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.

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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!

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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.

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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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Dharma Talk: “Relationships” — Community as Family, Parenting as a Dharma Door, and the Five Awarenesses

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking Refuge 

To practice Buddhism, we have to take refuge. This means that we have to base our practice on some ground that helps us be stable, It is like building a house—you have to build it on solid ground. If we look around and inside ourselves, we can find out what is stable for us, and we can take refuge in it. We should be careful not to take refuge in what is unstable.

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This morning I was touching the ground, and I felt that there is some stability in the Earth. Why don’t we take refuge in the Earth? There is also some stability in the air, the sunshine, and the trees. We can count on the sun because we know it will rise tomorrow. We have to look around to see things that we can count on. In order to practice, we need to take refuge in stable things.

Our bodies have a healing power. Every time we cut our finger, our body has the capacity to heal itself. We take care of it by washing it carefully, and then we can leave the work of healing to our body. In a few hours or a day, the cut will be healed. Our bodies have that kind of healing power. We have to take refuge in our bodies.

The same is true with our consciousness. Our conscious­ness has a healing power, and we have to trust it. When we have some anger, distress, or despair, we don’t need to panic. We can trust our consciousness to know how to heal these kinds of wounds. When we have a feeling of instabil­ity, we only need to breathe in and out consciously and recognize the feeling of instability, knowing that our consciousness is much more than that feeling. We know from our experience that there have been times in the past when we were not very solid. We know that we can take refuge in our consciousness We can let it do its work without interfering too much. After cleaning out the wound in our finger, we just let it heal. If we have a wound in our mind or heart, we just clean our wound and then we trust our consciousness to heal it.

If we have a teacher and dharma brothers and sisters who are stable, they look very much the same today as yesterday and yesterday they looked very much the same as the day before. We have to take refuge in a sangha that is stable, that we can count on. We can contribute to the quality of our sangha by our smile, and by our own stability. A sangha can be improved by our practice. We can never find a perfect sangha. An imperfect sangha is good enough. We have to do our best in order to transform ourselves into a good element of the sangha. It is not helpful to complain too much about our sangha: “This sangha is not good; this sangha is not worth my refuge,” and so on. We have to accept our sangha and build it. It is like a family. And our family is also a kind of sangha. We have to accept the members of our family as they are and begin from there. We should be a good member of our family sangha in order to help others.

Taking refuge means also taking refuge in ourselves. When we take refuge in the earth, it is because the earth is stable. When we have a friend who is stable we can take refuge in him or her. We use our insight and our experience to see his or her stability. We don’t just go on blind faith. Taking refuge is not blind faith. It must be based on our own experience. There are many stable things around. We should refrain from taking refuge in things that are not stable, that have made us shaky in the past. Sometimes we don’t know much about something. We hope that it can be a refuge for us simply because we want it. It is not based on any direct experience or observation. We should refrain from taking refuge in things like that.

Single Parenting 

If you are a single parent and if you think that you need to be married in order to have more stability, you have to reconsider that idea. Perhaps you have more stability right now by yourself than if you were with another person. Another person coming into your life could destroy the little stability you may already have. It is most important to take refuge in yourself, and to do that with your understanding, insight, and capacity of recognizing stability in the things inside you and around you. The things inside of you are just like the things around you. If they are stable, they are worth taking refuge in. By taking refuge in this way, you become more solid. You are taking refuge more and more in yourself. By doing so, you develop yourself into a ground for the refuge of your child and your friends. We need you also. The children need you; the trees and the birds also need you. You have to make yourself into someone stable, someone we can rely on. That is the practice of Buddhism.

We abandon the idea that we cannot be ourselves unless “that someone” or “that something” is with us. We our­selves are sufficient. We are enough for ourselves. When we transform ourselves into a cozy hermitage, with a lot of air, light, and order inside, we begin to feel a great peace, joy, and happiness. And we begin to be someone that others can rely on. Your child, your dharma brothers and sisters, and your teacher can all rely on you.

So return to your hermitage and arrange things from within. You can benefit from the sunshine, the trees, the earth. You can open your windows wide for these good elements to enter, because you are one with your environ­ment. Many times unstable elements try to enter our hermit­age. Then we must close our windows and not let them in. When thunder, winds, or heat are about to intrude into our cozy, refreshing hermitage, we should be able to prevent them from entering. The practice of being a refuge to oneself is a basic practice. We do not rely on someone or something that we do not know much about, something that may be unstable. We go back to ourselves and take refuge in our own hermitage.

If you are a mother raising your child alone—without the help of a man—you must learn what to do and how to do it. You have to learn to be a father also, otherwise you cannot raise your child. If you don’t learn how to be a father, you will continue to need someone else to play the role of a father for your child, and you will lose your sovereignty, you will lose your hermitage. But if you can say, “I don’t need anyone else, I can learn how to be both a father and mother to my child, I can succeed by myself, with the support of my friends and my community,” that is a good sign.

