Dharma Talk: Precepts as a Way of Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh

There are many problems in the world today—alcoholism, sexual abuse, oppression, exploitation of the environment, and so forth. If we look deeply, we can see that our stability and the stability of our family and society require us to discover practices and antidotes to overcome these prob­lems.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha offered us the Five Wonderful Precepts. These precepts can perform miracles. The moment we decide to receive them, a transformation already occurs in us that touches everything. I have seen this many times. During the ceremony to receive the precepts, our internal knots are untied, and afterwards we actually look different. Many small doors are closed, and one big door is opened wide. When we confirm our determi­nation to go through that door, we look and feel happier and more stable. With the community’s support, we attain peace and loving kindness right away.

The foundation of all precepts is mindfulness. We begin each precept with the awareness of a particular problem, saying, “Aware of …” Then, instead of saying, “Don’t do this,” or “Don’t do that,” we say, “I am determined to do this. I am determined not to do that.” Because forgetfulness is such a strong tendency in us, it is very helpful to practice the Five Precepts with a sangha, a community of friends.

The First Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life.

To practice the first precept is to protect life. Life has many forms, inside us and around us. When we practice mindfulness, we see that lives are being destroyed every­where, and we vow to cultivate compassion and use this as a source of energy for the protection of the lives of people, animals, and plants. The first precept is the precept of compassion and loving kindness.

We should not lose awareness of the suffering in the world. We can nourish this awareness by means of sounds, images, direct contact, and so on. But most of the suffering we endure every day—perhaps 95%—is not necessary at all. Because we lack insight, we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others, especially those we love. But when we have contact with the remaining 5% of suffering, we feel compassion, the kind of energy necessary for us to trans­form ourselves and help relieve the world’s suffering. But if we touch too much suffering, it may be harmful for us. Medicine always needs to be taken in the proper dosage. We should stay in touch with the suffering only to the extent that we do not forget it, so that compassion will flow in us and be a source of energy that can be transformed into action. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that we can use, and compassion is born from insight.

After we have developed compassion, we have to continue practice in order to learn the many ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants. Just feeling compassion is not enough. We also have to develop understanding and insight so that we know what kind of action to take. We say “learning the ways.” We do not know everything. We have to come together as a sangha to discuss together how we can protect life. Confucius said, “To know that you don’t know is the beginning of knowing.” This is the best way to study and practice the precepts. There are many problems in our society that did not exist at the time of the Buddha, so we have to come together and discuss these things. We and our children have to learn and practice the ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants.

The first sentence is: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants.” This is about awareness of the destruction of life, the cultivation of compassion, learning the ways of action, and keeping our awareness of suffering alive. There is e­nough in this sentence for us to practice the rest of our lives.

The second sentence is: “I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing, in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.” This sentence reflects our determination not to kill, either directly or indirectly. But we must also learn how to prevent others from killing. No killing whatsoever can be justified. If you were in Nazi Germany and someone asked you why things were the way they were, if you were practicing the first precept you could not say, “They did it. I am not respon­sible. My hands are clean.” During the Gulf War, if you did not do anything, that is also an offense against the first precept. Even if you attempted to do some things and did not succeed, what is most important is that you tried something. We must make the effort to stop all wars.

According to the Buddha, the mind is the basis of all actions. To kill with the mind is more dangerous than to kill with the body. When you believe that you have the only way and that everyone who does not follow your way is your enemy, millions may be killed. And it is not just by killing with our hands and our thinking that we can break the first precept. If, in our way of life, we allow killing to go on, we also commit an offense. We must look deeply. When we buy something or consume something, we may be participating in an act of killing.

If someone were to ask me, “What is the best way to practice the first precept?” I would have to say, “I don’t know.” I myself am still learning together with you. We should be modest and open. Because we have made efforts together in looking deeply, we have been able to write a more profound version of the precepts. If we continue to practice, we may be able to offer our children an even better version tomorrow.

The Second Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn the ways of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of others species on Earth.

Stealing comes in many forms. Oppression is one form of stealing, and it causes much suffering both here and in the Third World. Countries are torn by poverty and oppression. We want to help hungry children and adults help themselves, but we are caught in a way of life that keeps us so busy that we do not have time to help. Sometimes all that is needed is one pill or one bowl of rice to save the life of a child, but we are caught up in the tiny problems of our daily lives. We could send hundreds of thousands of pills or millions of bowls of rice, but we feel helpless, unable to do anything to alleviate the suffering.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there are street children who call themselves the “Dust of Life.” They wander the streets and sleep under trees, scavenging in garbage heaps to find things they can sell for five dong. Nuns and monks in Ho Chi Minh City are organizing daily classes in the temples for these children. If they agree to come in the morning and stay for four hours, learning to read and write and playing with the monks and nuns, they are offered vegetarian lunches. After that, they can go to the Buddha Hall to take a nap. (In Vietnam, we like to take naps after lunch, because it is so hot. When the Americans came, they brought the practice of working eight hours, and many of us tried to follow, but we couldn’t. We desperately need naps after lunch.) At two o’clock there is more teaching and playing, and the children who can stay four more hours receive dinner. The temple does not have a place for them to stay overnight, so they leave after dinner and come back in the morning. We in Plum Village have been supporting these nuns and monks. It only costs twenty cents per child per day, for lunch and dinner, and it keeps the children off the streets, preventing them from becoming delinquent and entering prison later on. We don’t need a lot of money to help these children. We only need a little time. There are so many things like that we can do to help, but because we cannot free ourselves from our own small problems and our lifestyles, we don’t do anything. The first sentence of this precept is about aware­ness of the suffering and about cultivating loving kindness and learning the way of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. The second sentence is: “I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.” This is very specific. We may have a feeling of generosity and a capacity of being generous, but we must also develop specific ways of expressing our generosity. Time is more than money. Time is life; time is happiness; time is for bringing joy and happiness to other people. Even if you who are very wealthy, unless you are happy, you cannot make other people happy.

I know one very poor gentleman in Vietnam who has been practicing generosity for fifty years. He owns only a bicycle, but because his heart is so generous, he is able to help many other people in need. When I met him in 1965, I was a little too proud about our School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). We organized to rebuild many villages and promote social reform in the fields of education, health, and economic development. Our project was ambitious—we trained 300 workers, including monks and nuns, who went to the villages and helped the people modernize the economy, health, and education. Eventually, there were nearly 10,000 workers throughout Vietnam. As I was telling this gentleman about our project, I looked at his bicycle and thought that he could bring only a little help to people in one province. But in fact, he has taught me an important lesson.

Although the SYSS accomplished many of its goals, when the communists took over, they stopped our work, while this gentleman continues his small work to this day. Unlike us, he did not have anything for the government to confiscate. Thousands of our workers had to hide; and many orphanages, clinics, and schools were shut down. Because we have learned from this gentleman, now we are more humble. When you practice generosity, looking is very important, so that you can learn all the time.

In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of helping people rely on themselves. We call this the gift of Dharma. The third is the gift of non-fear. We human beings are afraid of being left alone, of becoming sick, and of dying. Helping people not be destroyed by fear is the greatest gift of all.

The second precept is a very deep practice of sharing time, energy, and material resources. Time is for being deeply present with the other person. Time is not just to make money. It is to produce the three kinds of gifts.

The Third Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. 

We know that in our soul there are memories, pains, and secrets that we want to keep to ourselves or share only with those we love and trust the most. In the royal capital, there is a zone where only the king and his family can circulate. There is a place like that in our soul, where we don’t allow anyone to approach, except our most beloved. The same is true of our body. Our body has areas that we do not want others to approach or touch, except for our most beloved, the person we respect, trust, and love the most. In the Buddhist tradition, we speak of the oneness of body and mind. Whatever happens to the body also happens to the mind. A sexual relationship is an act of communion between body and spirit. This is a very important event, not to be done in a casual manner. When you are approached casually or carelessly, with an attitude that is less than tender, you feel insulted in body and soul. Someone who approaches you with respect, tenderness, and utmost care is offering you deep communication, deep communion. Only in that case will you not feel hurt, misused, or abused, even a little. This cannot be obtained without true love and commitment. Casual sex cannot be called love. 

