Dharma Talk: The Four Immeasurable Minds

By Thich Nhat Hanh

During the lifetime of the Buddha, those of the Brahmanic faith prayed that after death they would go to Heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal God. One day a Brahmin man asked the Buddha, “What can I do to be sure that I will be with Brahma after I die?” and the Buddha replied, “As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahma-viharas—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” A vihara is an abode or a dwelling place. Love in Sanskrit is maitri; in Pali it is metta. Compassion is karuna in both languages. Joy is mudita. Equanimity is upeksha in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali. The Brahmaviharas are four elements of true love. They are called Immeasurable, because if you practice them, they will grow every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier and those around you will become happier, also.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha respected people’s desire to practice their own faith, so he answered the Brahmin’s question in a way that encouraged him to do so. If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha’s spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.

According to Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extin­guishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity extinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings.

If we learn ways to practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we will know how to heal the illnesses of anger, sorrow, insecurity, sadness, hatred, loneliness, and unhealthy attachments. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha teaches, “If a mind of anger arises, the bhikkhu (monk) can practice the meditation on love, compassion, or equanimity for the person who has brought about the feeling of anger.”

Some sutra commentators have said that the Brahma-viharas are not the highest teaching of the Buddha, that they cannot put an end to suffering and afflictions. This is not correct. One time the Buddha said to his beloved attendant Ananda, “Teach these Four Immeasurable Minds to the young monks, and they will feel secure, strong, and joyful, without afflictions of body or mind. For the whole of their lives, they will be well equipped to practice the pure way of a monk.” On another occasion, a group of the Buddha’s disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, “We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?” The Buddha’s disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, “Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment.” Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

The first aspect of true love is maitri, the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

In Southeast Asia, many people are extremely fond of a large, thorny fruit called durian. You could even say they are addicted to it. Its smell is extremely strong, and when some people finish eating the fruit, they put the skin under their bed so they can continue to smell it. To me, the smell of durian is horrible. One day when I was practicing chanting alone in my temple in Vietnam, there was a durian on the altar that had been offered to the Buddha. I was trying to recite The Lotus Sutra, using a wooden drum and a large bowl-shaped bell for accompaniment, but I could not concentrate at all. I finally carried the bell to the altar and turned it upside down to imprison the durian, so I could chant the sutra. After I finished, I bowed to the Buddha and liberated the durian. If you were to say to me, “Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this durian,” I would suffer. You love me, you want me to be happy, but you force me to eat durian. That is an example of love without understanding. Your intention is good, but you don’t have the correct understanding.

Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and well-being. It is as natural as the air. We are loved by the air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand. For our love to continue, we have to take the appropriate action or non-action to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved.

Maitri can be translated as “love” or “loving kindness.” Some Buddhist teachers prefer “loving kindness,” as they find the word “love” too darigerous. But I prefer the word love. Words sometimes get sick and we have to heal them. We have been using the word “love” to mean appetite or desire, as in “I love hamburgers.” We have to use language more carefully. We have to restore the meaning of the word love. “Love” is a beautiful word. We have to restore its meaning. The word maitri has roots in the word mitra, which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

We all have the seeds of love in us. We can develop this wonderful source of energy, nurturing the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return. When we understand someone deeply, even someone who has done us harm, we cannot resist loving him or her. Shakyamuni Buddha declared that the Buddha of the next eon will be named Maitreya, the Buddha of Love.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as “compassion,” but that is not exactly correct. “Compassion” is composed of com (“together with”) and passion (“to suffer”). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may he crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find a better word, let us use “compassion” to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practices “looking with the eyes of compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world.” Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her. You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain. You are in deep commu­nication, deep communion with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha had enough understand­ing, calmness, and strength. That is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

The third element of true love is mudita, joy. True love always brings joy to ourselves and to the one we love. If our love does not bring joy to both of us, it is not true love.

Commentators explain that happiness relates to both body and mind, whereas joy relates primarily to mind. This example is often given: Someone traveling in the desert sees a stream of cool water and experiences joy. On drinking the water, he experiences happiness. Ditthadhamma sukhavihari means “dwelling happily in the present moment.” We don’t rush to the future; we know that everything is here in the present moment. Many small things can bring us tremen­dous joy, such as the awareness that we have eyes in good condition. We just have to open our eyes and we can see the blue sky, the violet flowers, the children, the trees, and so many other kinds of forms and colors. Dwelling in mindful­ness, we can touch these wondrous and refreshing things, and our mind of joy arises naturally. Joy contains happiness and happiness contains joy.

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Some commentators have said that mudita means “sympathetic joy” or “altruistic joy,” the happi­ness we feel when others are happy. But that is too limited. It discriminates between self and others. A deeper definition of mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves? Joy is for everyone.

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimi­nation, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upe means “over,” and ksh means “to look.” You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indiffer­ent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination.

Upeksha has the mark called samatajnana, “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides. We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. As long as we see ourselves as the one who loves and the other as the one who is loved, as long as we value ourselves more than others or see others as different from us, we do not have true equanimity. We have to put ourselves “into the other person’s skin” and become one with him if we want to understand and truly love him. When that happens, there is no “self’ and no “other.”

Without upeksha, your love may become possessive. A summer breeze can be very refreshing; but if we try to put it in a tin can so we can have it entirely for ourselves, the breeze will die. Our beloved is the same. He is like a cloud, a breeze, a flower. If you imprison him in a tin can, he will die. Yet many people do just that. They rob their loved one of his liberty, until he can no longer be himself. They live to satisfy themselves and use their loved one to help them fulfill that. That is not loving; it is destroying. You say you love him, but if you do not understand his aspirations, his needs, his difficulties, he is in a prison called love. True love allows you to preserve your freedom and the freedom of your beloved. That is upeksha.

