Dharma Talk: Be a Real Human Being

by Larry Ward

mb36-BeAReal1I love the smells here. They’re old, been around a long time. I can feel the ancient presence of the native peoples, in the rocks and in the mountains, in the trees and in the river. It makes me very happy to be here in this space.

Compassion is very concrete practice. Compassion can make a huge difference in how we live our daily lives, how we make our daily decisions. And our practice is to feed ourselves those things that nourish our compassion. That’s what a bodhisattva does. The bodhisattvas feed themselves the spiritual food, the emotional food, the physical food that nourishes and cultivates their mind of love. That’s the second characteristic of a bodhisattva. The wisdom of nondiscrimination is one, and cultivating the mind of love is the other.

At retreats this past summer I heard Thay say something that I’ve never heard him say before.  He said, “Be a real human being.”

So I’ve been meditating on that. When Peggy and I led a retreat in Oklahoma City recently, we were doing walking meditation at the Murrah building site where the bombing happened several years ago. It only took a minute for that devastation to happen. At the east gate, “9:01 a.m.” is carved in stone, and at the west gate, “9:03 a.m.” Between them are 161 empty chairs, for the people who were killed at 9:02. The first row is made of smaller chairs for children, because there was a daycare center there.  And as we walked around that memorial, it became really clear to me that Timothy McVeigh never had a chance to be a real human being. How do I know Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a real human being? Because a real human being does not perpetrate violence. That’s not the act of a real human being. Violence is a dark cloud floating across the blue sky of a real human being. A real human being is not trapped in or addicted to conflict and jealousy. Yes, we all have seeds of conflict and jealousy in us, but our seeds of conflict and jealousy are a dot against the blue sky of a real human being

We all have the capacity to be greedy, to want too much, to give too little—to ourselves as well as others—but that is not the motivation of a real human being. That’s a shadow passing across the ground of a real human being.


A real human being is like this camp—this camp is our host. The earth is here, supporting us and holding us; the trees are here, the creek  is  running.

Just holding us, whether we’re short or whether we’re tall, whether we’re young or whether we’re old, whether we’re black or whether we’re white, whether we’re straight or whether we’re gay, whether we’re this or whether we’re that. A real human being is a host, welcoming everything. In the morning when the sunlight strikes the sky for the first time, you can look in it and see dust in the sunlight. A real human being is the sunlight, not the dust.

Our practice is to water those seeds in us, to create an environment around us that gives us a chance of being a real human being. What I’m trying to do with this practice is to cultivate my best self, the best Larry possible. And when I do that I manifest the way of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is another name for a real human being. Thay told a story this summer about a wonderful woman from Holland that he met who saved thousands of Jews from the gas chambers in World War II, all by herself.  Bodhisattvas are real people.  Recently I started thinking about a brief encounter I once had with Martin Luther King; he was a real human being. Mother Theresa, whom I met when I lived in Calcutta, was a real human being. She was so real that when she thought something, you just did it.  [Laughter.]  It was astounding!


Thay is that way. Peggy and I had promised Thay last year that we would join him on a trip to Korea last spring. But as April approached, we were moving from one side of the country to the other and we were extremely busy. So we wrote Thay a beautiful letter saying why we couldn’t come to Korea. We got a note back: “Thay is very sad. Here’s the schedule in case you change your mind.” [Laughter.] That’s all a real human being has to do. Being near a real human being is so rare an opportunity that any time we can, we go because it is a chance to be trained. To be trained in what? It’s a chance to be trained in becoming a real human being.

So we went to Korea, and it was a profound experience of the bodhisattva way. One day in Korea, five thousand people joined us in walking meditation, as we walked into the subway where a man had committed suicide and had killed 200 other people. He left a note, saying he did not want to die by himself. We did walking meditation into that subway where family members were still gathered, with candles, altars, and pictures. It was powerful to go from the daylight down those steps into that dark subway. You could still smell the fire. It was profound practice in offering compassion without saying a word.

The world needs real human beings. In the Lotus Sutra there is a section called “arising up from the earth,” and in it the Buddha is having a conversation with hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas from all over the galaxy. One of the reasons they’ve gathered is that they’re concerned about planet Earth, and they asked the Buddha, “Do you need reinforcements?”  [Laughter.]  “Do you need help?”

And the Buddha said no, at this very moment bodhisattvas are rising up from the earth. Real human beings capable of living like the blue sky, like the sun and the moon that shine on everything. Shine on confusion, shine on clarity. Shine on sadness, shine on happiness. Shine on birth, shine on death.  Rising up from the earth.  It’s a powerful statement.

If you want to do something with your life, be a real human being. If you want to do something for your children, your grandchildren, be a real human being. If you want to do something for America, be a real human being. In everything you need to be a real human being. And it’s already inside of us; it’s in every cell of our body. However, we have to be trained to develop it, cultivate it, and to apply it. This is one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights—that one has to be trained to live life deeply. Most of us assume you have to be trained to be a doctor or a nurse or a pianist or a schoolteacher or a cabdriver or a cook. The idea that we have to be trained to live profoundly, seems to have never crossed anybody’s mind! You have to be trained to live. It’s one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights, and that training is lifelong.

The Buddha designed his life so that nine months of the year he was in public service, and three months of the year was spent in in-depth training. He designed his day that way also. He had very long days, lots of people coming and going, lots of teaching. But three times a day he withdrew for his own training, his own practice.