“True love contains respect.” This Vietnamese expres­sion means that a couple respects each other as honored guests. Respect is one of the most important elements of a sexual relationship. Sexual communion should be like a ritual, performed in mindfulness with great love, care, and respect. If you are just motivated by desire, that is not love. “Love” is a beautiful word, and we have to restore its meaning. When we say “love” to describe our appetite, as when we say, “I love hamburgers,” we spoil the word. We should not misuse words in this way. We make them sick. We have to make the effort to heal the words by using them properly and carefully.

If love is understood in this way, why do we need to add the phrase, “long-term commitment”? If love is real, there is no need to say or do anything else. We don’t even need a wedding ceremony. True love guarantees everything. It includes the sense of responsibility, accepting the other person as he or she is, with all strengths and weaknesses. If you like only the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept his or her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding, and energy to help the person transform. According to the teaching of the Buddha, true love is maitri, the capacity to bring joy and happiness, and karuna, the capacity to transform pain and suffering. This kind of love can only do good, and it is safe.

In the West and in Asia, we use the phrase “love sick­ness.” The kind of love that makes us sick is attachment, or addiction. Like a drug, it makes us feel wonderful, but once we are addicted, we cannot have peace. We can’t study, work, or sleep. We just think about the other person. This kind of love is possessive, even totalitarian. We want to own the object of our love, and we don’t want anyone to prevent us from possessing them totally. It creates a kind of prison for our beloved one. He or she is deprived of the right to be himself or herself. This is neither maitri nor karuna. It is the willingness to make use of another person to satisfy our own needs.

The expression “long-term commitment” is in this precept to help us understand that in the context of love, commitment can only be long-term. “I want to love you. I want to help you. I want to care for you. I want you to be happy. I want to work for your happiness. But just for a few days.” This is not love. The two people are afraid to make a commitment to the precepts or to one another.

To love our child deeply, we have to make a long-term commitment and help him or her through the journey as long as we are alive. When we have a good friend, we also make a long-term commitment. We need him or her. How much more so the person with whom we want to share our body and soul! The phrase “long-term commitment” cannot begin to express the depth of our love, but we need to say some­thing so that people will not misunderstand the word love, especially those who do not have time to join a Dharma discussion or read precepts’ commentaries.

A long-term commitment made in the context of a sangha can be long-lasting, strong, and fruitful. If your long­term commitment is just between the two of you, you will not have the support of friends and family. So we have a wedding ceremony for families and friends to witness. The priest and the marriage license are just symbols. What is important is that your commitment to come together to live as a couple is witnessed by friends and family so that they will support you. The feeling between you may not be enough to sustain your happiness. Without the support of family and friends, what you now describe as love will turn sour later on. If a tree wants to be solid, it sends many roots deeply into the soil. If it has just one root, it may be blown over by the wind. In the same way, a couple needs to be supported by families, friends, ideals, practice, and the sangha.

Every time we have a wedding ceremony in Plum Village, we invite the entire community to celebrate. During the ceremony, the couple recites the Five Awarenesses (See Mindfulness Bell #2), and they agree to recite them every full moon day, with the knowledge that friends everywhere are supporting their relationship so that it will be stable, long-lasting, and happy. If you do not accept the institution of marriage, you still need some commitment, and it is best made in the presence of a sangha—friends who love you and want to support you in the spirit of loving kindness and understanding. Even if you do not have a marriage license and are not bound together by the law, your relationship will be stronger if you make a commitment in front of family and friends. 

“Responsibility” is the key word of the third precept. In a community of practice, if everyone practices this precept well, there will be peace and stability. Practicing in this way, we respect, support, and protect each other as Dharma brothers and sisters. If we don’t, what happens in our community will also create trouble in the larger community. We have seen that if a teacher cannot refrain from sleeping with one of his students, he will destroy everything. So we refrain from sexual misconduct because we are aware that we are responsible for the well-being of the entire community, including the future generations. If we do not refrain, we will destroy everything.

The third precept also applies to society. There are many ways that our families and society are destroyed by sexual misconduct. I know one person who still suffers every day because she was molested as a child. The best way for her to heal herself is to observe the third precept: “As a victim of sexual abuse, I vow to become someone who will protect all children and adults from sexual abuse.” In that way, her suffering can be transformed into a positive energy that will help her protect others. When you take the third precept, you vow to protect children and also those who abuse children sexually. The ones who cause suffering must also become the objects of your love and protection. You see that the molesters are the product of an unstable society. Whether it be an uncle, an aunt, a parent, or a grandparent, he or she should be observed, helped, and healed.

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Practicing the third precept is to help ourselves and others avoid being wounded. We usually talk of women being wounded, but men also get deeply wounded by love relationships. We have to be very careful, especially in short-term commitments. The practice of the third precept is a very strong way of restoring stability and peace within ourselves, our families, and our society. We should also discuss the many problems relating to this precept, such as the “sex industry,” advertising, and loneliness. The feeling of loneliness is universal in our society. There is so little real communication, even in our own families. That feeling of loneliness can push us into a sexual relationship. We believe in a naive way that having a sexual relationship will make us feel less lonely. But when there is no communication between you and the other person on the level of the heart and the spirit, having a sexual relationship can only widen the gap. It can destroy you and the other person. Your relationship will be stormy and will cause both of you much suffering. You will both feel even more lonely. The belief that sexual relationships help us feel less lonely is a kind of modern superstition; we should not be fooled by it. The union of the two bodies can only be positive when there is understanding and communion on the level of the heart and the spirit. If the communion between husband and wife doesn’t exist on this level, then the coming together of their two bodies will separate them further. It is better to refrain from sexual relations until you make a breakthrough to communicate.

The third precept can help us protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, communities, and society. So many children and adults, couples and families, communities, and nations have been destroyed by sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. For many people, this kind of responsible behavior may be easy to practice, but for others, it is quite difficult. These people have to come together to share their experiences and help each other learn and practice responsibility and non-harming. We all have to do the same.

The Fourth Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to recon­cile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

This precept is directly linked with the second precept. There is a saying in Vietnamese, “You don’t need a lot of money to have kind speech.” Loving speech is freely available. We only need to be mindful, choosing our words carefully, and we can make many other people happy. This is generosity. Many of us think that we can only practice generosity if we spend a lot of money. We dream of getting rich so that we can bring happiness to others. We don’t understand that once we are rich, it may actually be more difficult to practice generosity. When we are motivated by loving kindness, maitri and karuna, we can bring happiness to others through our kind speech. With kind speech, we offer people joy, happiness, confidence, hope, and trust. Mindful speaking is a deep practice. Avalokitesvara is able to speak in a way that helps people let go of their fear, misery, and despair. Without looking deeply into ourselves, this is not easy. When we have a lot of suffering in our­selves, it is difficult to speak mindfully or with loving kindness. So we have to look deeply into the nature of our anger, despair, and suffering in order to free ourselves and be available to others.

Suppose your husband tells you something that hurts you. If you reply out of anger and suffering, you risk hurting him and making the suffering deeper. But if you suppress your anger and remain silent, you will suffer more later on, and your suffering will also bring about more suffering for your partner. I recommend that you breathe in and out: “Breathing in, I know I am angry. Breathing out, I calm my anger.” Then, when you are calm enough, you can say, “Darling, I am angry. What you said hurt me.” You will feel some relief just from saying that. During that moment, you are really in touch with your anger. You are not denying it.

Then you can invite your spouse to meet with you on Friday evening so that the two of you can look together at the disturbance. If you discuss your feelings right away, while you are still angry, you risk saying something that will make the situation worse. Between now and Friday night, you both have a few days to look deeply into the nature of your anger. While driving the car to work, for example, he may ask himself, “Why did she get so upset? There must be a reason.” Hopefully, before Friday night, one or both of you will see into the true nature of the problem and say, “I’m sorry, I was not very mindful.” Then, when Friday comes, you won’t have to look at the problem. Instead, you can have a cup of tea together. Making an appointment will give both of you time to calm down and look deeply.