For love to be true love, it must contain compassion, joy, and equanimity in it. For compassion to be true compassion, it has to have love, joy, and equanimity in it. True joy has to contain love, compassion, and equanimity. And true equanimity has to have love, compassion, and joy in it. This is the interbeing nature of the Four Immeasurable Minds. When the Buddha told the Brahmin man to practice the Four Immeasurable Minds, he was offering all of us a very important teaching. But we must look deeply and practice them for ourselves to bring these four aspects of love into our own lives and into the lives we love. 

This Dharma talk is from Teachings on Love, to be pub­lished by Parallax Press in March. 

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Home

March 28, 2004 – Colors of Compassion Retreat

By Thich Nhat Hanh

mb37-dharma1On March 28th, at the end of the three-month winter retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha offered a three-day retreat called Colors of Compassion, for people of color. Three hundred retreatants gathered to practice mindfulness, listen to teachings, and share with one another the experiences of joy and suffering that come from being a person of color.  

This section begins with a powerful talk by Thay, given on the last day of the retreat. Following is a story of a courageous couple who escaped Vietnam as boat people, exemplifying Thay’s famous poem, Call Me By My True Names. Also included is an interview with Sister Chau Nghiem, the organizer and registrar of the Colors of Compassion retreat, and a selection of stories and poems of insight offered by retreatants. 

mb37-dharma2There are white people who live in the United States but still do not feel that they have a home here. They want to leave because they don’t feel comfortable with the economic, political, and military policies of this country. In Vietnam it’s the same. There are those who have Vietnamese nationality but who do not feel that Vietnam is their true home They do not feel loved or understood, and they do not feel that they have a future there, so they want to leave their country.

Who amongst us has a true home? Who feels comfortable in their country? After posing this question to the retreatants for contemplation, I responded. I said: “I have a home, and I feel very comfortable in my home.” Some people were surprised at my response, because they know that for the last thirty-eight years I have not been allowed to return to Vietnam to visit, to teach, or to meet my old friends and disciples. But although I have not been able to go back to Vietnam, I am not in pain, I do not suffer, because I have found my true home.

My true home is not in France where Plum Village practice center is located. My true home is not in the United States. My true home cannot be described in terms of geographic location or in terms of culture. It is too simplistic to say I am Vietnamese. In terms of nationality and culture, I can see very clearly a number of national and cultural elements in me –– Indonesian, Malaysian, Mongolian, and others. There is no separate nationality called Vietnamese; the Vietnamese culture is made up of other cultural elements.

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There are elements of Chinese, French, and Indian culture in me. You cannot take these out of me. If you remove them, I will not be the person who is sitting here. In me there are also cultural elements from Africa, and beautiful elements of Native American culture in me. In my room I hang a dream catcher so I can contemplate my dreams just for fun.

I have a home that no one can take away, and I feel very comfortable in that home. In my true home there is no discrimination, no hatred, because I have the desire and the capacity to embrace everybody, every race, and I have the aspiration, the dream to love and help all peoples and all species. I do not feel there is anyone who is my enemy. Even if they are pirates, terrorists, communists, or anti-communists, I do not have enemies. That is why in my true home I feel very comfortable.

I heard the story of a young Japanese American man who went into a café. While he was drinking his coffee he heard two young men talking in Vietnamese and crying. The young Japanese American man asked them in English: “Why are you crying?” The Vietnamese men said: “We cannot go back to our country, our homeland. The government there will not allow us to go back.” The Japanese American man got upset and said: “This is not worth crying over. Even though you are in exile and cannot go back to your country, you still have a country, a place where you belong. But I do not have a country to go back to.

“I was born and raised in the United States, and culturally I am American. But I feel uncomfortable because Americans do not truly accept me; they see me as foreigner. So I went to Japan and tried to make it my home. But when I arrived the Japanese people told me that the way I speak and behave are not Japanese and I was not accepted as a Japanese person. So, even though I have an American passport and even though I can go to Japan, I do not have a home. But you do have a home.”

Like the Japanese American in the story, there are many young Asian Americans who have been born and raised in the United States, who are American in their way of thinking and acting, and they want to be seen as true Americans, immersed in this culture. But other Americans do not accept them as Americans because their skin color is yellow. They feel sad and want to go back to Japan, Korea, or Vietnam to find their home. They think: If it’s not in America, my home has to be somewhere else. But they don’t fit in with the culture of their ancestral country either. Other Asians call them “Bananas” because though their skin is yellow, inside they are white, completely American. This also happens to African Americans who go to Africa but aren’t accepted there.

This is not to say that white people have found their home and feel comfortable in the United States. Just like Vietnamese people in Vietnam, many people do not feel comfortable in their own country and want to go elsewhere. Very few among us have found their true home. Even though we have nationality, we have citizenship, and a passport that allows us to go anywhere in the world, we still do not have a home.

Life Is Our True Home 

In the Colors of Compassion retreat we have learned and practiced to be in contact with our true home, the true home that cannot be described by geographical area, culture, or race.

Every time we listen to the sound of the bell in Deer Park or in Plum Village, we silently recite this poem: “I listen, I listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” Where is our true home that we come back to? Our true home is life, our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now. Our true home is the place without discrimination, the place without hatred. Our true home is the place where we no longer seek, no longer wish, no longer regret. Our true home is not the past; it is not the object of our regrets, our yearning, our longing, or remorse. Our true home is not the future; it is not the object of our worries or fear. Our true home lies right in the present moment. If we can practice according to the teaching of the Buddha and return to the here and now, then the energy of mindfulness will help us to establish our true home in the present moment.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the Pure Land lies in the present moment; nirvana and liberation lie in the present moment. All of our spiritual and blood ancestors are here if we know how to come back to the present moment. My true home is the Pure Land, my true home is true life, so I do not suffer or seek, I do not run after anything anymore. I very much want all of you who have come here for the retreat, whether your color is black, white, brown, or yellow, to also be able to practice the teaching of the Buddha in order to come back to the present moment, penetrate that moment and discover your true home. I have found my true home. I do not seek, I do not worry, I do not suffer anymore. I have happiness, and I want all of my friends, students, and disciples to be able to reach your true home and stop trying to find it in space, time, culture, territory, nationality, or race.

