetuated it, we are already on the path of emanci­pation. Entertainment in the media is a deep source of suffering. Movies, television programs, advertise­ments, books, and magazines expose us and our children to a kind of unwholesome nutriment, which we ingest every day via our sense organs, namely eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All of us are subject to invasions of these images, sounds, smells, tastes, and ideas. Unfortunately, these sorts of sounds, sights, and ideas in the media often water the seeds of craving, despair, and violence in our children and in us. There are so many items in the realms of entertainment that have destroyed us and our children. Many are drowned in alcohol, drugs, and sex. Therefore, to be mindful of what we consume—both edible foods and cultural items—is vital. The Fifth Mindfulness Training guides us to look at each nutriment we are about to ingest. If we see that something is toxic, we can refuse to look at it, listen to it, taste it, touch it, or allow it to penetrate into our body and our consciousness. We must practice to ingest only what is nourishing to our bodies and minds. The church has to offer this teaching and practice to all its members. The practice of protecting ourselves and our family is difficult, because the seeds of craving, violence, and anger are so powerful within us. We need the support of the Sangha. With the support of the Sangha, we can practice mindful consumption much more easily. Mindful consumption can bring us joy, peace, understanding, and compassion. We become what we consume.

Mindfulness also plays a critical role in relation­ships and communication. Relationships in the family are only possible if we know how to listen to each other with calm and loving kindness, if we know how to address each other with loving speech. Without the practice of loving speech and mindful listening, the communication between members of the family becomes tenuous. Suffering may result from this lack of communication. Many lose themselves in forget­fulness, and take refuge in sex, alcohol, violence, and tobacco. The problems of HIV infection and AIDS are intricately linked to these issues of poor relation­ship in the family and reckless consumption of sex and drugs. The layman Vimalakirti said, “Because the world is sick, I am sick. Because people suffer, I have to suffer.” The Buddha also made this state­ment. We live in this world not as separated, indi­vidual cells, but as an organism. When the whole world is devastated by the pandemics of HIV infection and AIDS, and many fellow humans are in desperate situations, our sense of responsibility and compassion should be heightened. We should not only call for help from the government and other organizations. Religious leaders need to take active roles in rebuilding our communities and reorganizing our churches by the embodiment of their own practice. The practice should aim to restore the communication between church members, between family members, and between ethnic groups. Com­munication will bring harmony and understanding. Once understanding is there in the church and the community, compassion will be born.

We know that with diseases, medical therapy alone is inadequate. We know that many people with HIV and AIDS are alienated from their own families and society. The church can offer understanding and compassion to people who suffer. They will no longer be lonely and cut off, because they will see that understanding is there, awakening is there, and compassion is there, not as abstract terms or ideas, but as realities. To me, that is the basic practice of the Sangha; that is the basic practice of the church. Without understanding and compassion, we will not be able to help anyone, no matter how talented and well-intentioned we are. Without understanding and compassion, it is difficult for healing to take place.

Thus, the practice of mindfulness should take place in the context of a Sangha—a community of people who strive to live in harmony and awareness. There are many things that we cannot do alone. However, with the presence and support of members of the community, these things can become easier for us to achieve. For example, when we have the Sangha to support us and shine light on us, we can have more success in the practices of sitting medita­tion, walking mediation, mindful eating, and mindful consumption. To me, Sangha building is the most noble task of our time.

In the Buddhist tradition, after we have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we come together every fortnight and recite them. After the recitation, we gather in a circle to have a Dharma discussion, learning more about these Five Trainings. We also discuss and share our personal experiences, in order to find better ways to apply the teaching and the practice of these trainings into our daily life. The Dharma teacher, the priest, or the monk attends the entire discussion session, contributes and guides the Sangha with his or her experiences and insights. If an individual in the Sangha has difficulties, the whole Sangha is available to support that person.

A true Sangha is a community that carries within herself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Dharma. The living Sangha always embodies the living Buddha and the living Dharma. The same must be true with other traditions. The Sangha, with her Sangha eyes, through the practice of mindfulness and deep looking, will be able to understand our situations and prescribe the appropriate course ofpractice for the protection of ourselves, our families, and society.

