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.

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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.

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Dharma Talk: Karma, Continuation, and the Noble Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Good morning, dear friends. Today is August 5, 2005. We’re in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village on the last day of our summer session.

 Thich Nhat Hanh

Today I would like to speak about reincarnation, rebirth, and continuation. If we look at an orange tree we can see that it makes an effort every day to have a long continuation. Every day the orange tree makes leaves, and in the spring it makes orange flowers, which become tiny oranges. In those oranges are seeds, and that is how the orange tree assures its continuation. The orange tree has to continue.

And we do, too. We are humans and it is a natural tendency to prepare ourselves to continue. So continuation, rebirth, reincarnation is normal. How do we continue ourselves? This question begins our meditation together. Every time you produce a thought, that thought is a continuation. That thought will have effects on us, on our body, our mind, and on the world. The effect of that thought is our continuation. Producing a thought is the cause; the effect is how that thought impacts us and the world.

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To think is an action. Because the thought may be very strong, it may be painful, it can modify our body, it can change our mind, it can change the world. So thought is a form of action.

In Buddhism we use the word karma. Karma is action, action as cause and action as fruit. When action is a cause, we call it karmahetu. The Chinese word for karmahetu contains the character for karma and a character that means “seed.” When we produce a thought, the production of the thought is a karmahetu, karma-cause. That thought will have an effect on our mental and physical health and on the health of the world. And that health, good or bad, is the fruit of the karma, the fruit of the thought. Karmaphala is the karma-fruit. So karma is action, action in the cause and action in the fruit.

Right Thinking 

When we produce a thought, we have to ensure that the thought is a good thought, a right thought, because if it is, it will bring us physical and mental health, and it will help the world to heal itself. Our practice is to try to live in such a way that every day we produce only good thoughts, thoughts in the direction of right thinking. We have to train ourselves to do that. A bad thought can destroy the physical and moral health of ourselves and of the world. So we have to be careful to produce only good thoughts.

Right thinking is recommended to all of us by the Buddha. It’s action in the form of thought. Each time we produce a thought, that thought carries our signature. You cannot say, “No, I didn’t produce that thought.” That is karma. Karma-cause, karma-fruit. If it is a cause, it will lead to a fruit—the fruit will be bitter or the fruit will be sweet, depending on the nature of the karma.

Right Speech 

First, we have to understand that thinking is action. When we say some thing, that speech will have an effect on our body, on our mind, and on the world. Good speech will give us joy and health — physical and moral health — and it will change the world in the direction of goodness. We should produce right speech, which inspires understanding, joy, hope, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Your speech is the seed, it is the cause. And what it produces in you and in the world is the karmaphala, the karma-fruit. Action as cause and action as fruit.

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Sometimes action-fruit manifests immediately after the action-cause. Sometimes it takes months or years before it leads to a result, but sooner or later the cause must become the effect.

Right Action

The third kind of action is the physical act, the act carried out by the body. With the body you can do things. You can kill a person, you can kill an animal, you can kill a tree. You can save a person, you can save an animal, you can save a tree. The Buddha recommends right action because the action will have an effect on your physical and moral health as well as the world’s. We have to ensure that our actions are in the direction of right action.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher in the existential tradition. He said that man is the sum of his actions. When a child is born, he hasn’t acted yet, so he cannot be defined. But as the man begins to act, we can look at his actions and see the man. Man is defined by his acts. What Jean-Paul Sartre said is very close to Buddhism.

But Sartre’s declaration was not detailed enough, because we need to include thoughts. Our speech comes from what we are thinking; thinking is at the base of all speech and of all action. We may say that man is the sum of his thoughts, his words, and his acts. I think that Jean-Paul Sartre would agree, because in using the word “acts” he meant to include thinking and speech. Thinking as action, speech as action.

Thoughts, speech, and action create karma, and we produce this energy every moment of our daily life. You continue to say things, you continue to do things, and every thought, every word, every act of yours carries your signature. And that is your continuation. It is never lost.

The scientist Lavoisier, said, “Nothing is lost.” He’s a Buddhist, essentially. Nothing is created, nothing is lost. What you have produced as thoughts, as speech, as acts, continues to influence the world, and that is your continuation. Your continuation is your rebirth and your reincarnation. Nothing is lost. So you have to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

We want to continue in beauty. And we know that in order to continue in beauty we have to ensure that our thoughts are right thoughts, our speech is right speech, and our acts are right action. These are three branches of the Noble Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.

Right View 

What is right view? Right view is our way of understanding the world; it brings insight into the ultimate reality. We are so often the victims of wrong views, and based on wrong views we create suffering for ourselves and others. So we have to avoid wrong views, wrong perceptions. If we continue to suffer because of violence and terrorism, it is because we need right view. The terrorists have a wrong view of themselves and of others, and the anti-terrorists also have wrong views about themselves and about the terrorists. Based on wrong views, we keep killing each other, so we have to look more deeply to obtain right view. With right view we will be able to stop the violence and terrorism. Right view is the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action, and that is why the Buddha began with right view.