The Buddha offers us wonderful practices so we can end our worries, our suffering, our seeking, our regrets, and so we can be in contact with the wonders of life right in the present moment. When we have the mind of nondiscrimination, we can open our arms to embrace all people and all species and everybody can become the object of our love. When we can do this, we have a true home that no one can take away from us. Even if they occupy our country or put us in prison, our true home is still ours, and they can never take it away. I speak these words to the young people, to those of you who feel that you have never had a home. I speak these words to the parents who feel that the old country is no longer your home but that the new country is not yet your home. Perhaps you can grasp this practice so you can find your true home and help your children find their true home. This is what I wish for you.

Civilization Is Openness and Tolerance 

If you have only one way of thinking, one way of behaving, then you are confined to the limits of your culture. With your habitual way of thinking, you imprison yourself and you cannot understand the suffering, the difficulties, the dreams of people of other races or other nationalities. You have a view about freedom, about happiness, about the future, and you want to force that view upon other cultures, other nations, other groups of people, and you create suffering for them. You think that everybody has to follow a certain economic model, a certain way of thinking, and only then are they civilized. When you think in this way, you have tied yourself up with a rope, and you cause danger and suffering for yourself and others.

We need to learn to let go and be open to other ways of thinking and behaving. We should not think of ourselves as superior in terms of race, science, or ideology. We have to practice to open our hearts, to learn about other cultures and other ways of thinking and behaving, so we can establish communication with people of other nations. If you were born and raised in the United States you should not let the American culture imprison you. Try to learn about the country your parents and ancestors came from. This will help you develop good communication with your parents and your ancestors; otherwise you may be cut off from the cultural stream that is one of your deepest roots.

Do not think that the culture and education you received growing up in the United States is superior; this is narrow-minded. We have to open our hearts to learn about the cultures of Asians, Africans, Europeans, and others. Europeans think and behave differently than Americans, even though many Americans have European ancestors. When we have a stubborn attitude, caught in the values, culture, and way of thinking of our own civilization, we are narrow-minded and isolated. The United States right now is isolated politically and militarily, and in the way Americans think and respond to violence and terrorism. It is not the same as the way Europeans think and respond. We need to listen to the Europeans and to people of other nations. We need to learn to let go of the view that our way of reacting and behaving is the best. When we are able to practice the Buddha’s teaching and come back to the present moment, we are in contact with our true home. Then we are not narrow-minded, we are not discriminating, and our hearts are open to embrace all races, all cultures.

Tomb37-dharma4 be civilized means to be open-minded, to offer space to others to live according to their views. Civilization is opening our arms to embrace all races, all people, all species; it is not thinking that our race or our culture is superior to all others. If young people can open their hearts wide to learn about their own and other cultures, they will begin to have rich insights. They can help those who are still isolated and caught in their own culture to come together with those from other cultures. This will allow understanding and acceptance to grow, remove boundaries, and heal conflicts.

Speaking to Young People 

If you have a great aspiration to learn about other cultures, to go to other countries and to help people accept and understand each other, you have a very great ideal. With that ideal you will not get stuck in despair, blaming others for your difficulties; instead your life will be very meaningful. I am sharing these words with the young people. Many young people have no path and don’t know what to do with their life each day. So they turn to drugs or alcohol and waste their lives. This is such a pity, because each young person can become a great bodhisattva, a great enlightened being whose deepest desire is to help people and bring together those who are separated by hatred or cultural difference.

Dear Sangha, I don’t want to be narrow-minded. I don’t say that Vietnamese culture is the best. Vietnam has many good things, but also many negative things. Buddhism has many good things, but also many negative things. One shortcoming of Buddhism is that we just talk, talk, talk about Buddhism but we do not practice. We can talk beautifully about nonself but we have a big sense of self, a huge ego.

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I have the capacity to see the good and beautiful things in other cultures and spiritual traditions. My true home is vast, immense. And my two arms can embrace all nations and all religions. I do not hate, I do not have any enemies, even the terrorists and those who wage war on terrorism. I only love them. I just want the opportunity to come close to them, listen to them, and help them to let go of their wrong perceptions, hatred, and violence. I do not hate dictators, communists, or anti-communists. I want to come close to them, help them understand, and let go of the views they are caught in.

There is no hatred in my true home; therefore I have happiness. Even though there is discrimination, violence, and craving in life, I use these things as nourishment for my practice. It is just like a garden: wherever there are flowers there has to be garbage. If you leave flowers for five or ten days they will become garbage. An intelligent gardener will collect all the garbage to make compost and so bring forth an abundance of fruits and flowers. It is not a matter of not having garbage, it is a matter of knowing how to transform garbage into flowers.

Surrounding us are many wonders: the blue sky, the white clouds, the blossoming flowers, the singing birds, the majestic mountains, the flowing rivers, countless animals and birds, the sunlight, the fog, the snow; innumerable wonders of life. The Kingdom of God is here in the present moment, but because we have hatred and discrimination we are not able to be in touch with the wonders of life.

The Buddha teaches us not to be foolish, not to run after the objects of desire: riches, fame, power, sensual pleasure. There are people who have a lot of money, power, fame, and sex, but they suffer endlessly; some even commit suicide. When we listen to the Buddha and come back to the present moment to be in touch with the wonders of life, we become rich, we become free—free from objects of craving—and we have the opportunity to recognize our wonderful true home. If we have found our true home then we will have enough love and understanding to help transform and heal the wounds caused by violence, hatred, and discrimination.