When Friday night comes, if the suffering has not already been transformed, you can both practice deep listening. You sit quietly together and then one person expresses himself or herself, while the other person sits and listens. When you speak, try to tell the deepest kind of truth and practice loving speech, knowing that only with that kind of speech will there be a chance for the other person to understand and accept. The other person, while listening, knows that only with deep listening can he relieve the suffering of the other person. If he listens with half an ear, he cannot do it. His presence and his listening must be of good quality. It is good to meet on Friday night, so that after you have neutralized the negative feeling, you still have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy the weekend and each other.

Let me offer another illustration of practicing the fourth precept. Suppose you have some kind of internal formation regarding a member of your family or your community. It may not be very deep, but because of it, you don’t feel much joy when you are with that person. You don’t mind talking to him to settle a number of minor things, but you don’t like to confront him about the deeper things that are troubling you. Then one day, while you are doing housework, you notice that he is not sharing the work that needs to be done. You feel uneasy and begin to wonder, “Why am I doing so much while he is not doing anything?” You should be practicing mindful working, but because of this comparative thinking, you lose your happiness, comparing yourself with another person, expecting that person to share the work with you. But for some reason you are unable to go to him and tell him, “Please brother, come help with the work.” Instead, you say to yourself, “He is an adult. Why should I have to say something to him? He should be responsible enough to help without my asking.” You behave like that because you already have some internal information about him. In fact, the shortest way to deal with it is directly. You go to him and say, “Brother, please come help.” But you don’t do that. Instead you keep it to yourself and blame him.

The next time that kind of thing happens, your feeling is even more intense. Your internal formations have grown little by little, until you suffer so much that she needs to talk about it with a third person (“C”). You (“B”) look for sympathy in order to share your suffering. Instead of talking directly to “A,” you talk to “C,” who you think has a similar internal formation. You look at “C” as a kind of ally who will agree with you that “A” is not good enough in the practice.

Since you already have some internal formations concerning “A,” you will be glad to hear that there is someone who feels as you do. Talking to each other makes you feel better. You don’t know that you are becoming allies—”B” and “C” against “A.” Suddenly “B” and “C” feel close to each other and distant from “A.” Very soon “A” will notice that. He may not be at all aware that “B” feels some resentment towards him. He is capable of helping “B” if “B” can express her feelings directly to him. But “A” doesn’t know. Suddenly “A” feels some coolness between himself and “B,” but he does not know why. He sees that “B” and “C” are very close to each other, and they are looking at him in a cold way. “A” suffers. “They don’t want me. Why should I try to be close to them?” So he steps farther back from them, and the situation becomes worse. A kind of triangle has been set up.

If I were “C,” I would try to practice like this: First of all I would try to listen to “B” attentively. I know that “B” needs to share her suffering. So I listen deeply in order to relieve “B” of her suffering. The second thing I would do is to offer my help to “B.” “My sister, why don’t you go directly to talk to him? If needed, I will go with you to talk with him.” After practicing the art of deep listening, “C” will try to practice mindful, loving speech with “B” and convince her to go directly to “A.”

The third thing “C” can do is also very important. She is determined not to transmit what “B” has told her to another person. She knows that if she is not mindful, she will transmit to others what “B” has told her, and very soon the family or the community will be in a mess. If “C” can do these three steps, she will be able to break the triangle. She will help solve the problem, and peace and joy can be assured in the family, the society, or the community. It is best to do this as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. We shouldn’t let things drag on for a long time. They will become much more difficult to solve. 

“Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.” When we tell someone something that makes him or her happy, that is a great gift. When we say something that is cruel or distressing, the other person may lose hope, even the joy to live. Our speech can be constructive or destructive. This is linked to the first precept, not to kill. When we advocate an ideology, we may feel that our way of thinking or of organizing society is the best. We can even put anyone standing in the way of our realizing our ideology into a gas chamber, because of our beliefs. Ideology, a kind of speech, can be used to kill millions of people.

The fourth precept is also linked to the second precept, not to steal. Just as there is a “sex industry,” there is also a “lying industry.” Recently, a corporate executive whose job is to write articles about his company’s products told me that he has to practice lying in order to earn his living. If he tells the truth about the products, people will not buy them. There are many people like that in business and in politics. Communists, capitalists, socialists, and others lie all the time. Even in regards to the third precept, when someone says “I love you,” it may be a lie. It may be just some desire. Advertisements are also linked with sex.

We must use words that inspire self-confidence, espe­cially with our children. If we treat our children as worth­less, they will suffer in the future. If we encourage them with positive words, they will flower.

In the Buddhist tradition, the fourth precept is described as refraining from: (1) lying, (2) exaggerating, (3) saying one thing to one person and something else to another person, and (4) using insulting, abusive language. 

“I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

We can practice reconciliation with our deep listening and our mindful, loving speech. To reconcile means to bring peace and happiness to nations, people, and members of our family. This is the work of a bodhisattva. In order to reconcile, we have to refrain from aligning ourselves with either party in order to understand both parties. This is not just the work of diplomacy. It is not because we travel by air a lot and meet with foreign ministers that we can do the work of reconciliation. We have to use our bodies. We can be suppressed or even killed by the people we want to help. We have to listen to both sides and then tell each side of the suffering of the other. This work takes courage. We need people to do this in South Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

The fourth precept is a bodhisattva precept. We need to study it deeply in order to be able to practice within our­selves, our family, our community, and in the world.

The Fifth Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future genera­tions. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

I would like to explain the “emptiness of transmission.” In the formal meals at Plum Village, the monks and nuns pick up their bowls, look into the emptiness that is inside it, and recite this gatha: “This bowl was handed down to me by the Tathagata. I now have the honor of holding it in my two hands. I vow to realize the threefold emptiness.” The Buddha gives us transmission, and we receive it. Between the two, there is the object of transmission. When we eat the food in our bowl, we contemplate the emptiness of the one who made the offering, the one who received the offering, and the offering itself. These three things are empty, empty of a separate self. When we look deeply, we can see that the three are one.

The gift, the giver, and the receiver are one. We are practicing not only for ourselves, but also for the one who made the donation. This is the true practice of giving and the true practice of receiving. The giver should give in that spirit and not think, “I am the one who gives, and you should be grateful to me.” She knows that she is one with the recipient. And the recipient does not think only that this is a gift given by someone. He knows that what has been given is for him to maintain himself for the practice, and the practice will benefit everyone, not just himself. In that kind of spirit, we are grateful, and this is called the “emptiness of giving.”

When we hear the words, “Love your enemy,” we may ask, “How can we love our enemies?” When we are able to love our enemies, they will stop being our enemies. We are practicing the “emptiness of loving.” There is no distinction between lover and beloved. The other person is not our enemy, but ourselves. Loving our enemy means to love ourselves. When we look at our father with anger, we do not see that we and our father are one. At the moment we understand and love our father, we realize the emptiness of loving. Loving ourselves is to love our father, and loving our father is to love ourself. The fifth precept needs to be practiced in this spirit.

We take care of our body and our consciousness and keep ourselves healthy for our ancestors, our parents, and future generations. We do it for everyone. We are not practicing as separate entities. When we take a glass of wine, we are doing it for our ancestors. All of our ancestors and all future generations are taking the wine with us. That is the true spirit of the emptiness of transmission.

People who drink alcohol and get drunk are destroying their bodies, their families, and their society. They really should refrain from drinking. But what about drinking two glasses of wine a week? Why should you stop? What is the use of refraining if your drinking does not hurt you or other people? The answer is that, although you have not harmed yourself, your drinking may have an adverse effect on your children, your grandchildren, and your society. We only need to look deeply to see it. We are not practicing for ourselves alone. We are practicing for everyone. What if your children have seeds of alcoholism in them? When they see you drinking wine, they may think that it is completely natural, and later, they may become alcoholic. If you give up your two glasses of wine, even though they have not brought any harm to your body, you are showing your children, your friends, and society that your life is not only for yourself, that it is also for your ancestors, the future generations, and society. This is a very deep practice. It is the insight of a bodhisattva. That is why the emptiness of giving is the basis of the fifth precept.