The Buddha describes right view in a precise, deep, and clear way. A right view reflects wisdom, the nature of existence.

Impermanence

For example, the Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, of phenomena, and other wise men have also spoken of this. For example, Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly changing. It is a fact that everything changes. Right view goes in tandem with the insight of impermanence. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have right view we don’t suffer, and we can create happiness.

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This is not just philosophy, it is life. For example, when you have difficulties with your partner, and you are about to argue with each other, the Buddha would say to you, “Dear friends, close your eyes. Imagine your beloved in three hundred years. What will she become?” When you can see what happens three hundred years from now, you see that it’s not wise to argue, because life is impermanent. If you can touch impermanence, when you open your eyes you will no longer be angry. You’re saved, because of the insight of impermanence.

Intellectually, maybe you agree that things are impermanent, but in your practical life, you act as if things are permanent. The Buddha does not speak of impermanence as a philosophy, but as a practice. We should practice concentration on impermanence. For example, all day, when you look, when you listen to something, you should get in touch with the insight on impermanence.

Looking at a flower, you see that it is impermanent. Looking at a person, you see that he or she is impermanent. So the insight on impermanence stays with us all the time, and that is why it is not a theory, but a concentration. It is the concentration on impermanence that will save you, and not the idea of impermanence.

With mindfulness we can keep the insight on impermanence alive and that will protect us from producing wrong thinking or wrong speech. So right view is the view that contains the nature of impermanence.

Non-self 

We imagine that every person has a separate soul that remains the same forever, even as the body ages and decomposes. This is a wrong view, because it goes against the truth of impermanence. Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. So if we accept the reality of impermanence, we have to also accept the truth of non-self.

Impermanence is seen from the perspective of time. The same thing viewed from the perspective of space is non-self. Non-self and impermanence are the same thing.

When the son sees the father as a different person, as someone who has caused a lot of suffering and difficulty for him, he wants to punish his father with his words and actions. He doesn’t know that to make his dad suffer is to make himself suffer at the same time. You need to understand that you and your dad share the same reality. You are the continuation of your dad. If your dad suffers, you will also suffer, and if you can help your dad not to suffer, then your happiness will be possible. With the insight of non-self we can avoid many mistakes, because non-self translates into right view.

Terrorists and anti-terrorists think of themselves as two different entities. The anti-terrorist says, “We must punish the terrorist, we have to eliminate him.” And the terrorist also thinks that the other person is the cause of the suffering in the world, and in order to survive, he has to be eliminated. They don’t know that they are the same.

All the parties in a conflict have to understand the insight of non-self. If the other side continues to suffer, if there’s no safety, peace, or understanding on the other side, there won’t be safety, peace, or understanding on our side. When both sides realize that they inter-are, when they touch the nature of non-self, then there will be right view. With right view we will think, speak, and act in the right way, and then safety can become a reality. Right view is a view of reality that translates into impermanence, non-self, and interbeing.

Interbeing

When we look deeply into a flower we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds, manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. So when I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud, touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. With the eye of the Buddha, we see the clouds and the rain in the flower. And we can touch the sun, without burning our fingers. Without the sun nothing can grow, so we cannot take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be separate; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.

The same is true for me, for you, and for the Buddha. The Buddha has to inter-be with everything. Interbeing and non-self are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily life we can touch the truth of interbeing, of non-self in every moment. You are in touch with the clouds, with the rain, with the children, with the trees, with the rivers, and that contact reveals the true nature of reality, the nature of impermanence, the nature of interbeing, of non-self, of interdependence. If you can touch reality like that, you will have right view. And when you have right view, all your thoughts will be right, all your words will be right, and all your actions will be right.

This is why cultivating right view is the basis of the practice of Buddhism. And we can practice as an individual, as a community, as a city, as a nation. If we are shut in the prison of permanence, of self, we cannot obtain right view. In order to cultivate right view, we have to have concentration. We have plenty of intelligence to understand the notions of impermanence and non-self but the notions do not help us. That’s why we have to train ourselves to see things in their true nature. We have to keep this insight alive in every moment. That is why concentration is very important.

Right Concentration 

The Sanskrit word for right concentration is samadhi. The notions of impermanence and non-self are useful, but they are not powerful enough to liberate you, to give you a right view. So you have to have concentration. Samadhi prajna is right view, insight, which is at the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action. But to cultivate prajna we have to practice concentration. We have to live in concentration, to touch deeply into things in every moment. We live deeply when we can see the nature of impermanence, of non-self, and of interbeing in the flower, and we can do this thanks to the practice of concentration. Without samadhi there is no prajna, there is no insight. So concentration is a door that opens onto the ultimate reality. It gives us right view.

Right Mindfulness 

But before we can have concentration, we have to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is smrti.

