Dharma Talk: The Habit of Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Upper Hamlet, Plum Village June 19, 2012


Thich Nhat Hanh

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

mb61-dharma2

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

 

mb61-dharma3

 

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

The Universal Mental Formations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A New Neural Pathway

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

 

mb61-dharma5

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Particular Mental Formations

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

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

Eight Levels of Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Characteristics of Seeds in Store Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

mb61-dharma6

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

Retribution

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

 

mb61-dharma7

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Light of the Candle

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

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

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

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

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

 

Further Reading on Buddhism and Science

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

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

PDF of article

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

Dharma Talk – The Different Faces of Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Teachings on the Dimension of Action of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion from the Universal Door Chapter of the Lotus Sutra

mb32-dharma1

When the bodhisattva named Inexhaustible Mind heard the name Avalokitesvara, he asked the Buddha, “Why did that bodhisattva get such a beautiful name?” The Buddha replied, “Because the actions of Avalokitesvara can respond to the needs of any being in any circumstance.” Then Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind asked, “How does this bodhisattva enjoy being on this Earth? How does he enjoy walking and contemplating and going about this planet?” The word used in this question is a verb that means you relax and enjoy yourself. Answering that question, the Buddha talked about the way Avalokitesvara spends his or her time on this planet.

We all have time to spend on this planet and the question is whether we enjoy it or not. What are we doing? Do we really enjoy our time sojourning on this planet? Do we carry a lot of luggage, making it feel too heavy to enjoy our time here?

Avalokitesvara is a manifestation and any manifestation has to be situated in time and space in the historical dimension. The Buddha Shakyamuni manifested himself as a prince, as a practitioner, as a monk, and as a teacher. His manifestation lasted eighty years. We are also manifestations. We manifest ourselves in the historical dimension and there are things we want to do and we want to enjoy what we do.

The Interbeing of the Historical and the Ultimate Dimensions 

Everything has its historical dimension as well as its ultimate dimension. In the ultimate dimension we are in touch with the essence, the substance, the ground of a person or a thing. In the historical dimension we get in touch with the appearance or the form of something or someone. If we speak about a bell, the substance that makes up the bell is metal. The form of the bell is a manifestation from that ground. So in the historical dimension you can see the ultimate dimension. We also carry with us our ground of being. It’s like a wave that manifests herself on the surface of the ocean. The wave is also the water and touching the historical dimension of the wave deeply, you touch the water, her ultimate dimension.

Yesterday there was a question about God. Our friend asked, “I thought that there is no God in Buddhism. Why is Thay speaking about the Kingdom of God?” It’s true that in Buddhism we do not talk about God but we do talk about nirvana, the ultimate dimension. If God means the ultimate dimension, the foundation of all manifestations, then there is God in Buddhism. Our ground of being is the nature of no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We call that “nirvana”, the ultimate. If you understand God to be the ultimate, to be the foundation of every manifestation, then we can speak about God. If by God we mean an old man with a beard sitting in the clouds and deciding everything for us, we don’t talk about that God.

The Dimension of Action 

What is the purpose of a bell? How does the bell serve? The bell offers sound for us to practice. That is the function of the bell. This is called the dimension of action. We all have this third dimension. Although we carry within ourselves our true nature we also enjoy manifesting ourselves through our jobs and activities. The Buddha Shakyamuni wanted to do something, that is why he manifested himself. The bell wants to do something, that is why she has manifested herself as a bell. There is something we want to do, in our current manifestation. The dimension of action is connected to the dimension of history, and the dimension of history is very much linked to the dimension of the ultimate.

Our body in the historical dimension may have a beginning and an end but our body in the ultimate dimension is indestructible. It is our Dharma body. Our body in the historical dimension is the body of retribution. The form and manifestation of our physical body is a result or retribution of the lives of our ancestors and our own way of living and being in the world. While using this body of retribution we can practice touching our Dharma body. Everyone has a Dharma body and if you can touch your Dharma body you are no longer afraid of birth and death. The moment the wave realizes that she is water, she is no longer afraid of being and nonbeing, birth and death. As water she doesn’t mind going up and going down. She can ride freely on the waves of history without fear. The role of the bodhisattva in the dimension of action is to help people to touch deeply their ultimate dimension because once you have touched your ultimate dimension you lose all fear of birth and death. You realize that this manifestation is just a continuation. Before this manifestation you were already there in your ancestors and after this manifestation disintegrates you will continue in your descendants and in all forms of life.

The Universal Door 

The twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra is called “The Universal Door Chapter.” This chapter is about the dimension of action of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The Universal Door refers to the kind of practice that can respond to all situations of suffering in every place and in every time. This chapter is about love, and Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of love and compassion.

Amb32-dharma2valokitesvara is translated as Quan Tu Tai or Quan The Am in Vietnamese. Quan means to observe, to look deeply or to recognize. In Sanskrit this word is the same as vipasyana, to look deeply. Vipasyana goes together with samatha, or stopping and concentrating. You select a subject, you stop and concentrate on that subject and you look deeply into it. It may be your anger, your despair or a difficult situation you find yourself in. Tu Tai means freedom. Thanks to looking deeply you get the freedom you need. In the Heart Sutra the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara found out that everything is empty of a separate existence. Upon having that realization he became free from all afflictions. The Am means the sounds of the world. Quan The Am is the one who looks deeply into the sounds of the world.

Living beings express themselves in different ways. Whether they express themselves well or not, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can always understand them. If a child doesn’t have enough words to express herself the bodhisattva is still able to understand the child. If the person expresses himself in spoken language or in bodily expression the bodhisattva also understands.