I think the dilemma for every one of us in this room, right now, is how do we design a life that allows that to happen for us? Our society is not structured for us to be real human beings; it’s structured for us to be consumers. And you don’t have to be a real human being to be a consumer. Our education system, our economics, our political process, don’t give us the time or create the environment for us to train ourselves in being a real human being. The training every bodhisattva has had for over two thousand years, is training in six things, and it’s the same training the Buddha had when he was a bodhisattva-in-training.

These six things are called the paramitas. They are practices that take us from the shore of fear to the shore of non-fear. From the shore of greed to the shore of non-greed. From the shore of hate to the shore of non-hate.

The first one of these practices is generosity. First, it means learning to give physical things we have without reluctance. Sharing. Basic kindergarten kinds of issues: “I have a cookie, and you don’t have one. What do we do now?” [Laughter.] Generosity. We have to train ourselves. Even though the impulse is deep inside of us, buried in ourselves, to share and to give, we are so quickly trained out of it by our society, by our culture. This is not just our culture, it’s every culture: “Don’t you do that, don’t give them your cookie.” Why? Because they may come back tomorrow for another one. We have tremendous rationales for cutting off and killing our true human being. Generosity: giving without apprehension, giving without fear.

There’s a great story about the Buddha’s generosity. The Buddha and his cousin Ananda were out for a stroll, and a man came up, bowed and said, “Dear sage, my mother has a medical emergency, and in order for her to be healed she needs another eye.”  So the Buddha took his eye out and gave it to the man. The man took the eye from the Buddha, threw it in the dust and stomped on it. And while he was stomping on it, Ananda said, “Hey, wait a minute!” But the Buddha said, “Ananda, the gift has already been given.”

Generosity. The practice of generosity is the practice of giving. For most of us, if people don’t do what we want with our gift we’re upset. That is the practice of non-generosity. When a gift has been given, it’s no longer yours, it’s no longer mine. And of course, there is no greater thing a person can do for their friends than to lay down their life, as Jesus reminds us. And the laying down of your life could be something as dramatic as martyrdom, but it could also be something as undramatic as going to a classroom full of children every day for forty years. It could be as mundane as going through your social work files for the thousandth time and not giving up on yourself and not giving up on humanity. It could be the fifty-fifth conversation with your daughter about the same thing, and you know you’ll do number fifty-six, you won’t withhold that from her.  Generosity.


We train ourselves so well that eventually our generosity becomes like the Buddha’s.  It’s spontaneous – sure, here’s my eye.  But for most of us now we have to think about the cookie—the eye’s a long way off! And that’s the purpose of the training. The training takes us on a journey from the cookie to the eye. And we don’t get there without training. I know how hard that is for Americans who want things fast. It takes practice. It takes training.  It takes time.

The second paramita is diligence. It’s called Right Effort in the Eightfold Path. How can we be diligent? The first step of diligence is figuring out how to be consistent in your practice. Once a day, twice a day, once or twice a week with the Sangha, My own personal experience is that you cannot practice too much.

Once we have a daily practice rhythm, diligence means looking deeply within ourselves. It’s going into great inquiry. As Master Empty Cloud would say, “Great inquiry into our fundamental face.” That’s the practice. To have the courage to look into our real face. Not our five year-old face, not our ninety year-old face, not our American face, not our female face, our male face. Our fundamental face. Our original face, some have called it. Our Buddha nature, others have called it. The face of nirvana is our fundamental face. The face of a real human being. Great inquiry. Diligence. Looking into who we really are. And when we begin to see who we are, we begin to see who everybody else is.

For a long time I’ve been estranged from my son. I’ve written him letters over the years, but we have never been reconnected at the heart level. This year while practicing, I discovered the last threshold that stopped me from reconnecting with him. I realized that I didn’t know who he was: I didn’t know his fundamental face was the same as mine! I forgot about his Buddha nature. I forgot about his blue sky. And I forgot that because I forgot that about my face. As soon as I had that insight, within three days I got a phone call from a friend who said, “Your son’s looking for you.” And I’m looking for him. When we leave this retreat, Peggy and I return to Boston where we’ll be for a month, and we’re staying about two miles from where he lives, and he and I have plans to hang out.

Inclusiveness is the third paramita. That’s a very popular word in diversity circles. You want to be inclusive. Okay. Inclusivity is the practice of developing the capacity to receive what life gives us. To receive the pain, the suffering and the disappointments and to develop the capacity to take it in and to transform it into compassion.

Some years ago Peggy and I had our house burn down in Boise, Idaho, by an arsonist who had been sent by the Aryan Nation. I was working in California when the fire started. Because the fire occurred at two-thirty in the morning, they expected us to be there sleeping, and they meant to do us real harm. Peggy called me at three o’clock and told me that she and our dog Reggae were safe but the house was a total loss. I said, “Okay, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The whole time I was rearranging my schedule I was so stunned at the very idea that somebody would do that. I realized I didn’t know how to think like that.  I realized I didn’t know how to feel like that about anyone. I asked myself, how could somebody do that?

So over the next year as we rebuilt the house, I began to look into what kind of person joins that group. And I found out that they come from very poor economic backgrounds.  That most are high school dropouts. See, I’m moving toward inclusivity. That, if you look a little deeper, you’ll discover that nine out of ten of those people have been abused as children, emotionally and sexually. That’s how somebody could do that. Just looking for something to do to somebody, to strike out with the rage, with the anger, with the pain that’s just sitting there, growing.