No Enemies 

When I ask: “Do you have a home yet?” you might say: “Not yet. But with this teaching and this practice I can have my home.” It’s true. The teaching of the Buddha is the teaching of dwelling peacefully and joyfully in the present moment. If we know how to come back to the present moment and generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then we will be in touch with the wonders of life. We will have happiness immediately. We will have insights. We will no longer discriminate, no longer be narrow-minded. And we can open our arms to embrace all species, all peoples, and we have no enemies. To have no enemies is a wonderful thing. When we have no enemy, no reproach, no blaming, then our mind is light like a cloud. I have no discrimination or hatred, so my mind is light and I have great happiness. I want you to be able to practice like that so that you have your true home, so that you do not accuse and judge the people who have caused you suffering. Do not look at them as your enemies, but see them as people who need understanding and compassion, so that you can help them. That is the bodhisattva’s way of looking.

We can all have this way of looking: when we are able to look in this way, we can call ourselves the children of the Buddha. To call ourselves children of the Buddha, we need to have the eyes of the Buddha, the eyes of compassion, the eyes of love. “Looking at life with the eyes of compassion” is a phrase from the Lotus Sutra. We use the eyes of compassion to look at all people and see that they are all our loved ones. We can help Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, anyone. Nobody is our enemy.

What Is Your True Name? 

Now I want to ask you a second question: “What is your true name?” Tell me. What name do you feel most comfortable with, most happy with? What are your true names? I have written a poem on this contemplation called “Please Call Me By My True Names.”

mb37-dharma6This poem was based on a real event. There was an eleven-year-old girl escaping from Vietnam with her family and other people. She was raped by a pirate, right on her boat. Her father tried to intervene, but the pirate threw her father into the sea. After the child was raped she jumped into the ocean to commit suicide. We received the news of this event one day in our Buddhist Association office in Paris. It was so upsetting to me that it kept me from sleeping; I felt anger, blame, despair. But if we are practitioners we cannot let blame and despair drown us; we have to practice walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindful breathing, and deep looking.

That evening in sitting meditation I saw myself being born as a baby boy into a very poor fishing family on the coast of Thailand. My father was a fisherman. He had never gone to the temple, he had never received any Buddhist teaching or any education. The politicians, educators, and social workers in Thailand never helped my father. My mother was also illiterate, and she did not know how to raise children. My father’s family had been poor fishermen for many generations —my great grandfather and my grandfather had been fishermen too. And when I turned thirteen I became a fisherman. I had never gone to school, I had never heard of the Buddhadharma, I had never felt loved or understood, and I lived in chronic poverty, persisting from one generation to the next.

Then one day another young fisherman said to me: “Let’s go out onto the ocean. There are boat people who pass near here and they often carry gold and jewelry, sometimes even money. Just one trip and we can be free from this poverty.” I accepted the invitation. I thought: We only need to take away a little bit of their jewelry, it won’t do any harm, and then we can be free from this poverty. So I became a pirate. The first time I went out I did not even know that I had become a pirate. But once out on the ocean, I saw the other pirates raping young women on the boats. I had never touched a young woman, I had never even thought about holding hands or going out with a young woman. But on the boat there was a very beautiful young woman, and there was no policeman to forbid me, and I saw other people doing it, and I asked myself: Why shouldn’t I try it too? This may be my chance to try the body of a young woman. So I did it.

If you were there on the boat and you had a gun, you could shoot me. But shooting me would not help me. Nobody ever taught me how to love, how to understand, how to see the suffering of others. My father and mother were not taught this either. I didn’t know what was wholesome and what was unwholesome, I didn’t understand cause and effect. I was living in the dark. If you had a gun, you could shoot me, and I would die. But you wouldn’t be able to help me at all.

As I continued sitting, I saw hundreds of babies being born that night along the coast of Thailand under the same circumstances, many of them baby boys. If the politicians and cultural ministers could look deeply, they would see that within twenty years those babies would become pirates. When I was able to see that, I understood. When I put myself in the situation of being born in a family that was uneducated and poor from one generation to the next, I saw that I would not be able to avoid becoming a pirate. When I saw that, my hatred, my resentment, my reproach vanished, and I felt that I could love that pirate.

When I saw those babies being born and growing up with no help, I knew that I had to do something so that they would not become pirates. The energy of a bodhisattva arose in my mind, the energy of love. I did not suffer anymore, but I had a lot of compassion and I could embrace not only the eleven-year-old child who was raped, but also the pirate.

When you address me as “Venerable Nhat Hanh,” I answer “yes,” but when you call the name of the child who was raped, I also answer “yes.” And if you call the name of the pirate, I would also answer “yes.” Because they are also me. If I had been born in that area under those circumstances I would also have become the pirate. I am the young girl who is raped by the pirate, but I am also the pirate that rapes the child. And so I could embrace both of them, in order to help not only that young girl but also the pirate. I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my two legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am also the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda. Those poor children in Uganda do not need bombs, they need food to eat. But here in America I live by producing bombs and guns. And if we want others to buy guns and bombs, then we have to create wars. If you call the name of the child in Uganda, I answer “yes.” And if you call the name of those who produce the bombs and guns I also answer “yes.” When I am able to see that I am those people, my hatred is no longer there, and I am determined to live in a way that I can help the victims, and I can also help those who create the wars and destruction.

So, when people call us African Americans, we answer, “yes.” When they call us Africans we answer,“yes.” When they call us Americans, we also answer “yes.” When people call the names of those who are discriminated against, we answer “yes.” And when they call the names of those who are discriminating, we also answer,“yes”—because all of them are us. Within us are the victims of discrimination as well as the perpetrators of discrimination. When we know that we are all victims of ignorance, violence, and hatred, then we can love ourselves and also love others. We have to practice in such a way that we free ourselves from thinking and feeling that injustice has been done to us, that we are inferior, that we are without value. The teaching of the Buddha can help us to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination that can free us from our inferiority complex. Only when we are free can we help others in the same situation, as well as those who discriminate and exploit. We do not look at them as our enemies anymore, but we see that they need our help because they are also victims of ignorance and of the narrow-minded aspects of their traditions.