Every other year, I give a retreat for about sixty Viet­namese monks and nuns in northern California. One day, when we were conducting the closing of such a retreat, the Abbot of Kim Son Monastery said to me, “Thay, you are our mother.” Why didn’t he say, “You are our father,” which is a more normal thing to say? It was because some­thing in me has the manner of being a mother. When I am with children, I can play the role of a mother as well as a father. The love of a father is different from that of a mother. A mother’s love is somehow unconditional. You are the child of your mother, that is why you are loved by her. There is no other reason. A mother tries to use her body and her mind to protect that very soft, vulnerable part of herself. She has a tendency to consider her child as an extension of herself, as herself. This is good, but it may create problems in the future. She has to learn gradually that her son or daughter is a separate person.

A father’s love is different. The father says, “If you are like this, then you will receive my love. If you don’t do that, you don’t get my love.” It’s a kind of deal. I have that in myself, too. I am capable of disciplining my students and I also have the capacity of loving my students as a mother. That is why the monks and the nuns call me mommy, I know it is not easy for a mother to be a father, especially when she hasn’t learned how to do it. Single mothers should be aware that they can profit from the community, from the brothers and sisters in the dharma. If she does it well, her child will have uncles and aunts. If the child doesn’t have a father, he can consider his uncle as a father. It is not difficult to provide your child with an uncle. If you have a good sangha and good relationships with the people in the sangha, other members of your sangha can have a nephew or niece in your child.

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The nuclear family is very small. There is not enough air to breathe. When there is trouble between the father and mother, the child has no escape. That is a weakness of our time. Having a community where people can gather as brothers and sisters in the dharma, and where children have a number of uncles and aunts is a very wonderful thing.

We have to learn to create that kind of family. Each of us needs to be loved in order to go on. We need the kind of love that does not shatter our stability. If we cling to our teacher as a father and we want that father to pay attention to us only, that is not the way we love in the practice com­munity. We have to share the love of the teacher with everyone. We have to see the other members of the commu­nity as our brothers and sisters. This is something we can learn to do. It is already a tradition in the East, and it can be learned slowly here in the West. We can take the best from both cultures.

I hope that communities of practice will take that kind of shape in the West. Without that kind of warmth and family flavor, it is difficult to practice. When you bring your children to some practice centers, your children may be regarded as an obstacle for other people to practice. But if we have a community where people regard each other like brothers and sisters, a child of that community becomes the child of everyone. If he is doing something disturbing, such as hitting another child with a stick, his mother is not the only person who is responsible. Everyone in the community shares that responsibility. Together we try to find ways to prevent the child from hitting the other children. We might try holding the child tightly, doing that as an uncle, not as a foreigner or a policeman. Of course, the parent of the child should prevent their child from throwing rocks or hitting other children, but if the parent cannot discipline her child, then he or she has to let an uncle or an aunt do it.

When you are a student of your teacher, your children are grandchildren of your teacher in a spiritual family. The children in Plum Village call me “Grandpa Teacher.” I always approach them as a grandfather, not as someone outside the family. This is the way we conduct the practice in Vietnam. We do things as a family. A practice center should possess that kind of warmth, that kind of brother­hood and sisterhood that will continue to nourish us. and not be a place where people come only to take care of their own problems.

In a community of practice like this, a single parent can be very self-sufficient. At the same time, he or she will see that when the community is not there, he or she is capable of playing the roles of both mother and father. When you have learned and have the capacity of loving your child as a mother and a father at the same time, you are transformed. When you see stable families coming to practice, you can look at their stability and learn from it. You can learn a lot: how a father loves a child, how a mother loves a child. There must be some coordination between father and mother. A good father would not say, “If he’s spoiled it’s your fault.” It’s not her fault; it’s a collective lack of mindfulness.

The phenomenon of single parents is widespread in the West. If you practice and succeed in bringing up your child happily, then you can share the fruit of your practice with many people. Parenting is a dharma door. Single parenting is a dharma door. We need retreats, seminars, and dharma discussions on how to be parents. We cannot accept the ancient way of parenting. At the same time, we do not have a modern way of parenting. We need to elaborate on the way of being parents, drawing from our own experiences and practice. Using the greater community of practice to bring another dimension to the life of the nuclear family is important. Even though the nuclear family structure may not have much space in it, when nuclear family life is combined with the life of a practice community, a sangha. it can be very successful. You can bring your child to the practice center, very often, and both you and your child will benefit from the atmosphere there. And the practice center will benefit from your presence also.

In a good practice center, there should be a garden for the children to play in and there should be people who are skillful in helping children, people who can be good aunts and good uncles for the children. Then you will enjoy your practice, as a parent or as a single parent.