Avalokitesvara has the power of manifesting herself in so many forms, and she is capable of being present everywhere at the same time. When you go to a temple, whether it is in Vietnam or Tibet or China you might have a chance to see a statue of a bodhisattva with 1,000 arms. Each arm holds an instrument. One of her hands is holding a book; it may be a sutra or a book on political science. Another hand is holding a bell. Another hand is holding a flute or a guitar. And a bodhisattva of our time may hold in one hand a computer. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book there is an English translation of the verses of this chapter made by Sister True Virtue. In this translation the bodhisattva is called a she. And in Asia many people think of Avalokitesvara as a she. But in fact the person can be a he as is explained in the sutra. The bodhisattva can manifest herself as an artist, a politician, a musician, a Dharma teacher, a gardener, a little boy, a little girl, even as a millionaire or the head of a big corporation. If the situation needs his or her presence she will be there in the appropriate form to respond to the situation. Compassion can take so many forms.

Cultivating Compassion 

“Whoever calls her name or sees her image, if their mind is perfectly collected and pure, they will then be able to overcome the suffering of all the worlds. When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” 1

Calling the name of Avalokitesvara may give rise to something in your mind. Your mind becomes concentrated, mindful, calm, and lucid. If you call her name in such a way that your mind becomes still then you will be able to overcome your suffering. Evoking the name of Avalokitesvara is one of the ways to allow understanding and compassion to be born in our hearts. When something or someone can offer you freshness, joy, and loving kindness, the image of that person becomes the object of your contemplation. Every time you think of her or of him, suddenly the elements of compassion and understanding are born in your heart and you can overcome the suffering you are experiencing at that moment.

A place can also embody compassion and understanding. Suppose you come to Plum Village and you enjoy the beauty of the nature and the lifestyle. When you leave, every time you think of Plum Village you have a pleasant feeling. That is the meaning of mindfulness or contemplation. The object of mindfulness is the image or the sound that can inspire us and can produce the element of understanding and compassion in us. It is not just devotion. We should not invoke the name of Avalokitesvara or visualize the form like a machine; doing that will not provoke any calmness or mindfulness. To evoke the energy of Avalokitesvara is the practice of calming and concentrating our mind to bring back the nectar of compassion and understanding in us. That practice can help us avoid all kinds of dangers.

Avalokitesvara can also manifest himself in many names. The message of Jesus is love. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” Avalokitesvara may say, “I am the Universal Door.” We all have our Avalokitesvara, of different names and forms. What is essential is that that name can help us to calm down and to make understanding and compassion possible.

mb32-dharma3

“When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” How can we understand this statement? If you are pushed into a pit of fire and you know how to be mindful and to recollect the powerful energy of Avalokitesvara then the pit will be transformed into a cool lake. The cool lake is inside and it is also outside.

In the same chapter of the Lotus Sutra we read, “If there is a person who is a victim of ignorance and that person knows how to be mindful of the great compassion of Avalokitesvara then he will free himself from ignorance. If a person is a victim of anger and she knows how to practice mindfulness of the great energy of Avalokitesvara then she will be free from her anger.” We have to understand all of these verses in that spirit.

Sometimes a whole nation is plunged into a pit of fire made of anger. Imagine how big that pit of fire must be. If you know how to be mindful of compassion, and of Avalokitesvara who is the symbol of compassion and understanding, then you will calm yourself down. You will be able to see more clearly and your anger will subside. After September 11th, I recommended that America engage herself in the practice of stopping, calming and looking deeply to see what to do and what not to do to respond to the situation with compassion and lucidity. This is the action of Avalokitesvara.

Drawing Dangers into Ourselves 

In the Universal Door Chapter we read about many dangerous situations such as: caught in a fire, caught in a flood, caught in a war, caught in a situation where we suffer so much. Usually we believe that dangers come from the outside. We do not realize that most of the dangers we are afraid of come from within us and not from some objective situation. When you do not have a clear view, a right understanding of reality, you create a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and danger. When you have the element of anger, delusion, and craving within yourself, you draw danger into yourself. You create your own suffering. The practice of compassion, the practice of deep looking helps you to be lucid, to be loving, and that lucidity and that loving kindness is a protection from all kinds of dangers.

It is clearly stated in the sutra that if you are caught in a situation of anger and you know how to produce mindfulness of love then you will be free from that situation. If you are caught in the situation of delusion and you know how to practice mindfulness of compassion then you can get out of that situation. That is the Universal Door.

The Fierce Bodhisattva and the Gentle Bodhisattva 

Is it possible to carry a gun and yet remain deeply a bodhisattva? This is possible. When you enter the gate of a temple, you see the statue of a very gentle bodhisattva on your left, smiling and welcoming. But looking on your right you see a figure with a very fierce face, holding a weapon. His whole face is burning. Smoke and fire are pouring out of his eyes and his mouth. He is the one who has the capacity to keep the hungry ghosts in order. Every time we organize a ceremony to offer food and drink to the hungry ghosts, to the wandering souls, we need to evoke the bodhisattva with the burning face (Dien Nhien Vuong) to come and help. The hungry ghosts only listen to him because he has that fierce, “You behave, otherwise you will get it!” look. He is a kind of Chief of Police bodhisattva. That is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. So when you see someone carrying a gun, you cannot necessarily say that he or she is evil. Society needs some people to carry guns because there are gangsters, there are people who would not behave if there were no one embodying strict discipline. It is possible that someone carrying a gun can be a real bodhisattva because the bodhisattva of the burning face is a real bodhisattva, a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. It is possible for the director of a prison or a prison guard to be a bodhisattva. He may be very firm with the prisoners but deep inside of him there is the heart of a bodhisattva. Our job is to help prison guards and police officers to have a bodhisattva heart.