In 1966 I gave a Dharma talk at a church in Minneapolis, and afterward I was very tired. I walked slowly in meditation back to my room so I could enjoy the cold, fragrant night air and be nourished and healed. While I was walking, taking each step in freedom, a car came up from behind and, braking loudly, stopped very close to me. The driver opened the door, looked at me and shouted: This is America, this is not China. Then he drove away. Maybe he had thought, This is a Chinese person who dares to walk in freedom in America, and he could not bear it. This is America, only white people can live here. And Chinese people, how dare you come here and how dare you walk with such freedom? You have no right to walk in this way. This is America, this is not China. That is discrimination against nationality, against race. But I was not angry—that was the good thing about it—I thought it was funny. I thought: If he would just pause for a moment, I would tell him, “I agree with you one hundred percent, this is America, this is not China: why do you have to shout at me?”

We know that the seed of discrimination lies in all of us. Once in New York a black woman shouted at me, even though I am also a person of color—only a different color. But because I wore a brown robe and I walked in freedom, she could not bear it. So don’t say it is only white people who discriminate. The oppressed and the oppressors are inside all of us, and our practice is to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination.

So when somebody calls me Nhat Hanh, I answer “yes”; when you call me Bush, I answer “yes”—because Bush is also my name. If you call me Saddam Hussein I will answer “yes”—because I am all of them. I don’t want Mr. Bush to suffer; I don’t want Saddam Hussein to suffer. I want everyone to be happy and free because they are my beloved ones. Right now, living the life of a bodhisattva, I have no enemies because I have no discrimination.

I want all the practitioners who come to Deer Park to practice so you can have this mind of nondiscrimination, so you can rebuild your life and become free. In this way you can help young people, whatever their color, to reach this freedom. Then they will be able to help build their community, and help everyone around them.

Please Call Me By My True Names 

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am also the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

 

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Thich Nhat Hanh Answers Questions at the Library of Congress

September 10, 2003

On September 10, 2003 Thich Nhat Hanh  offered a talk at the Library of Congress  in Washington, D.C., to members of  Congress and their staffs.  Two days later,  Thay and monks and nuns led a three- day mindfulness retreat for Congress  members and their families. 

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I would like to answer any question that you might have concerning this practice.

Q: How do you practice with anger? 

Thay: Two days after the events of September 11th I spoke to 4,000 people in Berkeley. I said that emotions are very strong now and we need to know how to calm ourselves, because with lucidity and calm we will know what to do. And we will know what not to do, to keep from making the situation worse.

I have suggested a number of things that can be done to decrease the level of violence and hate. The terrorists who attacked the twin towers must have been very angry, they must have hated America a lot. They must have thought America was trying to destroy them as a people, as a religion, as a nation, and as a culture. We have to find out why they have done such a thing to America. A political leader of America who has enough calm and lucidity can ask the question, “Dear people over there, we don’t know why you have done such a thing to us. What have we done that has made you suffer so much? We want to know about your suffering and why you have hated us so much. We may have said something or done something that has given you the impression that we wanted to destroy you. But in fact that is not the case. We are confused, and we want you to help us understand why you have done such a thing to us.” We call that kind of speech loving or gentle speech. If we are honest and sincere they will tell us and we will recognize the wrong perceptions they have about themselves and about us. We can try to help them to remove their wrong perceptions. All these acts of terrorism and violence come from wrong perceptions. Wrong perceptions are the ground for anger, violence, and hatred. You cannot remove wrong perceptions with a gun.

While we listen deeply to the other person, not only can we recognize their wrong perceptions but we can see that we also have wrong perceptions about ourselves and about the other person. That is why mindful dialogue, mindful communication is crucial in removing wrong perceptions, anger, and violence. It is my deepest hope that our political leaders can make use of such instruments to bring peace to themselves and to the world. I believe that using force and violence can only make the situation worse. To me during the last two years America has not been able to decrease the level of hate and violence from terrorists. In fact, the level of hate and violence has increased. That is why it is time for us to go back to the situation, to look deeply, and to find a way that is less costly and will bring peace to everyone. Violence cannot remove violence; everyone knows that. Only with the practice of deep listening and gentle communication can we help remove wrong perceptions that are at the foundation of violence.

America has a lot of difficulty in Iraq. I think that America is caught in Iraq just as America was caught in Vietnam, caught with the idea that we have to seek and destroy the enemy, wherever we believe they are. That idea will never give us a chance to do the right thing to end violence. During the Vietnam War, America thought that they had to bomb North Vietnam, that they had to bomb Cambodia. But the more America bombed, the more communists they created. I am afraid that situation is repeating itself in Iraq. I think it is very difficult for America to withdraw now from Iraq. Even if you want to leave, it is very difficult. I think that the only way for America to get emancipated from this situation is to help build the United Nations into a real body of peace so that the United Nations will take over the problem of Iraq and of the Middle East. America is powerful enough to do that. America should allow the other big powers to contribute positively to building the United Nations as a true organization for peace with enough authority to do her job. In my point of view, that is the only way out of the current situation.

Q: Thank you for coming here.  When we see so many  lands in this country being destroyed, the forests, the rivers, and the mountains, by policies in this government, how  might we approach our members of Congress mindfully, in  the name of peace, and on behalf of the land and all living  things?