Today, many young people are leaving the church because the church does not offer them the appropri­ate teaching and the appropriate practice. The church does not respond to their real needs. Renewing the church by dispensing the appropriate teachings and practices is the only way to bring young people back to the church. We need to renew our church, rebuild our communities, and build Sanghas. This is the most basic and important practice. Again, in order to carry out this task, church leaders, whether clergy or laity, should embody the teaching and the practice. Young people do not only listen to our verbal messages. They observe our actions. Thus, we teach not with our sermons or our Dharma talks alone, but we teach through our behavior and our way of life.

Some people contract HIV or AIDS from blood transfusions, but often, the issue of HIV infection and AIDS is an issue of behavior. If mindfulness practice is there, and each person has the Sangha to help him or her be mindful, then we should be able to avoid bringing suffering upon ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society.

I often tell my students and others that the energy of mindfulness, generated by the practice in daily life, is equivalent to the Holy Spirit. The seed of mindfulness is there in each one of us. Once we know how to touch the seed of mindfulness in us through the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful thinking and consuming, then it will become a living source of energy in us. Mindfulness always brings about concentration, insight, understanding, and compassion. The practice brings back the energy of awakening and generates the energy of God in our daily life. I have trained people with terminal illness to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. If you know how to dwell in the here and the now, and invest 100% of yourself into your in-breath and out-breath, you become free of the past and of the future. You can touch the wonders of life right in the present moment. The Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, if you are a free person. This is not political freedom that I am talking about. This is freedom from worries and fear, freedom from the past and the future. If you can establish yourself in the here and the now, you have the basic condition for touching the Kingdom of God. There is not one day that I do not walk in the Kingdom of God. Even when I walk in the railway station, along the Great Wall, or at the airport, I always allow myself the opportunity to walk in the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is where stability is, mindfulness is, understanding is, and compassion is.

Each person has the energy of mindfulness within. Each person has the capacity of dwelling in the here and the now. Once you are fully in the present moment, you touch all the wonders of life that are available within you and around you. Your eyes are wonders of life. Your heart is a wonder of life. The blue sky is a wonder of life. The songs of the birds are wonders of life. If you are available to life, then life will be available to you. All the wonders of the Kingdom of God are available to you today, at this very moment. The Kingdom of God is now or never. Thus the question becomes, are you available to the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God can be touched in every cell of your body. Infinite time and space are available in it, and if you train yourself, it will be possible for you to walk in the Kingdom of God in every cell of your body.

When we are able to touch the Holy Spirit through the energy of mindfulness, we will also be able to have a deeper understanding of our true nature. The Buddha taught that there are two dimen­sions to reality. The first is the Historical Dimension, which we perceive and experience chronologically from birth to death. The second is the Ultimate Dimension, where our true nature is revealed. In Buddhism, we may call the ultimate reality “Nir­vana,” or “Suchness.” In Christianity, we may call it “God.” If you are a Christian, you know that the birth of Jesus does not mean the beginning of Jesus. You cannot say that Jesus only begins to be on that day. If we look deeply into the nature of Jesus Christ, we find that his nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. Birth and death cannot affect him. He is free from birth and death. In Buddhism, we often talk in terms of manifestations rather than creation.

If you look deeply into the notion of creation in terms of manifestation, you may discover many interesting things. I have a box of matches here with me, and I would like to invite you to practice looking deeply into this box of matches, to see whether or not the flame is there. You cannot characterize the flame as nonbeing or nonexistent. The flame is always there. The conditions for the manifestation of the flame are already there. It needs only one more condition. By looking deeply, I can already see the presence of the flame in the box, and I can call on it and make it manifest. “Dear flame, manifest your­self!” I strike the match on the box, and there, the flame manifests herself. It is not a creation. It is only a manifestation.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a manifestation, and the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is also a manifestation. If we know this, we will be able to touch the Living Christ. In the Buddhist teaching, not only the Buddha has the nature of no-birth and no-death, but every one of us, every leaf, every pebble, and every cloud has this nature. Our true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death.

