Dharma Talk: Five Wonderful Precepts

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

When we think about peace, we usually think about the absence of war and nuclear weapons, or the absence of social injustice. But I would like to raise a question concern­ing our ability to enjoy peace. Even if peace is present, if we are not able to enjoy it, then what is the use of having peace? Peace is relative. Even if we do not have perfect peace, we can have some peace right now, in the present moment. But many of us do not seem capable of enjoying peace in the present moment, in ourselves, or around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Many of us find peace boring, and so we do things that create war. We drink cognac, for instance, in order to feel better, when we feel bored with life—with the air we breathe, the sky above, the river that flows—and we need something else. But drinking cognac is not making peace, because cognac is made of grain, and many people in the world starve because they don’t have enough grain to eat. The fact that we drink cognac means that we are not reconciled with the people in the Third World, and there­fore, drinking cognac is not an act of peace.

We do other things, such as commit sexual misconduct and intoxicate ourselves, because we feel a vacuum within ourselves and we want to fill it. By doing these things, we destroy our happiness and the happiness of our children and grandchildren. I think this is due to the fact that we have not developed the capacity of enjoying peace. We have to educate ourselves and our children to learn to enjoy peace. By enjoying peace, we make peace stronger and more real in the world. Practicing mindfulness in the present moment is the basic way of making peace and building peace.

I know that the lack of mindfulness has led to a lot of suffering in our daily life. Many families have been broken because of sexual misconduct, alcoholism, and drug addic­tion, and their children and grandchildren continue to suffer and to transmit suffering to future generations. The seeds of suffering that they have will be transmitted to their children and grandchildren. Eventually, you will need a Twelve-Step Program to get out of it. Taking the precepts and practicing them is a “One-Step Program.” It’s much easier.

In my recent tour of North America, I emphasized very much the practice of looking deeply into the causes of our suffering so that we can overcome them. I have encouraged people in the U.S. to practice in the way the Buddha and his disciples practiced. When the Buddha was about to pass away, he told his disciple, “Ananda, after I am gone, the community of monks and nuns should look upon the practice of the precepts as their teacher.” So I encouraged people who participated in retreats to take the Five Precepts and to practice them.

In the past, I was not very fond of ordaining people or having disciples. I tried to avoid that, especially when I saw that there were many other teachers. But during my visit last year, I changed my idea. We have to support each other, and the practice of the precepts is very important to help us. We do not practice meditation alone. We practice with a teacher and with friends. When you have a good sangha, your prac­tice is easy, because you are supported by the sangha. A sangha that is practicing a good Dharma is healthy, joyful, and happy. If you have a sangha like that, it is very easy to practice. You have to build your own sangha. You yourself have to be the first element of a good sangha, When the flower in you is real, you can help other members of the sangha. If you have a good sangha, you are a happy person.

The Five Precepts are the foundation for practicing with others. They have been practiced for more than 2,500 years. Buddha gave the Five Precepts to the father of a monk named Yasa, when he asked the Buddha what he could do that would allow him to live more like his son. Yasa was the Buddha’s sixth disciple, a wealthy young man, ordained just after the Buddha ordained his five ascetic friends. If members of a family or a sangha observe and recite these precepts regularly, Buddhism becomes a living reality. Once the precepts are received, we have to practice and recite them at least once a month. If we do not practice the precepts, the precepts’ body will cease to be a reality and the practice of Buddhism will become impossible. Bud­dhists of many generations have practiced these precepts in order to maintain happiness and to be of help to others. The Five Precepts are principles for peaceful co-existence between people and also between nations.

No one can impose anything on us. We are free people, and we do only the things we want to do. But we know that there is a kind of illness in our society, and practicing the precepts is a very good medicine that can protect us and our families and safeguard our happiness. Buddhist precepts are not commandments. To word them in a way that does not sound like commandments may be useful for a lot of people, but we have to word them in a clear, strong way. The wording of the Five Precepts may not be perfect, and those of you who practice them might like to think about the words and help all of us express the precepts in a clear way. But we want to avoid any misunderstanding.