Inclusivity practice takes time -this is about patience. This is not about having a Pollyanna attitude. For two years, Peggy had post-traumatic stress symptoms from being there when the fire started. But what is most important about this experience is that we were not harmed. What I mean is that we did not find ourselves having to be cruel. We did not find ourselves wishing ill will. We did not find ourselves having the seeds of hatred watered and developed at all. Anger, yes. Disappointment, yes. Shock, yes. But we did not become possessed and cruel. We did not have our focus turned around and reoriented to try to eliminate someone who tried to eliminate us. Protected by compassion.  Protected by inclusiveness.

There’s a wonderful story of the Buddha. Around his time of enlightenment, Mara came and sent armies who fired arrows at the Buddha, and as the arrows got closer they turned into flowers and dropped to the ground. Now, I want to be like that. [Laughter.] And we can! That’s just the practice of inclusivity. I’ve seen it happen with Thay. I’ve seen an arrow coming at him, and by the time the arrow got to him it was a flower. Peggy and I were sitting with Thay and Sister Chân Không and a few others when Thay got the phone call about his sister passing away in Vietnam. And we watched him receive that news, knowing he couldn’t go to be with his family. We watched that news go in and come back out as compassion for the person on the phone who had to give the message. Inclusivity.

Mindfulness trainings, the fourth paramita, are characterized in the Eightfold Path by right speech, right action or conduct, and right livelihood. The first role of the mindfulness trainings is creating stability and safety in and around ourselves. You know, it is very difficult to reach tranquility and profound insight in sitting meditation if you’re constantly looking out the window to see if your neighbor is looking for you with a gun because you stole his chicken! [Laughter] The first function of virtue is to create stability in ourselves, so we can calm down.  So the sand in the glass can settle at the bottom.

Mindfulness trainings are the ground upon which awakening can occur. And they are also evidence of the awakening. They’re both. But it’s a journey. The first step in practicing the mindfulness trainings is to notice your own behavior. Not improving yourself. The first step is noticing yourself with gentleness, with compassion. And the second step is slowly beginning to try to shift the pattern. The third step is healing the pattern. And the fourth step is transforming the pattern. Most of us want to go from step one to step four. Be compassionate with yourself. The key is to continue to practice. Mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating.

There’s also a secret of the Eightfold Path that’s not written down. It’s called right association. During a retreat last summer one of the children asked Thay, how did he get so peaceful? And Thay said, “Well, first I wanted to be peaceful. Second, I had an image of what that might be like.” And he referred to a time when, as a young person he saw his first picture of the Buddha sitting mindfully on the grass. “Third, I surrounded myself with peaceful people. Fourth, I added to that an environment that would support my practice of peace.” Right association.

Many of us want more peace, but our associations are not peaceful. We  have to take  charge,  and create the environment that cares for us, that supports us, that will sustain us in becoming real human beings. We have to learn to set boundaries that protect our practice. We have to learn to protect ourselves from others with gentleness and kindness, with kind caring.

Meditation is the fifth paramita that takes us to the other shore. And the other shore is always right here, right now. The practice of meditation is not an escape from life, it’s an escape into life. The classical description of meditation is the practice of stopping, calming, and achieving tranquility, stillness of mind, imperturbability. And the practice of deep seeing, deep looking into life, vipassanya, insight. This must occur for that to occur, and of course they inter-are, as Thay would say. But most of us want insight without stopping, without calming. For example it’s not that we aren’t smart enough to solve the problem of education in America, it’s that we haven’t meditated on it. We haven’t stopped long enough to settle down, to calm ourselves, and to look deeply into it.

Sometimes at Plum Village Palestinians and Israelis gather together. Because the first part of the peace process is about peace with oneself, they’ll spend several days sitting and walking and eating mindfully, and only later will they start to talk about peace with each other. It’s only a political problem because it’s a spiritual problem.

Einstein said the same level of consciousness that created a problem can’t solve the problem. You can only reinforce the problem with that kind of thinking. It’s astounding what can happen through spiritual practice, when, eye-to-eye across the table, father-to-father, son-to-son, daughter-to-daughter, mother-to-mother, all of a sudden we see each other’s children lying in the street and we get it! We get it in the very cells of our body, the possibility of being a real human being, and we know real human beings are not warmongers, that real human beings are not driven by revenge and prejudice. Revenge and prejudice and war are dark clouds floating across the sky of a real human being.

Meditation: stopping and calming and looking deeply into life. Meditation: sitting and walking and eating and lying down. Meditation is more than stress reduction. The purpose of meditation is to transform the quality of our minds. We say we want peace in the world, but we don’t have minds capable of it. We wish people were more kind, but we don’t train our minds to be more kind. Master Tang Hoi from Vietnam used to say that meditation is the process, the practice, of eliminating those clouds in the blue sky that is our mind.

Right view, right understanding, is paramita number six. The realization of perfect understanding is the bodhisattva’s only career. It’s very important that all these practices are done with wisdom. Generosity without wisdom, without understanding, is pity. Generosity without right understanding means you’ve died for the wrong cause. History’s full of examples of that tragedy.

