By Thich Nhat Hanh
To practice Buddhism, we have to take refuge. This means that we have to base our practice on some ground that helps us be stable, It is like building a house—you have to build it on solid ground. If we look around and inside ourselves, we can find out what is stable for us, and we can take refuge in it. We should be careful not to take refuge in what is unstable.
This morning I was touching the ground, and I felt that there is some stability in the Earth. Why don’t we take refuge in the Earth? There is also some stability in the air, the sunshine, and the trees. We can count on the sun because we know it will rise tomorrow. We have to look around to see things that we can count on. In order to practice, we need to take refuge in stable things.
Our bodies have a healing power. Every time we cut our finger, our body has the capacity to heal itself. We take care of it by washing it carefully, and then we can leave the work of healing to our body. In a few hours or a day, the cut will be healed. Our bodies have that kind of healing power. We have to take refuge in our bodies.
The same is true with our consciousness. Our consciousness has a healing power, and we have to trust it. When we have some anger, distress, or despair, we don’t need to panic. We can trust our consciousness to know how to heal these kinds of wounds. When we have a feeling of instability, we only need to breathe in and out consciously and recognize the feeling of instability, knowing that our consciousness is much more than that feeling. We know from our experience that there have been times in the past when we were not very solid. We know that we can take refuge in our consciousness We can let it do its work without interfering too much. After cleaning out the wound in our finger, we just let it heal. If we have a wound in our mind or heart, we just clean our wound and then we trust our consciousness to heal it.
If we have a teacher and dharma brothers and sisters who are stable, they look very much the same today as yesterday and yesterday they looked very much the same as the day before. We have to take refuge in a sangha that is stable, that we can count on. We can contribute to the quality of our sangha by our smile, and by our own stability. A sangha can be improved by our practice. We can never find a perfect sangha. An imperfect sangha is good enough. We have to do our best in order to transform ourselves into a good element of the sangha. It is not helpful to complain too much about our sangha: “This sangha is not good; this sangha is not worth my refuge,” and so on. We have to accept our sangha and build it. It is like a family. And our family is also a kind of sangha. We have to accept the members of our family as they are and begin from there. We should be a good member of our family sangha in order to help others.
Taking refuge means also taking refuge in ourselves. When we take refuge in the earth, it is because the earth is stable. When we have a friend who is stable we can take refuge in him or her. We use our insight and our experience to see his or her stability. We don’t just go on blind faith. Taking refuge is not blind faith. It must be based on our own experience. There are many stable things around. We should refrain from taking refuge in things that are not stable, that have made us shaky in the past. Sometimes we don’t know much about something. We hope that it can be a refuge for us simply because we want it. It is not based on any direct experience or observation. We should refrain from taking refuge in things like that.
If you are a single parent and if you think that you need to be married in order to have more stability, you have to reconsider that idea. Perhaps you have more stability right now by yourself than if you were with another person. Another person coming into your life could destroy the little stability you may already have. It is most important to take refuge in yourself, and to do that with your understanding, insight, and capacity of recognizing stability in the things inside you and around you. The things inside of you are just like the things around you. If they are stable, they are worth taking refuge in. By taking refuge in this way, you become more solid. You are taking refuge more and more in yourself. By doing so, you develop yourself into a ground for the refuge of your child and your friends. We need you also. The children need you; the trees and the birds also need you. You have to make yourself into someone stable, someone we can rely on. That is the practice of Buddhism.
We abandon the idea that we cannot be ourselves unless “that someone” or “that something” is with us. We ourselves are sufficient. We are enough for ourselves. When we transform ourselves into a cozy hermitage, with a lot of air, light, and order inside, we begin to feel a great peace, joy, and happiness. And we begin to be someone that others can rely on. Your child, your dharma brothers and sisters, and your teacher can all rely on you.
So return to your hermitage and arrange things from within. You can benefit from the sunshine, the trees, the earth. You can open your windows wide for these good elements to enter, because you are one with your environment. Many times unstable elements try to enter our hermitage. Then we must close our windows and not let them in. When thunder, winds, or heat are about to intrude into our cozy, refreshing hermitage, we should be able to prevent them from entering. The practice of being a refuge to oneself is a basic practice. We do not rely on someone or something that we do not know much about, something that may be unstable. We go back to ourselves and take refuge in our own hermitage.
If you are a mother raising your child alone—without the help of a man—you must learn what to do and how to do it. You have to learn to be a father also, otherwise you cannot raise your child. If you don’t learn how to be a father, you will continue to need someone else to play the role of a father for your child, and you will lose your sovereignty, you will lose your hermitage. But if you can say, “I don’t need anyone else, I can learn how to be both a father and mother to my child, I can succeed by myself, with the support of my friends and my community,” that is a good sign.