I have learned from my practice that only by touching the Ultimate Reality in us can we transcend fear. I have offered this teaching and practice to numerous people with terminal illness. Many of them have been able to enjoy the time that is left for them to live with joy and peace, and their lives have been prolonged. In certain cases, the doctors told them that they had just three months or so to live, but they took up the practice and they lived fifteen to twenty more years. My wish is that the church will dispense teaching and practice on how to touch our Ultimate Reality to people who have been struck with the HIV/ AIDS, and also to those who have not. We should be able to help members of our community live in such a way that we can all touch Nirvana, that we can all touch the Ultimate Dimension within us in our daily lives. With the learning and the practice, we will be able to touch our true nature of no-birth and no-death. That is the only way to remove fear. Once the wave realizes that her nature—her ground of being—is water, she will transcend all fear of birth and death, being and nonbeing. We can help the people who do not have much time to live, so that they are able to live deeply with joy and solidity for the rest of their lives.

Once we can establish ourselves in the here and the now, and the fear of death is removed, we become the instruments of peace, of God, of Nirvana. We become bodhisattvas—enlightened beings working to free others from their suffering. Those of us who have been struck with HIV/AIDS can become bodhisattvas, helping ourselves and other people, and acquire that energy of healing called bodhicitta, or the mind of love.

During the Vietnam War, numerous Vietnamese and American soldiers and civilians died, and many who survived were deeply affected. Twenty-five years later, the survivors continue to be devastated by this war. I have offered a number of retreats to American war veterans. I tell them that they can become bodhisattvas because they already know what the suffering of war is about. I advise them that they should play the role of the flame on the tip of the candle. It is hot, but it will help create the awareness, the realization, that war is what we do not want. We want the opposite. We want true love. Each person can transform into a bodhisattva, creating the awareness in his or her own people, so that we will never have a war like this one again. Your life will have a new meaning and the energy of true love will guide you.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to end suffering and attain well-being. This path you have chosen to end suffering—your own and others’— is the bodhisattva path. Not only can you transcend the suffering of the past, but you bring joy and peace to yourself and your beloved ones, because you are helping to awaken people in your own community and society. The war veterans can practice creating awareness and waking people up, and the people who have been struck by HIV and AIDS can do likewise. Once motivated by the desire to work for true love, we can engage our daily lives in the activities that awaken and embrace others as well as ourselves. The work of a bodhisattva will help our healing process to take place very quickly. Our lives may become longer and of deeper quality than the lives of many who do not have HIV or AIDS.

Everything I have said comes from the experience of my own practice. I do not tell you things that I have read in books. It is possible for us to install immediate protection today, for ourselves, our families, and our communities. It is possible to provide understanding and compassion to those who suffer, so that everyone has the appropriate opportu­nities and conditions to heal. It is possible to experi­ence the Kingdom of God in the here and the now. It is possible to help the world heal as we are healing ourselves. Whatever our religious background, we must practice in such a way that we bring forth understanding, compassion, true love, and non-fear, so that possibilities become actualities. If our practice does not yield these flowers and fruits, it is not true practice. We must have the courage to ask ourselves: “Is our practice correct? Do we generate understand­ing, awakening, and compassion every day?” If we do not, we have to change our way of teaching and our way of practicing.

To me, the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, representing the energy of mindfulness, of awakening to the reality of suffering. We have to bring the Holy Spirit back to our religious communities in order for people to have true faith and direction. I sincerely believe that Sangha building is the way. It is the most noble task of the twenty-first century. Not only church leaders, but health professionals, gays and lesbians, schoolteachers, and members of different ethnicity should build Sanghas. Please reflect on this. The practice of Sangha building is the practice of giving humanity a refuge, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. When the Holy Spirit manifests in our church, God is with us.

Enjoy your breath, enjoy your steps, while we are still together as a Sangha. 

This article is from a talk given at the White House Summit on AIDS on December 1, 2000.

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