Toward a Compassionate Economics

An Interview with Riane Eisler

By John Malkin

mb55-Toward1Compassion is a deeply valued aspect of Buddhist practice. Caring for others is a natural expression of interbeing. How would our lives be different if compassion were a foundation of politics and economics? Riane Eisler explores the possibilities of a compassion-based economics in her latest book The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (Berret-Koehler Publishers, 2007). She writes, “Strange as it may sound, we can’t just focus on economics to change economic systems. We have to go deeper and further.” Eisler is pointing to a reacquaintance with compassion, a movement away from domination-based societies toward a partnership model.

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Eisler makes the point that “…the exclusion of caring and care-giving from mainstream economic theory and practice has had, and continues to have, terrible effects on people’s quality of life, on our natural life-support systems, and on our economic productivity, innovativeness, and adaptability to new circumstances.” Riane Eisler’s 1987 book The Chalice and the Blade draws on anthropological findings to reveal that human beings have lived in partnership societies where compassion has been highly valued. In The Real Wealth of Nations she addresses the question, “What kinds of social confi    support our enormous human capacities for caring, for problem-solving, for consciousness, for empathy and creativity—rather than for destructiveness, insensitivity, and violence?”

Thay has so often taught that all these seeds—from empathy to anger—are present in us and can be cultivated or diminished. Indeed, the Second Mindfulness Training focuses on the practice of not supporting exploitation, social injustice, or oppression in any of its forms. “I do think of my work as spiritual because I think of spirituality as putting love into action,” Eisler recently told me. “In that sense,” she said, “it does connect to the Buddhist philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh.”

John Malkin: Tell me about the relationship of economics to common beliefs about human nature.

Riane Eisler: There is a popular notion that human nature is selfish. In domination systems, one of the biggest myths is that there is something wrong with us. Whether it’s original sin or the popular version of selfish genes, we’re bad. With that belief comes the belief that we need to be strictly controlled. That is one of the bases of domination.

Humans have a very large spectrum of possibilities. We can be cruel, violent, and insensitive. But we also have an enormous— indeed unprecedented as a species—capacity for consciousness, caring, and creativity. The issue that I’ve been probing is what kinds of social configurations support or inhibit the expression of these positive capacities. Unfortunately in domination systems, you’ve got rigid rankings (man over man, man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, man over nature).

JM: Economics is not easy to understand. It seems that much money is made from the exploitation of people and nature while caring professions are not well compensated.

RE: Economics is basically about what is or is not valued. Classical economists will say, “It’s just a matter of supply and demand.” What they ignore is that much more important are underlying cultural values which are unconsciously embedded. Like the devaluation of anything considered to be soft, caring, care-giving.

Just having “caring” and “economics” in the same sentence causes a lot of us to do a double take. It’s a terrible comment on the un-caring values that we have learned to accept as driving economic rules, practices, and policies. We need economic policies that give real value to the most important human work: caring for people and nature.

These life-sustaining activities aren’t counted in our measures of productivity, such as GDP (gross domestic product) and GNP (gross national product). Market economy professions that don’t involve caring and care-giving, like engineering and planning (they may be done by caring people but the work isn’t care-giving), are uniformly higher-paid than professions that are about care-giving, like child care and elementary school teaching.

In the U.S. we think nothing of paying the plumber—the person to whom we entrust our pipes—$50 to $100 an hour. But to the person to whom we entrust our children—the child care worker—we pay an average of less than ten dollars an hour with no benefits, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. This isn’t logical. It’s pathological.

JM: Some countries are developing economics that place a high value on caring.

RE: There are nations that have moved more to the partnership side, and they have more caring policies. Sweden, Finland, Norway. They were so poor at the beginning of the twentieth century that people fled famines in droves. But today they have the highest life spans and the lowest poverty rates. They invested in caring for people and caring for nature. It’s not that complicated. They have universal health care, as well as high-quality child care and early childhood education.

JM: In your book you write, “Policymakers always seem to find money for control and domination, for prisons, weapons, wars. But we’re told there’s no money for caring and care-giving. For feminine activities such as caring for children and people’s health. For nonviolence and peace.”

RE: Anything that is stereotypically considered feminine— associated with caring, care-giving, nonviolence—is devalued, whether it’s in a woman or in a man. That’s very important. Women can be cruel and men can be caring. How a society organizes the roles and relations of the two fundamental halves of humanity— female and male—doesn’t only impact our individual lives, but it affects everything about our social system, including economics. It makes our families either authoritarian or democratic.

We did a study at the Center for Partnership Studies comparing statistical data from eighty-nine nations that correlated the status of women with measures of quality of life like infant mortality, human rights, and environmental ratings. We found that the status of women can be a better predictor of the general quality of life than GDP.