The Buddha did not specifically address the issue of single parenting. This is a new problem. But we can apply the basic teachings of the Buddha to find a way out. There are so many divorced parents: in Australia, in the West. When things become too difficult, people tend to think of divorce. Vietnamese families living in the West are also beginning to adopt this point of view. In traditional Vietnamese culture, the failure of a marriage is considered to be very bad. People don’t look on divorce with much respect.

Collective consciousness helps a lot. Instead of thinking of divorce, you make an effort to preserve your marriage, to return to your spouse with more harmony, with more understanding. In the West many people have divorced three, four, five times. They keep making the same kinds of mistakes. This is an issue which Buddhist practice has to address. We should not complain about having to deal with this issue. We should take it as an opportunity to study, look, and explore, in order to provide people with a new dharma door. How can we practice and bring the practice community into the nuclear family? How can we create a balance?

The Five Awarenesses 

Ed. Note: When Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates a marriage ce­remony, he asks the couple to repeat the Five Awarenesses and then to recite them together once each month. The fol­lowing is from a talk given at Plum Village in August, following Kathy Season and Damien Cameron’s wedding. 

Mindfulness is the basis for happiness. Before two people marry, they should practice mindfulness together, and after becoming husband and wife, they should continue to practice the Five Awarenesses as a manifestation of their Practice of Mindfulness. Happiness is not an individual matter.

In the first awareness. we see ourselves in the context of a lineage. We see that we are one element in a continuation of our ancestors, and that we open the way for future gen­erations. We play the role of connection. We can see the elements of the future and the past right in the present. The Buddha teaches us that the present contains the past and the future. By being in touch with the present, we shape the future and heal the past. If we take good care of our body and our consciousness, we take care of our ancestors in us, and at the same time we take good care of our children and our grandchildren.

The second awareness reminds us that our ancestors have expectations and that our children and their children have expectations also. Our happiness is their happiness; our suf­fering is their suffering. If we look deeply, we will know what our children and grandchildren expect of us. We may not see them in person yet, but they are already talking to us. They want us to live in a way that they won’t be miser­able when they manifest. Buddhist practitioners, especially the Vietnamese, see themselves not as individuals, separated from their ancestors, but as a continuation representing all previous generations. Actions of the couple do not aim merely at satisfying the spiritual and physical needs of their individual selves, but also at realizing the hopes and expectations of their ancestors and at preparing for future genera­tions.

The third awareness tells us how joy, peace, freedom and harmony are not individual matters. We have to live in a way that allows our ancestors inside us to be liberated. Liberating them means liberating ourselves.  If we do not liberate them, we. will be in bondage an our lives, and we will transmit that to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to liberate our parents and ancestors in us. We can offer them joy, peace, freedom, and harmony, at the same time as we offer joy, peace, freedom, and harmony to ourselves, our children, and their children. This reflects the teaching of interbeing. As long as our ancestors in us are still suffering, we cannot really be happy. If we take one step mindfully, freely, happily touching the earth, we are doing it for all our ancestors and all future generations. The first three awarenesses are all aspects of one deep teaching. We have to continue to study and practice these first three awarenesses to deepen our understanding.

The fourth aware­ness is also a basic teaching of the Buddha. Where there is under­standing, there is love. When we understand the suffering of some­one, we are motivated to help. This energy is called love or compas­sion. Whatever we do in this spirit will be for the happiness and liberation of the person we love. But, some­times we destroy the person we love. It is like the general who said that his fighter bombers had to destroy the city of Ben Tie in order to save it. We have to practice in a way that whatever we do for others will only make them happy. The willingness to love is not enough. When people do not understand each other, it is impossible for them to love each other.

The first year of marriage is a difficult time. There is excitement, enthusiasm, and exploration, but the two people do not yet understand each other well. They live together twenty-four hours a day, looking, listening, and being aware of many details that they have not seen before, discovering more of their partner’s reality. Everyone of us has flowers and garbage inside us, not just of our making but of the making of our ancestors. If we know this in advance, we can be ready to accept everything that will manifest in the other person. When people fall in love, they construct a beautiful image of the other person, and they may feel shocked when they compare it with the reality. During the first year, many illusions about the other person will vanish. Until we give up our preconceived image, we miss the real beauty in the other person. We must be mindful to discover these flowers.

When we begin to see each other’s weaknesses, we may feel discouraged. We may need to be reminded of the other’s strengths. A married couple consists of two persons who have to lean on each other to help each other. We receive and nurture our partner like a tree, and we must find ways to water and protect him or her. We take care of the tree so that it flourishes. If there is some disease on the leaves, we must learn how to treat it. If the tree flowers and bears fruit, it is we who benefit. Both partners in the couple should regard themselves as the gardener, the caretaker, of the other. When we discover a weakness in the other person, we have to accept that. This is why the Buddha said, “Everyone has Buddha-nature,” the capacity of smiling, understanding, and being awake.