Mindfulness is the energy that can help us bring the mind back to the body so that we can establish ourselves in the present moment. In that way we can look at the blue sky. We can look at the clouds. We can look at the child who is sitting in front of us. And we touch deeply the wonders of life. That’s mindfulness.

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Mindfulness is the capacity of recognizing what is happening in the present moment. When pain manifests, we will be able to embrace that pain, in order to transform it. With strong mindfulness, we can realize the Kingdom of God is available, and the joy of living is possible.

Andre Gide said that God is happiness. I like that. And he said, “God is available twenty-four hours a day.” I also agree with him on that. If God is available twenty-four hours a day, then His kingdom is also available. The only question is whether we are available for the Kingdom of God, available for happiness. Mindfulness makes us available to the Kingdom of God, to the wonders of life that are here, in the present moment. I know there are many Buddhists in France, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Andre Gide, and the scientist Lavoisier.

Mindfulness is what we practice in Plum Village. We walk in such a way that every step produces mindfulness. When we breathe, when we wash our hands, when we cook, we do all that in mindfulness. Generating the energy of mindfulness is the basic practice because mindfulness is the carrier, the bringer of concentration.

When you are mindful of something, you are concentrated. The energy of concentration is in the mindfulness. As you continue, that concentration will become stronger and stronger. With vigorous concentration you can make a breakthrough into reality, and then you can touch impermanence as a reality. You can touch interbeing, non-self.

The Buddha began with right view, but I would like to begin with mindfulness.

Right Livelihood 

Then we have right livelihood, our work, our job. The Five Mindfulness Trainings instruct us to choose a livelihood that will help us produce right thoughts, right words, and right actions. Unfortunately, there are kinds of work that harm us, that harm the environment, that bring violence. We have to look with mindfulness, to see what kind of work to have, so that we will be able to practice right thinking, right speech, and right action in our work.

Schoolteachers can practice in such a way that their thoughts, their words, and their actions nourish their students every moment of the day. The children in their class may have a lot of suffering. Perhaps their parents have not offered them enough of the appropriate kinds of food. They have not had the chance to receive right thinking, right speech, and right actions, and they’ve been wounded.

As a teacher, you look at the child and you see the suffering. And you know with right thinking, right speech, and right action you will be able to heal the child’s wounds. You have the ability to give that child a second chance by playing the role of the dad, the mom, for the child. The class can become a family. If you’re a doctor or a therapist, you can do the same thing. If you have understanding and compassion, you have a lot of power because when people come to you, your right thoughts will help heal people. You can help them because you have healed yourself by developing the energy of understanding and compassion.

The Buddha spoke of right livelihood, not only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Right livelihood helps you produce right thinking and right speech. We need to take the time to look at our work, to see whether it supports us in producing right thinking and right speech every day. 

Good thoughts always go with understanding and love. An occupation that causes you to produce thoughts of anger and of discrimination is not good for your health or for the health of the world. You may have to accept another form of work with a lower salary that will give you the chance to generate good thoughts and good speech. It’s possible to live in a healthier, happier way. If you have right view, you will have enough courage to stop the course of violence and of attachment. So right livelihood is very important, and we can define this in terms of right thinking, right speech, and right action.

Right Effort 

The eighth is right diligence, right effort. The Buddha taught how to cultivate and take care of our energy, and he also taught how to practice conserving energy. In Buddhist psychology, we see our consciousness as having two layers. The lower layer is called the store. It’s always operating, even in our sleep. The store receives information and classifies it, and it makes a lot of decisions without the intervention of the mind consciousness, which is the upper layer.

When you drive a car you think it’s the mind consciousness that is driving, but actually a large part of the work is done by the store, without our conscious thinking. When you do your everyday work, the store plays an important role.

When the store operates, it takes less metabolic energy than the mind does. The mind consciousness takes a lot more sugar, glycogen, and protein to work. At the level of the store things are done very quickly and inexpensively, so most things are handled by the store and the mind consciousness does just the final part. In the store many seeds are buried, good seeds and bad seeds. The seed of anger is there. The seed of despair is there. The seed of meanness, the seed of compassion, are there. The seed of joy is there. So to cultivate right effort the Buddha proposed four practices.

Four Practices for Cultivating Right Effort 

The first practice is, don’t water the bad seeds. You know that there are negative seeds in you, and if they manifest, you will suffer. So let them sleep peacefully. When you watch a film, when you read a newspaper, when you listen to music, there is a chance that a seed will be watered and will manifest. We have to consume in mindfulness so that the bad seeds are not watered. When we love each other we have to sign a peace treaty. “Darling, I promise never to water the bad seeds in you or in me, and you have to do the same. You have those seeds. You must not water them in you, and don’t water them in me.” 

The second practice is that every time a bad mental formation manifests, we have to make it go back to sleep, because if we keep it here too long, then it strengthens down in the base. If we leave it up in the mind for an hour, then that seed has an hour of strengthening. It’s dangerous. 