Thay: I think that we should bring a spiritual dimension into our daily life. We should be awakened to the fact that happiness cannot be found in the direction of power, fame, wealth, or sex. If we look deeply around us, we see many people with plenty of these things but they suffer very deeply and many of them have committed suicide. When you have understanding and compassion in you, you don’t suffer. You can relate well to other people around you and to other living beings. That is why a collective awakening about that reality is crucial.

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We think that happiness is possible when we have the power to consume. But by consuming we bring a lot of toxins and poisons into us. The way we eat, the way we watch television, the way we entertain ourselves is bringing a lot of destruction into us and into our children. The environment suffers when we consume so much. Learning to consume less, learning to consume only the things that can bring peace and health into our body and into our consciousness is a very important practice. Mindful consumption is the practice that can lead us out of this situation. Mindful production of items that can bring only health and joy into our body and consciousness is also our practice. I think one of the things that Congress may do is to look deeply into the matter of consumption. By consuming unmindfully we continue to bring the element of craving, fear, and violence into ourselves. People have a lot of suffering and they do not know how to handle it, so they consume in order to forget. Families, schools, and communities can help people to go home to themselves and take care of the suffering inside. The spiritual dimension is very important. When we are able to touch joy by living with compassion and understanding we don’t need to consume a lot and we don’t need to destroy our environment. Consuming in such a way that can preserve the compassion and understanding in us is very important.

The Buddha said if we consume without compassion it is as though we are eating the flesh of our own son and daughter. In fact we destroy our environment and we destroy ourselves through unmindful consumption. I think Congress can look into the matter and find ways to encourage people to consume mindfully and to produce mindfully, not producing the kind of items that can bring toxins and craving into the hearts and bodies of people.

We have the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. But in the name of freedom people have done a lot of damage to the nation, to the people. They have to be responsible for that. I think there should be a law that prohibits people from producing the kind of items that bring toxins into our body and our mind. To produce with responsibility: that is our practice. I think we have to make a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast of America in order to counterbalance liberty. Liberty without responsibility is not true liberty. You are not free to destroy. Through films, movies, and entertainment we are producing food for the souls of people. If we know how to forbid the kind of food that can bring toxins into our bodies, we also have to forbid the kind of food that can bring toxins into our consciousness and the collective consciousness of the people. I think these things have to be looked into deeply by people in Congress. The people in Congress have to see where our suffering comes from. I think unmindful consumption and production of items of consumption are at the root of our problem. We are creating violence and craving by consuming and producing these items. If we continue we can never solve the problem. The way out is mindful consumption, mindful production of items of consumption. My deepest desire is that the members of Congress will look into this matter. This is how we can protect our environment. 

Q: Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr.  said  that we  are  all  caught in an inescapable web of mutuality.  Whatever affects one of us affects all of us.  In light of that view, that all  of us on the planet are connected, what would you recommend as some first steps for people of different races and  backgrounds to begin to close the gap of racism and bigotry  that we are in right now, that is really expanding right now  to Arab Americans because of the issue of 9-11.  My question  is really a two-part question.  One is, what are some beginning practical steps that individuals can take to close the gap  that keeps us disconnected despite our denial?  Secondly,  how do we deal with  that  in  light  of  the  legitimate  fears  after  9-11 that cause  us to  look at even our Arab  American citizens in a  hostile, distant way?  How would  you  see  individuals  begin  to  close the gap?

Thay: I think we have to wake up to the fact that everything is connected to everything else. Safety, well-being cannot be individual matters anymore. If others are not safe there is no way that we can be safe. Taking care of others’ safety is at the same time taking care of our own safety. Taking care of others’ well-being is to take care of our own well-being. It is the mind of discrimination and separation that is at the foundation of all violence and hate.

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My right hand has written all the poems that I composed. My left hand has not written any poems. But my right hand does not think, “You left hand, you are good for nothing.” My right hand does not have the complex of superiority at all. That is why it is very happy. My left hand does not have any complex at all including the complex of inferiority. In my two hands there is the kind of wisdom called the wisdom of nondiscrimination. One day I was hammering a nail and my right hand was not very accurate and instead of pounding on the nail it pounded on my finger. It put the hammer down and it took care of the left hand in a very tender way as if it were taking care of itself. It did not say, “You left hand, you have to remember that I, the right hand have taken good care of you and you have to pay me back in the future.” There was no such thinking. And my left hand does not say, “You, the right hand have done me a lot of harm, give me that hammer, I want justice.”

The two hands know that they are members of one body; they are part of each other. I think that if Israelis and Palestinians knew that they are brothers, that they are like two hands, they would not try to punish each other any more. The world community has not helped them to see that. If Muslims and Hindus knew that discrimination is at the base of our suffering they would know how to touch the seed of nondiscrimination in themselves. That kind of awakening, that kind of deep understanding will bring about reconciliation and well-being.

I think it is very important for individuals to have enough time to look deeply into the situation to have the insight that violence cannot remove violence. Only kind, deep listening and loving speech can help restore communication and remove wrong perceptions that are the foundation of all violence, hatred, and terrorism. With that kind of insight he or she can help others to have the same insight. I believe that in America there are many people that are awakened to the fact that violence cannot remove violence, that there is no way to peace, peace is the way itself. Those people have to come together and voice their concern strongly and offer their collective light and insight to the nation so that the nation can get out of this situation. Every one of us has the duty to contribute to that collective insight. With that insight compassion will make us strong and courageous enough to bring about a solution for all of us in the world.

Every time we breathe in and go home to ourselves and bring the element of harmony and peace into ourselves, that is an act of peace. Every time we know how to look at another living being and recognize the suffering that has made her speak or act, and we are able to see that she is the victim of suffering that she cannot handle—that is an act of compassion. When we can look with the eyes of compassion we don’t suffer and we don’t make the other person suffer. These are the actions of peace that can be shared with people.