Mindfulness is the fundamental precept. Think of the precepts as the manifestation of mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are responsible. Precepts do not have to dictate our behavior. We don’t need an elaborate code of behavior. Mindfulness is enough. Mindfulness is a torch that can show us the way. Buddhism, the practice of Buddhist meditation, should address the real issues of our life. It should address the issues of our suffering. Whatever suffering we have in the present moment, the practice of Buddhism should help. We should not say that these are only personal things, that we only deal with ultimate reality, supreme enlightenment. These do not mean anything if they have nothing to do with our daily life, with our daily suffering. So, please confront the real issues, the real problems of our life, and inquire.

If we students and teachers do not practice the precepts, we are not faithful to the tradition. We can even destroy each other. Therefore, in a community practicing Buddhist meditation, students and teachers alike have to practice the precepts, the basic teaching of Buddhism. We have to help each other. You know that you or your teacher is not practicing intelligently when you drink alcohol or engage in sexual misconduct. You believe that your teacher has insight, but if someone has insight, how could he or she do things like that? You know that alcoholism has destroyed so much of this country. Sexual misconduct has destroyed so many families and caused many young people to suffer. Even someone who does not practice Buddhism knows this and tries to avoid these kinds of things. How could practi­tioners of Buddhist meditation not practice this?

Someone said, “In the Zen tradition, people are not restricted, they are free. They don’t practice the Five Precepts.” To me, Zen Buddhism is just Buddhism. Every Buddhist practices meditation. Zen is meditation—whether it is in Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana—people practice meditation. To practice the Five Precepts is the minimum. The Five Precepts are Zen itself. So, you cannot say that Zen does not practice the Five Precepts. That is a distortion. To me, to teach, we have to preach by our own lives, not just by a sermon or a Dharma talk.

It is in practicing that we get enlightened in every second, every minute of our lives. The Buddhist teaching on suffering is very deep, very complete, about how to deal with your anguish, fear, anger, and frustration, and about how to deal with your family and your community. All these can be found in the teaching of the Buddha. If you practice correctly, you will get healed, you will be happy and joyful. You don’t need to practice ten years in order to get results. Only one day or two days a week will bring you something positive and good. As you progress on your way, you will be able to help other people also. I believe it is the time that practitioners of Buddhism in this country begin to practice the precepts seriously, responding to the kind of sufferings that have been going on in many Buddhist communities.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the spirit of the Five Precepts is present. If you go back to your traditions, you will find the equivalent of these precepts. I see very much the need for this kind of practice, and I urge you, if you don’t want to practice the Five Precepts in this Buddhist version, to go back to your Jewish or Christian traditions and ask that the equivalent of the Five Precepts be restored.

Peace is important but we have to educate ourselves and our children to enjoy peace. Otherwise, peace will be boring. There are so many positive elements, peaceful elements within us and around us, and we have to live mindfully in order to get in touch with these in order for us to have a joyful and happy life. Someone said, “Thay, when do I know that I am ready for the precepts?” I said, “The sooner the better.”

The First Precept 

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. 

The more we practice and study the precepts, the more we understand their depth.The First Precept, not to kill, is not easy, and no one can say that he or she observes it perfectly. If we are mindful in trying to practice this precept, we will see that we may be unintentionally killing people, animals, or plants, for example, by consuming alcohol, reading newspapers, or eating meat. I think all these things pertain to the precept of non-killing. So we have to be very careful to be able to practice this precept. Things are inter-con­nected. When we eat grapes or drink coffee, we may think that it has nothing to do with killing, but that is not true. So we have to be very mindful in order to deeply practice the precepts.

Sometimes we do not speak out against killing, and that is also violating the precepts. “Do not kill. Do not let others kill.” It is very difficult. You cannot do it perfectly. To practice the precept means you have the intention to go in the direction of not killing. You do the maximum in your power not to kill and not let others kill. The essential is not to be perfect but to go in that direction. When we boil some vegetables to eat, we may think that we are avoiding killing, but by boiling the vegetables, we kill many tiny beings in the water. So our vegetable dish is not entirely vegetarian. No one, including the Buddha, can practice this precept perfectly. He told his disciples not to travel much during the rainy seasons, in order to avoid stepping on tiny living beings. They were trying their best to avoid killing.