We now have the enterprise of coming together and constructing a better future. It’s the most important work for us on the planet. If we don’t join together to change how we think and act, we just don’t have much of a future, and neither do our children.

Editors’ note: Sister Annabel, Senior Editor of the Mindfulness Bell, read this interview and offered an additional question for Riane Eisler.

Sister Annabel: While I was reading this article I felt there was something missing. It was the feeling that we should pay the caregiver more than the plumber. Why do we not pay everyone the same? The caregiver cares because that is how she expresses compassion, and the plumber can also plumb compassionately. What is wrong is that we continue to express value in money. I think this is something economists have to look at. In a humane society, everyone has the same material needs and everyone should receive the same amount of money.

RE: Thank you, Sister Annabel, for your question. I want to say, first, that what our work is about is not that one kind of profession be paid more than another, but that the work of caring for people and nature be given visibility and real value. This is essential for a more just and caring world, because as long as caring continues to be devalued, not only will the essential work of caring for children, the elderly, and others in need of care be given few if any rewards, but we cannot realistically expect more caring policies. So policy makers will continue to have no trouble finding funding for prisons, weapons, and wars, but won’t find money to fund health care, child care, and other “soft” caring activities. From my perspective the problem is not money, which is a useful invention for exchange, but that money is not allocated in humane and caring ways.

For more information about Riane Eisler and the Caring Economics Campaign, see www.partnershipway.org.

mb55-Toward3John Malkin, Clear Path of the Heart, lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Author of Sounds of Freedom and The Only Alternative: Christian Nonviolent Peacemakers in America, he hosts a radio program called “The Great Leap Forward” (www.freakradio.org) on Free Radio Santa Cruz. His guests have included Thich Nhat Hanh, Riane Eisler, Philip Glass, and Sister Chan Khong.

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Applied Ethics for Educators

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Dear Sangha,

In May 2011, in a Dharma talk at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Waldbrol, Germany, Thay shared his vision to bring mindfulness into schools on a large scale. Thay asked us to write to you for your input on, and help with, the preliminary proposal (below). Many of you are already bringing mindfulness into classrooms, and your experience can help us further develop this proposal and guide it in the right direction. Please help us connect with your contacts in the fields of education policy and teacher training, and in educational organizations at local, regional, and national levels.

Proposal for a Course in Mindfulness and Applied Ethics for Educators

This course is offered to educators who wish to cultivate peace and well-being in their own lives and contribute to creating a saner and more compassionate classroom and school environment.

Who We Are

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community of monastic and lay members have over thirty years of experience practicing and teaching mindfulness and developing a path of ethical living for modern society. We have shared these practices with thousands of people, including teachers, parents, children, social workers, therapists, police officers, health care workers, politicians, businesspeople, and artists, many of whom have become teachers of mindfulness and community-builders in their own right. In particular, we have led hundreds of retreats for families, with children’s and teens’ programs, as well as retreats for educators and students, in which we have developed and refined a rich and effective range of practices for transmitting mindfulness to young people.

Vision

We are now reaching out to those working in the fields of education policy, development, and training at both local and national levels. We wish to collaborate in order to offer regular courses to educators interested in the teaching and practice of mindfulness and applied ethics. We are identifying partners who are ready to implement these courses right away. Initiatives and preliminary explorations are under way with educators and policymakers in several countries in Asia, Europe, and North America.

Aim

This course aims to address the root causes of the suffering and division in our society and in our own hearts. As teachers, many of us see that this is a time of great challenge for young people, who often lack direction and tools to handle the pressures and stresses life presents them. Parents and other caregivers do not get the support they need to provide the essential guidance required for young people to grow up happily and contribute positively to society. Furthermore, many institutions do not provide good examples of integrity, cooperation, or responsible behavior that promotes the good of the whole.

The essence of the course in applied ethics is mindfulness, the energy of being aware of and awake to what is happening inside and around us in the present moment. With this deep awareness, we know what to do and what not to do in each moment to relieve suffering and increase well-being. The methods that we offer in this applied ethics course help us to understand our own bodies, minds, feelings, and perceptions, so we can then help others to do the same. We learn the art of caring for and transforming our suffering and nourishing our joy. Out of this, compassion and a living understanding of our interconnection with our family and society naturally arise.

Secular Foundation

This course is built upon the teachings of the Buddha, but it is non-religious and non-sectarian. Its foundation relies on the insights and concrete practices of Buddhism: interdependence, non-duality, and the intimate connection between happiness and suffering. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that methods arising from the Buddhist tradition are effective and that they can be applied successfully in an educational and secular context without reference to Buddhism. However, if appropriate to the institution or community, the course can be taught from a Buddhist or spiritual perspective.