Today there is a police officer here; she took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 1991. She knows a lot about the suffering of members of the police force in America. You are supposed to be a peacekeeping force but sometimes you are looked upon as the oppressors, as a symbol of violence. There is violence, there is suppression in society and you have been appointed to keep the peace. It’s very hard to do your job if you don’t have enough skillful means. If you don’t have enough understanding and compassion, a lot of anger, frustration, and despair may grow within you. Then it is possible that you can become the oppressor. The door of your heart is closed. No one understands you; they look upon you as an enemy. There is no communication between you and the world outside that you are supposed to serve. So the suffering of the police may be immense, the suffering of prison guards may be immense. They don’t enjoy their job and yet they have to continue. Avalokitesvara must appear in their midst and try to open their hearts. Avalokitesvara says that you can carry a gun, you can be very firm, but at the same time you can be very compassionate.

mb32-dharma4

If you play the role of a tender bodhisattva, you have to have real compassion and understanding in you. Usually the First Lady, the wife of the Prime Minister, the wife of the President or the Queen, should play the role of the tender bodhisattva, the figure of a mother, a gentle sister caring for the sick and the poor. While her husband is doing things like conducting the army, conducting war, the First Lady plays the role of a tender bodhisattva. But if she is a real bodhisattva her action will not be just a decoration, she will manifest real compassion and real understanding.

If you have to play the role of the fierce, burning face bodhisattva, even if you carry a weapon and demonstrate your firmness, you have to have a tender heart and deep understanding. If you look for Avalokitesvara only in a nice appearance, you will miss her, because she can manifest herself in all kinds of forms. She can manifest herself in all kinds of bodies: as a child, as an adult, as a judge, as a mother, as a king, as a schoolteacher, as a businessman, as a politician, as a scientist, as a journalist, or as a Dharma teacher. So you have to look deeply in order to recognize Avalokitesvara.

The Eye of Understanding 

The ten thousand arms of the bodhisattva are needed because love can express itself in many forms with many kinds of instruments. That is why every arm is holding a different instrument. But if you look closer, you see that in each hand there is an eye. The eye signifies the presence of understanding. Very often by loving someone we make that person suffer because our love is not made with understanding. The other person may be your son, your daughter, or your partner. If you don’t understand the suffering, the difficulty, the deep aspiration of that person, it is not possible for you to love him or her. That is why you need an eye for your arm to really be an instrument of compassion. It is important to check whether your loving has enough understanding and compassion in it. You can ask for help. “Darling, do you think I understand you enough? Do I make you suffer because of my love?” A father should be able to ask his son, a mother should be able to ask her daughter that question. “Daughter, do I make you suffer because of my lack of understanding? Please tell me so that I can love you properly.” That is the language of love. If you are sincere, your daughter will tell you about her suffering and once you have understood you will stop doing things that you thought would make her happy but really make her suffer. Understanding is the substance with which you can fabricate love.

Transformation Bodies of Avalokitesvara 

Several of us are acting like bodhisattvas with several arms. We are taking care of members of our family, and we also participate in the work of protecting the environment and helping the hungry children in the world. We think we have only two arms but many of us are present a little bit everywhere in the world. You can be at the same time here and in a prison. You can be at the same time here and in a far away country where children suffer because of malnutrition. You don’t have to be present with this body because you have other transformation bodies a little bit everywhere. And that is why it is very important that you recognize your transformation bodies. When I write a book I want to transform myself into thousands of me in order to go a little bit everywhere. Every book of mine becomes one of my transformation bodies. I can go to a cloister in the form of a book; I can go to a prison in the form of a cassette tape. Each of us has many transformation bodies. That is what the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara does. She can manifest herself in so many bodies. Being a bodhisattva is not something abstract; it’s something concrete that you can do.

mb32-dharma5

When I was young I read a book written by a French tourist who went to Africa and enjoyed hunting tigers in the jungle. He didn’t believe in God. One day, late in the afternoon, he got lost in the jungle. He didn’t know how to get out; he began to panic. He wanted to pray for help but because he didn’t believe in God he had never prayed before. In his panic, he said, “God, if you really exist, then this is the time to come and rescue me!” There was some arrogance in his way of praying. Right after he said that, there was some noise in the bush and an African gentleman appeared wearing nothing but a loincloth and thanks to that person the Frenchman was saved. Later in his book he wrote an ironic sentence that showed he was not very grateful. He said, “I called for God but only a Negro came.” He was not able to recognize God in the person of a native African. He didn’t know that the “Negro” who came to him was God, was Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. You have to be very awake in order to recognize the beautiful bodhisattva in an unfamiliar form.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara might be very close to you. You may be able to recognize her in the here and now and yet you are looking for him or her in the clouds. Compassion does exist; understanding does exist. It is possible for us to cultivate the energy of compassion and understanding so that the bodhisattva can be with us all the time in our daily life. Then we will be well protected.

Four Skillful Means for Embracing Living Beings

How does the bodhisattva act in order to help living beings to overcome their suffering and to realize their ultimate dimension? We speak of four skillful means used by the bodhisattva, in the dimension of action, to embrace living beings. They are: (1) making offerings, (2) using loving speech, (3) doing things to benefit the other person, and (4) “doing the same thing” or becoming one with the people you want to help.

Offering the Gift of Non-fear 

There are three kinds of gifts spoken of in Buddhism: material gifts, the gift of the Dharma, and the gift of non-fear. When you offer things to people, you are practicing compassion and you also open the way for reconciliation and healing. Giving her some beautiful music can help her to relax while listening. Giving him a book on the Dharma may help him to deal with his difficulties. The Buddha said when you are angry with someone and you are capable of giving him or her something, then your anger will die down.

The most precious gift that Avalokitesvara can offer us is the gift of non-fear. People are afraid of losing their identity, of dying, of becoming nothing. When you give the kind of teaching and practice and insight that helps people touch their ultimate dimension, they lose all their fear. But you need to have that gift of non-fear within you in order for you to be able to offer it to others.

Perhaps as a child you have played with a kaleidoscope, a very simple, wonderful toy. I have a few in my hut. In it there are loose bits of colored materials and two mirrors at one end that show many different patterns. Each pattern is a beautiful manifestation. If you turn it a little bit, that manifestation will be replaced with another manifestation. Every manifestation is beautiful. As a child, you don’t regret when one manifestation replaces another. The manifestations also, no matter how beautiful they are, do not feel sorrowful when they give their place to the next manifestation. The child just enjoys the changes without any regret because the next manifestation is as beautiful as the current one. There is no fear, no regret because all manifestations have the same ground, the little bits of colors in the kaleidoscope. The ground of all manifestations is always there. If you can touch the ground, you don’t mind the changes. You are not caught by this body, you know this is just one manifestation. You are ready to manifest in another form as wonderful as this one.