The third practice is to allow the good seeds to be watered so they have a chance to manifest in the mind. For example, a Dharma talk is a kind of rain that can water the good seeds in you. When they manifest in the mind consciousness, the landscape will be much more beautiful. 

The fourth practice is when the good seed has already manifested, we help it to stay in the mind consciousness as long as possible. Like when you have a friend who comes to visit bringing good news, you try to keep that friend with you as long as possible. 

That is the teaching of the Buddha on right effort, diligence, and conserving energy. It’s very concrete and practical and is done in a natural, relaxed way. We don’t need to fight or struggle; we don’t have to make exhausting efforts. Naturally and with a lot of pleasure, we can enjoy the practice. 

These are the eight right practices representing the Noble Eightfold Path proposed by the Buddha to all of us. If a teaching can reveal the Noble Path, it is an authentic teaching of the Buddha. 

The Right View of Reincarnation 

Continuation is happening now, because every day you continue to produce thoughts, words, and actions that carry your signature. We don’t have to wait until this body decomposes to continue. 

Most people think of reincarnation in terms of a permanent soul. This is popular Buddhism. But we have to rise to the level of right view. Continuation is a necessity, it is a truth. But this continuation must be seen in the light of non-self, of impermanence. 

If, for example, you want to recognize my continuation, do not look in this direction. [Thay points to himself.] There is a part of my continuation in this direction, but when you look all around you, you will see other forms of the continuation. So don’t wait for the body to decompose. We’ve already begun our continuation. You know that you have the power to change. You can ensure a beautiful continuation. Let’s suppose that yesterday you produced a thought that was not worthy of you, and today you’re sorry. You think, “I don’t want to be continued in that way.” You can correct it, you can transform that continuation. 

If you have touched right view, you will be able to produce a different thought, a thought that is worthy of you today, a thought that carries within it understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. The moment you produce this wonderful thought, it will go out and catch the other thought that you produced yesterday. And in the space of half a second it will be able to transform that thought. 

So you have the chance to correct the past; this is wonderful. We say that the past is already gone, but the past is always returning with its new manifestations, and with those manifestations we can correct it. 

If you have said something that’s not worthy of you, say something else today, and that will transform everything. Do something different today based on right view and transform the whole situation. That is possible. 

If you have a Sangha that supports you, if you are supported by the collective right view, then it’s very easy to produce such thoughts, such words, such actions, to transform everything right now, today, to ensure a good future, a good continuation. 

The teaching of the Buddha is very deep, and at the same time very practical. This teaching has the capacity to heal us, to transform our pain, our fear. It’s good to have enough time to learn more about these teachings and put them into practice in our daily life. 

Translated from the French by Sr. Pine Tree.
Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Janelle Combelic. 

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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.

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Dharma Talk: The Way to Well-Being

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

At the retreat at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes  Park, Colorado, Sister Annabel offered this Dharma  talk on August 24, 2007. In her soft British-accented  voice, Sister Annabel gave a brilliant elucidation of  the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Dear Sangha, today please allow me to say a little bit about the Four Noble Truths. First of all, I shall write the Four Noble Truths on the board. There’s a way of expressing this, where to each Noble Truth we add a word:

  1. Ill-being.
  2. The way to ill-being.
  3. The end of the way to ill-being.
  4. The way to end the way to ill-being.

Sister Annabel, True VirtueThat is the Indian way, in which we use the negative mode. In the Western way we use the word “well-being,” which is more positive. Many scholars have talked a lot about the Four Noble Truths, and they have certain ideas concerning the Four Noble Truths. Really, they are a practice, and we don’t need to be a scholar to understand it. We just need to be a practitioner. We don’t even have to be a Buddhist. We just practice.

This is a very basic teaching of the Buddha, because the Buddha saw how beneficial it is for us. We are very lucky that 2,600 years later we have an opportunity to take hold of that practice, just as it was used in ancient India, and to use it in our own time.

So in order to do the practice, I would suggest that we use one of the practices Thay talked about yesterday: vipashyana, looking deeply. We don’t always need to be sitting on a meditation cushion in the meditation hall in order to practice looking deeply. We can be seated at our writing desk with a pen and a piece of paper, or we can be on the bus or on the train. As long as we establish ourselves in shamatha, stopping, calming, then we can always practice vipashyana.

mb48-dharma22For your own practice, I would suggest that you take a piece of paper and fold it into three so that it has three columns. Although there are Four Noble Truths, we may not need to have a column for the third one because as Thay has been teaching us, there is no way to peace; peace is the way. There is no way to healing; healing is the way. So in the same voice we could say, there is no way to well-being; well-being is the way. The Fourth Noble Truth is the way to well-being, so the Third Noble Truth and the Fourth Noble Truth are just one exercise.

