Dharma Talk: Our Vietnamese Spiritual Ancestors

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh Speaks to Communist Party Officials at the Ho Chi Minh Political Institute, Hanoi March 17 and 18, 2005

Thich Nhat Hanh

Buddhism can help us see the truth, reestablish communication, and bring happiness to ourselves and our families. The religious element of Buddhism is hope, faith, and prayer. But Buddhism is not just a religion. Buddhism has insight and concrete methods to help us resolve our difficulties, calm our emotions, transform our suffering, reestablish communication with others, and bring happiness. Methods like breathing mindfully and walking mindfully produce the energy of mindfulness. With that energy we recognize the pain that is coming up in us, and embrace it and calm it down. With mindfulness, we can look deeply and see the roots of our suffering. We are able to shine the light of understanding and transform our suffering.

In us we have anger, sadness, anxiety, and we also have love and understanding. We are like an organic garden. When flowers die they become compost, and from that compost, beautiful new flowers grow. Our suffering is our compost—our sadness, our grief, our despair, our jealousy, our discrimination. But we also have flowers—understanding, love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice – and both things are organic.

Buddhism teaches that the afflictions are the awakening. Awakening means happiness. We use the rubbish to make compost and then to grow flowers. If we know how to embrace and transform, we can turn anger into happiness and wisdom. This is called the insight of non-duality. Afflictions can become awakening. And awakening, if we do not look after it properly, will become afflictions. If we are not afraid of the rubbish, we will know how to turn it into flowers.

Hungry Ghosts 

When children cannot trust their parents, then they cannot trust their ancestors, and that is why each day our society creates thousands of hungry ghosts. These hungry ghosts feel lonely and alienated. They have suffered because of their family, school, church, temple, and society, so they deny the basic structures of society.

There are a lot of hungry ghosts both in the West and in the East. What are they hungry for? They are hungry for understanding; they feel no one understands them. They are hungry for love; they feel no one can love them. But even if we offer them love and understanding, they cannot receive it, because they have great doubt and great suspicion. So in order to help them, we have to be very patient. Hungry ghosts are not spirits in the clouds, they are people of flesh and bone around us. We have helped many hungry ghosts to return to their home and their tradition.

In Touch with My Father

One day I talked to my father and said, “Father, the two of us have succeeded.” I was successful because in that moment of sitting meditation, I felt completely free. I didn’t have any more dreams or wishes, any more projects I wanted to pursue. I felt completely free, completely relaxed; there was nothing that could pull me anymore.

When I talked with my father, I knew that he is not separate from me. Please understand that if someone who prays does not yet have the wisdom to know that the object of prayer and the subject of prayer are one, that person still has a good chance of deepening their understanding in the future. And what they are doing is valuable because communicating with their ancestors keeps them from feeling rootless.

How to Connect with Our Ancestors

Based on the treasury of Buddhist literature, in Plum Village we have developed practices that can help people to reestablish their connection with their ancestors. The practices of the Five Touchings of the Earth and the Three Touchings of the Earth have helped Westerners to heal a lot of their loneliness and agitation. Imagine five thousand Westerners touching the earth, guided to understand that all the characteristics of their ancestors are circulating in their body. When they stand up, they are different people, because they have let go of their despair, their hatred, and their anger. I would like to suggest that you look further into these practices.

We have also written a prayer for the New Year, vowing to our blood and spiritual ancestors to love, forgive, and accept each other in the coming year. If every Vietnamese family would maintain an ancestral altar, and each day take one minute to come together and light a stick of incense in silence, that moment would be enough to help us not fall into alienation. We are the trees that have their roots, we are the river that has its source, and we carry our ancestors into the future. Anyone can do this, including a businessman or a politician. In the West people have begun to do this.

Our parents have transmitted to us their whole self, according to genetic science. We cannot remove our parents and ancestors from us, because every cell contains in completion all the previous generations of ancestors. You cannot take your father or your mother out of yourself, because you are your father, you are your mother. If you are angry with your father or your mother, you are angry with yourself. If you are angry with your children, you are angry with yourself. Our children are our continuation and they are taking us into the future. If we want to be beautifully continued, we have to do the most beautiful things that our life can produce.

mb39-dharma2When a father is not happy, he will make his whole family suffer. If the children can look deeply, they will see that their father is the victim of his own suffering. Maybe when he was a child, he was not cared for, so he was wounded. When he was growing up he had no teacher to help him transform his suffering. He passed on all his suffering to his children, so they are angry with their father, and blame him. They are determined that they will not be like him, but if they do not practice, they will be just like him, because they are his continuation. Therefore, the intervention in our life of the spiritual and moral dimension is absolutely essential.