Every other year, I give a retreat for about sixty Vietnamese monks and nuns in northern California. One day, when we were conducting the closing of such a retreat, the Abbot of Kim Son Monastery said to me, “Thay, you are our mother.” Why didn’t he say, “You are our father,” which is a more normal thing to say? It was because something in me has the manner of being a mother. When I am with children, I can play the role of a mother as well as a father. The love of a father is different from that of a mother. A mother’s love is somehow unconditional. You are the child of your mother, that is why you are loved by her. There is no other reason. A mother tries to use her body and her mind to protect that very soft, vulnerable part of herself. She has a tendency to consider her child as an extension of herself, as herself. This is good, but it may create problems in the future. She has to learn gradually that her son or daughter is a separate person.
A father’s love is different. The father says, “If you are like this, then you will receive my love. If you don’t do that, you don’t get my love.” It’s a kind of deal. I have that in myself, too. I am capable of disciplining my students and I also have the capacity of loving my students as a mother. That is why the monks and the nuns call me mommy, I know it is not easy for a mother to be a father, especially when she hasn’t learned how to do it. Single mothers should be aware that they can profit from the community, from the brothers and sisters in the dharma. If she does it well, her child will have uncles and aunts. If the child doesn’t have a father, he can consider his uncle as a father. It is not difficult to provide your child with an uncle. If you have a good sangha and good relationships with the people in the sangha, other members of your sangha can have a nephew or niece in your child.
The nuclear family is very small. There is not enough air to breathe. When there is trouble between the father and mother, the child has no escape. That is a weakness of our time. Having a community where people can gather as brothers and sisters in the dharma, and where children have a number of uncles and aunts is a very wonderful thing.
We have to learn to create that kind of family. Each of us needs to be loved in order to go on. We need the kind of love that does not shatter our stability. If we cling to our teacher as a father and we want that father to pay attention to us only, that is not the way we love in the practice community. We have to share the love of the teacher with everyone. We have to see the other members of the community as our brothers and sisters. This is something we can learn to do. It is already a tradition in the East, and it can be learned slowly here in the West. We can take the best from both cultures.
I hope that communities of practice will take that kind of shape in the West. Without that kind of warmth and family flavor, it is difficult to practice. When you bring your children to some practice centers, your children may be regarded as an obstacle for other people to practice. But if we have a community where people regard each other like brothers and sisters, a child of that community becomes the child of everyone. If he is doing something disturbing, such as hitting another child with a stick, his mother is not the only person who is responsible. Everyone in the community shares that responsibility. Together we try to find ways to prevent the child from hitting the other children. We might try holding the child tightly, doing that as an uncle, not as a foreigner or a policeman. Of course, the parent of the child should prevent their child from throwing rocks or hitting other children, but if the parent cannot discipline her child, then he or she has to let an uncle or an aunt do it.
When you are a student of your teacher, your children are grandchildren of your teacher in a spiritual family. The children in Plum Village call me “Grandpa Teacher.” I always approach them as a grandfather, not as someone outside the family. This is the way we conduct the practice in Vietnam. We do things as a family. A practice center should possess that kind of warmth, that kind of brotherhood and sisterhood that will continue to nourish us. and not be a place where people come only to take care of their own problems.
In a community of practice like this, a single parent can be very self-sufficient. At the same time, he or she will see that when the community is not there, he or she is capable of playing the roles of both mother and father. When you have learned and have the capacity of loving your child as a mother and a father at the same time, you are transformed. When you see stable families coming to practice, you can look at their stability and learn from it. You can learn a lot: how a father loves a child, how a mother loves a child. There must be some coordination between father and mother. A good father would not say, “If he’s spoiled it’s your fault.” It’s not her fault; it’s a collective lack of mindfulness.
The phenomenon of single parents is widespread in the West. If you practice and succeed in bringing up your child happily, then you can share the fruit of your practice with many people. Parenting is a dharma door. Single parenting is a dharma door. We need retreats, seminars, and dharma discussions on how to be parents. We cannot accept the ancient way of parenting. At the same time, we do not have a modern way of parenting. We need to elaborate on the way of being parents, drawing from our own experiences and practice. Using the greater community of practice to bring another dimension to the life of the nuclear family is important. Even though the nuclear family structure may not have much space in it, when nuclear family life is combined with the life of a practice community, a sangha. it can be very successful. You can bring your child to the practice center, very often, and both you and your child will benefit from the atmosphere there. And the practice center will benefit from your presence also.
In a good practice center, there should be a garden for the children to play in and there should be people who are skillful in helping children, people who can be good aunts and good uncles for the children. Then you will enjoy your practice, as a parent or as a single parent.