Right view is detachment from views. It doesn’t mean we don’t have views. It means when we have views we know that that’s what they are, just views. Opinions are easy to come by; most of us have opinions that are created by our culture. We have opinions created by our family, by our ancestors, about ourselves and about each other, and we think they are our own. Right view is insight. Right view, right understanding, is about moving from the shore of speculation into the shore of direct perception. To practice developing insight into life, our whole life long,

The way of the bodhisattva is the way of the real human being. It is the way, as Thay would say, of walking with our Buddha feet, so that with every step we enjoy the miracle of being in the present moment. We touch the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God with every step–that’s where we live. With our Buddha eyes, everywhere we look we see wonder.

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Book Reviews

mb51-BookReviews1Peaceful Action, Open Heart
Lessons from the Lotus Sutra

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2008
Softcover, 287 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the strength of the Lotus Sutra is its ability to present deep teachings in a clear, easy-to-understand way that applies to all walks of life. Composed during the second century CE, this “King of Sutras” is known for its open arms. It moderates between what was the old Buddhist guard, the shravakas, and the newer schools of the Mahayana canon, and reconciles the two. It was the Mahayana School that claimed we are all Buddhas, and offered the bodhisattva path. The characters, or bodhisattvas, of this Dharma revolution each represented a paradigm. They are known by such colorful names as Never Disparaging, Medicine King, Earth Store, and King Fine Adornment.

To read this rare, reissued translation of the Lotus Sutra is to read ancient history and the daily news simultaneously. One bodhisattva who bridges past and present is Kshitigarbha, or Earth Store Bodhisattva, whose delight is to enter hell realms to rescue those in need. Although only briefly mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, this protector is considered by the author a role model for today’s world. It is Kshitigarbha’s energy of salvation and protection of the Earth that we need to save our wounded planet and offer balm in places like Rwanda, Iraq, Iran, Madagascar, Afghanistan, and the long-wounded Vietnam, not to mention the whole Western world. Earth Store Bodhisattva keeps a deep relationship with beings of the earth — humans — and with those below it — hungry ghosts and hell beings. He asks, “If I do not go to hell to help them, who else will go?” We well remember how Thay’s students in his School of Youth for Social Service walked the killing fields of Vietnam to help. Likewise, Kshitigarbha represents a realm of action very much needed here and now.

Similar to the language of the Pure Land Sutras, the Lotus Sutra’s metaphorical images, like poems and paintings, speak to the heart. Think of the thousand arms of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara. Imagine cosmic beings with eyes like “broad, great leaves of the green lotus” and bodies “the color of pure gold.” Hear bodhisattvas gifted with the ability to speak with “unobstructed eloquence.” And you have the saddharmapundarika, The Lotus Blossom of the Wonderful Dharma.

Presented as twenty-eight chapters in two parts, this sutra first focuses on the historical dimension, or what happened during the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the second division, the sutra deals with the ultimate dimension, “beyond our ordinary perception of space and time.”

In this selective re-telling of the Lotus Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a handbook for life. To help us on the bodhisattva path, he includes his explications of the Six Paramitas, that we may, together with all beings, pass over the sea of suffering to the shore of freedom. And he even gives us this encouragement, that it is possible for us to take only a few seconds to make the crossing!

mb51-BookReviews2Tuning In
Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, A collection of essays for teachers by teachers

Irene McHenry and Richard Brady, Editors
Friends Council on Education (available from Parallax Press)
Softcover, 144 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

When I was seven years old, my parents bought our first television. I jumped up to hug my father and accidentally jabbed his chin with my fingernail, and he bled. This feels to me like a metaphor for what has happened since then with our cell phones, iPods, digital TVs, Internet, DVDs, video games and all the wonderful/terrible what-nots of our age. The world is bleeding. Yes, we can get Dharma talks online. Yes, we can call 9-1-1 immediately in an emergency.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that, despite all the electronics meant to promote togetherness, communication within families remains difficult. More sinister is the cyber-bullying and cell-phone pornography prevalent now among teens. More than ever now, we need to rediscover for ourselves and pass on to our children ways to calm them and ourselves. We need to listen to one another. This book of essays, gathered by OI senior Dharma teacher Richard Brady, a lifelong educator and co-founder of MIEN, the Mindfulness in Education Network, with Irene McHenry, Executive Director of the Friends Council on Education, offers methods from eighteen authors for K-12 teachers to bring mindfulness into the classroom.

In a text filled with both quirky and inventive exercises using raisins, beanie babies, spinning tops, micro-fiction, gardening, chanting, yoga, singing bowls, and talking pencils, this book is worth its weight in mindfulness to teachers. Alone worth the price of the book is Richard Brady’s tale of how he introduces mindfulness to youth with a five-minute exercise in silence. He follows with a group of questions about body, mind, and environmental awareness, the last of which is: “How many of your negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the present?”

“Ultimately I point out that what our minds do during this particular five-minute interval of our waking life is repeated about 70,000 times each year. If we multiply the number of negative thoughts and feelings we observed by 70,000, we might understand why the mind plays such a significant role in creating stress. However, if we are able to become more aware of the negative thoughts and feelings that enter our minds and develop ways to replace them with positive ones, we will be able to live happier, less stressful lives — in school and beyond. Meditation, I explain, is one way to help our minds respond to negative thinking in a healthy way.”