In Plum Village we have had the opportunity to practice together as a community. We are several hundreds of people living together like a family in a very simple way. We are able to build up brotherhood and sisterhood. Although we live simply we have a lot of joy because of the amount of understanding and compassion that we can generate. We are able to go to many countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and America to offer retreats of mindfulness so that people may have a chance to heal, transform, and to reconcile. Healing, transformation, and reconciliation is what always happens in our retreats.

We have invited Israelis and Palestinians to our community to practice with us. When they come they bring anger, suspicion, fear, and hatred in them. But after a week or two of the practice of mindful walking, mindful breathing, mindful eating, and mindful sitting they are able to recognize their pain, embrace it, and bring relief to themselves. When they are initiated to the practice of deep listening they are able to listen to the other group and to realize that the other group suffers the same way they do. When you know that the others also suffer from violence, from hatred, from fear, and despair you begin to look at them with the eyes of compassion. At that moment you suffer less and you make them suffer less. Communication becomes possible with the use of loving speech and deep listening. The Israelis and Palestinians always come together as a group at the end of their practice in Plum Village and report to us the success of their practice. They go back to the Middle East with the intention to continue the practice and to invite others to join them so that they suffer less and they help others to suffer less. For the last three years this has been a very effective practice. We believe that if this practice can be done on the national level it will bring about the same kind of effect.

Unfortunately our political leaders have not been trained in the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and embracing pain and sorrow to transform their suffering. They have been trained only in political science. It is very important that we try to bring into our life a spiritual dimension, not vaguely, but in concrete practices. Talking like this will not help very much. But if you go to a retreat for five or seven days the practices of breathing mindfully, eating mindfully, walking mindfully, and going home to yourself to take care of the pain inside becomes a daily practice and you are supported by hundreds of people practicing with you. When you are in a retreat, people who are experienced in the practice offer you their collective energy of mindfulness that can help you to recognize and embrace, heal and transform the pain in you. That is why in a retreat we always bring enough experienced practitioners to offer the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration for healing. A teacher, no matter how talented she or he is, cannot do that. You need a community of practice where everyone knows how to be peace, how to speak peace, how to think peace so that practitioners who are beginners are able to profit from the collective insight.

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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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Dharma Talk: Leading with Courage and Compassion

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Unexpectedly, while on tour in India, Thay was invited to speak to the Parliament of India. On October 17, Thay addressed the assembly and many dignitaries.

THich Nhat Hanh

Honorable Speaker, honorable Secretary-General, distinguished Members of Parliament,

In this time of turmoil, in this time of violence, anger, fear and despair, every one of us suffers. The people suffer and also the leaders suffer. A spiritual dimension developed in our leaders may help to bring more insight and peace so that our leaders can find a way out for all of us. Is it possible to bring down the level of violence, fear, anger, and pain? To me, the answer is yes.

Those in the society who believe that they are victims of discrimination and injustice blame it on the society and their leaders. They have the impression that no one has listened to them. They have tried but they have never succeeded in making themselves understood. So, the practice of deep listening should be used in order to give them the sense of being heard and understood.

Compassionate Listening 

In a nation, there are those of us who are capable of being calm, who can sit down quietly and listen with compassion. Our leaders may like to invite those people to sit and listen to the sufferings of the nation, to the sufferings of the people. This kind of practice is needed for everyone – not just for the political leaders. Suppose a father does not have time to listen to his son or daughter. That father would not be able to understand the suffering and the difficulties of his son or daughter and will not be able to make them happy. Even if the father has time to sit down and listen, if in the father there is too much anger, pain, and despair, the quality of listening will not be good enough.

That is why, to listen to the suffering of other people, we should listen to our own suffering. But in our society not many people have the time to listen and understand their own suffering and difficulties. If we are able to listen to our own suffering and if we understand the true nature and roots of our suffering, then we will suffer less. We will be able to see a way out.

After that, we can listen to our loved ones, our community, our nation. And listening like that can bring relief because the people who are listened to in that spirit feel that they are now understood.

The Parliament could organize a session of deep listening, inviting wise and skilled spiritual people to come and sit down with our political leaders. Then we can invite those who think they are victims of social injustice and discrimination to come and we can say to them: “Dear people, we are here. We are ready to listen to what is in your heart and to hear about your suffering, your difficulties, and your despair.” Preparation like that may take some time.

The session of deep and compassionate listening can be televised so that the whole nation can participate in it. If the quality of listening is deep and good, people will feel that they are beginning to be understood, and then the level of anger, violence, and suspicion in our society will come down.

Practicing with Israelis and Palestinians 

In our community of friends, we have tried this practice in many ways. We always succeed. Every year, we invite a group of Palestinians and Israelis to come and practice with us at Plum Village. Of course, at first they cannot look at each other, they cannot talk to each other. There is a lot of fear, anger, and suspicion. First, we offer them the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and learning to recognize the pain, sorrow, fear in themselves. Supported by the practice of the whole community, they get some relief in their body and emotion from practicing in this way.

After about ten days, we teach them the practice of deep listening and loving speech. One group is given the time to tell the other group about all the suffering it has undergone, what kind of pain, injustice, fear, and despair it has experienced. They are asked to tell everything using the practice of loving speech. They do not condemn, blame, or accuse each other. You can tell everything in your heart but refrain from accusing, blaming, and using bitter language.

When you are in the group that listens, you have to practice mindful breathing and remind yourself to listen with compassion. We know that if we can sit and listen calmly like that for one hour, the speakers will suffer less and will feel that they are being understood. Many sessions of listening and loving speech can transform the situation.

When a group of people are expressing themselves, there may be a wrong perception or misunderstanding — a fear or anger that has no foundation — but we do not interrupt or correct them because interruptions will make them lose the inspiration to speak out. So, we continue to listen and we tell ourselves that later on, maybe several days later, we will provide them with some information so that they may correct their perceptions. Now we only listen.