We should not be too proud of being nonviolent. Trying to be nonviolent is like looking at the North Star in order to go north. We do not intend to arrive at the North Star; we only want to go north. That is the spirit of the precepts. We want to go in the direction of non-killing, nonviolence, and we make a little progress every day. We have to try all our lives in order to understand the precept better and to practice it better.

The precept is a guideline, a direction. Every time you practice the recitation of the precept, the person who leads the ceremony will say something like this: “This is the first of the Five Precepts. Have you made an effort to study and to practice it during the last two weeks?” You don’t say yes or no. You breathe three times and let the question enter, and you act from there. That is good enough, because “yes” is not entirely correct. You might have made an effort but still think that it is not enough. So, the intention is to help you move in that direction. If you say, “No,” that is not correct either, because you have practiced.

This precept needs a lot of study and practice. It is not as easy as you may think. Trying to go in the direction of the precepts, we become a shining light, and people will follow our example. 

The Second Precept 

Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffer­ing of other species on earth.

Bringing to our awareness the pain caused by social injustice, this precept urges us to work for a more livable society. This precept is linked with the First Noble Truth (awareness of suffering), Right Livelihood (of the Eightfold Path), and the First Precept (the protection of life). In order to deeply comprehend the Second Precept, we need to meditate on all these teachings.

Developing ways of preventing others from enriching themselves on human suffering is the primary duty of legislators, politicians, and revolutionary leaders. However, each of us can also act in this direction. To some degree, we can stay close to oppressed people and help them protect their right to life and defend themselves against oppression and exploitation. 

The Third Precept 

Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.

It is quite clear. This is not just Buddhist; it is universal. It is the right medicine for our illness. When we and our children take the precepts, it means we accept the medicine to protect us.

Sexual misconduct is the cause of many troubles in society, and therefore, the Third Precept is very important. Many things in our lives—films, commercials, magazines—stimulate and create impulses for sexual aggression. This kind of sexual expression has caused a lot of mental stress, and therefore, I think we should look for effective ways to heal society in this respect.

Even in practicing communities, this precept is not practiced seriously enough. I think we need a conference, a long retreat, in order to work on this very big issue. Various forms of suffering have resulted from the Iack of the practice as far as this precept is concerned. Therefore, I would urge young people to begin to practice the Five Precepts, and the parents also should be companions of their children, practicing the Five Precepts. 

The Fourth Precept 

Do not say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or the community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.

The Fourth Precept is about right speech. You know that sometimes we destroy our happiness just because we are not mindful in saying things. Saying things is an art. To use our speech is to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance, and we should be very artful and mindful while speaking. What is described in the precept is not everything, just a few essential lines. Words can build up a lot of happi­ness, but they can also destroy. Practicing right speech, loving speech, is very important in our lives. We have to learn a lot about the art of speaking.

The essence of the Fourth Precept is concord. Commu­nity life is only possible with concord. There are six principles of community life prescribed by the Buddha: living together at one place, sharing material resources, observing the same precepts, sharing the understanding of Dharma and the experience of practice with each other, reconciling differing viewpoints, and practicing kind speech to avoid all quarrels. These Six Concords have been practiced by Buddhist communities since the Buddha’s time and are still relevant.

Kind speech is born from understanding and patience. Only understanding and care can bring about change. Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict. Not only do both sides bear partial responsibility, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in mindfulness, we could have seen the beginning phases of the conflict and helped to end or avoid it.

Our awareness of the need to reconcile will empower us to work in that direction. The success of reconciliation will be the success of understanding and compassion for the other side as well as for ourselves.

The Fifth Precept 

Do not use alcohol and any other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors, your parents, and also to betray the future generations. 

When we realize the interconnectedness between our ancestors, our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves, we see that by taking care of ourselves, we take care of all of them. Someone who practices the Fifth Precept could not say, “This is my body. I can do anything to it. I have the right to.” They cannot say that, because they know that their body belongs to all their ancestors, themselves, and the future generations.

mb2-dharma2

Meditation is to look at things in a way that you can see the roots and the fruits of those things. Mindfulness allows that kind of perception. When we look at a glass of whiskey with mindfulness, concentration and understanding will come. We will see the roots of the whiskey. A lot of grain is used to produce meat and alcohol. If we look more deeply at the glass of whiskey, we will see that many people in the world starve because they do not have enough grain to eat. When we see that, we will stop drinking whiskey very soon. Cereals, and the lack of cereals for hungry people, are the roots of whiskey. We know that the fruits of the whiskey include the death of hungry children, liver cancer, and a nervousness that you have in the future. These are all fruits of the whiskey. So mindfulness is the base of all precepts. Drinking a glass of whiskey with mindfulness is already practicing the precepts, because if you drink with deep mindfulness, you will live with the reality of the world and you will stop drinking very soon.