The Loving Speech of a Bodhisattva 

The second skillful means is to use loving speech. You can be very firm and uncompromising, and still use loving speech. Loving speech can convey your feeling and your idea to the other person better than shouting at them, blaming them, or being sarcastic and sour. A bodhisattva should be able to use loving speech.

mb32-dharma6

I would like to return to the example of the police bodhisattva. Seeing the way people react to the police, the police officers’ hearts harden every day. They feel very isolated; they feel they are victims of society. So the police bodhisattva can propose that the community of police officers organize an open house. They will prepare food and beverages and will invite the neighborhood to come and hear the story of the life of a police officer. You can tell them, “When I set out in the morning carrying my gun and going to the street, my spouse does not know whether I will come home safely because there is so much violence in society. Although we carry guns we can be killed or maimed by other people. So we start our day with fear, with uncertainty; we don’t know what will happen to us during that day. Our task is to impose order, but maybe we will be victims of violence on the street. If we do our job with anger and fear in us, we cannot do it well. That is why we suffer as police officers. We really want to help but we suffer very much. When we go home we cannot offer joy and compassion to the people in our home because it was so hard during the day. If there is no happiness in our home, we are not nourished.”

Then members of the community will have more understanding and compassion for you. Communication is possible. There can be collaboration between the police officers and community members. There must be a way out of even the most difficult situations. The way out is through listening with compassion and using loving speech. Once communication is restored we have hope and suffering will be lessened.

The third skillful means is to do things that benefit the other person. From your actions the other person feels safer and has more opportunities for a happy life. Showing people how to receive training to obtain a job, how to increase their family ‘s income, how to improve their health or have more security, are examples of the kinds of action that benefit people.

The Skillful Means of “Doing the Same Thing”

The fourth skillful means is, you become one of them. You look like them, you wear clothes like them, and you do exactly what they are doing, in order for them to have a chance to learn the path of understanding and love. That is the action of the bodhisattva.

Nowadays there are so many youngsters who belong to gangs. Each gang may have thirty or forty members, each with a leader. In order to help transform their hearts and minds, you have to transform yourself into a gang leader. You look like a delinquent but you are really a bodhisattva because that is the only way to approach them. You have to talk like them, you have to behave and wear clothes like them in order to be recognized and accepted, then you can begin to help transform their hearts. That is called the practice of “doing the same thing.” That is what Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can do. So in the prisons you can manifest yourself as a fellow prisoner and you become the bodhisattva among prisoners. In the police force, you have to manifest yourself as a police officer, and you play the role of bodhisattva in order to bring about relief, understanding, and compassion.

A Bodhisattva in Prison 

There is a nun who is a student of mine who has spent a lot of time in prison. When she was young she had the opportunity to study English literature in a university in America. She ordained as a nun in Vietnam. She was imprisoned because she participated in activities to promote human rights. During the time she was in prison she practiced walking meditation and sitting meditation every day, although her cell was very small. Thanks to the practice she remained calm and fresh; anger and despair were not able to seize her. She was able to help the other prisoners. Other prisoners had a lot of anger that showed on their faces when they interacted with the prison guards. But she was treated well by the prison guards, not because she was a nun, but because she had the compassionate look of a practitioner. She was smiling and fresh that is why they didn’t worry about her.

The fact is that while being in prison she was not a victim of anger and despair. She was able to make use of her time there, like a retreat. She didn’t have to do anything ,just enjoy the practice. She grew up spiritually during her time in prison. Instead of transforming her prison cell into a pit of glowing embers, she transformed her dwelling into a cool lotus pond because she knew the practice of mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. If we find ourselves in a situation like hers and we know how to practice the Universal Door of mindfulness and compassion, then we will not suffer and we can help people who are in the same situation. We can also help people like the administrators and prison guards.

Praising Avalokitesvara 

“From the depths of understanding, the flower of great eloquence blooms: the Bodhisattva stands majestically upon the waves of birth and death, free from all afflictions. Her great compassion eliminates all sickness, even that once thought of as incurable. Her wondrous light sweeps away all obstacles and dangers. The willow branch in her hand, once waved, reveals countless Buddha lands. Her lotus flower blossoms a multitude of practice centers. I bow to her, to see her true presence in the here and now. I offer her the incense of my heart. May the Bodhisattva of deep listening embrace us all with great compassion. Homage to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.” – Verses of Praise from the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.

mb32-dharma7

In this chant praising Avalokitesvara you begin to see that the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has a deep understanding of your situation, of the situation of the world. And she is able to convince you with her great eloquence to follow the path of understanding and love. She is free from the dust of craving, anger, and delusion. Her nectar of compassion can heal all kinds of sickness whether it is depression or cancer. The best kind of medicine is compassion. Without compassion it is very difficult to heal. You need compassion from the inside and from the outside. The light emitted by him or her sweeps away all kinds of dangers. You draw dangers into yourself by your craving, hatred, and delusion. But because you have the light of compassion, you can dissipate and be free from all of these dangers.

The bodhisattva holds a willow branch in her hand. When she waves it she reveals countless Buddha lands. The Buddha land is right here, right now, but because we are deluded and caught in our anger we don’t see the wonders of life, the wonders of the Pure Land in the present moment. We need her to use a willow branch in order to reveal it to us. She dips the willow branch into the nectar of compassion and as she spreads it, she transforms suffering into joy. With the nectar of compassion you can do everything. You can transform death into life, despair into hope. It is possible for you to cultivate the nectar of compassion like a bodhisattva. With her pink lotus flower she creates a multitude of practice centers. There are many practice centers in Germany, in England, in America, and in Israel. You are an arm of the bodhisattva; you are establishing Mindfulness Practice Centers everywhere. I bow my head; I praise her, I praise compassion, and I offer the incense of my heart. Please manifest yourself in the here and the now for us.