We all have received transmission from both our blood family and our spiritual family. Our teacher is our spiritual father; he gives birth to our spiritual life and transmits the whole of himself to his disciples. If we do not have a spiritual lineage transmitted to us, we have no means to recognize our suffering, or ways to transform it. We will pass on our suffering to our children, and that is a great shame. Only by having a spiritual life can we become a free person, free from our suffering.

A Question of Superstition

Question: Worshipping the ancestors is very good for our country. But when people make an offering and then make a prayer asking for something, it’s a kind of exchange: if I make an offering, then you will give me something. That is superstition.

Thay: The key to this very important question is education. The superstition of today can become the non-superstition of tomorrow. When we go to the temple, we light the incense and bow before the statue of Buddha. It may look like superstition, but Buddhist insight tells us that Buddha is the capabil­ity of under­standing, of compassion, of love. Of course that statue is just a representa­tion, a sym­bol. When people start practicing, they think that Buddha is outside of them. But when they become good practitioners, they see that they have Buddha nature within them, and they see it in others. We have to help people go to a higher level of understanding. We also have to see the cultural value in this practice and that our love for the deceased is our motivation.

Lighting Incense on the Ancestral Altar

We accept that the tree has its roots and the water has its source. The ancestral altar shows us that the value of our life comes from its source. Every day you light a stick of incense at your ancestral altar. While we are lighting the incense, we can be in touch with the ancestors in each cell of our body. My teacher taught me to put the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight into lighting the incense. When your body and mind are together fully in the moment, that is the energy of mindfulness. And when you are completely attentive to what you are doing, that is the energy of concentration. Then there will be communication between you and your ancestors in every cell in your body. Saluting the flag is not superstitious, because you know that the flag is a symbol for your country. If you say lighting incense is superstition, then you are also saying that the flag is superstition.

Our ancestors have the right to know what’s going on in our lives. When we have child who is sick, we can light a stick of incense and ask the ancestors to help the child. We say, “Oh, the child is so sick, I ask the ancestors to protect the child,” and wake up the presence of our ancestors in each of our cells and in the cells of our child. If we listen deeply, we will hear a response from the ancestors in each of our cells.

Cloning

Whatever has insight and understanding is scientific; whatever doesn’t is superstition. In cloning, you take a cell from one body and you make another body. We can take any cell, starve it for two or three days, and it will become a germ cell. Then you can remove the contents of an ovum from a woman, put it with the germ cell and insert it in the womb of a woman. After nine months the child born will be the exact replica of the cell donor. That is called clon­ing. This works because every cell of our body contains all the other cells. The teachings of the Avatamsaka Sutra are now being proved by science. According to Buddhism, religion and science are complementary.

King Tran Thai Tong 

When King Tran Thai Tong was twenty years old, his uncle declared that his nineteen-year-old queen was too old to give birth. The uncle wanted a successor to the king, so he forced Tran Thai Tong to divorce his wife and marry his wife’s pregnant elder sister, who was already married to Tran Thai Tong’s brother. The king was forced to abandon his beloved wife, so he decided to abdicate, and he went to Yen Tu Mountain. What suffering for a twenty-year-old man to go through! His elder brother also suffered a lot from losing his wife, so he tried to organize opposition to the regime. This could have created a lot of conflict within the family. But when King Tran Thai Tong went to Yen Tu Mountain, he met the National Teacher living there, who showed him how to overcome his suffering. The teacher taught the king to be a politician and a practitioner at the same time.

The king went back and continued his duties, and he also practiced sitting meditation and beginning anew six times a day. Thanks to his moral virtue he was able to be persuasive with the kings of adjacent countries who wanted to invade. He became a very important king, the first king of the Tran dynasty.