In modern life in the West, young people have the impression that their body belongs to them, that they can do anything they want to their body. They feel they have the right to live their own lives however they please. And the law supports them. That is individualism, but according to the teaching of emptiness, your body is not yours alone. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations, and it also belongs to society and all other living beings. All of them have come together to bring about the presence of this body—the trees, clouds, every­thing. Keeping your body healthy is to express gratitude to the whole cosmos—to all ancestors and to future genera­tions. We practice this precept for everyone. If you are healthy, physically and mentally, all beings will profit from it, not just men and women, but animals, plants, and the whole cosmos. The practice of the fifth precept should be based on that kind of insight. This is a bodhisattva precept. When we practice the Five Precepts, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva.

When it is clear to you that you are practicing not only for yourself, you will stop drinking even one or two glasses of wine a week. At a reception, when someone offers you a glass of wine, you can smile and decline. “No thank you. I do not drink alcohol. Do you have any juice or mineral water?” You do it gently, with a smile. This is a true act of a bodhisattva—setting an example by your own life.

Everything a pregnant woman eats, drinks, or fears has an effect on the baby inside her. If she is not aware of the nature of interbeing between her and the child, she may cause damage to both at the same time. If she drinks alcohol, she can destroy herself and also the child. Modern research has shown that when expecting mothers drink alcohol, it creates brain damage in the fetus. Studies at the University of Vancouver and elsewhere have proven that mothers who drink alcohol during certain periods of their pregnancy give birth to children with Fetal Alcohol Syn­drome.

We are what we consume. If we look deeply into the items we consume, we will know our own nature. Mindful consumption is the main object of the fifth precept. We all have to eat, drink, and consume, but if we do so unmindfully, we can destroy our bodies and our conscious­ness, expressing a lack of gratitude to our ancestors, parents, and future generations.

When we are mindful, we know that the food we eat comes from the cosmos, nature, and all living beings. If we can touch even one piece of fruit with our eyes and our mindfulness, we show our gratitude and experience great joy. If we look at our food for just half a second before putting it into our mouth and chewing it mindfully, we see that one string bean is the ambassador of the whole cosmos. This is the practice of being in touch.

When we are mindful, we see whether there are toxins in our food. Before eating, we can look at our food mindfully, perhaps even calling out the name of each dish: “tofu,” “tomato,” “rice.” Calling something by its name is a good way to touch it deeply, to see directly into its true nature. At that moment, mindfulness will reveal to us whether the food is nutritious and healthy, or whether it contains toxins. Children can enjoy doing this if we show them how.

We can also talk about a diet for our consciousness. (See Mindfulness Bell #5.) We should refrain from ingesting intellectual and spiritual food that brings toxins into our consciousness. Some television programs contain toxins; others can educate us and help us lead a healthy life. We should make time to watch good programs, but there are other programs that can poison our consciousness, and we should refrain from watching them. This can be a practice for everyone in the family.

We label cigarette packs: “Warning: Smoking may be hazardous to your health,” but we still have to be strong, because smoking advertisements are so compelling that they make us feel that if we don’t smoke, we are depriving ourselves of everything worth living for. Smoking is linked with nature, expensive cars, beautiful women, high standards of living, and airplanes. This kind of advertising penetrates into our consciousness. There are so many wonderful and healthy things to eat and drink. We have to show our young people how this kind of propaganda creates a very wrong impression. Now it is possible to take an airplane without suffering from the smoke. We have to make more effort in that direction. We have to write articles and do everything in our power to step up these kinds of campaigns against smoking and drinking alcohol. There is the danger that even if we don’t drink alcohol ourselves, we may get killed by a drunken driver. In persuading one person to refrain from drinking, you make the world safer for all of us.

I know that drinking wine is an important element running deep in Western civilization, as is evident in the ceremony of the Eucharist and the Passover meal. I have spoken with Catholic priests and nuns to see whether it might be possible to substitute grape juice for the wine, and they think it is possible. I suggested that they use real bread—not just symbolic bread—in the Eucharist for people to enjoy eating. We can make the ceremony into real life, something like a tea meditation. We really enjoy the cookie, not just as a symbol but truly.

Sometimes we don’t need to consume as much as we do. But consuming has become a kind of addiction, because we feel so lonely. It is similar to the third and fourth precepts. We feel lonely, and we want to engage in a conversation or a sexual relationship, hoping that our loneliness will go away. Drinking and eating may be the result of our loneli­ness. When we feel truly alone, we may want to drink to forget our loneliness. Loneliness is one of the afflictions of modem life. When we are lonely, we ingest food in our body and into our consciousness that can bring toxins into us. We watch television, read magazines or novels, or pick up the telephone. We make our condition worse by unmindful consumption. If we spend one hour watching a film filled with violence, we water the seeds of violence, hatred, and fear in us. We do that, and we let our children do that. We need to have a family meeting to discuss an intelligent policy for television watching. We may have to label our TV sets the same way we label our cigarette packages: “Warning: Watching television can be hazardous to your health.” Many children have become violent, some have even joined gangs. They have seen so many violent images on television. We must have an intelligent policy concerning the use of television.

Of course there are many healthy and beautiful programs, and we should arrange our time so that the family will benefit from these. You don’t have to destroy your televi­sion set. You only have to use it with wisdom and mindful­ness. There are a number of things that we can do, such as asking the television stations to establish healthier programs and suggesting to manufacturers to offer us TV sets that only transmit the signals from television stations that broadcast healthy, educational programs. During the war in Vietnam, the American army dropped hundreds of thou­sands of radios in the jungle that could only receive the station that broadcasted anti-communist propaganda. This is not psychological warfare, but I think many families would welcome a kind of television set that would allow us to see healthy programs. We need to be protected because the toxins are overwhelming, and they are destroying our society, our families, ourselves. Dharma discussions on this subject can generate ideas as to how we can protect ourselves from destructive programs.

We also have to discuss in our family and our commu­nity the kinds of magazines we and our children read. We have to boycott the magazines that spill toxins into our society. Not only should we refrain from reading these magazines, we should also make an effort to warn people of the danger of reading and consuming these kinds of products and conversations. From time to time, after speaking with someone, we feel paralyzed by what we have heard. The same is true of what we read or see. Mindfulness in TV watching, reading, and conversations will allow us to stop the kinds of activities that overwhelm us with their toxins.

The idea of a diet is the essence of this precept. War and bombs are the fruit of our collective consciousness. Our collective consciousness has so much violence, fear, craving, and hatred in it, it manifests in war and bombs. We hear that the other side has very powerful bombs, so we try to make bombs that are more powerful. When the other side hears that we have powerful bombs, they try to make even more powerful bombs. Bombs are a product of the fear in our collective consciousness. Just to remove the bombs is not really the work of peace. Even if we were able to transport all the bombs to the moon, we would still be unsafe, because the roots of the war and the bombs are still in our collective consciousness. We cannot work to abolish war with angry demonstrations. Transforming the toxins in our collective consciousness is the only way to uproot war.

Therefore, we have to practice a diet for ourselves, our families, and our society, and we have to do it with every­one else. To have healthy television programs, we have to work with artists, writers, filmmakers, lawyers, and law­makers. We have to step up the struggle. Awareness should not be only in us, but in our families and in our society. We have to stop the kind of consumption that poisons our collective consciousness. I don’t see any other way than the practice of these bodhisattva precepts to produce the dramatic changes that we need. To practice as a society will not be possible if each of us does not vow to practice the Five Precepts.

The problem is very big. It is the survival of our species on the Earth. It is not a question of enjoying one glass of wine. If you stop drinking your glass of wine, you do it for the whole society. The fifth precept is exactly like the first one. If you are not able to entirely stop eating meat, at least make an effort in order to reduce eating meat. If you reduce eating meat by 50%, you perform a miracle. You will solve the problem of hunger in the Third World. Practicing the precepts is to make a little progress every day. That is why, during the recitation when we are asked whether we have made an effort to study and practice the precept read, we answer just by breathing deeply. That is the best answer. Mindful breathing means, “I have made some effort, but I can do better.”