The Ten Virtues of Avalokitesvara: The Five Contemplations and the Five Sounds 

“Look of truth, look of purity, look of boundless understanding, look of love, look of compassion, the look to be always honored and practiced.”

If you want to know the nature and the practice of Avalokitesvara, you should be aware that she practices five kinds of contemplations: of truth, purity, great wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness. The first contemplation comes from the definition of her name, Quan, meaning looking deeply into the truth of reality. You have the capacity to distinguish the true from the false, the beautiful from the ugly.

The second contemplation is the contemplation on purification. Like a cloud in the sky, she has to purify herself so that when she becomes the rain, the rain will be pure for the sake of the world. To be a cloud floating in the sky is wonderful, but it is also wonderful to be the rain falling on the mountains and the rivers. To become the snow on the top of a mountain is also wonderful. To be a drink in a glass of water for a child is also wonderful. So water can manifest herself in many forms and every form is wonderful. That is why bodhisattvas are not caught in one form of manifestation, in one body. We know that this manifestation is linked to the next manifestation in terms of cause and effect.

If the cloud is polluted then the rain will be polluted also. That is why, while being a cloud you purify yourself so that when you become the rain you become very pure, delicious water. You know that there are many clouds that carry within themselves a lot of dust, a lot of acid. The clouds that hang over big cities are quite polluted. When they become snow the snow is not clean; when it becomes rain, it can carry a lot of acid and destroy the forests. So while you are a cloud try to practice self-purification so that when you are transformed into snow and water you will be more beautiful. By self-purification, you help with the purification of the world.

We know we draw dangers to ourselves because of the way we look at things and because we have craving, anger, and delusion in us. That is why self-purification, learning to look deeply to remove our anger, our craving, and our delusion is to remove danger. Especially when you touch the ultimate, you are no longer afraid of anything.

The third contemplation is the contemplation on the great wisdom, maha prajna paramita. The object of your contemplation is not just knowledge, but the great wisdom that has the power of bringing you to the other shore, the shore of safety, the shore of non-fear, the shore of well-being.

The fourth contemplation is the contemplation on compassion, the energy with which we can embrace all beings whether they are sweet and lovable or unkind and cruel. The fifth contemplation is the contemplation on loving kindness, the energy that is the opposite of what we feel towards an enemy. When we contemplate on loving kindness we feel our association and friendship towards all beings. We should practice contemplation of these five objects.

The Five Sounds of a Bodhisattva

“Sound of wonder, noble sound,
sound of one looking deeply into the world,
extraordinary sound, sound of the rising tide,
the sound to which we will always listen.”

This verse in the Universal Door Chapter speaks about five kinds of sounds that characterize the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The five sounds are the sound of wonder, the sound of he or she who understands the world, the noble sound, the sound that is powerful like the sound of the rising tide, and the sound that surpasses all sounds in the Locadhatu, the mundane world.

First is the sound of wonder: you yourself are a wonder, the tree in the front yard is a wonder, the Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder, and the galaxy is a wonder. You should listen in such a way that you can hear the sound of the wonders. Otherwise you are living in a dream. You are in the kingdom of wonders and yet you are not in touch. That is why you have to listen. You listen to the mountain, you listen to the flower, you listen to the birds, you listen to yourself, and you become aware that everything is a wonder.

The second sound is the sound of he or she who practices looking deeply into the world. The Buddha is described as “he who deeply understands the world.” All of us who are friends, disciples, continuations of the Buddha, do the same. We try to look deeply into the world in order to understand better. That is the meaning of meditation. To meditate is to have the time to look deeply at what is there. And looking like that we come to understand the world, to understand ourselves, and we are free from afflictions, from making mistakes.

The third sound is the sound of nobility. There are sounds that are heavy, that carry a lot of craving, a lot of despair. But when you are a practitioner you are on a path of self-purification and the sound you emit every day becomes finer and finer, because every cell in your body, every mental formation in you is on the way to self-purification and transformation. That is why the sound emitted by our cells becomes more and more noble. That is what happens with the bodhisattva; her sound is a wonderful sound, that is high and noble. If you are mindful and concentrated, you can tune in to that sound for your pleasure, for your transformation, and for your healing.

The fourth kind of sound is the sound of the rising tide. When I was a student at the Buddhist Institute I invited other students to produce a newsletter for the students of the seminary and I proposed the title, “The Voice of the Rising Tide.” But because we wrote so many radical thoughts, later on we were forbidden to continue with our publication. The sound of the rising tide is very powerful. If you can tune in to that sound, you receive transformation and healing. That sound can embrace and take away the sounds that are vulgar, that are low. The fifth kind of sound is the sound that can transcend all the other sounds of the world. The Locadhatu emits the sound of the world, while the sound emitted by the bodhisattva reveals to us the Dharmadhatu, the realm of ultimate reality, the Pure Land.

When you practice being aware of Avalokitesvara, you get in touch with these five kinds of sounds and these five kinds of contemplations. This is the essence of Avalokitesvara. Avalokitesvara is not the name of a god. Avalokitesvara is a real person having real qualities characterized by these five contemplations and five sounds.

Compassion Like Thunder

“Strength of Thunder, Calmness of Clouds
Heart of compassion like rolling thunder,
heart of love like gentle clouds,
water of Dharma nectar raining upon us,
extinguishing the fire of afflictions.”

The element of karuna, of compassion, is like thunder. Compassion is not something soft, it is very powerful, like thunder. The element of maitri, of loving kindness, is like a wonderful great cloud causing the rain of the Dharma to fall down like nectar, extinguishing all the fire of afflictions. You have two images, the thunder and the cloud. When these two things come together, it produces the compassionate Dharma rain falling down, extinguishing all kinds of afflictions.