Someone asked me, “I don’t get drunk. I only have a glass of wine when I attend a reception. Isn’t it okay to drink a little bit of wine in situations like that?” 

I don’t think so. I don’t think that those who practice the Fifth Precept should drink even a glass of beer or wine, because one glass of wine will bring about the second glass, and so on. Those who are alcoholic all begin with one glass. That is why it is better not to take a drop of alcohol. During a reception, if you are offered a glass of alcohol, you say, “Thank you very much, but I do not drink alcohol. May I have a glass of juice, or something?” That is beautiful. The best teaching is with your own life, not with a sermon.

It is like when someone offers you a cigarette, you say, “Thank you, I do not smoke.” It’s very good. So those who practice this precept should be clear about it, because you do not practice it for yourself alone. You practice for your friends and other people. There are many things that are delicious to drink, so many wonderful things to drink, and nobody will die if they don’t drink alcohol. I am very firm on this, because the first drop wilt bring the second drop. And when we become alcoholic, it’s very difficult, very difficult. Too many children suffer because their parents are alcoholics. So please just stop. This is the One-Step Program.

Just stopping is a compassionate act for future genera­tions and also for our friends. Many generations have suffered from alcoholic parents and then had to undergo a very long procedure to heal the wounds. Taking precepts is much easier. That is why we should encourage our children to receive and practice the Five Precepts. And we ourselves have to practice in order to support our children. Practicing the Five Precepts is not only for our own good, but for the good of the society.

 

The Five Wonderful Precepts 

  1. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.
  2. Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffering of other species on earth.
  3. Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the suffering you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.
  4. Do not, say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or con­demn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that can cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.
  5. Do not use alcohol and other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors and your parents and also to betray the future generations.

PDF of this article

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

Dharma Talk: A Peaceful Heart

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Just before the land offensive in the Gulf, the Soviet Union proposed a six-point peace plan to end the war. The first point was that Iraq consent to withdraw all its troops from Kuwait within twenty-one days. But President Bush said that Iraq must evacuate Kuwait in just seven days, and he ordered the allied troops to begin attacking and killing the next day at noon. After the attack began, President Bush addressed the nation, saying, “Whatever you are doing at this moment, please stop and pray for our soldiers in the Gulf. God Bless the United States of America.” I think that many Moslems were also praying to their God at that moment to protect Iraq and the Iraqi soldiers. How could God know which nation to support?

Many people pray to God because they want God to fulfill some of their needs. If they want to have a picnic, they may ask God for a clear, sunny day. At the same time, farmers who need more rain pray for the opposite. If the weather is clear, the person going to the picnic will say, “God is on my side. He answered my prayers.” But if it rains, the farmers may say that God heard their prayers. For the most part, that is how we pray to God.

In light of the Persian Gulf War, I would like to discuss the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught a style of life that can bring people happiness. I think it is important for us to go back to the Gospels to discover Jesus’ true, simple teachings: 

“Seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'” When you know that you are spiritually poor, you are no longer spiritually poor. When you think that you are spiritually rich, then you are spiritually poor. When you know that you do not have enough wisdom, that is when you begin to have wisdom. When you believe you already have wisdom, you are blocked, and you do not have enough “spiritual riches” to make yourself or other people happy. Confucius said, “If you know that you don’t know, then you can begin to know.” We can understand this passage from the Bible in the light of the teaching of Confucius.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be com­forted.” When you mourn, when you suffer, you have an opportunity to learn. If you do not suffer, it is difficult to learn what happiness is. If you are not hungry, it is difficult to realize the joy of eating. If you do not have bad weather, it is difficult to appreciate good weather. If you are aware of your suffering, you can learn from it, and you will have the conditions to be happy. 