The fifth precept can be like that also. If you are unable to stop drinking completely, then stop 75% or 50%. But alcohol is not the same as meat. Alcohol is addictive. That is why I encourage you to stop drinking even one glass of wine. When you see that we are in great danger, refraining from the first glass of wine is a manifestation of your enlightenment. You are doing it for all of us. You set an example for your children and your friends. On French television they say, “One glass is alright, but three glasses will bring about destruction.” They don’t say that the first glass brings the second, and the second brings the third, because they belong to a civilization of wine. In Plum Village, we are surrounded by wine. Many of our neighbors are surprised that we don’t profit from living in an area where the wine is so good. We are a pocket of resistance. Please support us.

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When I was a novice, I learned that from time to time we had to use alcohol in preparing medicines. There are many kinds of roots and herbs that have to be macerated in alcohol so that they will have an effect. In these instances, alcohol is allowed. When the herbs have been prepared, they are put in the pot and boiled. Then they no longer have an intoxicating effect on us. I think if you use some alcohol in cooking, it is the same. After the food is cooked, the alcohol in it will not have an intoxicating nature. So I am not narrow-minded about this.

I know that no one can practice the precepts perfectly, including the Buddha. The vegetarian dishes that were offered to him were not entirely vegetarian. Boiled veg­etables contain dead bacteria, and the vegetables themselves were also alive. But because of the real danger in our society—alcoholism has destroyed so many families and has brought about so many unhappy people, old and young—we have to do something. We have to live in a way that will eradicate that kind of damage. That is why even if you can be very healthy with one glass of wine every week, I still urge you with all my strength to abandon that glass of wine.

We need to have Dharma discussions to share our experiences and deepen our understanding and practice of the Five Wonderful Precepts.

This is excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s forthcoming book on the Five Wonderful Precepts.

Photos:
First photo by Tran van Minh.
Second photo by Michele Hill.
Third photo by Simon Chaput.

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Dharma Talk: Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine

By Thich Nhat Hanh on Poetry and Interbeing

Offered to Social Workers from Vietnam Visiting Plum Village in May, 2002

Sunshine rides on space and poetry on sunshine.
Poetry gives birth to sunshine, and sunshine to poetry.

Every time we use the expression armful it is usually used to refer to an armful of hay or an armful of logs but rarely do we say an armful of poetry.   When people speak about drops they speak of drops of rain or drops of dew or a drop of soy sauce but no one says a drop of sunshine.  This poem is an invitation to look deeply in an awakened way and to see poetry as an armful and sunshine as a drop.

Without sunshine how can we have poetry?  Without sunshine we would die.  How can we make poetry?  We feel sunshine also comes from poetry.  Poetry is not only pleasant and sweet, it can also be explosive, like thunder.  In sunshine there is not only the pleasant image, there is also a strong aspect.  Sometimes sunshine is also dry and burning.  When we read poetry we feel something sweet and it can also be like a shout denouncing  injustice.  In these two sentences we can see the interdependence of poetry and sunshine.

Sun treasured in the heart of the bitter melon,
poetry made of steam rising from a bowl of soup in Winter.

I wrote this poem during winter. In the previous summer we grew many bitter melons, more than we could eat. We put them in the freezer and in the midst of winter we took them out and made soup. The bitter melon stores so much sunshine within it. In the winter we could not see the sun at all, it was only gray and cloudy with a cold, sharp wind. We took a log of wood and put it into our stove. At that time in Plum Village we did not have any central heating. We only used wood stoves. We could not see the sunshine outside, but we could  touch the sun in the wood log and in the bitter melon in a hot bowl of soup.  Even in the depths of winter you know that the sun has never left you. In the warmth inside your home you see the sun in your bowl of soup; you feel the sunshine is still there.

We are eating but we don’t know that we are consuming sunshine. The sun is our father. Without the sunshine not a single being can survive on this planet. All the animals, vegetables and humans on this planet are children of the sunshine. When we eat the bitter melon we are also eating the sunshine. Our father is nourishing us.   Without  the sun our father we cannot have the Earth our mother and we cannot have food. The sun is our father and the Earth is our mother.

The wind is lurking outside, swirling.
Poetry is back to haunt the old hills and prairies.
Yet the poor thatched hut remains on the river shore, waiting.

When I heard the howling wind outside I thought of Vietnam with many poor thatched roofs. Of course there are also many good houses in Vietnam, but I thought of those families who are most destitute. I thought of the poor thatched roofed hut by the river shore waiting for our support. My mind is in touch with the wood log; my mind inter-is with the material things, the phenomenal world.  At the same time, when I heard the sound of the wind, it touches my store consciousness and I remembered the images of our country. When I left Vietnam, over thirty-five years ago, there were so many poor people living in huts like that. My mind is in touch with the bitter melon and then hearing the howling wind my mind touches the image of the day I left Vietnam, with many people suffering under the bombs and now they are still poor and waiting for help.

Spring carries poetry in its drizzle.
The fire sparkles poetry in its orange flame.
Sunshine stored in the heart of the fragrant wood,

Today it is May and we can see poetry everywhere. But in this poem it is not yet Spring, it is Winter and everything is dark, yet I am still in touch with sunshine and poetry in the bowl of bitter melon soup. There is poetry in each drop of rain in Springtime.  The poetry is stored in the fragrant wood. If you are practicing, you bring a piece of wood and put it in the fire and you are aware that you are putting sunshine into the stove. 

warm smoke leading poetry back to the pages
of an unofficial history book.

An unofficial history book is the book Hermitage Among the Clouds about the true story of Tran Nhan Tong, a Zen teacher in the fourteenth century. During that Winter I wrote that book and I ate the bitter melon soup. My poetry is what I have truly lived. You need to read that book; it is very beautiful. Poetry is everywhere.

Sunshine, though absent from space,
fills the now rose-colored stove.
Sunshine reaching out takes the color of smoke;
poetry in stillness, the color of the misty air.

It seems that sunshine is absent from space, outside it is so dark and gloomy, but sunshine fills the woodstove.  When you prepare the stove the heat that radiates out is poetry. The bitter melon soup is also poetry. That is the deep look that is not caught in the form. We have to learn to see things free from the form. When the person that you love is not there you think that he has died but when you look deeply you see that he or she is still there. We complain that there is no sunshine, but sunshine is there in the bowl of green vegetables, sunshine is there in piece of wood.

Spring rain holds poetry in its drops
which bends down to kiss the soil,
so that the seeds may sprout.
Following the rain, poetry comes to dwell on each leaf.

Every drop of rain in Spring enters into the leaf. In a drop of rain there is also sunshine.  During the Summer there is a lot of sunshine evaporating the water from all the ponds and lakes, forming clouds. Thanks to the cold air the clouds will become Spring rain.  We can say that the rain is kissing the Earth, but we can also say that the sunshine is kissing the soil because the sunshine is in each drop of rain. We see the deep connection between the sun and the Earth. In Plum Village there are so many stinging nettles. In winter you do not see this wild plant. But in spring all you need is the drops of rain and you will see it everywhere. Here in France they call them weeds but they are very good for eating.

Sunshine has a green color and poetry a pink one.
Bees deliver warmth to the flowers from the sunshine
they carry on their wings.
On sunshine footsteps to the deep forest,
poetry drinks the nectar with joy.
With the excitement of celebration,
butterflies and bees crowd the Earth.
Sunshine makes up the dance, and poetry the song.

Usually people  say  that  sunshine is golden yellow, but nobody says that sunshine has a green color. But with deep looking we can see that the sunshine is green. In the poem “Cuckoo telephone” I said that snow is also green. Why? When snow melts and becomes water it makes the plants very lush and green. If we see in a superficial way we only see that the snow is white. But if we look deeper we can see the snow is also green.