 The First Noble Truth: Ill-Being

The First Noble Truth is quite essential. Without that, the other Noble Truths can’t be there. The Four Noble Truths interare; you practice one, and the other three are already there. In the Heart of the Prajnaparamita we say, “No ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path.” And that is as much to say that ill-being doesn’t have a separate self. As we practice for ourselves, we will begin to understand this. This isn’t theory. The Dharma is available for us to see directly when we put it into practice in our daily life.

Your first column is for the First Noble Truth. Some people get stuck in the first column, but if we practice we won’t be stuck there. We won’t say, “Oh, dear, everything is ill-being!” That is the scholar’s approach, but our approach is our real experience. So in this first column, write down everything that in your personal life you feel to be ill-being. It could be psychological, physical, or physiological. So you write down, maybe, “despair” — that is the overwhelming emotion that you feel sometimes. Or you write down “depression.” And you might write down physical pain that you have.

We need to look deeply because sometimes we don’t even recognize that we have ill-being. There is something that is wanting to be transformed, maybe from our ancestors, that lies deep in our consciousness. It’s calling out to be transformed, but we haven’t heard its call. There might be anger there, or depression, but we haven’t fully recognized it. It is like someone who’s drunk too much who says, “I’m not drunk.” Somebody who’s angry can say, “Oh, I’m not angry, there’s nothing to be angry about.” But looking deeply we recognize that. So we write it down.

Having written down all that, we look at it in the face. In my personal experience, this is a tremendous relief. We may be able to do this on our own or we may ask someone to help us. We may go to the doctor or the psychotherapist, and they may tell us what our ill-being is, if we haven’t seen it. But principally, it’s something that we have to see for ourselves. So even though we’re in the First Noble Truth, we already, by facing it as the truth, begin to see it as it is.

This is something the Buddha teaches us very clearly. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, in the last section on the mindfulness of the objects of mind, there is a phrase that the practitioner is aware of ill-being “just as it is.” We don’t magnify it, we don’t diminish it or pretend it’s not there. We just look at it as it is and when we do that, we accept it. That is the first step to healing.

That is what we do with our strong emotions. If there is an emotion in us that comes up frequently, that blocks our way, we acknowledge it just as it is. Loneliness: just as it is. Write it down.

The Way to Ill-Being

Now as you’ve been practicing looking deeply, you’re already on your second column. In your unconscious mind the second column has already begun to reveal itself. The second column is “the way that led to the first column.” That is what Thay was talking about yesterday: the Buddha told us that without food nothing can survive (1). No emotion, no physical thing, no psychological state can survive without its food.

The Buddha said that if you can see the source of the food that is feeding your emotion, and you can stop ingesting that particular food, whether it’s edible food or the food of sense impression, then you’re already liberated, you’re already transformed.

The “way” is the causes. What are the causes of this ill-being? What has led to this ill-being? For each point of ill-being that you wrote in the first column, in the second column you can write down the things that are causing it.

Maybe it’s what you consume through your mouth. Maybe it’s your misunderstanding of what the practice is; you haven’t understood that the practice is for joy and for healing. Maybe it’s because of what you want, your desires — you want to be famous, you want to be praised, you want to have a position, or you’re afraid of losing those things. Maybe there are difficulties that began in your childhood, and you haven’t yet managed to embrace your five-year-old child fully. These are all ways to the suffering for you to look into. And, of course, as Thay said yesterday, maybe it’s the television programs, the newspapers, the telephone conversations. You can write them down.

There are two other kinds of food. Yesterday Thay talked about edible food and the food of sense impressions. When we come to the third exercise, we can mention those other two kinds of food.

The Way to End the Way to Ill-Being

The third exercise is the way to well-being, or the way to end the way to ill-being. We’re not going to just cut the ill-being off, to banish it, but we are going to find out what its causes are. And we are going to remove the causes, because we don’t want to treat the symptoms, we want to treat the roots of our ill-being. So that is why sometimes we say, “the way to end the way to ill-being” — the way to well-being. The Buddha taught the way to well-being as the Noble Eightfold Path.

When you do the third part of the exercise you can use these teachings of the Buddha to help you. You adapt each of these eight aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path to your own sickness, your own ill-being.

Right View

Right View is the way you have of looking at reality, of looking at the world. And the Buddha taught the truth of impermanence, the truth of no-self, and the truth of nirvana. If we have right view, there must be the acknowledgment of impermanence, no-self, and nirvana. If there isn’t that, then there will be ill-being. So this may be part of the cure for some of your ill-being.