The Buddha did not specifically address the issue of single parenting. This is a new problem. But we can apply the basic teachings of the Buddha to find a way out. There are so many divorced parents: in Australia, in the West. When things become too difficult, people tend to think of divorce. Vietnamese families living in the West are also beginning to adopt this point of view. In traditional Vietnamese culture, the failure of a marriage is considered to be very bad. People don’t look on divorce with much respect.
Collective consciousness helps a lot. Instead of thinking of divorce, you make an effort to preserve your marriage, to return to your spouse with more harmony, with more understanding. In the West many people have divorced three, four, five times. They keep making the same kinds of mistakes. This is an issue which Buddhist practice has to address. We should not complain about having to deal with this issue. We should take it as an opportunity to study, look, and explore, in order to provide people with a new dharma door. How can we practice and bring the practice community into the nuclear family? How can we create a balance?
The Five Awarenesses
Ed. Note: When Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates a marriage ceremony, he asks the couple to repeat the Five Awarenesses and then to recite them together once each month. The following is from a talk given at Plum Village in August, following Kathy Season and Damien Cameron’s wedding.
Mindfulness is the basis for happiness. Before two people marry, they should practice mindfulness together, and after becoming husband and wife, they should continue to practice the Five Awarenesses as a manifestation of their Practice of Mindfulness. Happiness is not an individual matter.
In the first awareness. we see ourselves in the context of a lineage. We see that we are one element in a continuation of our ancestors, and that we open the way for future generations. We play the role of connection. We can see the elements of the future and the past right in the present. The Buddha teaches us that the present contains the past and the future. By being in touch with the present, we shape the future and heal the past. If we take good care of our body and our consciousness, we take care of our ancestors in us, and at the same time we take good care of our children and our grandchildren.
The second awareness reminds us that our ancestors have expectations and that our children and their children have expectations also. Our happiness is their happiness; our suffering is their suffering. If we look deeply, we will know what our children and grandchildren expect of us. We may not see them in person yet, but they are already talking to us. They want us to live in a way that they won’t be miserable when they manifest. Buddhist practitioners, especially the Vietnamese, see themselves not as individuals, separated from their ancestors, but as a continuation representing all previous generations. Actions of the couple do not aim merely at satisfying the spiritual and physical needs of their individual selves, but also at realizing the hopes and expectations of their ancestors and at preparing for future generations.
The third awareness tells us how joy, peace, freedom and harmony are not individual matters. We have to live in a way that allows our ancestors inside us to be liberated. Liberating them means liberating ourselves. If we do not liberate them, we. will be in bondage an our lives, and we will transmit that to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to liberate our parents and ancestors in us. We can offer them joy, peace, freedom, and harmony, at the same time as we offer joy, peace, freedom, and harmony to ourselves, our children, and their children. This reflects the teaching of interbeing. As long as our ancestors in us are still suffering, we cannot really be happy. If we take one step mindfully, freely, happily touching the earth, we are doing it for all our ancestors and all future generations. The first three awarenesses are all aspects of one deep teaching. We have to continue to study and practice these first three awarenesses to deepen our understanding.
The fourth awareness is also a basic teaching of the Buddha. Where there is understanding, there is love. When we understand the suffering of someone, we are motivated to help. This energy is called love or compassion. Whatever we do in this spirit will be for the happiness and liberation of the person we love. But, sometimes we destroy the person we love. It is like the general who said that his fighter bombers had to destroy the city of Ben Tie in order to save it. We have to practice in a way that whatever we do for others will only make them happy. The willingness to love is not enough. When people do not understand each other, it is impossible for them to love each other.
The first year of marriage is a difficult time. There is excitement, enthusiasm, and exploration, but the two people do not yet understand each other well. They live together twenty-four hours a day, looking, listening, and being aware of many details that they have not seen before, discovering more of their partner’s reality. Everyone of us has flowers and garbage inside us, not just of our making but of the making of our ancestors. If we know this in advance, we can be ready to accept everything that will manifest in the other person. When people fall in love, they construct a beautiful image of the other person, and they may feel shocked when they compare it with the reality. During the first year, many illusions about the other person will vanish. Until we give up our preconceived image, we miss the real beauty in the other person. We must be mindful to discover these flowers.
When we begin to see each other’s weaknesses, we may feel discouraged. We may need to be reminded of the other’s strengths. A married couple consists of two persons who have to lean on each other to help each other. We receive and nurture our partner like a tree, and we must find ways to water and protect him or her. We take care of the tree so that it flourishes. If there is some disease on the leaves, we must learn how to treat it. If the tree flowers and bears fruit, it is we who benefit. Both partners in the couple should regard themselves as the gardener, the caretaker, of the other. When we discover a weakness in the other person, we have to accept that. This is why the Buddha said, “Everyone has Buddha-nature,” the capacity of smiling, understanding, and being awake.