When we look at butterflies or bees you can see plenty of sunshine. What do they carry on their wings if not sunshine? Bees deliver warmth from the sunshine to the flowers.  The flower has plenty of sunshine. When the bees come and visit the flower the bees bring back honey. Bees deliver warmth to the flowers. If you look deeply you see poetry everywhere; it happens every second and every minute of our life. Things are happening in every moment in May.  If you have the time to lie down on the grass you will hear the excitement of spring. Every little being is inspired to sprout. The Earth is crowded with butterflies and bees and many other things. Don’t miss your appointment.

Drops of sweat fall on the hard ground.
Poems fly along the furrows.
The hoe handily on my shoulder,
poetry flows from my breath.
Sunshine wanes away down the river,
and the silhouette of the late afternoon lingers reluctantly.
Poetry is leaving for the horizon
where the King of Light is blanketing himself in clouds.

After being in touch with the beauty we are also invited to be in touch with the suffering.  We see the sweat of the farmer who works so hard to grow vegetables for us to eat and we see poetry in that beautiful act of the farmer. The King of light means the sun is going to sleep and he uses the clouds as a blanket. The sun going to sleep is a beautiful atmosphere.

A green sun found in a basketful of fresh vegetables,
a tasty and well-cooked sun smells delicious in a bowl of rice.

If you look at the basket of vegetables but you cannot see the sunshine you are not a good practitioner. Without the sunshine how can you have green, fragrant vegetables?  In Vietnam there is a variety of rice called, “eight fragrances rice.”  When you taste that delicious rice you know you are tasting the sun. You can see poetry everywhere.

Poetry looks with a child’s eyes.
Poetry feels with a weather-beaten face.
Poetry stays within each attentive look.
Poetry – the hands that work the poor and arid land somewhere far away.

When you are far away from your homeland and you eat some delicious rice you can see the hard work of the farmer; you can see the eyes of children, thin and malnourished. We have seen so many children without enough  food.  When we eat some delicious rice we see right away the hard work of the peasant and the poor children who don’t have enough to eat. While eating I can see the look of these children.

I remember one day when I was at Kim Son Monastery in San Jose, California there was a friend from the local newspaper, the Mercury News, who came to interview me about mindfulness.  The editor wanted to publish an article about mindfulness. This journalist was of Vietnamese origin but she was also very good in English.  She asked me, “How can I help you?  I am a journalist; maybe I can help you with my talent as a journalist.”  That day I was sitting under a redwood tree.  She sat next to me and I said, “Please do in such a way that every child in Vietnam will have one cup of soymilk to drink every day. That is my only wish.”  There are many of children in Vietnam who cannot grow up healthy and strong for lack of proper nourishment. This morning I received a photo of many toddlers from three to five-years-old taken in Do Linh village, the hometown of my mother which is in a very poor area. I see each child as my mother. My mother was a toddler, poor and undernourished like that. If these undernourished children can grow up properly, as my mother did because she had a good family, they can become a healthy person and give birth to someone like me. If I am a bit thin and small-boned it is because when I was a child I never had a cup of milk to drink. If you can help me every child will have a cup of milk.

Do Linh is just an illustration, but everywhere in Vietnam the poor hungry children could become good mothers if they have a chance like my mother had. Every child in every poor country could be my mother. If you give five dollars per month you can offer a child a cup of milk every day; cow’s milk or soymilk are both helpful. I look at every child in Do Linh as my mother, every child in Vietnam is my mother; every child in Thailand is my mother. I see that every child in Africa and everywhere could be my mother.  I wish that every child would have a cup of milk to drink.  When you look deeply you can see like that. That is what we call,  “attentive  look.”  Poetry stays within each attentive look.  With an attentive look you can see the toddler and you can also see the past and the future of that child.  hat child can become a strong mother who gives birth to a healthy child or a weak mother who gives birth to handicapped children.

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There are farmers that work so hard but it is not enough to feed their own children.  You dwell in the present moment but you see far away all over planet. You dwell in the present moment, but you can see the past and the future. Dwelling in the present moment doesn’t mean that you are limited to the present moment.

The smiling sun brightening up the sunflower;
the ripe and full sun hiding itself in an August peach;
poetry follows each meditative step,
poetry lines up the pages.

A person who walks mindfully and beautifully looks like a poem. When you write a compassionate line that is poetry.

Discreetly,
within closed food packages,
poetry nurtures love.

At the time that I wrote this poem it was impossible to send money to Vietnam. It was impossible to reach the poorest children, the elderly people. The government forbid our social work and charity work.  The work of the School of Youth for Social Service, that we had set up in Vietnam to help mend the wounds of war, was stopped and the director was in jail.  Many social workers were prevented from doing anything. Yet we found a way  to provide food to the poorest people  in Vietnam.  We bought ordinary French medicine.  At that moment all Western medicine was blocked from entering Vietnam. So we bought French medicine and each family received one kilogram that they could exchange into 300 kilos of rice to nourish the children. Sister Chan Khong and myself and others wrapped the medicine and sent it everywhere in Vietnam. If the person had the family name “Nguyen” for example, then we would give ourselves that name also. If we put our own names, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, the recipients would have been arrested.  So we addressed each package as if a family member had sent it. The communist government did not have the ability to check if that person was really in France.  We sent thousands of parcels like that to thousands of families. A parcel like that was like a gift from heaven; it could nourish the whole family. We did that work in the wintertime nineteen years ago.  We had to use many different handwritings or else the communist government would have been suspicious and arrested the recipients. We gathered twenty persons to write in twenty different handwritings. We included instructions on how to consume the medicine: like that is aspirin or multivitamins do not take more than a certain amount and also how many kilos you can exchange it with for rice. We did that work with a lot of love. We brought a hundred packages to the post office every day. The post office workers said, “You are Santa Claus. But why does Santa Claus come every day and not just at Christmas time?”

With the deep look of a practitioner every moment can be poetry, you can see very deeply and very far while dwelling in the present moment.

Today if I read that poem it is because there are a number of social workers who have come to Plum Village from Vietnam. They have helped me to transmit all of this to the poor people in Vietnam. They have worked in very difficult situations and they have encountered many dangers to be able to do that work.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong.

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Dharma Talk: History of Engaged Buddhism

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanoi, Vietnam – May 6 -7, 2008 

At the beginning of the seven-day English-language retreat in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh gave a rare glimpse into his early career. This excerpt from two Dharma talks reveals Thay as a teacher, social activist, and prolific writer – and revolutionary advocate of Engaged Buddhism, also called Applied Buddhism. 

In 1949 I was one of the founders of the An Quang Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, and I taught the first class of novices. The temple was very simple, built of bamboo and thatch. The name of the temple was actually Ung Quang. A Dharma teacher came from Danang, the Venerable Tri Huu, and we both built Ung Quang temple. The war was going on between the French and the Vietnamese resistance movement. 

Five years later, in 1954, the Geneva Accord was signed and the country was divided into two parts: the North was communist, and the South was anti-communist. Over one million people migrated from the North to the South, among them many Catholics. There was a lot of confusion in the country. 

At the Ung Quang temple from time to time we received French soldiers who came to visit us. After Dien Bien Phu the war with the French ended, and it was agreed that the country should be divided and the French would withdraw from the country. I remember talking to the French soldiers. Many of them came to Vietnam and died in Vietnam. 

A Fresh Look at Buddhism 

In 1954 there was great confusion in the minds of people in Vietnam, especially the young people – monks, nuns, lay practitioners. The North was inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the South, president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was trying to run the country with another kind of ideology called “personalism.” It seemed that the ideological war had begun. 

Buddhism is a very ancient tradition in Vietnam, and most of the people have a Buddhist seed in them. Mr. Vu Ngoc Cac, manager of a daily newspaper, asked me to write a series of articles about Buddhism. He wanted me to offer insight as to the spiritual direction we should take in order to deal with the great confusion in the country. So I wrote a series of ten articles with the title, “A Fresh Look at Buddhism.” 

It is in this series of ten articles that I proposed the idea of Engaged Buddhism — Buddhism in the realm of education, economics, politics, and so on. So Engaged Buddhism dates from 1954. 

At that time I did not use a typewriter, I just wrote in the oldfashioned way. And they came and they took the article, and the article was always printed on the front page with a big red title. The newspaper sold very, very well because people were very thirsty. They wanted spiritual direction because confusion was so huge. 