When King Tran Thai Tong’s older brother was dying, he asked his three children to take revenge against the king, but the compassionate king dissuaded them. The eldest child was Tue Trung Thuong Si, a layman who became a great Zen master. His younger brother Tran Hung Dao was important in driving the Mongol invad­ers out of the country. Their younger sister married the second Tran king. King Tran Thai Tong’s practice of Buddhism transformed his family, and they all cooperated to build the country. If King Tran Thai Tong had not had a teacher to help him develop a spiritual and moral dimension, he would never have become a great politician. On both the material side and the spiritual side, we have to take root in a lineage.

Deep Listening and Loving Speech 

In the past forty years Thay has taught many young people and intellectuals in America and Europe to understand that we are the continuation of our father and mother. Once children understand that, they can forgive their parents and transform their suffering, and then go back and help their parents to do the same.

Listening deeply and loving speech are wonderful practices of transformation. When the child knows how to practice loving speech and deep listening, he will say, “Father, I know that in the past few years, you’ve been suffering a great deal. I’m sorry that I haven’t helped; instead I’ve made things worse. I want you to tell me all your difficulties so I can understand you better, and then I won’t do or say things that make you suffer. It’s only because I am stupid that I made you suffer. Please help me.” When you have opened your father’s heart and he has begun to tell you his suffer­ing then you have to practice deep listening, like the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

We listen with compassion, with only one aim: to give that person a chance to say everything that is in their heart so they will suffer less. Even when the other person uses words of blame and bitterness, we just listen with an open heart. These two methods are very important. Loving speech: to speak using words that express everything in our heart in a way that the other person can hear and accept. Listening deeply: to listen with the heart of compassion.

At retreats in the West, everyone learns these practices. We have helped numberless parents and children to resolve their dif­ficulties through these concrete methods. Restoring communication and bringing happiness to our family is done through concrete, scientific methods. 

Conditions for Happiness

Buddhism is a source of insight that can bring us happiness right away. When I bring my body and mind together through con­scious breathing or walking, I’m able to be in touch with so many wonders of life that are in the present moment: the sky, the clouds, the birdsong, the sound of the wind in the trees. These wonders of life nourish us and make us see that life is worth living.

According to Buddhism, our basic error is believing that hap­piness is only possible in the future. We think, “Oh no, there’s not enough here for me to be happy. I need a couple more conditions to be happy.” And so I sacrifice the present for the future. But when we are fully in the present moment we see that we have far more conditions than we need to be happy. Sit at the foot of a tree and write down all the conditions for happiness you presently have. You will be surprised; you will need five or six pages.

When we are nourished by dwelling happily in the present moment, then we can begin to recognize the difficulties that are manifesting in our lives, and we can embrace and calm them. We have turned our community into a happy spiritual family. Each summer 2,000 or 3,000 laypeople come to practice with us, from at least forty countries. Everyone learns the methods of deep listening and loving speech to reestablish communication. Every retreat has miracles of reconciliation among couples, parents, and children.

This is What We Do 

We are monastics and laypeople trained in this way of practice, offering retreats and teachings so people can transform their suf­fering into happiness. Each day we learn more, because we only do this one thing.

The monk or nun in the local temple has to help families rees­tablish communication and become happy again. The monks should practice living together harmoniously, developing brotherhood. Then they can help the families in that area to do the same thing through offering retreats and teachings. The temple should have a file on each family; the Buddhist families, the families that are not yet Buddhist, and the families that are not Buddhist at all, but who can still benefit from Buddhist practices. I believe that within six months or a year the situation in that district will change.

Without a spiritual direction, our path of modernizing the nation will fail. People fall into drug addiction, gangs, crime, or sexual misconduct because they are not happy and they don’t have good communication with their parents. They are hungry ghosts, without roots in their family or in their culture. We have to take care of the problem at the roots by helping families reestablish communication and share love and happiness. This is the work that Buddhism can do.

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Meeting with the Buddhist community in the past two months, I see that at all levels, our learning is still too theoretical. We have to be practical, to know how to immediately apply what we learn. That is my advice to the leaders in different areas of study and training. In Plum Village our learning is very practical. If we are not able to practice reconciliation ourselves, then how can we help others do these things? We need to establish an institute where we can learn and practice at the same time, where we can train monastic and lay people who will help build beautiful, harmonious, and loving communities.