Taking Refuge in Holiness

“Contemplation on Holiness:
With mindfulness, free from doubts,
in moments of danger and affliction,
our faith in the purity of Avalokita
is where we go for refuge.”

In every moment, dwelling in mindfulness without any doubt, we have great confidence in the power of compassion and understanding. Avalokitesvara becomes the object of our mindfulness, of our recollection. Even in danger or dying, you maintain that kind of awareness because Avalokitesvara is a holy entity, a saint. Wherever there are the elements of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, there is the element of holiness. Avalokitesvara is a holy person and if we make him or her into the object of our mindfulness, we get the element of holiness in us. That is why we don’t have to be afraid of dangers anymore, even prison or death. She is the element of holiness and she is our refuge and our protection. That is the next to the last verse.

mb32-dharma8

 

Looking at All Beings with the Eyes of Compassion

“We bow in gratitude to the one
who has all the virtues,
regarding the world
with compassionate eyes,
an Ocean of Well-Being
beyond measure.”

The last verse says, fully equipped with all kinds of merits, she is capable of looking at living beings with compassionate eyes. I think this is the most beautiful sentence in the whole Lotus Suta. Use the eyes of compassion to look at living beings. When you understand the suffering of the other person, you can accept him or her and suddenly compassion flows out of your eyes and you will help that person to suffer less. Using compassionate eyes to look at living beings is the most beautiful practice. You have a compassionate eye; the Buddha eye has been transmitted to you. The question is whether you want to make use of that eye.

The merits are accumulating into an infinite ocean. Merits can also be translated as happiness or well-being. You cannot describe the great ocean of happiness. Happiness is made of one substance, called compassion. That is why in cultivating compassion you cultivate happiness for yourself and for the world. Happiness is described not in terms of pounds or kilograms but in terms of oceans. Our happiness accumulates and becomes an infinite ocean. We touch the feet of the bodhisattva with our forehead to express our deep gratitude and respect.

On the Gridakuta Mountain where the Buddha delivered the Lotus Sutra, Shakyumani was playing the main role, the role of the Buddha, and Avalokitesvara played the role of a bodhisattva. But in many sutras we have learned that Avalokitesvara became a Buddha a long time before and is a fully enlightened person. Yet coming to the Gridakuta Mountain, he played the role of a disciple of the Buddha. This is a kind of play because if there is a teacher, there must be students. If there are students, there must be a teacher. So you take turns in order to be a teacher or a student. Some time later you will become a teacher and I will be your student. This is the tenth door of the Avatamsaka Sutra. It’s like a formation of wild geese in the sky. If the leader gets tired, he slows down and lets another lead. Sometimes you play the role of the leader, sometimes you play the role of a follower and you don’t discriminate at all, you are equally happy. With that we can conclude the Universal Door chapter and we know that Avalokitesvara has played the role of the student very well. But if we look deeply into her personality, her action, her wisdom, we know that no one can surpass her in terms of compassion and understanding.

From Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh on June 9th, June 14th, and June 15th, 2002 during the twenty-one day Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village, France. Transcribed and edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Steadiness.

PDF of this article

1 “Discourse on the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma: Universal Door Chapter” found in Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2000). All following quotes in this article are from the same source unless noted otherwise.

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

Dharma Talk: Our Environment: Touching the Gift of Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh

At the Buell Theater in Denver, Colorado on August 29, 2007, Thich Nhat Hanh delivered a provocative talk on the effects of humanity’s lack of mindfulness toward the planet we call home. Thay later elaborated on this theme — and proposed an elegant course of action — in a letter to the sangha.

Thich Nhat HanhWhen we produce a thought that is full of anger, fear, or despair, that thought has an immediate effect on our health and on the health of the world. We may like to arrange our life in such a way that we will not produce thoughts of that kind very often. Producing a thought is already karma or action, and that is our continuation into the future.

mb47-dharma2Our speech may be an expression of right speech as recommended by the Buddha. Something we say may manifest our loving- kindness, our nondiscrimination, and our willingness to bring relief. After having uttered such a word we feel better in our body and mind. We receive healing and everyone in the world benefits from our speech of loving-kindness, forgiveness, and compassion. It is possible for us to say such things several times a day, bringing healing and transformation to ourselves and the world.

And when we perform a physical act that has the power to protect, save, support, or bring relief, that also brings an element of healing to us and to the world. When you are full of compassion, even if you don’t take action, action will take you. We may repeat such actions several times a day because that kind of love and compassion calls for action.

When we look at an orange tree we see it is producing beautiful leaves, blossoms, and oranges. These are the best things that an orange tree can produce and offer to the world. If we are human beings we also make offerings to the world every moment of our daily life — our thoughts, our speech, and our actions. We want to offer the best kind of thoughts, the best kind of speech, and the best kind of action; these are our continuation whether we want it or not. Karmahetu, action as cause, will bring about karmaphala, action as fruit. We are continued into the future through our own actions.

A Beautiful Continuation 

When this body disintegrates we cannot bring along anything like diplomas or fame or wealth. We have to give up everything. The only thing that follows us is our actions, the fruit of our thinking, of our speech, and of our acts during our lifetime.

Of course we can assure a beautiful continuation. If we have manifested one time it means that we have manifested several times already. This can be described as past lives. And if we have manifested in the past and in the present moment we shall be manifested in the future in one way or another.

To think that after the disintegration of this body there will be nothing left is a naïve way of thinking. With deep observation we know that nothing is really born and nothing can die. Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Those of us who have tried Buddhist meditation have seen that. Before the cloud manifested as a cloud she was something else — the water in the ocean, the heat produced by the sun, water vapor. The cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from something, from many things. The moment of the so-called birth of the cloud is only a moment of continuation.

Many of us have learned from the Buddha about the Middle Way, a path that transcends pairs of opposites like birth and death, being and nonbeing. Reality is free from these notions.