Rose Tea and Fresh Corn 

That series of articles was published as a book later on. Not long after, I visited Hue. Duc Tam, who had been in the same class as me at the Buddhist Institute, was the editor of another Buddhist magazine. His temple was on a small island in the Perfume River, Huong Giang, where they grow a very tasty kind of corn. He invited me to stay a few weeks in his temple. Every morning he offered me tea with a kind of rose — it’s a very tiny flower, but it smells nice when you put it in the tea. Every day we did walking meditation through the neighborhood, and we bought some fresh corn. He nourished me with rose tea and fresh corn, and he wanted me to write another series of articles on Engaged Buddhism! [laughs] 

In fact, I wrote another series of ten articles with the title “Buddhism Today,” which was also on the theme of Engaged Buddhism. This series was translated into French by Le Vinh Hao, a scholar who lives in Paris. The title he took for the book is Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme. 

In 1964 when I visited America to give a series of lectures, I met Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and I gave him a copy of Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme; he wrote a review. 

Buddhism That Enters Into Life 

In 1963-64, I was lecturing on Buddhism at Columbia University. The struggle led by the Buddhists for human rights ended the regime of President Diem. Maybe you have heard about the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself with fire, and who drew the attention of the whole world to the violation of human rights in Vietnam. That was a completely nonviolent movement for human rights. When the Diem regime fell, I was asked by my colleagues to come home and help. 

So I went home. I founded Van Hanh University, and I published a book called Engaged Buddhism, a collection of many articles I had written before. 

I think this is the first time you have this information. [laughs] 

This is the beginning of 1964. I had written these articles before that, but I put them together and published under the title Engaged Buddhism, or Dao society. Di vao cuoc doi. Cuoc doi here is “life” or “society.” Di vao means “to enter.” So these were the words that were used for Engaged Buddhism in Vietnam: di vao cuoc doi, “entering into life, social life.” 

Six months later I produced another book, Dao Phat hien dai hoa, “Buddhism updated,” “Buddhism renewed.” This is the Chinese — Buddhism made actual, the actualization of Buddhism. So all these terms, all these documents, have to do with what we call “Engaged Buddhism.” And after that I wrote many other books – Buddhism of Tomorrow. [laughs] 

But at that time already, my name was banned by the government of the South, the anti-communist government, because of my activities for peace, calling for reconciliation between North and South. I became persona non grata. I could not go home anymore, and I was in exile. 

So my book, Buddhism of Tomorrow, could not be published in Vietnam under my name. I used a montagnard’s name — Bsu Danlu. You may wonder where that name came from. In 1956 we founded a practice center in the highland of Vietnam called Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery, Phuong Boi. We bought the land from two montagnards, K’Briu and K’Broi. The name of the village where the Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery was situated is Bsu Danlu. 

Wisdom in the Here and Now 

I continued to publish my books in Vietnam with many other names. I wrote a history of Vietnamese Buddhism in three thick volumes and I signed the name Nguyen Lang. So although I was away from the country thirty-nine years, I continued to write books and some of them were published in Vietnam under different names. 

As we have said, the first meaning of Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there — so that you know what to buy and what not to buy! 

Also, Engaged Buddhism is the kind of wisdom that responds to anything that happens in the here and the now — global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ecosystem, the lack of communication, war, conflict, suicide, divorce. As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now. 

A Fresh Take on the Four Noble Truths 

We can speak about Engaged Buddhism in terms of the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is dukkha, ill-being. Traditionally Buddhist teachers have spoken of the First Noble Truth in this way: old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, separation from those you love is suffering. Leaving all those you love; wishing for something but never obtaining it. But these are old ways of describing the First Noble Truth. Now as we practice mindfulness we have to identify the kind of ill-being that is actually present. First of all we know there is a kind of tension in the body, a lot of stress. We can say that suffering today involves tension, stress, anxiety, fear, violence, broken families, suicide, war, conflict, terrorism, destruction of the ecosystem, global warming, etc. 

We should be fully present in the here and the now and recognize the true face of ill-being. 

The natural tendency is to run away from suffering, from ill-being. We don’t want to confront it so we try to escape. But the Buddha advises us not to do so. In fact he encourages us to look deeply into the nature of the suffering in order to learn. His teaching is that if you do not understand the suffering you cannot see the path of transformation, the path leading to the cessation of suffering. 

All of us know that the First Noble Truth is ill-being and the Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. Without understanding the First you never have the opportunity to see the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. 

You should learn to come home to the present moment in order to recognize ill-being as it is; and as we practice looking deeply into the First Noble Truth, ill-being, we will discover the Second Noble Truth, the roots or the making of ill-being. 

Each of us has to discover for himself or herself the cause of ill-being. Suppose we speak about our hectic life — we have so much to do, so much to achieve. As a politician, a businessman, even an artist, we want to do more and more and more. We crave success. We do not have the capacity to live deeply each moment of our daily life. We don’t give our body a chance to relax and to heal. 

If we know how to live like a Buddha, dwelling in the present moment, allowing the refreshing and healing elements to penetrate, then we will not become victims of stress, tension, and many kinds of disease. 

You can say that one of the roots of ill-being is our incapacity to live our life deeply in each moment. 

When we have a lot of tension and irritation in us we cannot listen to the other person. We cannot use loving speech. We cannot remove wrong perceptions. Therefore wrong perceptions give rise to fear, hate, violence, and so on. We have to identify the causes of our ill-being. This is very important work. 

Suppose we speak of suicide, of broken families. We know that when communication becomes difficult between husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, people are no longer happy. Many young people fall into despair and want to commit to suicide. They don’t know how to handle despair or their emotions, and they think that the only way to stop suffering is to kill oneself. In France every year about 12,000 young people commit suicide, just because they can’t handle their emotions like despair. And their parents don’t know how to do it. They don’t teach their children how to deal with their feelings, and even school teachers don’t how to help their students to recognize and hold their emotions tenderly. 

When people cannot communicate they don’t understand each other or see the other’s suffering and there is no love, no happiness. War and terrorism are also born from wrong perceptions. Terrorists think that the other side is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a way of life, as a nation. If we believe that the other person is trying to kill us then we will seek ways to kill the other person first in order not to be killed. 

Fear, misunderstanding, and wrong perceptions are the foundation of all these violent acts. The war in Iraq, which is called anti-terrorist, has not helped to reduce the number of terrorists. In fact the number of terrorists is increasing all the time because of the war. In order to remove terrorism you have to remove wrong perceptions. We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism. 

So looking deeply we can see the making of ill-being, the roots of ill-being, by recognizing ill-being as the truth and looking deeply into its nature. 

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of ill-being, which means the presence of well-being — just as the absence of darkness means the presence of light. When ignorance is no longer present, there is wisdom. When you remove darkness, there is light. So the cessation of ill-being means the presence of well-being, which is the opposite of the First Noble Truth. 

The teaching of the Buddha confirms the truth that well-being is possible. Because there is ill-being, well-being is possible. If ill-being is described first in terms of tension, stress, heaviness, then well-being is described as lightness, peace, relaxation – la détente. With your body, breath, feet, and mindfulness you can reduce tension and bring about relaxation, lightness, peace. 

We can speak of the Fourth Noble Truth in very concrete terms. The methods of practice enable us to reduce tension, stress, unhappiness, as seen in the Fourth Noble Truth, the path. Today’s Dharma teachers may want to call it the path of well-being. The cessation of ill-being means the beginning of well-being — it’s so simple! 

From Many Gods to No God 

I would like to go back a little bit to the history of Engaged Buddhism. 

In the nineteen-fifties I began to write because people needed to have spiritual direction to help them overcome their confusion. One day I wrote about the relationship between religious belief and the ways we organize our society. I described the history of the evolution of society. 

First, our society was organized in groups of people called tribes. Over time, several tribes would come together and finally we set up kingdoms, with a king. Then the time came when we had enough of kings and we wanted to create democracies or republics. 