The book is divided into two parts: Teaching Mindfulness, and Quaker Practices that Center in Mindfulness. In Part II, Hope Blosser brings us the message of St. Francis, “that which is within you will save you,” and Denise Aldridge writes lyrically about “Nurturing the Inner Garden.” Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this a lovely compilation of stories, ideas and suggestions that reflect delight in both learning and teaching.

Indeed, this book offers medicine for a wounded world.

mb51-BookReviews3Be Like A Tree
Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh

Edited and Illustrated by Karen Hilsberg
Jasmine Roots Press, 2008
Paperback, 218 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Karen Hilsberg has collected eleven talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh, spiritual elder of Deer Park Monastery, known to his students as the Venerable. With these teachings, she has interspersed her gentle brush paintings in the Asian style. Hilsberg’s relationship with Phuoc Tinh runs deep. It was he who helped carry her — even joyfully — through the death of her husband. In the preface, after describing how the Venerable helped her clearly see death just as it was in the moment, she explains the book’s title: “What it means to me … to be like a tree is to be myself, to be grounded, to bend with the weather but not to break, and to be a home and safe haven for others.”

In Chapter Seven, “Gratitude,” the teacher’s talk begins: “I offer you a handful of diamonds. Your house, your children, the water, your shoes, your breath, each is a diamond. I have given you a handful of diamonds. May you reflect on how they sparkle day and night.”

This message is the heart of the book and the heart of Thich Phuoc Tinh. Its arteries are the Dharma, its muscle is love, its blood is the body of the Buddha. In Phuoc Tinh’s voice, one hears the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh reflecting the voice of the Buddha. He recounts a touching memory of his mother during the chaos of 1975 when the North had taken over the South in Vietnam. The Venerable is traveling on foot toward his mother’s village among lost and displaced people, bombed-out villages and dead bodies. She sees him coming and runs toward him, falling and running and falling again, so happy to see her son alive. When he arrives, she dares not hug him because he is a monk. They stand close. “I did not know about hugging meditation then,” he says.

Thich Phuoc Tinh’s message to America is: “… if you don’t suffer from a lack of material comforts, then you suffer from a lack of spirituality. In other words, if you don’t suffer from lack of food then you suffer from the fact that your mind is always looking for something else outside of itself and in the future. When you can come back to yourself and recognize the energies within you and be mindful, then you can release yourself from suffering.”

Be Like A Tree offers generous appendices following the teacher’s talks, transcribed and edited by Hilsberg: a biography of Thay Giac Thanh, the beloved former abbot of Deer Park Monastery; a letter from the Venerable to the Hilsbergs when Karen’s husband was dying; a questionand-answer session with the Venerable; and Tea with the Venerable, Parts I and II.

mb51-BookReviews4The Best Buddhist Writing 2007

Edited by Melvin McLeod and the Editors of the Shambhala Sun
Shambhala  Publications, 2007
Softcover, 334 pages

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

Reading a Dharma book is not my favorite way to spend an evening, I confess. I will read one selected by my OI study group and enjoy it fully, but left to my own desires, I will pick up a novel or biography any day. I love stories! I also enjoy reading magazines because the pieces are shorter and I can jump around. The Best Buddhist Writing anthologies satisfy all my wishes, while providing profound insight and food for thought.

As always, Thich Nhat Hanh features prominently in this edition, with both an interview by Melvin McLeod and the essay, “Love Without Limit.” “I think the twentieth century was characterized by individualism, and more than 100 million people perished because of wars,” Thay told McLeod. “If we want the twenty-first century to be different, if we want healing and transformation, the realization is crucial that we are all one organism, that the well-being of others, the safety of others, is our own safety, our own security.”

The interview is one of thirty-three essays in this anthology. Other authors include well-known Buddhists like the Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Ajahn Amaro, and Pema Chödrön, as well as some surprising voices like author Alice Walker and feminist critic bell hooks. In “Creating a Culture of Love,” hooks writes: “Dominator thinking and practice relies for its maintenance on the constant production of a feeling of lack, the need to grasp. Giving love offers us a way to end this suffering — loving ourselves, extending that love to everything beyond the self, we experience wholeness. We are healed.” She quotes Thich Nhat Hanh from his recent book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart: “to love, in the context of Buddhism, is above all to be there.”

In “Through the Lens of Attention,” physician Michael Krasner expands on this theme. “Thich Nhat Hanh has stated that one of the reasons to practice mindfulness is that we are actually practicing its opposite most of the time, and therefore becoming quite adept at it. The cultivation of a nonjudgmental awareness of the unfolding of experience from moment to moment balances out these human tendencies to be unaware and inattentive.” I find it heartening to read about his work teaching future doctors to practice mindfulness in their dealings with patients.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, in “Hardwired for Altruism,” describes fascinating research into the physiology of the brain. “Scientific observations point to a response system that is hardwired in the human brain — no doubt involving mirror neurons — that acts when we see someone else suffering, making us instantly feel with them. The more we feel with them, the more we want to help them…. Our brain has been preset for kindness.”

Jarvis Jay Masters practices love and kindness in the hell realm of San Quentin Penitentiary — and not always in the obvious way. With gripping immediacy he writes about an encounter with a crazed homicidal inmate nicknamed “Pitbull.” Here, skillful means involved the use of brute force but Jarvis managed to save Pitbull from the other inmates — and from himself.