While listening we can gain many insights into how the speakers have gotten the wrong perceptions that they have; and how fear, anger, violence, and hate are born from those wrong perceptions. We tell ourselves that later on we will help them by offering them information that will help correct these wrong perceptions that are the foundation of their anger, hate, and violence.

Discovering Our Wrong Perceptions 

While we listen, we might find out that we ourselves have been victims of our own wrong perceptions, that we have misunderstood ourselves and that we have misunderstood the others. In the process of listening we can correct our own perceptions and later on we might tell them that we have had wrong perceptions that have brought about fear, anger, and hate; and that now that the wrong perceptions have been removed, we feel much better.

After a few sessions of listening like that, one begins to see the other side as human beings who have suffered exactly as we have. You feel sorry that they have undergone such suffering. When you begin to look at the other group with that kind of understanding and compassion, they feel very much better because you are looking at them with the eyes of understanding and compassion. You feel much better within yourself and they suffer less. So, the practices of deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving speech always bring reconciliation and always help to remove wrong perceptions.

By the third week together, groups of Palestinians and Israelis are able to sit down and share a meal, they can hold hands during walking meditation and enjoy nature together. Reconciliation has taken place. At the end of the retreat, they come as one group to report about the progress of their practice and always inform us that when they go back to the Middle East, they will organize sessions of practice like this for other Palestinians and Israelis.

The difficulties between husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son can be resolved with that kind of practice of deep listening and loving speech. If a father does not understand the suffering or the difficulties of the son, how can he love him and make his son happy? Understanding is the foundation of love — understanding the sufferings and difficulties of the other person. But we have seen that if we do not understand our own suffering, our own difficulties, it will be hard to understand the suffering and difficulties of another person.

Terrorists Are Victims 

In France where we live and practice, thousands of young people commit suicide every year because they do not know how to handle strong emotions like anger and despair. When you speak of terrorists, we know that in a terrorist, there must be a lot of anger and despair; that anger, violence and despair have come from somewhere. They have become victims of the kind of information they have been given. When people have the impression that they are not understood, no matter what they have tried.

To me terrorists are victims of wrong perceptions and many people become their victims. In order to help the terrorists, we have to listen to them, try to understand them, and help them to remove their wrong perceptions. They may think that we are trying to destroy their way of life, their civilization; based on that conviction they want to punish.

Looking deeply into the matter, I see that the roots of terrorism are wrong perceptions that have brought us to anger, fear, suspicion, and the willingness to punish. Our political leaders should be able to listen, to help the terrorists remove their wrong perceptions. We cannot remove wrong perceptions by using bombs and guns. How can you bomb a wrong perception? That is why violence does not work. Removing terrorism needs to be done with the practice of compassionate listening and the practice of loving speech. If we think we are too busy, if we do not take the time, we cannot heal the violence in our society. We must make the time to listen to our own suffering and to the suffering of our own family and our own nation.

Just by listening deeply with compassion, we can bring relief and reduce the suffering in the family, in the community, and in the nation.

The Role of Journalists 

I was invited by the Times of India to be a guest editor for the edition of October 2. On the day I was working with the journalists, there was a series of blasts in the city. I was asked: What should journalists do when such a thing happens? After sitting quietly in contemplation, I said that we have to report about events in a way that helps to explain why such violent actions continue to happen. We have to show that anger, violence, and fear are born from wrong perceptions. If we ourselves understand, then we may be able to do something to help remove wrong perceptions, fear, and anger. If we do not know how to do this skillfully, then we will create collective fear and collective anger that will be very dangerous for the whole nation. The role of journalists is to report in a way that promotes understanding and compassion.

I also told the journalists that they need to report more on positive things in order to balance all the negative things that we are reading in newspapers and seeing on television. After finishing elementary school children have viewed one thousand acts of violence on television. They consume violence and fear every day. We have allowed the producers of television and films to poison our minds with fear and violence. When another person expresses a lot of fear and anger, we may take that poison into us. When we are reading an article or watching a program on television we may consume the fear. I suggest that the members of Parliament make time to discuss this, because the anger and violence we are consuming every day is causing us to react violently in our families and in society.

Non-Discrimination 

I would like to offer a story about non-discrimination. My right hand can do many things that my left hand does not do. When I write, I always write with my right hand. When I use a bell, I use my right hand. Yet my right hand does not ever complain to the left hand saying, “Well I do everything and you do not seem to be very useful.” My right hand has the wisdom of non-discrimination. And my left hand does not suffer from the complex of inferiority.

One day I was hanging a picture. I was not very mindful and I hit a finger on my left hand with the hammer. Immediately my right hand threw down the hammer and held my left hand gently. It did not tell the left hand, “You must remember that I have helped you and in future you have to do something to help me.” My left hand did not tell my right hand, “You have done me an injustice. You have made me suffer by hitting me with that hammer.” My left hand and right hand have the wisdom of non-discrimination. That is why my left hand and right hand live in perfect peace and harmony.

If the father and the son look deeply at one another, they can see that the son is the child of the father and it is the son who brings the father into the future. If the father makes his son suffer then he himself suffers. When you are able to make your father smile, you are happy because your father is happy. It is your own happiness because happiness is not an individual matter.

Regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians, we can say that the peace, joy, and safety of one side have very much to do with the peace, joy, and safety of the other side. So, to take care of the peace, well-being, and safety of one side is to take care of the peace, joy, and safety of the other side. The same thing is true with Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus. We are all like hands of the same body. If we know that our happiness is not an individual matter, then we can take care of the happiness and safety of our brethren. So, the insight of non-discrimination is the foundation of harmony and peace. We must educate our young people about this. Once we realize that either we live together or die together as a planet, as a nation, we can reconcile and transform the anger and suffering in us.

Transcript courtesy of Bureau of Parliamentary Studies and Training, India.
Edited by Barbara Casey, Janelle Combelic, and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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