Our religious beliefs had been changing along the way. First of all, we had something parallel to the establishment of tribes — polytheism, the belief that there are many gods and each god has a power. You are free to choose one god to worship, and that god will protect you against the other gods and the other tribes. 

When we form kingdoms, then our way of belief changes also — monotheism. There’s only one God, the most powerful God, and we should worship only one God and not many gods. 

When we come to democracies, there’s no king anymore. Everyone is equal to everyone else, and we rely on each other to live. That is why monotheism is changing to the belief in interdependence — interbeing — where there is no longer God. We are fully responsible for our life, for our world, for our planet. I wrote things like that during the time I was trying to build up Engaged Buddhism. 

Birth of the Order of Interbeing 

In 1964, we established the Order of Interbeing. The birth of the Order of Interbeing is very meaningful. We need only to study the Fourteen Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings in order to understand why and how the Order of Interbeing was established. 

At that time the war was going on very fiercely. It was a conflict between ideologies. The North and South each had their own ideology; one side was Marxism-Leninism, the other, personalism and capitalism. Not only did we fight with ideologies imported from the outside, but we also fought with weapons imported from the outside — guns and bombs from Russia, China, and America. As Buddhists who practice peace and reconciliation, brotherhood and sisterhood, we did not want to accept such a war. You cannot accept a war where brothers are killing brothers with ideologies and weapons imported from the outside. 

The Order of Interbeing was born as a spiritual resistance movement. It’s based completely on the teachings of the Buddha. The First Mindfulness Training — non-attachment to views, freedom from all ideologies — was a direct answer to the war. Everyone was ready to die and to kill for their beliefs. 

The First Mindfulness Training: “Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones…” 

This is the lion’s roar!

“Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.” 

The teaching of the Buddha from the Nipata Sutra concerning views is very clear. We should not be attached to any view; we have to transcend all views.

Right View, first of all, means the absence of all views. Attachment to views is the source of suffering. Suppose you climb on a ladder, and on the fourth step you think you are already at the highest level. Then you are stuck! You have to release the fourth step in order to be able to get up to the fifth step. To be scientific, scientists have to release what they have found in order to come to a higher truth. This is the teaching of the Buddha: When you consider something to be the truth and you are attached to it, you must release it in order to go higher. 

The basic spirit of Buddhism is non-attachment to views. Wisdom is not views. Insight is not views. We should be ready to release our ideas for true insight to be possible. Suppose you have notions about impermanence, non-self, interbeing, the Four Noble Truths. That may be dangerous, because these are only views. You are very proud that you know something about the Four Noble Truths, about interbeing, about interdependent origination, about mindfulness, concentration, and insight. But that teaching is only a means for you to get insight. If you are attached to these teachings, you are lost. The teaching about impermanence, nonself, interbeing, is to help you to get the insight of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. 

The Buddha said, “My teaching is like the finger pointing to the moon. You should be skillful. You look in the direction of my finger, and you can see the moon. If you take my finger to be the moon, you will never see the moon.” So even the Buddhadharma is not the truth, it’s only an instrument for you to get the truth. This is very basic in Buddhism.

War is the outcome of attachment to views, of fanaticism. If we look deeply into the nature of the war in Iraq, we can see that it is also a religious war. People are using religious belief to back up the war. Mr. Bush was supported by many [right-wing Christian] evangelists. The resistance fighters and the terrorists in Iraq are backed up by their Muslim belief. So this is somehow a religious war. Peace cannot exist if we maintain our fanaticism concerning our views. 

Lotus in a Sea of Fire 

In 1965 I wrote a small book on the war in Vietnam, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, published by Hill and Wong in America. The war in Vietnam was raging, it was an ocean of fire. We were killing each other; we allowed American bombers to come and destroy our forests, our people. We allowed weapons from China and Russia to come. But Buddhism was trying to do something. Those of us who did not accept the war wanted to do something to resist the war. 

Buddhists did not have radio or television stations. There was no way for them to express themselves. 

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I do not accept this war,
let me say this one more time before I die.  

These are lines in my poems.

Our enemies are not men. 

Our enemies are hate, fanaticism, violence. Our enemies are not men. If we kill men, with whom shall we live?

The peace movement in Vietnam badly needed international support, but you could not hear us over there. So sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to tell you that we didn’t want this war. Please help stop this war, this killing of brothers by brothers! Buddhism was like a lotus flower trying to survive in an ocean of fire.

I translated the book into Vietnamese, and an American friend in the peace movement helped bring that book to Vietnam. The book was printed underground and many young people tried to circulate that book as an act of resistance.

Sister Chan Khong, who was a professor of biology in Hue University, brought a copy to Hue for a friend. She was arrested and put into prison because she owned one copy of that book. Later on she was transferred to a prison in Saigon.

The School of Youth for Social Service

Young friends came to me and asked me to publish my poems about peace. They called it anti-war poetry. I said okay, if you want to do it, please do. They collected about fifty or sixty poems of mine on this topic and submitted them to the government of South Vietnam. Fifty-five of the poems were censored. Only a few were left. But our friends were not discouraged and they printed the poems underground. The book of poetry sold very, very quickly. Even some secret police liked it, because they also suffered from the war. They would go to the bookstore and say, “You shouldn’t display them like this! You should hide them behind the counter!” [laughs]

Radio stations in Saigon, Hanoi, and Beijing began to attack the poems because they called for peace. No one wanted peace. They wanted to fight to the end.

In 1964 we also established the School of Youth for Social Service. We trained thousands of young people, including monks and nuns, to go to the countryside and help the peasants rebuild their villages. We helped them in four aspects: education, health, economics, and organization. Our social workers went to a village and played with the children and taught them how to read and write and sing. When the people in the village liked us, we suggested building a school for the children. One family gave a few bamboo trees. Another family brought coconut leaves to make a roof. Then we began to have a school. Our workers did not receive a salary. After setting up a school in the village, we set up a dispensary where we could dispense rudimentary medicines to help the people. We brought into the village students of medicine or a doctor and tried to help one or two days. We also organized cooperatives and tried to teach people the kind of handicrafts they could do in order to increase the income of the family.

We have to begin with ourselves, from the grassroots. The School of Youth for Social Service was founded on the spirit that we don’t need to wait for the government.

A New Youth Organization in Europe 

We trained many young people, including young monks and nuns. Finally we had more than ten thousand workers working from Quang Tri to the south. During the war we helped sponsor more than ten thousand orphans. That is part of Engaged Buddhism — the young people.

This year we intend to set up an organization of young Buddhists in Europe: Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society. So many young people have come to us, to our retreats in Europe, America, and Asia. Now we want to organize them. They will use the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their practice, and they will engage themselves into society — to help produce a healthier society, one with more compassion.

If my friends here are inspired by the idea, then please, when you go home, invite the young people to set up a group of Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society.

Last month we went to Italy, and we had one day of practice with the young people in the city of Napoli [Naples]. The five hundred young men and women who came to practice with us loved it! They are ready to engage in the practice of peace, helping to produce a healthier, more compassionate society.

Our young monks and nuns will also be involved in that organization.

Foundation of an Institute of Applied Buddhism 

We have also set up a European Institute of Applied Buddhism. I hope that during this retreat, Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, will offer a presentation on the Institute of Applied Buddhism. We shall have campuses in America and Asia also. Everyone who has successfully completed the three-month retreat in Plum Village or Deer Park will be given a certificate of completion issued by the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

The Institute of Applied Buddhism will offer many interesting courses. You might like to help organize a course in your area; we will send Dharma teachers. One example is the twenty-one-day course for young men and women who are preparing to set up a family. There they learn how to make their conjugal life into a success.

There will be courses for those who have been diagnosed with AIDS or cancer, so that they can learn how to live with their sickness. If you know how to accept and live with your sickness, then you can live twenty, thirty more years.

There will be courses for businesspeople, for school teachers, and so on.

This kind of certificate will help you to become an official Dharma teacher. One day you might be inspired to become a Dharma teacher, to go out and help people, to be a continuation of the Buddha.

Nowadays we are using the term “Applied Buddhism,” which is just another way of referring to Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel. 

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