As a student of Thay’s I find it gratifying and insightful that Thich Nhat Hanh is referenced so often in these essays. It is clear that Thay has touched many people, including Buddhists from many lineages. But you don’t even have to call yourself a Buddhist (I don’t) — this anthology contains wisdom, insight, and joy for everyone. And lots of great stories!

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Dharma Talk: Liberating Our Hearts – Practicing with the Paramita of Inclusiveness

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Before our airplane takes off, we are told the way to use the oxygen mask. And we are always told that we have to put on the oxygen mask for ourselves first, and only then can we place the oxygen mask on our child, the young person sitting next to us. If we are not successful in placing the mask on ourselves first and afterwards on our child, then we will both die for lack of oxygen.

Thich Nhat Hanh

In Buddhism it’s the same. We have to help ourselves before we can help others. The word we use to speak of this is the word meaning “to cross over to the other shore.” The shore over here is the shore of suffering, the shore of anger, of anxi­ety, of pain. But the shore over there is the shore of peace, of freedom. To go from this shore to the other shore is called “paramita.” There are six ways of doing that called the six paramitas, six ways of going to the other shore.

We may think that paramita is a very difficult practice, but if we learn how to do it, we can go to the other shore quite easily. Even in ten minutes or half an hour or an hour we can cross over to the other shore. When we are angry, when we are drowning in our anger, we suffer a great deal in our body and our mind. It is as if we are being burned, and if we don’t know how to deal with the situation, we can drown in our suffering. Therefore, we have to practice going over to the other shore, the shore of no-anger, the shore of no-hatred. We have a raft to take us to the other shore and we have to use it every day. The six paramitas are the six ways of going to the other shore.

The Kshanti Paramita 

The third paramita is called Kshanti Paramita; it can be translated as inclusiveness. It means literally, “to forebear, to endure,” but we could misunderstand that word. Kshanti re­ally means to accept and to embrace. For example, this glass — it can hold about twenty cubic centiliters and it can endure those twenty cubic centiliters, that is its capacity. If we pour twenty cubic centiliters into it, the glass will not suffer. But if we want it to hold more, it may suffer. If we force a lot of sand into it, it will break. And we are the same. Each of us has the capacity to endure, to accept a certain amount of injustice but if we are forced to accept more we shall crack or we will break. Somebody says something or does something which we do not like, they do something unjust to us, and we suffer. But whether we suffer a lot or a little, whether we suffer at all, depends on whether the capacity of our heart to accept and to endure is small or great. There are people who could hear those same words, be treated in that same way, but they would not be angry. They would smile. But we, when we hear those words, when we see that behavior, we suffer a lot because compared with their heart, our heart is very small.

The capacity of the bodhisattvas’ hearts is very big, the ca­pacity to receive, to embrace and to include. The reason why we suffer is because the capacity of our heart is very small. We hear the same words, we have the same treatment and some people can accept it, but we cannot. We suffer a great deal. Therefore we have to practice the capacity to include, to em­brace. If we practice, if we train, the capacity of our heart will grow and we will suffer much less. We will hear the same words, we will be treated in the same way, and we will smile and we will not suffer.

To practice inclusiveness, or patience, does not mean that we have to suffer. When we suppress our suffering sooner or later we will crack, we will break, Therefore, the paramita of patience does not mean to suppress. If you practice suppress­ing, if you grit your teeth and bear it and think that that is the practice of patience, it is not. Soon you will crack, you will break. That is not what the Buddha taught. The Buddha taught that we have to practice, we have to train in order to open up our own hearts.

And when our understanding is great, our love is great, our heart will become great. We often say in Viemamese that it is our heart which is small, not our house. When our heart is wide, our house can receive many guests. If our heart is small, even if our house is very large, we will not receive any guests.

Every morning on the fifteenth or the first of the lunar month in the traditional temples, we organize a ceremony called “Com­mending the Virtues of the Buddha.” It is to praise the Buddha and the bodhisattvas and our ancestral teachers. There is a sen­tence praising the Buddha which goes something Like this: “The Awakened One who is fully awakened, arose in India. His heart is able to embrace the whole of space, his capacity includes all the three chiliocosms.” It means the capacity of his heart is very great. These are also four lines which are offered as praise to the Buddha. “The capacity of his heart can include all the worlds even though they are as numerous as the sands of the Ganges.”

And why does the Buddha have such a great capacity of compassion and understanding? Because he has practiced. We can do the same. If we prac­tice the paramita of patience, if we practice the Four Immeasurable Minds of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, our heart will grow. And we will have the capacity to accept everything people say, however people treat us, even if we suffer injustice, we can still smile, we can still be happy.

A fistful of salt 

In the sutras there was a time when the Buddha taught like this: “Imagine there is someone who is holding a fistful of salt. They place it in a small bowl of water and stir it around with their finger. Monks, do you think people could drink that wa­ter?” And the monks said, “Such water would be far too salty to drink. How could you drink it? You’d have to throw it away.” The Buddha said, “That is correct.” Then the Buddha said, “But if, for example, you were to throw that fistful of salt in the river, then would the people who lived in the villages alongside of the river continue to drink the water of the river?” And the monks said, “Yes.” “Why?” “Because the river is vast and the fistful of salt cannot possibly make the water of the river salty.”