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” If you are not humble, you may remain in ignorance for a long time and miss many opportunities to learn. Humility is a condition for you to advance in your understanding. 

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteous­ness: for they shall be filled.” God requires that we love and understand each other, that we stop killing each other and making each other suffer.

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” God is merciful to those who are merciful to others. You don’t have to wait. The moment compassion springs from your heart, you benefit from it immediately, maybe even before the other person benefits from it. If you want to make another person happy, you are transformed the moment you have that intention, and a smile is born on your lips. Even before you do or say anything, the other person notices your transformation. Compassion is the capacity and the willing­ness to remove pain and suffering from others. This kind of love does not require anything in return; it is unconditional love. It pervades your whole being, and you find peace right in that moment. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” “Pure in heart” means that you do not have the intention to harm other people. This is equivalent to the Buddha’s teaching: “To refrain from doing evil things, to practice doing good things, and to keep your heart pure.” When your heart is pure, you see reality. You step into the Kingdom of God, into the Pure Land. When the heart is pure, the land must be pure. Land is a creation of the heart. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” Those who work for peace must have a peaceful heart. When you have a peaceful heart, you belong to the Kingdom of God. You belong to the Pure Land. You are children of the Pure Land. There are those who try to work for peace, but their hearts are not at peace. They still have anger and frustration, and their work for peace is not really peaceful. We cannot say that they belong to the population of the Pure Land.

We must do anything we can to preserve peace. But this is only possible when our hearts are at peace with the world, with our brothers and our sisters. When we try to overcome evil with evil, we are not working for peace. You may say, “Saddam Hussein is evil. We have to prevent him from continuing to be evil.” But if the means you use are exactly like the ones he has been using, you are exactly like the person you are fighting. Trying to overcome evil with evil is not making peace. 

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When you practice purity, nonviolence, understanding, and mutual acceptance, even if you are persecuted, you have peace in your heart. You are in the Kingdom of Heaven. You know that what you are doing is right and that you are not harming anyone or anything. This teaching is about patience. You have the strength to continue your nonviolent way of securing peace. If people put you in jail, persecute you, or call you names, you can still be happy and peaceful, because you are dwelling in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the Pure Land. Even if you are in prison, even if you are beaten or killed, you will continue to be in the Pure Land. You are at peace with yourself, at peace with the world, and even at peace with those who are persecuting you. This is the most important contribution to life that the followers of Jesus can bring to the world. This is to practice Jesus’ way here, not elsewhere. It means the Kingdom of Heaven has to be realized here. Nowadays people think that the Kingdom of God is somewhere else.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” In this passage, Jesus describes his followers as salt. Food needs salt in order to be tasty. Life needs under­standing, compassion, and harmony in order to be livable.

This teaching is equivalent to the teaching about the sangha. Without a sangha, we cannot do much. Therefore, elements of sangha have to practice being the taste of life, the taste of liberation. You have to practice so that you become salt yourself – practice until you become freedom, understanding, and love. When practicing, if you do not “become salt,” then people cannot make use of you, because you are not real salt. So a true sangha is one that practices the teaching of liberation and becomes free; practices the teachings of understanding and develops understanding; practices compassion and becomes more compassionate. A true sangha contains the Buddha and the dharma. If a community of Christians practice so that they become the salt of life, then they will be a true community of Christians.

In the Buddhist canon, salt is compared to emancipation, liberation. Happiness, in Buddhism, is not possible without liberation. You must be liberated from your own ignorance in order to be really happy. If you want to make other people happy, you must also work to help them liberate themselves from their afflictions and internal formations. 

“Ye are the light of the world.” When you practice meditation, you get wisdom, comprehension, understanding, and that kind of wisdom will shine upon the world. Anyone who feels the light emanating from you will be enlightened and will profit from your understanding. You don’t need to be a saint to emanate tight. You need only to be mindful, and you will begin to send light around you already.

“A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candle­stick; and it giveth light unto all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Each of us is a light for the whole world. Don’t keep the light for yourself. Share it with others. Show yourself. Jesus said, “You have benefited from my teaching. You have to bring this teaching to many people.”