When we are at peace with the impermanence of our health, of our life, then we can do our best to profit from the days and the months that are left to us, in a way that is beneficial both for ourselves and our descendants. The same is true with the teaching on no-self, on not being a separate self. My happiness is your happiness. Of course, in my family relationships, when I see that, it will bring much more well-being to myself and to my family.

mb48-dharma23Nirvana just means not being caught in any views, being free of views. When we are caught in a view, when we must be right and we’re ready to fight and die for our view, we suffer a great deal. When we despair about the future of our planet, we can become very dogmatic and caught in our views, and this puts us at odds with other people. The only way that we can save our planet is through brotherhood and sisterhood, which means letting go of our views. But it doesn’t mean we don’t care. Seeing that the planet is impermanent doesn’t mean, we don’t care anymore, we don’t do anything. It means we do everything we can, but we do it very peacefully. When we are not caught in our views, it doesn’t mean we don’t see the danger and we don’t do everything we can to prevent that danger from happening.

Right Thinking

The second aspect is Right Thinking. To be mindful of our thinking — to know what we are thinking and where our thinking is taking us — is also important. The way we judge and blame other people leads to our ill-being as well as theirs. If we can have a compassionate, non-judgmental, non-blaming thought, that is a way to our well-being.

All kinds of thinking we have — our complexes, guilt, comparing ourselves with others — is linked to our idea of having a separate self. Our constant thinking is a mechanism to keep our idea of a separate self alive.

The third kind of food the Buddha taught is linked with thinking. It is the food of intention. The food of what I intend to do, what I decide to do, what I want to do, is sometimes called volition. This kind of food can give us a great deal of energy. To explain this kind of food, the Buddha told a story. Suppose there is a young man who’s strong and in good health and he lives in a town. Outside that town there is a large pit that is filled with redhot coals. There are no flames, they’re smokeless because it’s so hot. Every time the young man goes out of the town near that pit, he feels that it’s not safe, because if he were to fall into that pit of coals he would suffer a great deal; he could even die. So he decides to leave this town and go live in another place where there isn’t a pit of coals outside. That is the Chinese version.

The Pali version is a little bit different. There’s also a young man, he’s living in a town, there’s also the pit of coals. But he doesn’t make the decision to go and live somewhere else. There are two strong men in the town. They take hold of him and they pull him towards the pit, and he didn’t want to go there at all, but somehow he couldn’t stop them. They were much stronger than he was. He knew that if he fell into that pit he would not survive, and he would suffer a lot. Still, the two strong men dragged him in that direction. This is another rather dramatic and drastic way the Buddha had of describing our intention food. A lot of energy can pull us in a direction we don’t want to go. These intentions are not necessarily wholly in our conscious mind. We may have things deep down in us driving us in a certain direction without even knowing it. For instance, ambition, the desire for fame, the desire for money, the desire for sex. All those things can be very strong sources of food.

In our meditation, when we are making our lists, we need to look deeply. What is my deepest desire? What are the things that are pulling me along in my life? Do I want to be praised? Do I want to have a position? Do I want to be useful? These things are motivating my way of being.

When we discover what is motivating us, we may be able to stop that source of food and go in a different direction — to have time for our family, to have time to be in nature, to have time to be with our sangha, to build our sangha. Because that is where we feel most happy, to be one with our sangha. To be part of the sangha body without having an idea of a separate self. Some people might get burned out with leading a sangha sometimes, so we have to be careful of that also; when we are in sangha, we just be part of that sangha, part of the river, part of the flow.

Right Speech 

The guidelines for Right Speech are given in the Fourth Mindfulness Training: learning how to listen deeply, to speak lovingly. Ask yourself, is this the key to my well-being, in my relations with my family? When I am angry, do I know how to practice the Peace Treaty, to calm myself before I say anything? (2) And also, do I know the skillful way to express my anger so that I don’t repress it? Because repressing anger is also very dangerous.

So if under the First Noble Truth you wrote down one of your sufferings as anger, then when you come to the Third Noble Truth you may like to look at Right Speech as one of the ways out of your anger, and not watering these seeds in yourself and in others. When you are angry, you may not spill out your anger over someone else, but you can look after it by your mindful breathing, your mindful walking. You can take a walk and accept it just as it is. You can embrace it. And then, somehow talk about it. Talk about it maybe first of all in writing. Write down for your loved one what happened. Read over the letter to make sure that it’s easy enough for the loved one to accept, that you’ve talked mostly about yourself, how you feel, without blaming, without judging. Put yourself in the skin of the other person as you read the letter. If you are quite sure she could accept it, send it to her. If you are not sure ask a friend who knows you both to read it and give his opinion.

If you can, come directly to your loved one and say, “This morning I was really upset. I practiced quite a bit, walking and breathing, and I know that I can’t transform this upset on my own. I wish I could, but I need your help. So please help me. Let’s find a time when we can sit down together and you can tell me all about what was happening for you when you said that, or when you did that. That will help me a lot, not to make the same kind of mistake again.”

So this is the practice of Right Speech in order to help us out of our suffering.

Right Action 

After that we have Right Action. There are three actions, as we know: the action of our body, the action of our speech, and the action of our mind. Right Thinking and Right View already cover the action of our mind. Right Speech covers the action of our speech. Therefore Right Action covers the action of our body. Right bodily action is very well described in the First, Second, Third and Fifth Mindfulness Trainings.