It is the same for us. If our heart is small, then those words, that action, that injustice will make us angry. A small injustice will cause us many sleepless nights and we may not even be able to eat for a week. If our heart is great, like the river, then those words will not have any effect on us, that behavior and that injustice will not have any meaning. We can continue to smile, we can continue to be free, peaceful, and joyful as we were before. Therefore, the practice of the paramita of inclu­siveness helps us to look deeply and to be able to see clearly the truth and to allow the heart of understanding and love in us to grow. Then our heart will become like a river and people may come and throw twenty or thirty kilos of salt into it, but we will not suffer.

Be like the earth 

Rahula became a novice when he was only eight years old. When he was eighteen years old the Buddha taught him about the practice of inclusiveness. He said, “Rahula, you have to practice to be like the earth.” “Why?” “Because the earth has the great capacity to receive, to accept, to embrace, and to trans­form. If people pour fragrant milk, perfumes, and sweet things on the earth, or if they pour on the earth filthy things like spittle, mucous, excrement and garbage, the earth does not crave or is not greedy for the sweet things and is not angry with the filthy things. It receives everything equally. The earth has the capac­ity to include them all and to transform them all. It is not attached to the clean or angry with the dirty. You have to practice to be able to behave like the earth.”

The Buddha continued to teach Rahula that not only the earth, but also the water, the fire and the air have the great ca­pacity to accept all forms of offerings, wonderful and fragrant as well as polluted and dirty. It means the capacity of these four elements is very great and our heart has to be as great as that and then we will not suffer. In this way the Buddha shared the paramita of inclusiveness with Rahula.

I remember one day I was leading the children on walking meditation in the Upper Hamlet. We went along a beautiful path, seeing so many beautiful leaves, flowers, and butterflies, bees, and dragonflies, and all these beautiful things made us feel we were in paradise. Then we came to a place where we saw on the lawn the excrement of a dog and the children held their noses and stood to one side. I took their hands and I said, “Look deeply, my children. I have a lot of faith in the earth because the earth has received this excrement of the dog, but in a week’s time the earth will have transformed it, and it will be­come nourishment for the flowers and the trees which we are seeing today. The earth has the capacity to accept, to embrace and to transform and is never angry with what is thrown upon it.”

The method which helps our heart to grow bigger is the Four Immeasurable Minds. The Four Minds have become so great, the mind of loving kindness, the mind of compassion, the mind of joy, and the mind of equanimity. Maitri, karuna, mudita, and upeksa are the four elements of true love. If you cultivate them every day, then they become boundless. You are capable of embracing everything, everyone, then the larger your heart becomes, the happier you become. You don’t have to suffer because of all the small things, the inconveniences that make you suffer every day. So the practice is not to be a bowl of water but to be a river and after that to be the ocean. What makes other people suffer cannot make you suffer any more because your heart is large. That is what it means by “bound­less states.”

Maitri — the capacity to offer well-being 

In Sanskrit, loving kindness is maitri; it is the capacity to offer well-being and happiness. And you cannot offer some­thing that you do not have. Therefore, practice in order for you yourself to have maitri , the energy of loving kindness, and you will be the first to profit from that energy. With the practice of looking deeply, the practice of calming, of understanding, you make the energy of loving kindness grow within yourself. You experience bliss, solidity, freedom, and well-being, and your presence will naturally offer the person you are with that same kind of energy. You only need to just be there. Before you do anything, before you say anything, your presence can already make him or her happy, because in you there is the energy of maitri.


There are people who are very pleasant to be with and children like to come and sit close to them. Just sit­ting close to them, the children feel good in themselves. There are people whom we want to sit close to. We don’t need to talk to them. We don’t even need them to look at us, just sit near them and you can feel that wonderful energy of love, of well-being. When you come and sit close to the linden tree, then the linden tree has the ca­pacity of calming you down. The lin­den flower also helps you to calm down; the linden tree has something like maitri within herself. So a person who cultivates maitri is someone whose presence is wonderful, refresh­ing and healing, and you would like to stay close to him or to her.

If you want to practice loving kindness, you have to look deeply to see and to understand. And when you see and understand you can offer joy and happiness to the other person. That person, what do they need and what do they not need? When we can see their real needs, we can offer the thing that they need. That person may be very afraid of the color red and we force her to wear a red dress; that will make her suffer. When we were a child, we really wanted to wear a red dress, but our mother would not allow us to wear red. When we have our own daughter, we want our daughter to wear a red dress in order to satisfy the desire we had when we were young. But our daughter hates red. To force our daughter to wear a red dress is to make her suffer.

When we were young, we wanted to be a doctor, but we did not have the chance to learn to be a doctor and therefore our desire has become an unsatisfied wound in us. When we have our own children we force them to train as doctors in order to satisfy the desire that we once had. But our daughter has a different skill or talent and does not want to be a doctor. To force our children to be doctors is to make them suffer. We think that to be a doctor will bring a lot of money and bring a position in society. We have an idea of happiness and we want to force that idea onto our children. That comes from our love, but this kind of love is not produced by understanding. There­fore, the more we love, the more we make our children suffer. To understand is the element that brings about true love. If we want to love, if we want to understand, we have to look deeply. If we want to practice maitri, we have to learn to look deeply.