When we say that God is the ground of being, you may ask, who is the ground of nonbeing? Theologians like Paul Tillich say that God is the ground of being. But looking deeply we see that the notions of being and nonbeing cannot be applied to reality. The truth is that reality transcends both the notions of being and nonbeing. To be or not to be, that is not the question [laughter].

God cannot be described in terms of being and nonbeing. In Buddhism we have the expression nirvana or suchness, which means reality-in-itself. That kind of reality-in-itself cannot be described in terms of birth and death, being and nonbeing.

If your beloved has abandoned the form in which you used to see him or her, follow the advice of the Buddha and look deeply. Your beloved is still there, maybe much closer than you had thought.mb47-dharma3

Double Retribution 

Our karma, our actions, continue us. And they will manifest in two aspects. That manifestation has already started.

In Buddhism the term “retribution” refers to the fruit of your actions in the future. Retribution has two meanings: the first is our five skandhas — form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness; the other side of retribution is the environment. Retribution should be seen in its double nature. You are your environment; your environment is what you have created personally and collectively. That is why there is another step for us to take — to transcend the duality between our five skandhas and our environment.

When you look at the stars, the moon, you know that you are the stars, the moon. And when you look at the mountain, the forest, you know that you are the mountain, the forest. There is always interaction between the two forms of retribution. In fact elements like air, water, earth, fire are always going in and going out. When we breathe out, something goes out to the environment. When we breathe in, something goes into our body. So you are not only here but there.

Cognitive science and neuroscience ask about the relationship between the “in here” and the “out there.” We perceive reality subjectively and we ask the question whether the external reality is exactly the same as the subjective reality. If you pursue meditation deeply you will be able to transcend the duality of in here and out there.

You may believe that this flower is out there, but I am not sure of that at all. Whether the flower that you see there is something in your consciousness or outside of your consciousness, that is not an easy question to answer. In quantum physics or neuroscience or cognitive science it is a very hard question. But the Buddha has given us all kinds of hints so that we can touch reality as it is.

The Environment Is You 

There are two kinds of environment: the social environment and the natural environment. In Buddhist practice you should take care of your five skandhas but you should also take care of your environment because the environment is you. You help create that environment, whether that is the social environment or the natural environment.mb47-dharma4

A long time ago I wrote a small book on meditation with the title The Sun My Heart. In one sitting meditation, when I focused my attention on my heart — breathing in, I am aware of my heart, breathing out, I smile to my heart — suddenly I realized that this is not the only heart that I have. I have many other hearts. Suppose that I look at the sun in the sky. I know that it is also another heart of mine. If this heart failed I would die right away. But if the other heart, the sun, explodes or stops functioning as the sun, I would also die right away. So there is a heart inside my body and a heart outside my body; the sun is one of my hearts.

When you see things like that you are no longer sure that you are only inside of your skin, and you can transcend very easily the duality of self and non-self.

In Buddhist psychology we learn that there are many seeds, called bijas, in the depth of our consciousness. We have the seed of fear, anger, and despair deep down in our consciousness. As these seeds are watered they manifest in the upper realm of our consciousness in the form of energy. We call them mental formations. If the seed of fear sleeps quietly down there we are somehow peaceful, but if the seed of fear is touched it manifests as the mental formation of fear and we suffer. The practice is to keep the seeds down there and not give them the chance to manifest.

Neuroscientists and biologists tell us that the genes in our cells cannot turn on by themselves; they need the environment. That is why it is very important to assure that you are in a good environment, that you do something to improve the quality of your environment, to ensure that only the good genes, the good seeds are turned on each day. That is the practice of protecting ourselves, our children, our family, and our society so as not to allow the negative seeds to be watered so much.

In Buddhist psychology we speak of contact between the sense organs and the objects of perception. Suppose Sister Pine invites the bell to sound, and the sound stimulates our ear. The mental formation called touch or contact will bring about another mental formation called feeling, whether that feeling is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If that feeling is not something unusual, if it is of no importance, then store consciousness ignores it. We have many kinds of these feelings throughout the day. If the feeling is strong enough there is a mental formation called attention. If the feeling is deep enough in us it crosses a certain threshold and then there is attention — manaskara in Sanskrit.

The Practice of Appropriate Attention 

The environment touches a seed in us, drawing our attention to that particular point, and turns on a mental formation. That seed may be the seed of mindfulness or the seed of craving, anger, or confusion. If you live in a practice center the sound of the bell has a special meaning because you train yourself to understand it in a particular way. The sound of the bell means “please go home to yourself, enjoy your breathing and be fully present in the here and the now.” Our store consciousness has learned it well. Every time we hear the sound of the bell, without making any effort, any decision, we go back to our breath and we breathe at least three times, in out, in out, in out. This brings us peace and joy, and the insight that we are alive — what a miracle!

The sound of the bell brings about appropriate attention, the kind of attention that turns on good things like mindfulness and joy. But there are other sounds and sights that bring our attention to negative things like craving, fear, anger, distress. We have to organize our environment to have elements that are conducive to appropriate attention, otherwise it will bring about inappropriate attention. For instance, television programs might contain elements that can turn on the worst things in our children. When a child finishes elementary school she has seen 100,000 acts of violence and 8,000 murders on television. That is too much! In the name of freedom we continue to produce films that are full of violence, anger, fear, and craving.

Looking deeply if you see that your social environment is not conducive to peace, joy, compassion, and non-violence, you have to do something to change it or seek ways to move toward another environment that is safer to us and our children. Even if we have to take another job that will bring us a meager salary, live in a smaller house, or use a smaller car, we have to accept that in order for us and our children to be better protected.

If you are depressed you may have consumed sights, sounds, touch, and so on, that have stimulated the negative seeds in you and made them manifest in your daily life. That is why the practice includes taking care of the five skandhas but also the social environment.