He also said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”

Jesus did not say that if you are angry with your brother, he will put you in hell. He said that if you are angry with your brother, you risk the danger of being in hell. Because anger is hell. When you get angry, you jump into hell right away. You don’t need someone to put you there. When you commit murder, you are put into jail. But Jesus went one step further: Before you commit murder with your body, you commit murder in your mind. That is jail already. You  don’t need to kill with your body to be put in jail. You need only to kill in your mind and you are already there. This is a wonderful teaching. In Buddhism, we say that among the three kinds of actions—actions by thinking, by speech, and by the body—the first is the most basic.

We know that in the Persian Gulf, many people have been learning and practicing killing in their minds. Iraqi, American, French, British, and many other soldiers, have been practic­ing killing day and night. They know that if they don’t kill, the other person will kill them.

They use sand­ bags to represent the enemy, and holding their bayonets, they run, shout, and plunge their bayonets into the sandbags. They practice killing every day in their hearts and minds. The damage caused by that kind of practice is very great.

mb4-dharma2

I happened to see just a few seconds of that kind of practice. Even if President Bush had not given the order for a land offensive, a lot of damage had already been done in the minds and hearts of one million people in the Gulf. This kind of wound, this kind of damage will last for a long time in the lives of these soldiers, if they are able to survive the war. This kind of wound will be transmitted to their children, and to the children of their children, over a long time. It is very depressing. If you don’t practice killing, and if it happens that you have to kill, the damage in your heart and mind will be much less. But if you train yourself for days and months to kill—”killing” during the day and then dreaming of killing during the night because you have spent so much time concentrating on that—the damage, the wound, is very deep. If you survive, you will go back to your country and bear that kind of scar for a long time. Even if you don’t want to kill, you have to learn to kill and to practice it, every day, in your heart and your mind, This is a tragedy.

We have to tell people about this. Usually they count bodies in order to measure the damage of a war. They do not count this kind of wound in the hearts and minds of people.  But it will last for a long time. If I am killed, my children can “continue” me. You can only kill my body. You cannot kill the things I have transmitted to my children. So the damage is not as great. But if I have learned to kill in my heart and my mind, if I survive, I will transmit that kind of wound, that kind of “internal formation,” to my children and their children. We have to count the wounds in this way and tell people of the long-term damage that war causes to humanity. Soldiers live in hell, every day and every night, even before going to the battlefield.

“Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother has anything against thee; leave there thy gift  before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” This is a practice of loving kindness. You want to make an offering to God, but if, when you are facing the altar and looking at God, you become mindful of the fact that you are in conflict with one of your brothers, you cannot make an offering in that state of being. God will not accept it, and you will not accept it because God is in you. So Jesus said to put down your offering, go back to your brother, and reconcile with him first.

Being mindful, we know when we are in conflict with someone. We know that we have to go to that person in order to reconcile with her or with him. The altar and the offering are not separate. The altar is right where your brother or your sister is. We may have the impression that God and the altar of God are separate. We leave the offering there and go back to our brother or sister. But in the practice of mindfulness, God follows us all the time. When we go back to our brother or our sister, God is with us, and the offering is with us also. By reconciling with our brother, we offer our gift to God at the same time.

You may have the impression that altars are old fash­ioned, but you still have many things you consider to be sacred. For example, the flag of your nation is a kind of altar. On many occasions, you stand up and salute your flag.

In  a way it looks funny, because the flag is only a piece of cloth. But it represents something—a country, a people—and you stand and salute it. In Asia, we have altars for many things, but we do not kill anyone because of them. If we understand the teachings of Jesus, we will not die and kill anyone because of the flag. We will pursue the avenue of reconciliation.

We have learned that all transgressions, all mistakes come from mind; that mind is the ground for all wrongdo­ings. Knowing this, we can go back to the mind and transform the mind and suddenly, the wrongdoings are no longer there. This is “beginning anew.” When we change our thinking and our attitude, our mind is transformed, and we feel as light as a cloud floating in the sky.