We are the Communists 

mb39-dharma4Wrong perceptions are the cause of ninety percent of our suffering; in Buddhism we call this ignorance. Ignorance in the Vietnamese language is vo minh, meaning lack of light, without the light. We all love our nation, but we suspect each other: “Does he really love the nation, the people? Or does he want to eliminate me?” These thoughts come about because we have a lot of fear and suspicion. The practice of dissipating wrong perceptions and establishing happiness and communication is not religious. When we suffer, we can go to the church or the temple to pray, but that only soothes some of our pain. If we want to heal, then we have to use concrete practices like those that Buddhism offers.

We are those who are truly without possessions, we are the true Communists. I think if you can generate brotherhood, then you will not want to eliminate each other or compete with each other anymore, and you can truly have that paradise of Communism right now. We already have it if we know how to generate brotherhood and sisterhood, and if we can understand and love each other. The practice of Buddhism is to recognize and acknowledge the pres­ence of suffering, such as poverty, sickness, illiteracy, and lack of organization, and then to eradicate it. If our foundation is based not on individual power, but on brotherhood and sisterhood in a community, then we can overcome these four difficulties.

 Corruption 

Before returning to Vietnam, we heard that corruption in the Communist Party in Vietnam is severe, and that the government wants to fight this corruption. In Buddhism it is said that no animal can kill the lion, the most powerful animal. The only killer of the lion is the bacteria that reproduce themselves within the body of the lion. We can fight difficulties and obstacles outside of us, but if we let bacteria manifest within us, then we will die. That is why we agreed not to participate in corruption in order for things to go easily for us. For example, if we wanted to get our books through customs at the airport, we might need to bribe someone. We told the Vietnamese embassy in France that we didn’t want to feed the system of bribery and corruption; that we have come to Vietnam to offer our contributions, and if we use these methods, we go opposite to our intention. They agreed with us completely. During the past two months we have not practiced bribery, even though we have met many difficulties. If we engage in bribery, then we cause the bacteria within to grow and we will die. If we choose the easy way out, then we betray the people who have sacrificed their lives before us.

Engaged Buddhism

If the Communist Party supports this work, then we can change the situation in our country quickly. If a young person fails in the family, he still has a chance to succeed in school; so the teachers should learn these methods of practice too. Temple, the family, and the school need to work together to help the young people. If we can do this we can move thirty years ahead of China on this path of modernization. I have taught in several Asian countries, and I see that we have a chance. Our practice is engaged Buddhism––it takes care of the things that are actually happening in life. It’s not the Buddhism that floats in the clouds.

I know that Vo Nguyen Giap led the army in the war, and now he’s doing sitting meditation each day. I also know that Prime Minister Pham Van Dong has taken the Three Refuges. I hope that if you in the government, in the Communist Party, wish to go in a spiritual direction then you will do it. If a politician cannot communicate with his or her own family then we cannot trust that politician. Vietnamese history proves the importance of the spiritual dimension. Whether we are business or political leaders, by living a spiritual life, a moral life, we are actively, positively contributing to the fight against the problems in the society, such as corruption. We teach not with our words, but with our daily life.

In Buddhism our tradition is to live simply and know that we have enough. In the developed countries, even though they consume a lot, the suffering is great. So, if we think that happi­ness lies in the direction of power, of sex, of fame, of money, then we are mistaken. There are people who are going in that direction who suffer so much in their body and in their mind. It is only love that brings happiness. Without love, without time to be present for our loved ones, how can we be happy? Buddhism is only to teach people to love in such a way that we can offer happiness to each other each day.

Marxism 

Question: How can we establish a dialogue between Marxists and religious people? I agree that Buddhist humanist philosophy contains a lot of deep understanding. Marx and Engels were very scientific, and I agree that the Buddha taught what are seen as modern developments in science. Now we need a dialogue between religion and Marxism. Marxists see that the nature of religion can be very destructive, but we also see the valuable aspect of religion which you have talked about today.

According to my understanding of Marxism, material strength is important, but spiritual strength is the strength of our people, so it is also very important. We have to create conditions to encourage the spiritual aspect. I hope there will be many dialogues like today, in this open spirit between the Party and the government and the religious leaders. 