When we marry, we form a primary sangha, a sangha of two, and we begin to learn to love.. If we still have the feeling of being attached to each other, that is not real love yet. Love in the Buddhist context is loving kindness and compassion. It is the kind of love that does not have any conditions. We form a sangha of two in order to practice love—to take care of each other, to make our partner blossom like a flower, and to make happiness something real in that tiny sangha of two.

“Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity and of all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. Unless I succeed in loving you, I cannot love any­one else. So I am determined to love you. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth.”

This is the real message of love. How can we take advanced steps before we succeed in the primary steps? In the first one, two, or three years. this should be our purpose—to realize peace, happiness, and joy in that small sangha. We know that the small sangha should be placed in the context of a larger sangha. We are practicing with the help of our teachers, parents, friends, and all living beings in the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. That is our larger sangha. “I want to express my love to the larger sangha, and I do it through you. Therefore I must be able to love you, take care of you, and make you happy.”

The practice of mindfulness is the practice of love itself. Looking deeply in order to understand is the basic practice. When a couple is happy, understanding and harmony are there. Then it is easy to extend that happiness, and joy to the people around us—our parents, sisters, brothers, and dharma friends.

If we blame each other and argue, we are divided. This is the fifth awareness. Everyone agrees, but when we become angry, we forget, and a force in us begins to argue and blame the other person for what happened. Only by practic­ing conscious breathing and smiling every day can we control that impulse. Conscious breathing and smiling every day help us develop the capacity to stop at that critical moment, to keep ourselves from blaming and arguing.

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Loving speech is an aspect of practice. We say only loving things. We say the truth in a loving way, with nonvi­olence. This can be done only when we are calm. When we are irritated, we may say things that are destructive. So when we feel irritated, we should refrain from saying any­thing. We can just breathe. If we need to, we can practice walking meditation in the fresh air, looking at soothing things like the trees, the clouds, the river. Once we have returned to our calmness, our serenity, we are capable again of using the language of loving kindness. If, during our expression, that feeling of irritation comes up again, we can stop and breathe. This is the practice of mindfulness.

All of us need to change for the better. When we marry, we make a promise to change ourselves and to help the other person change himself or herself so we can grow together. If we think only of changing and growing alone, eventually we will lose patience with the other person. Prac­ticing together, we change and we help the other person change. As a result, we grow together, sharing the fruit and progress of practice. It is our responsibility to take care of the other person. We are the gardener, the one who helps the tree grow. If the tree doesn’t grow well, we don’t blame it. We blame ourselves for not taking care of it well. Human beings are somehow like trees. If they are taken care of well, they will grow beautifully. If they are taken care of poorly, they will wither. To help a tree to grow well, we must understand its nature. How much water does it need? How much sunshine? If we understand, the tree will grow beautifully.

Every time the other person does something well, some­thing in the direction of change and growth, we should con­gratulate her or him to show our approval. This is important. We don’t take things for granted. If the other person mani­fests some of her talent and capacity to love and create hap­piness, we must be aware of it and express our appreciation. This is the way to water the seeds of happiness. We should avoid saying destructive things like, “I don’t know whether you can do this” or “I doubt that you can do this.” Instead, we say, “This is difficult, darling, but I have faith that you can do it.” This kind of talk makes the other person stronger. This is true with children, also. We have to strengthen the self-esteem of our children. We have to appreciate and congratulate every good thing they say and do in order to help our children grow. When we are married, we can love each other in a way that encourages change and growth for the better, all the time.

For those who have been married for ten or twenty years, this kind of practice is also relevant. You can continue to live in mindfulness and continue to learn from the other person. You may have the impression that you know everything about your spouse, but it is not so. Nuclear scientists have studied one speck of dust for many years, and they still do not claim to understand everything about it. The more deeply they look into an electron, the more they realize how little they know about it. If a speck of dust is like that, how can a person say that he or she knows everything about the other person? Driving the car, paying attention only to your own thoughts, you just ignore your spouse. You think, “I know everything about her. There is nothing new in her anymore.” That is not correct. And if you treat her or him that way, she will die slowly. She needs your attention, your gardening, your taking care of her.

We have to learn the art of creating happiness. If during our childhood, we see our mother or father do things that create happiness in the family, we can learn. But if our father and mother did not know how to create happiness in our family, we may not know how to do it. So in our practice community, we try to learn the art of making people happy. The problem is not one of being wrong or right, but one of being more or less skillful. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of good will, you can still make the other person very unhappy. Good will is not enough. We need to know the art of making the other person happy. Art is the essence of life. Try to be artful in your speech and action. Art needs some substance, and that substance is mindful­ness. When you are mindful, you are more artful. This is something I have learned from the practice.

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