Many people think of peace as the absence of war. They think that if the superpowers would agree to reduce their weapons, we would have peace. But according to the teachings of Jesus, and also the teachings of the Buddha, when you look into the weapons, what you see is your mind. If you look deeply into any bomb, you will see fear and ignorance. Even if we were able to transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of the bombs are still in our hearts, and sooner or later, we will make more bombs. It is most important that we take care of the roots of war that reside in our mind. Working for peace means to uproot war in the hearts of men. If we start a war and give the opportunity to one million men and women to practice killing day and night in their hearts, that is not uprooting the roots of war. That is planting more seeds of war—the fear of being killed, the anger, the frustration. Seventy-five percent of the people in America supported the President in the Gulf War, I think even more than that.

This is Jesus’ teaching about revenge: Matthew 5:38: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.”

If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him. When someone wants to borrow something from you, lend it to him. How many Christians practice this?

There is a story about an American soldier who was taking a Japanese prisoner during World War II. While walking together, the American discovered that the Japanese soldier spoke English, and so they spoke to each other. The American soldier learned that the Japanese soldier had been a Christian before he abandoned his faith. So he asked, “Why did you abandon Christianity? It is an excellent religion.” The Japanese man said, “I could not become a soldier and continue to be a Christian. I don’t think a good Christian can become a soldier and kill another person.” He understood this passage of Matthew. There must be ways to solve our conflicts without having to resort to killing. We must focus our attention on this. We have to find ways to help people get out of difficult situations, situations of conflict, without having to kill. 

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

The rain that God made is for good people and for evil people—nondiscrimination. When you pray only for your picnic, and you don’t pray for the farmers who need the rain, you are doing the opposite of what Jesus taught. Jesus said, “Love your enemy, bless them that curse you.” When we contemplate our anger, we try to do that. When someone says or does something that makes us angry, we believe that if we do something to hurt him or her, we will feel relieved. But when we say or do something cruel, the other person suffers more, and he or she will try to say or do something even more awful to us. Here we have an escalation of anger.

When we look deeply into our anger, we can see that the person we call our enemy is suffering also. Because he suffers so much, his suffering spills over onto us and other people. As soon as we see that someone is suffering, we have the capacity of accepting him and having compassion for him. This is what Jesus called “loving your enemy.” Love, here, does not mean attachment. It means to encom­pass the other person with compassion. That is possible when we know that the other person is suffering and needs our compassion, not our anger. When we are able to love our enemy, he is no longer our enemy. The idea of “enemy” vanishes and is replaced by the someone who is suffering a great deal and needs our compassion. Sometimes it is very easy, easier than you may think. What is important is that you practice. If you read the Bible but don’t practice, it doesn’t help much. 

“And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?” Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? You love the people who love you just to profit from friends. It is not love, it is just profit. Sometime we don’t even love the people who love us. If you pay your taxes, the tax collector will smile at you. If you don’t pay the tax, well… And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? You just speak and spend time with the ones you love. You leave out other people. This is not the practice of love. Love here is to make an effort to understand the people that suffer, and go in the direction of these people. It is important to be aware of the suffering in the world.

In a community, we may find two, three, or four friends who are sweet, who bring us a lot of happiness. But if we stay only with these friends and ignore everyone else, that is not practicing love. We have to reach out, with the support of these friends, to the people who are not as sweet. They are not as sweet because they have suffering in them. 

“Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.” “When thou doest alms, let not thy left had know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”

When you give something to a needy person, do not make a big show of it. That would be a practice just for the sake of the form. If you practice for the sake of the form, there is no understanding or compassion, and you will have no transformation. In other words you will have no rewards from your Father in Heaven. Your Father is love and understanding. This is a very important teaching. When you help a needy person, do it in such a way that even your closest friend will not know about it. Then it will be a private matter. And your Father, who sees what you are doing, will reward you. 

“When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” You have to focus your mind our heart on your prayer. Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him. Because you are concentrated in your practice, you are sowing the seeds of wisdom, understanding, and love in your heart. You are planting good seeds in the land of your heart, and you don’t need to ask for anything. Praying is not just asking, praying is giving to yourself and to other people. If you make yourself happy, if you sow good seeds into your mind and heart, you do that not only for yourself but for other people as well. Happiness is not an individual matter. When you can smile, when you can be fresh and loving, not only you, but everyone benefits from it. 

“After this manner therefore pray ye: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Heaven is in our hearts. In the Buddhist teaching, the Pure Land is always present in our hearts. We need only one step to enter the Pure Land, and that step is mindfulness. When mindfulness, love, and understanding are present in your heart, whatever you see or hear belongs to the Pure Land. You can hear the birds and the wind in the willow expound the Dharma. When you pray to God in mindfulness, understanding and compassion arise, and the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven open at once. 