Course Overview

Stage I: Taking Care of the Teacher

  • Cultivating awareness of breathing to help unite body and mind and strengthen concentration
  • Caring for our body to reduce stress and pain
  • Learning to cultivate feelings of joy and happiness and to appreciate what we already have
  • Learning to simplify our lives so that we have more time to relax and enjoy life
  • Learning to listen to and embrace our strong emotions, such as fear, anger, anxiety, and despair
  • Learning to use loving speech and compassionate listening to care for our relationships
  • Exploring non-sectarian, ethical guidelines for our own health and happiness and that of our families, schools, communities, societies, and the world
  • Looking deeply into our consumption and production as individuals and as a society

Stage II: Teaching Mindfulness and Applied Ethics to Students

  • Learning to guide sessions of relaxation for students
  • Learning to help students recognize and handle strong emotions
  • Learning the art of building community so that our classroom and our school can become a loving family environment
  • Learning to creatively resolve conflicts in the classroom
  • Helping students develop compassion by understanding their own suffering and that of their peers
  • Introduction to an age-appropriate mindfulness curriculum, with multi-media teaching materials, that can be applied in the classroom

Course Format

This course is offered in two stages, with each stage lasting one week, held in one of our residential centers or at an academic campus. The course format is organized as a residential retreat, with participants staying overnight and training in mindfulness all day long. Each stage can also be divided up into smaller units of time depending on the need (for example, three weekends or seven day-long segments spread out over time). Stage I is a prerequisite for Stage II.

Community Environment

The course takes place in the unique context of a residential community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen practicing mindfulness twenty-four hours a day. The strength and harmony of the community is grounded upon a shared vision of ethical conduct arising naturally from the practice of mindfulness. The community provides support and creates a safe environment in which we can look afresh at our lives. Living and working together, we generate a powerful collective energy that has the capacity to heal and transform our bodies and minds.

In the course, mindfulness is learned in such a way that we can apply it right away in our daily lives. The residents offer participants their understanding and experience not just through their teaching, but through their embodied practice of mindful speaking, walking, eating, working, and relating. The most supportive environment for our transformation and healing is a harmonious and joyful community. Our thirty years of experience have taught us that community is essential for change to be deep and lasting. Living and practicing as a community, we find trust in the human family and we return to our lives refreshed and enthusiastic. The residential practice environment allows us to open up and rediscover our innate goodness and to bring meaning and direction to our lives.

For more information please contact appliedethics@eiab.eu or visit www.mindfuledu.org.

With gratitude,

The Sangha at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism

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Sowing Seeds of Meditation

By Cara Harzheim

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For thirty-six years I taught in the Grammar School Ludwid-Meyn-Schule, a big high school near the River Elbe, Germany. I was one of seventy-eight teachers in this school of 1,040 students. Teaching was my greatest passion in life. The students were my children, my friends, and my combatants.

In the winter of 1994-95, I spent two weeks at Plum Village. There I found my spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings on January 2, 1995, and when I returned to Germany, I began meditating regularly with my students.

The students called me their “teacher of meditation”: “the exceptional colorful flower of the school, the teacher you can talk to, who listens profoundly, understands you, and gives the advice you need. She is the one you ask for help when your friend wants to commit suicide. She dances with you the whole night through. When you come from a rural background and are afraid of male authoritarian teachers, she supports you to speak up. She sings with you songs of freedom and peace for Blacks, Indians, and Vietnamese and she speaks about global ethics and your behavior in this world of ours.”

Every day, from Monday to Friday, I offered the students fifteen minutes of meditation during the two twenty-five-minute breaks of their day. We practiced several different kinds of meditation, all of which the students loved: sitting meditation (be aware of your in- and out-breath), guided meditation according to Thay’s books, pebble meditation, metta meditation, walking meditation indoors if it rained or outdoors in the former cemetery next to the school, total relaxation, tea ceremony, and mindful eating of a tangerine or biscuit.

When the students had taken part in ten meditation sessions, they got a certificate that said: “She has participated in the meditation extracurricular activity with great success.” Both younger and older students loved to get that paper.

Away from the Turmoil

I always tried to have a room that was quiet and good for meditation, “a room of silence.” First I found an attic under the roof, in which I put a carpet and twenty-five of my own multicolored cushions which I had bought in India, a golden Buddha statue, an icon of Mary and the child Jesus my father had brought from Russia, a big bell and a small bell, an earthen teapot and small cups, a water boiler, some candles, and incense sticks. The caretaker of the school was not happy when he heard I used a water boiler and candles in the attic. He tried to close down the room several times because I didn’t give up preparing tea.

We were moved to a restored room adjoining this attic. However, the substitute headmaster didn’t like us to sit on the newly installed carpet. We fled to the cemetery outside and found it was the right place to meditate about impermanence, illness, and death. A music teacher who was a fervent supporter allowed us to use the music rooms. We sat among all the instruments and tried to generate calmness, understanding, and loving-kindness. We tried to gain a little bit of peace and freedom.