Thay: These are very interesting points. Thay sees that Marx had a deep spiritual dimension. Buddhists are a continuation of Buddha, and must develop the wisdom of Buddha to satisfy the needs of the people of today. And you are the continuation of Marx, so you have to keep developing what Marx taught. If that doesn’t happen, Marxism will die. That is true of all traditions, not only Buddhism and Marxism.

In Buddhism, there is the expression namarupa, name and form, that means body and mind together. Sometimes things manifest as body, sometimes as mind. It is the same thing, but it manifests in two different ways. Just like when physicists look at an elementary particle of matter, they sometimes see it manifesting as a wave and sometimes as a particle. So is it a wave or is it a particle? Now scientists are agreed that they will call it a wavicle. The same is true with material and spiritual. We could think that spirit is one thing and matter is another thing. But in fact matter does not exist outside of spirit, and spirit does not exist outside of matter. 

The Heart of the Practice 

Meditation is the capacity to recognize suffering, to look deeply into it, and to use the wisdom of interdependence, of non-self, and impermanence to transform it. The purpose of Zen is to generate mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so we can live deeply each moment. Mindfulness is to be aware of what’s hap­pening in the present moment. For example, when we are aware of our in-breath, that is called mindfulness of breathing. When we are aware that we are taking a step on this planet Earth, that is mindful­ness of our step. When we drink tea with our mind and body completely present, then we are drinking tea in mindfulness. When we live each mo­ment of our life deeply in that way, that is meditation.

Concentration is present when we focus on one thing and our mind is not dispersed. With mindfulness and concentration, we can discover the insight that can transform our suffer­ing. This insight can completely cut off the roots of ignorance and wrong perceptions.

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The past has gone, the future has not yet come, life is only truly available in the present moment. So we let go of regrets about the past and worries about the future, and we come back to live deeply in the present moment. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look of our eyes can help us to live deeply and bring happiness to ourselves and our loved ones. If we train like this, within just a few days we can begin to see the fruits and the joy of Zen practice.

Buddhism is inclusive, not dogmatic. In the old days Buddhism was able to live with Confucianism and Tao­ism, and Buddhism can now live with Marxism. Buddhism and Marxism both have to develop to respond to the people now. If we can do that, then what difficulties do we have?

The Vietnamese culture has a great capacity to transform. The word metabolize means that whatever we ingest we take in and transform so it becomes a usable part of us. We can metabolize cultures we have received from other countries, so they become Vietnamese. Buddhism has to become Vietnamese Buddhism, Confucianism has to become Vietnamese Confucianism, Taoism has to become Vietnamese Taoism, and Marxism has to become Vietnamese Marxism. Then we can hold hands and walk in harmony, in brotherhood and solidarity. We can be happy right now if we can have this inclusive attitude, this open-minded view.

Our Vietnamese Spiritual Ancestors 

All the traditions that came before combined to become the Bamboo Forest tradition. When we can go together as a river, when we have brotherhood, then every person is our body. We see that each person’s suffering is our suffering. Instead of individualism, we have common views and a common direction. Bamboo Forest tradition is also engaged. Imagine King Tran Nhan Tong abdicating the throne in favor of his son, Tran Anh Tong, so he could become a monk. As a monk, he called for the building of brotherhood with foreign countries, and went to the neighboring country of Champa (now a part of Vietnam), and called for a cessation of war. When he was a king he called for peace, and when he became a monk he continued to call for peace. He was the Bamboo Forest Master.

I also want to remind you of the Zen Master Tang Hoi. His father came from Sogdia, north of India, to Vietnam as a young businessman. He loved Vietnam and he married a Vietnamese woman. Zen Master Tang Hoi lived in the beginning of the third century A.D. He was the first monk to go to China to transmit the teachings and the practice of Zen, three hundred years before Zen Master Bodhidharma. Zen Master Tang Hoi organized monks comprising the council of ordination, who went from Vietnam to witness the first monastic ordination ceremony held in China.

In the process of building a beautiful society in Vietnam, Bud­dhism can play a great role if we have the courage to go beyond theoretical learning, and adopt concrete practices of transformation. We can train Dharma teachers, both monastic and lay, who have the capacity to bring Buddhism into life, to help society, to reestablish communication, and to rebuild the roots of the family. 

Transcribed by Terry Barber, Edited by Barbara Casey.

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Success 

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

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

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

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

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Thinking About the Future

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

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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