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” In Heaven it is easier to realize God’s will because everyone is mindful. In New York or Paris, it is more difficult. People there suffer a lot. We have to bring the Kingdom of God into our hearts and then shine our lights upon the world. It is easy to pray in order to leave the world and go to paradise. But this is not what Jesus taught. He said to bring the light here and make this world livable, practicing love, forgiveness, and acceptance right here. The message is clear: We can practice God’s will right here on Earth. We do not need to wait until we go to Heaven or anywhere else. 

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Again, Jesus is reminding us to live in the present moment, here and now. He does not say, “Bring us to Heaven quickly. We suffer very much here. Help us to leave the Earth as quickly as possible.” He says give us today the food we need.

Nature, water, air, and soil are the source of our life. They give us our daily food, but we are destroying these resources. It means we are destroying God. How can we continue to pray like this, “Give us this day our daily bread,” when we are destroying the source of our own food? A theology of the environment should be taught in order to protect God, to protect man, to protect other living beings. Man is just one species among many. Without the presence of other species, man cannot be. Man is made by “non-man elements,” such as trees, water, soil, and sunlight. If we destroy the non-man elements, how can humans continue to survive? We are asking God for food, even as we are destroying God, the source, the ground of our being. 

“And forgive us our trespasses. as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Everyone can make mistakes. If we are mindful, we see that some of our actions in the past have made others suffer, and some actions of others have made us suffer. We want to be forgiving. We want to begin anew. “You my brother, you my sister have done me wrong in the past. I know that it is because you suffer, you did not see clearly. I understand that and I don’t have anger toward you anymore.” That is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the fruit of awareness. When you are mindful you can see all the causes that have led that person to make you suffer. If you see these causes, then forgiveness and release arise naturally. It is impossible to force yourself to forgive. It is only when you understand what has happened that you have compassion for the other person and you can forgive.

I think that if President Bush had more understanding of the mind of President Hussein, peace could have been obtained. President Gorbachev tried. He made a number of proposals that could have been acceptable to the allies. Many lives could have been saved. But because anger was there, President Hussein gave the order to burn the oil wells in Kuwait, and hundreds of wells are in flames, creating a huge amount of smoke all over the region. President Bush saw that, and he became angry. In an atmosphere of anger and distrust, he had to reject the Soviet Union’s proposal. But if he could see more clearly the suffering of the people of Iraq, he would not let his anger be expressed by starting a ground war. He asked the American people to pray for the allied soldiers. He asked God to bless the United States of America. He did not say that we should pray for the civilians in Iraq or even the people of Kuwait. He wanted God to be on the side of America.

mb4-dharma3

Who is President Bush? President Bush is us. We are responsible for the way he feels, for everything he does. Polls show that seventy, eighty percent of the people in America supported President Bush. Why blame him? Our degree of understanding, our degree of love, our capacity to understand and to love is so poor, so limited. We have not looked deeply enough, we have not brought our lamp high enough. We are not engaged enough in our effort to practice peace and to bring peace to the hearts of people. When I look at the way we prepare for war and practice killing day and night in our hearts and minds, I feel overwhelmed.

What people have been practicing in the sands of Saudi Arabia is fear. Aware that they may be killed, they have to practice day and night to prepare to kill, and also to prepare to die. They have to accept the killing and their death. There is no alternative. Practicing for six months like that, how many internal formations have been created? What have their minds become? When they go back to their country, what will their wives, their children, their brothers and sisters receive from them? The American society will receive all the seeds of affliction of the war. We cannot imagine the long-term effects.

In tradition of Christianity, we find the guidance we need for exactly this kind of situation. But what have we made of Christianity? Are we listening to Jesus? How can we help Jesus reveal himself again? These are a few of the questions I have when I read the Gospels. 

Based on a lecture given by Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France, on February 24, 1991, the day the land invasion of Iraq began. It will be included in a book of essays on nonviolent social action by Thich Nhat Hanh, to be published by Parallax Press later this year.

PDF of this article

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

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.

PDF of this article

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