According to the teachings of Buddhism everything is impermanent. Therefore it is possible for us to change our environment for the better. As a sangha we may want to sit down and have a Dharma discussion to find ways to improve the quality of our social environment. We can practice as a family, as a neighborhood, as a city, or as a nation. The social environment is crucial in determining our future.

Mindful Consumption in the Kingdom of God 

The fifth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings in Buddhism is about mindful consumption. We have to consume in such a way so as not to bring toxins like fear and anger into ourselves.

The difficult situation in which we find ourselves has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We have created an environment that is conducive to violence, hate, discrimination, and despair. Violence is now everywhere; in the family there is domestic violence. Our young people have become too violent and their teachers don’t know how to help them deal with their anger and fear.

We are doing violence to our environment and to nature. We are now facing global warming and weather changes. Even the Kingdom of God is impermanent. Even the Pure Land of the Buddha is impermanent.

When we look deeply into ourselves we can identify elements of the Kingdom of God that are available in the here and the now. That pine tree standing on the mountain is so beautiful, solid, and green. To me the pine tree belongs to the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha. To me the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha is not a vague idea, it is a reality. And your beautiful child with her fresh smile, she belongs to the Kingdom of God and you also, you belong to the Kingdom of God. But because you don’t know how to handle the Kingdom of God you are doing harm. The Kingdom of God is such a gift. If you are filled with mindfulness and concentration you can touch the Pure Land of the Buddha right in the here and the now.

In the Gospel there is the story of a farmer who discovers a treasure in a small piece of land [Matthew 13:44-46]. After the discovery he distributed all the other lands that he owned and kept just the land with the treasure. When you have such a treasure you do not need other belongings. With the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, we may realize that happiness.

When you are inhabited by the energy of mindfulness and concentration, every step you make takes you into the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha. The practice taught by our teacher should lead us to the treasure; we don’t have to run after fame, wealth, power, or sex.

mb47-dharma5If we are capable of recognizing that beautiful river as something that belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will do our best to preserve it and not allow it to be polluted. If we recognize that this planet belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will cherish and protect it so that we can enjoy it for a long time. And our children and their children will have a chance to enjoy it.

Mindfulness helps us to be aware of what is going on. Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent. We are eating our mother, our father, our children. We are eating the earth. Scientists tell us that if we can reduce the eating of meat by fifty percent it will be enough to change the situation of our planet.

The Buddha on Global Warming 

I have sat with the Buddha for long periods and consulted him about the situation of global warming. The teaching of the Buddha on this is very clear. It is a very strong teaching. The Buddha said that when someone realizes that he or she has to die, that person will first of all revolt against the diagnosis. The fear of dying is always there deep down in our store consciousness. And the Buddha advises us not to run away from that fear. Instead, we should bring it up in order to recognize it.

Breathing in, I know I am of the nature to grow old.
Breathing out, I know I cannot escape old age. 

Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to getsick, terminally ill.
Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape sickness.

Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to die.
Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape dying. 

Breathing in, I know that one day I will have to let goof everything and everyone I cherish.
Breathing out, there is no way to bring them along.

This practice helps you to accept old age, sickness, and death as realities, facts that you cannot escape. After you have accepted this you feel much better. Those of us who have been diagnosed as having AIDS or cancer react the same way. We cannot accept it, we struggle with ourselves for a long time. Finally we accept it and in that moment we find peace. And when we find peace, we are more relaxed, and we have a chance to overcome the sickness.

I have known people with cancer able to survive ten, twenty, even thirty years, because of their capacity to accept and to live peacefully. The Buddha told me that the same thing is true with our civilization. If we continue like this our civilization will come to an end. Before this civilization the earth has known other civilizations. Many civilizations have died because mankind was not wise enough. And the same thing will be true for ours. If we continue to consume like this, if we don’t care about protecting this wonderful planet, we will allow it to be burned with global warming. Maybe seventy percent of mankind will die. The ecosystem will be destroyed to a very large extent and we will need millions of years to start a new civilization. Everything is impermanent.

mb47-dharma6Many of us do not accept this. Oh no! God has created this world and God will not allow things like that to happen. But the fact is that we are not only our five skandhas but we are our environment, which is in a process of self-destruction. Many of us who see this course of destruction become victims of despair and fear. Before global warming brings death and destruction we will already have died of fear and despair. We will have died of mental illness before we die from the results of climate changes.

The End of Our Civilization 

Breathing in, I know that this civilization is going to die.
Breathing out, this civilization cannot escape dying. 

We have to learn to accept the end of our civilization. Just as we accept our own death, we accept the death of our civilization. We know that another civilization will be born later on, maybe one or two million years later. We touch the truth of impermanence and then we have peace. When we have peace there will be hope again. With this kind of peace we can make use of the technology that is available to us to save this planet of ours. With fear and despair we are not going to be able to save our planet, even if we have the technology to do it.

Scientists tell us that we have enough technology to save our planet, but psychologically, we are not capable. We are not peaceful, enlightened, or awake enough to do it. That is why, while scientists are trying to discover ways to improve our technology, we as members of the human race have to practice so that we can transcend our fear, despair, forgetfulness, and irresponsibility. A collective change of consciousness will bring about a new way of life, a mindful way of living. The technology that is available to us will be enough to help us save this planet.

If you can get in touch with the treasure that is described in the Gospel according to Matthew, you don’t have to run after anything else. You have the Kingdom as your wealth; you have a beautiful planet as a great gift. Just enjoy it. Breathing in, you get in touch with the stars, the moon, the clouds, the mountain, the river. Taking a step you make a step in the Kingdom of God. This is possible with mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful dwelling in the present moment. And then you don’t need to consume, to run after these objects of craving in order to be happy.

The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, very strong, and not difficult to understand. We have the power to decide the destiny of our planet. Buddhism is the strongest form of humanism we have ever had. It is our actions and our way of life that will save us. If we awaken to our true situation there will be collective change in our consciousness. Then hope will be possible.

Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from Barbara Casey 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.