We may like to look at Right Action in terms of our consumption. What kind of edible food do we consume? Do we consume at the right time? Do we eat at the right time? Do we eat in the right way, that is, in a peaceful atmosphere, not in a rush? What do we eat? If we eat the flesh of a chicken that was raised in a cage, we can imagine the suffering of that chicken. We know that the body and the mind are not two separate things. All the frustration and despair the chicken must have suffered being raised in a cage have gone into the flesh of the chicken, and then we eat it. If we drink the milk of a cow that has come from a factory farm, all the suffering, despair, rage of that cow have gone into the milk. This is also something that we ingest.

So we look at what we eat, how we eat, when we eat. That can already help us on the way to well-being of our body and our mind. A meal is to nourish us, not only physically. We give ourselves a chance to get spiritual nourishment as we eat.

Then the other points of Right Bodily Action are covered by the First Mindfulness Training: not harming, protecting life. The Second Mindfulness Training covers not taking what is not ours, what we don’t need. Not over-consuming, not harming the environment, which are a kind of stealing. The Third Mindfulness Training is right conduct in sexual relations. This also leads to our happiness and the happiness of our family.

Right Livelihood

Does my profession bring me happiness? Does it bring me a lot of stress? Maybe one of the things that you wrote down on the First Noble Truth was stress. So now we look at Right Livelihood and we ask ourselves, how much stress does our work give us? What is our workplace like? Is it a place where we can feel relaxed? Do we bring a flower or a green plant to put in our workplace to make it somewhere where we can relax and we can breathe? How can we make our workplace a non-stressful place? How can we do the kind of work that nourishes our compassion, so that when we come to work we can look at our co-workers with the eyes of love and we can care about them? When we say in the morning, “How are you?”, some people don’t expect an answer to that, they just carry on walking. “How are you?” and the other person says, “How are you?” Even when I went to the doctor one time he said, “How are you?” and he expected me to say, “Fine.” But the reason I went to him was because I wasn’t fine.

When we go to work, what we can do is ask, “How are you?” and we really mean it. I want to hear how you are. “Did you sleep well last night?” and so on, because I care about you. Then our workplace begins to have more compassion in it.

Right Effort 

Then we have the practice of Right Effort. This is also connected with another kind of food. In order to be able to talk about the fourth kind of food — the food of consciousness — I need to draw that circle on the board.

mb48-dharma24Store consciousness stores all the seeds, every possible seed of every possible emotion in latent form. They may never manifest in your lifetime, but that doesn’t mean to say they’re not available.

If the causes and conditions were right, they would manifest in mind consciousness. Every individual, as we call our self, has access to the collective consciousness, which is also called store, unconscious mind, background consciousness.

There are four parts to Right Effort, and they all have to do with the seeds that are in the store consciousness.

  1. The seeds in store consciousness that I need for well-being and have not yet manifested. I shall make the effort, I shall practice to help them manifest.
  2. The seeds in store consciousness that are for my wellbeing and the well-being of others that have already manifested and are already manifesting. I will make the effort to keep them manifesting.
  3. The seeds in my store consciousness that are not beneficial for my well-being and that haven’t manifested yet. I will not water them and help them to manifest.
  4. The seeds of my store consciousness that are not beneficial for my well-being, that have already manifested. I will help them to transform and go back to the dormant position in the store consciousness.

There’s no idea of destroying seeds, but helping seeds to manifest or helping seeds to be dormant. What this means is strengthening seeds or allowing them to weaken.

One of the teachings of Buddhism is that the longer a seed remains in the mind consciousness — that is, manifesting in our mental formations — the stronger it becomes. And if it’s repeatedly manifesting, it will become stronger. This is very clear. If you want to learn how to sing a song, the first time you sing the song the seed of that song is very weak in your mind consciousness. You quickly forget the song. But when you’ve sung, “Breathing in, breathing out, I am blooming as a flower,” seven or eight times on different occasions, then it will be very strong. Whenever you need that song you just have to call on it and it will come up without you having to think about it.

But the same is true with our anger. If we rehearse our anger often, it will become much stronger and it will come up more easily. So the idea is not to rehearse our anger, which is harmful for ourselves and harmful for others. It doesn’t mean repressing our anger. It must be expressed, but it must be expressed in the right way, that is beneficial.

So this is the food of consciousness, the last kind of food. The Buddha gave another very drastic example.

One Hundred Stab Wounds 

There is a criminal, and he’s committed a very serious crime. The king sends his soldiers out to arrest the criminal. They find him, they arrest him, and they bring him back to the king. “Your majesty, what should we do with this man?”

The king gave orders. “He should be stabbed one hundred times.”

So the next morning he was stabbed one hundred times. At noon the king asked, “What happened this morning to that criminal?”

They said, “Well, we did stab him one hundred times, but he didn’t die.”

The king said, “Then he should be stabbed another hundred times.”