In the end, students collected signatures from other pupils, teachers and parents, and we were allowed to use one of the last cellar rooms with hardly any light. All my groups helped me to furnish it again. We had a big tea ceremony with cookies and Plum Village songs in English and French. It was a cozy room far away from the turmoil of normal hectic school life.

Zen Is Cool

I taught lessons in East Asian and western philosophy to students who didn’t want to take part in classes of religious education (Catholic, Protestant). We spoke about their interests: How to live happily? What is death? How to live sexually? When we explored ethics and metaphysics applied in this world, I introduced the Five Mindfulness Trainings to the students, who showed a deep concern about them.

The first lesson of each Monday morning was Beginning Anew. “How did I nourish myself last weekend?” “What do I focus on this week?” In the lessons before a test, students asked for a guided meditation (“I am blooming as a flower”) and after the test, a deep relaxation to let go of all the frustration and excitement. On Fridays, the students reflected on what had happened during the week, how they could relax during the weekend in a good way, and their plans for the next week.

Twice a year there were project weeks in the school, offered by teachers, parents, or students. Twice I offered Meditation Practice according to Thich Nhat Hanh. Students drove every day to my old farmhouse and practiced mindfulness in walking, sitting, washing and cutting vegetables, reading the Five Contemplations and eating, learning gathas and Plum Village songs, and enjoying deep relaxation. They felt they had participated in the best project and were proud to find their photos in the local newspaper.

I facilitated a one-day project, “Zen Is Cool,” with forty students in the biggest room of the school. We sat, walked, explained the Five Mindfulness Trainings, offered a tea ceremony and tangerine meditation, and listened to the story “The Hugging Judge.” We exchanged little red hearts with the promise to give them to someone we loved. We ended with hugging meditation. Their little brothers and sisters received the hearts with astonishment and joy.

Plum Village Retreat

In 2006, I brought seventeen students with me to a twenty- one-day retreat at Plum Village. They committed to a trip without alcohol, cigarettes, meat, McDonald’s, or television during the Football World Cup. The students loved Lower Hamlet. The boys stayed in tents behind the pine and fir trees, and the girls and the two women teachers in tents behind Dharma Nectar Hall among the plum trees.

The students loved Thay and his extraordinary presence. When he addressed them personally, they were proud. They appreciated Sister Jina’s gentle authority, kindness, understanding, and willingness to let them remain together as a group in Lower Hamlet. Sister Chan Khong conquered their hearts by singing songs and lullabies for them in a special audience. They loved her wit, her openness, and her love of young people. They also enjoyed Sister Bi Nghiem’s dry humor and the great care she took of them.

The students loved walking up the hill to Loubès Bernac and looking down on the plain of Duras. They took great pleasure in the mindful swimming lazy day in the lake of Castelgaillard and all the potatoes and healthy pizzas the nuns cooked for them. In front of Thay and all the retreatants, they offered a drama about slowing down. A breakfast with the Jewish group left a lasting impression on them: the sharings and openness, the wishes for recognition of suffering, and the willingness for reconciliation.

Upon return, the students’ parents were aware of transformations in their children’s abilities to be more understanding and loving, to listen, and to practice mindfulness. The students never forgot this wonderful twenty-one-day retreat and continued to participate with joy in walking and sitting at school.

Here are some quotations from the students. Rebecca (11th year) said, “The meditation room is the most beautiful room of the school. There I can focus on my real self and I can let go of everything else. I feel at ease and I’d like to stay there longer.” Anna-Lena (A-level class) shared: “Meditation does you good. You start concentrating on your breathing. You come back to yourself and are aware of your body. Normally I have the problem of thinking too much.” Daniel (11th class) said, “I meditate at home every evening. I’ve noticed that I have become calmer and more confident.”

Meditation became a vital part of normal school life in all its forms. The students learned the tools of coming back to their breath, calming down, and concentrating by letting go of wrong perceptions. Meditation has enriched their lives and given them the opportunity and the hope “for a better future to be possible.”

mb60-Sowing2Cara Harzheim, True Wonderful  Compassion received the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings  in 1999. In 2008 she emigrated from Germany to France. She now lives in Puyguilhem, ten minutes from Lower and Upper Hamlet. She feels she has really arrived and is home living next to Thay and being part of the Fourfold
Sangha.

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Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples’ feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child’s life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, “No talent. Needs to be better motivated.” This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher’s Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students’ families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words “true person” were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, “Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?” The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, “Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?” Disappointed by the monk’s question, Linchi said, “That true person? What the heck!” No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach’s acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill’s content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.

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Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother’s illness. We should tell people, “Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance.” We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. “Resis­tance” does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society’s pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society’s destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, “In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you.” The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father’s request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him “the destitute son.” No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

Photos:
First photo by Ingo Gunther.
Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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