Karuna — the capacity to reduce suffering in the other person 

The second immeasurable mind is the mind of compassion. Compas­sion is the capacity to reduce and to transform the suffering in the other person. If we want to remove the suf­fering from the other person, we have to have a right perception of the na­ture of their suffering. What is the cause of the suffering? What gave rise to the suffering in the other person? We have to practice looking deeply; that is, we have to practice another of the paramitas, called the paramita of meditative concentration. When we have time, when we have the ability to open our heart, when we don’t have prejudice, we can look into the other person and see the suffering that that person has been through. We can see the nature of their suffering and when we know that, we know what we should do and what we should not do in order for that wound to heal in the other person. If we don’t have that understanding then we will not have the insight which is another paramita, the paramita of understanding, and we will just make the other person suffer more. Compassion is the heart which has understanding and wisdom in it.

Mudita — the capacity to offer joy 

The third immeasurable mind is that of joy. In our relation­ship with our loved one the element of joy is very important. If we love each other, we have to love each other in such a way that both of us have happiness every day, then it is real love. If every day we weep, we are sad, we suffer, then that is not real love, In the morning, were we able to smile and be happy to­gether in our love? Were we able to say good-bye to each other and go to work with the energy of joy and love? But if, in the morning, we weep, in the midday we weep, and in the after­noon we weep, then the element of joy is not there. Therefore, the element of joy is very important in our love. First of all, there is the element of loving kindness, which is to offer happi­ness; the element of compassion, to remove suffering; and then the element of joy, the happiness which comes from our love.

Upeksa — the capacity to love with equanimity 

And finally, there is the element of equanimity. Equanim­ity means to love in such a way that we can preserve the free­dom of the other person and our own freedom. If we lose our freedom and we take away the other person’s freedom, that is not yet real love. When we love with the aim of possessing the other, we take away our loved one’s freedom. We have to love in such a way that we have a lot of space and the other person has a lot of space. If we see there is a little bit of loving kind­ness, of compassion, of joy, and of equanimity in our love we should try to practice so that every day the loving kindness, the compassion, the joy, and the equanimity grow a little bit more. After a couple of weeks, we shall see that gradually our love is becoming true love and our happiness is growing all the time.

We have learned that understanding leads to acceptance and acceptance leads to forgiveness and love. It makes our heart grow up. The love and the understanding help us to mature, and when our heart is mature, we can easily accept these words, this unskillful behav­ior, this injustice, and we continue to be happy.

Dear Sangha, in the Vietnamese war nearly all of us were the victims of unin­telligent policies. And in our suffering we condemned each other, looked on each other as enemies. But in fact we were all the victims of the government which did not really act with clarity. Southerners were victims and so were Northerners. If we’d seen that, we would have been no longer angry, we would have been able to embrace everyone. The Northerners would have been able to embrace the Southerners and the Southerners embrace the Northerners. The Vietnamese would have been able to embrace the North Americans and the North Americans would have been able to embrace the Vietnamese. We see that our enemy is our inability to see the situation as it really is. It is our ignorance, it is the darkness of our mind which cannot see the real situation and therefore gives rise to wrong observation and brings about a war where we kill each other and create a Iot of suffering for ourselves and for the people around us too.

The Bodhisattva Thi Kinh 

Quan Am Thi Kinh is the bodhisattva of compassion of Viet­nam, with a great, large heart. At that time in Vietnam there were no temples for nuns, and Thi Kinh very much wanted to devote her life to nunhood. So she had to pretend to be a boy in order to be able to lead the monastic life. She entered the temple as a novice monk; she was very happy. There are, among us. people who feel they have to become a monk or a nun to be happy. So they are willing to do anything to become a monk or a nun, and Thi Kinh was one of those people. There are people in Plum Village, monks and nuns, who feel like that. People have said to me, “If I could not be a nun, I could not bear it.”

At one point there was a woman who was a great admirer of the “monk” Thi Kinh, who was really a young woman. But Thi Kinh paid her no attention. The woman became pregnant and accused Thi Kinh of being the father. Of course as she was a woman this was not possible, yet she did not defend herself because she cherished the monastic life so much. When ar­rested and accused she remained silent. She was beaten and abused and still she remained silent. The woman who accused her left the child at the gates of the temple to further aggravate the situation. Instead of being angry, Thi Kinh embraced the child and raised her as a daughter of the Buddha. She was so full of compassion. Only when the “monk” Thi Kinh passed away did people discover that she was really a woman and they realized the great forebearance and love she had to have with­stood such accusation and abuse. Her heart was so great. They saw she was truly an em­bodiment of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.


If we have great happiness, we do not mind wrong accusations which come from ignorance and hatred. We hear them and yet we do not suffer. We just feel sorry for the person who says them. The reason we can bear it is because our heart is great and there­fore the paramita of inclusiveness is very im­portant. If you are still suffering a lot, it’s not only because of the other person who’s mak­ing you suffer. If you are still suffering a lot, it’s because the capacity of your heart is not very great. Cultivating the great, boundless minds of love – loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity – help us to grow our inclusiveness, so that we too may embrace and forgive, forbear and overcome obstacles in our lives, and become refreshing sources of compassion and happiness for ail beings like the bodhisattva Thi Kinh.

Excerpted from Dharma talks in Vietnanamese and English from Spring 1991 and Summer 2000. The Vietnamese talk was translated by Sister True Virtue. The talks were transcribed by Barbara Casey and edited by Sister Steadiness. 

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