So they stabbed him another hundred times. And then the king asked them, and again they said he didn’t die. The third time he said, “Stab him a hundred times.” So they stabbed him another hundred times.

The Buddha asked his monks, “Monks, do you think that man suffered?”

The monks said, “Lord Buddha, to be stabbed a hundred times, that kind of suffering is unbearable, unthinkable. But to be stabbed three hundred times successively, that is beyond belief.”

So the Buddha said, “That is the food of consciousness.”

To give an example of what is meant: The human species is a very young species, the youngest species on this planet. For the human species to be here, there must have been all the other species that went before. In our genetic makeup (according to Buddhism our genetic makeup is not just our physiology, it’s also our psychology; I don’t know if scientists agree with that, but to me it’s clear because the body and the mind are not two different things) all the animal species, the plant species, the mineral species, they’re part of us, they’re part of our genetic inheritance.

Consciousness was there – in different living beings – before the human species arose. Physically in our brain you can see that the brain stem and other parts of our brain, apart from the neocortex, also belong to the animal species. If you remember the time before you were a human being, you were a little fish swimming in the sea, and one day a big fish came up behind you with its mouth open and caught the little fish, ate it. The little fish was very afraid, and that is like a stab wound in consciousness. When you developed into a kind of land species, you were chased by the big animals. So that was another stab wound, maybe the same place as the first stab wound. It is much more painful when you’re stabbed twice in the same place.

mb48-dharma25Now you’re a human being, and those wounds, those stabbings, they’re still there. If you’re not careful with the food of consciousness, you can be stabbed in the same place again. It may not be fear of the big fish, it may be fear of terrorists; so many things we can be afraid of. Maybe when you wrote down the First Noble Truth exercise, one of the things you wrote down was fear. So now you have a chance to look at your Right Effort, the food of consciousness. How do you allow that fear in your consciousness to get stabbed again? What do you do? How can you practice Right Effort to avoid the stab wound, to avoid watering the seed of fear?

In the same way, the anger may have been there for a very long time. Now when it comes up into your mind consciousness, you know that you can take care of it with Right Effort. With the practice of mindfulness every day, you can learn how to breathe and how to take care of the seed of anger when it manifests, the seed of despair when it manifests.

Very often, not doing anything when we are overwhelmed by a strong emotion, that is the Right Effort. The Right Effort isn’t necessarily to feel you have to do something, you have to solve the problem, but just to be able to sit there, do nothing, and embrace the emotion. Above all, we need to have time for it. We don’t have time to look after our emotions. So either we repress them and send them back a little bit stronger into our consciousness until they explode, or we want to resolve them quickly, so we vent them or we rehearse them. So Right Effort means to give yourself plenty of time to look after your emotion.

When I have a strong emotion I say to it, “Dear one, you have the right to be there because you are caused and conditioned, and once the cause and condition are there, there’s no way I can stop you from being there. So you have the right to be there. And I know you’re impermanent, you won’t always be there, but I don’t know quite how long you’re going to be around. Never mind. If you want to be around three days, it’s okay. If you want to be around three hours, it’s okay. As long as you want to be around, I’m here looking after you.”

“I’m here” doesn’t really mean me, it means that other seeds in my consciousness like compassion, care, mindfulness are going to be there.

Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration 

Right Mindfulness means living deeply the present moment, being aware of what is happening. That can heal so many things. Right Concentration is an extension of Right Mindfulness. It means giving our whole attention to an appropriate object of our perception in order to discover more of its reality.

Thay has said each step can heal, each breath can heal. Right Mindfulness is to be aware of the wonderful things in life. You may ask yourself, why didn’t the Buddha have Right Happiness as one of the Noble Eightfold Path? It’s really there, although it’s not expressed. Because in Right Mindfulness there is Right Happiness. When we are aware of everything that is nourishing and wonderful in life, it brings us a very deep happiness.

Finally, how can Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness help us? You might like to write down how you’re going to realize the practice of these things in your daily life when you go home. What place are you going to always walk with concentration and mindfulness, to become your walking meditation path on a daily basis? What time are you going to use for sitting meditation, to be able to concentrate? What time are you going to put aside for being with your family, for using loving speech with your family, for expressing your appreciation of your children and your spouse?

All these intentions can be written down in the third exercise. As we said, when you begin to practice the third exercise, wellbeing is already there. Because there is no way to well-being. Well-being is the way.

 

Sister Annabel Laity, True Virtue, was abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont; she is now in Europe helping Thich Nhat Hanh start the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

[1] For an in-depth teaching on the four kinds of nutriments, see Chapter Seven of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh (Broadway, 1999).

[2] Several versions of the Peace Treaty, including a Peace Treaty for oneself and for couples, can be found in various books by Thich Nhat Hanh including Creating True Peace (Free Press, 2004) and Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities, compiled by Jack Lawlor (Parallax Press, 2002).

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