When we marry, we form a primary sangha, a sangha of two, and we begin to learn to love.. If we still have the feeling of being attached to each other, that is not real love yet. Love in the Buddhist context is loving kindness and compassion. It is the kind of love that does not have any conditions. We form a sangha of two in order to practice love—to take care of each other, to make our partner blossom like a flower, and to make happiness something real in that tiny sangha of two.
“Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity and of all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. Unless I succeed in loving you, I cannot love anyone else. So I am determined to love you. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth.”
This is the real message of love. How can we take advanced steps before we succeed in the primary steps? In the first one, two, or three years. this should be our purpose—to realize peace, happiness, and joy in that small sangha. We know that the small sangha should be placed in the context of a larger sangha. We are practicing with the help of our teachers, parents, friends, and all living beings in the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. That is our larger sangha. “I want to express my love to the larger sangha, and I do it through you. Therefore I must be able to love you, take care of you, and make you happy.”
The practice of mindfulness is the practice of love itself. Looking deeply in order to understand is the basic practice. When a couple is happy, understanding and harmony are there. Then it is easy to extend that happiness, and joy to the people around us—our parents, sisters, brothers, and dharma friends.
If we blame each other and argue, we are divided. This is the fifth awareness. Everyone agrees, but when we become angry, we forget, and a force in us begins to argue and blame the other person for what happened. Only by practicing conscious breathing and smiling every day can we control that impulse. Conscious breathing and smiling every day help us develop the capacity to stop at that critical moment, to keep ourselves from blaming and arguing.
Loving speech is an aspect of practice. We say only loving things. We say the truth in a loving way, with nonviolence. This can be done only when we are calm. When we are irritated, we may say things that are destructive. So when we feel irritated, we should refrain from saying anything. We can just breathe. If we need to, we can practice walking meditation in the fresh air, looking at soothing things like the trees, the clouds, the river. Once we have returned to our calmness, our serenity, we are capable again of using the language of loving kindness. If, during our expression, that feeling of irritation comes up again, we can stop and breathe. This is the practice of mindfulness.
All of us need to change for the better. When we marry, we make a promise to change ourselves and to help the other person change himself or herself so we can grow together. If we think only of changing and growing alone, eventually we will lose patience with the other person. Practicing together, we change and we help the other person change. As a result, we grow together, sharing the fruit and progress of practice. It is our responsibility to take care of the other person. We are the gardener, the one who helps the tree grow. If the tree doesn’t grow well, we don’t blame it. We blame ourselves for not taking care of it well. Human beings are somehow like trees. If they are taken care of well, they will grow beautifully. If they are taken care of poorly, they will wither. To help a tree to grow well, we must understand its nature. How much water does it need? How much sunshine? If we understand, the tree will grow beautifully.
Every time the other person does something well, something in the direction of change and growth, we should congratulate her or him to show our approval. This is important. We don’t take things for granted. If the other person manifests some of her talent and capacity to love and create happiness, we must be aware of it and express our appreciation. This is the way to water the seeds of happiness. We should avoid saying destructive things like, “I don’t know whether you can do this” or “I doubt that you can do this.” Instead, we say, “This is difficult, darling, but I have faith that you can do it.” This kind of talk makes the other person stronger. This is true with children, also. We have to strengthen the self-esteem of our children. We have to appreciate and congratulate every good thing they say and do in order to help our children grow. When we are married, we can love each other in a way that encourages change and growth for the better, all the time.
For those who have been married for ten or twenty years, this kind of practice is also relevant. You can continue to live in mindfulness and continue to learn from the other person. You may have the impression that you know everything about your spouse, but it is not so. Nuclear scientists have studied one speck of dust for many years, and they still do not claim to understand everything about it. The more deeply they look into an electron, the more they realize how little they know about it. If a speck of dust is like that, how can a person say that he or she knows everything about the other person? Driving the car, paying attention only to your own thoughts, you just ignore your spouse. You think, “I know everything about her. There is nothing new in her anymore.” That is not correct. And if you treat her or him that way, she will die slowly. She needs your attention, your gardening, your taking care of her.
We have to learn the art of creating happiness. If during our childhood, we see our mother or father do things that create happiness in the family, we can learn. But if our father and mother did not know how to create happiness in our family, we may not know how to do it. So in our practice community, we try to learn the art of making people happy. The problem is not one of being wrong or right, but one of being more or less skillful. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of good will, you can still make the other person very unhappy. Good will is not enough. We need to know the art of making the other person happy. Art is the essence of life. Try to be artful in your speech and action. Art needs some substance, and that substance is mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are more artful. This is something I have learned from the practice.