Dharma Talk: Returning Home

By Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I have arrived.
I am home,
In the here
And the now.
I feel solid.
I feel free.
In the ultimate
I dwell.

 

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It is important for us to return home — to come back to the here and the now — and make peace with ourselves, our society, and those we love.

At times we suffer so much we want to run away. We feel burned out, overwhelmed, and so we take refuge in our projects, even our projects for social change. At these times we need a source of peace and joy, but when we arrive home, we may find a lot of violence and suffering there. We begin to practice mindful breathing, and, after a while, we are able to touch real peace and joy. Going home and touching peace is a source of great nourishment. The practice is to arrive home in each moment, to touch the peace and joy that are within us, and to open our eyes to the wonders of life around us — the blue sky, the sunset, the eyes of our beloved. When we do this, we experience real happiness.

Touching our eyes with mindfulness, we know that our eyes are a condition for peace and joy. Touching the beautiful trees, we realize how wonderful they are. We feel nourished, and we vow to do whatever we can to protect them and keep them healthy. Then, when our mindfulness has become strong enough, we can touch the war that is also going on inside us. But we must be careful. If we touch the suffering too soon, before we have developed concentration, stability, and the energy of mindfulness, we may be overwhelmed.

Sometimes when we suffer, we blame another person — our partner, our son, our daughter, our parents — as the cause. But when we look deeply in mindfulness we can see that they too are suffering. We see that our enemy is not the person. It is the seed of despair, anger, frustration, or fear in us. In Buddhism, we describe consciousness in terms of “seeds” — seeds of peace, joy, and happiness, and seeds of war, anger, despair, and hatred. All of these are in us. I know that you are not my enemy. In fact, I need you to help me transform my seeds of suffering. We are both victims of our own suffering, so why don’t we come together and touch some of the positive things instead? Looking deeply, we can see seeds of peace, joy, talent, and happiness in each other, and we can tell each other how much we appreciate these things.

When two warring parties arrive at a peace conference, they always begin by accusing each other, touching the negative seeds. A third party, someone who can practice “flower watering” — pointing out the positive jewels in the traditions of both sides — is needed. Both sides need more respect and appreciation for each other. These kinds of negotiations can drag on for months just disputing procedures. Why not devote the first days to flower watering? When two individuals are in conflict, when their fears and frustrations are too great for them to reconcile alone, the practice of touching peace and flower watering is also very helpful. In fact, in any relationship, this is a useful practice. Psychotherapists can practice walking meditation, looking at the beautiful sky, and touching the seeds of joy, peace, and happiness that have not been touched in a long time, with their clients. Then, when the balance is restored, it will be much easier to touch the pain, the war going on inside.

There is no need to be afraid to go home. At home, we can touch the most beautiful things. Home is in the present moment, the only moment we can touch life. If we do not go back to the present moment, how can we touch the beautiful sky, the sunset, or the eyes of our dear child? If we do not go home, how can we touch our heart, our lungs, our liver, and our eyes to give them a chance to be healthy? At home, we can touch all the wonders of life, the refreshing, beautiful, and healing elements.

Touching the present moment deeply, we also touch the past, and any damage that was done in the past can be repaired in that moment. We see that the future is also made of the present moment. There is no need to worry about the future. The way to take care of the future is to take good care of the present moment.

According to the Buddha, most of our suffering is caused by wrong perceptions. One man I know believed that the baby his wife gave birth to was really the child of his neighbor, and he held onto that wrong perception for twelve years, too proud to talk about it with anyone. The man became distant and cold to his wife, and the whole family suffered deeply. Then one day, after twelve years, a house guest observed that the twelve-year-old boy looked exactly like his father, and only then did the man abandon his wrong perception. A lot of damage was done during those twelve years. Wrong perceptions, like walking in the twilight and mistaking a length of rope for a snake, are common in our daily lives. That is why it is so important to practice mindfulness and stay in close touch with our perceptions.

Each of us has habit energies that cause us difficulties. One Frenchwoman I know left home at the age of seventeen to live in England, because she was so angry at her mother. Thirty years later, after reading a book on Buddhism, she felt the desire to return home and reconcile with her mother. Her mother also felt the desire to reconcile, but every time the two of them met, there was a kind of explosion. Their seeds of suffering had been cultivated over a long time, and there was a lot of habit energy. The willingness to make peace is not enough. We also need to practice.

So I invited her to come to Plum Village to practice sitting, walking, breathing, eating, and drinking tea in mindfulness. Through that daily practice, she was able to touch the seeds of her anger and her habit energies. Then she wrote a letter of reconciliation to her mother. Without her mother present, it was easier to write such a letter. When her mother read it, she tasted the fruit of her daughter’s flower watering, and peace was finally possible.

If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give is your presence. If you are not really there, how can you love? The most meaningful declaration you can offer is, “Darling, I am here for you.” You breathe in and out mindfully, and when you are really present, you recognize the presence of the other. To embrace someone with the energy of mindfulness is the most nourishing thing you can offer. If the person you love does not get your attention, she may die slowly. When she is suffering, you have to make yourself available right away: “Darling, I know that you suffer. I am here for you.” This is the practice of mindfulness.

If you yourself suffer, you have to go to the person you love and tell him, “Darling, I am suffering. Please help.” If you cannot say that, something is wrong in your relation­ship. Pride does not have a place in true love. Pride should not prevent you from going to him and saying that you suffer and need his help. We need each other.

One day in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village, I saw a young woman walking alone who looked like a ghost. I thought she must be from a broken family, from a society that does not appreciate her, and from a tradition not capable of nourishing her. I have met many people like that, without roots. They are angry, and they want to leave their parents, their society, and their nation behind and find something else that is good, beautiful, and true. They want something they can believe in. Many people like that come to medita­tion centers, but because they have no roots, it is difficult for them to absorb the teaching. They do not trust easily, so the first thing to do is to earn their trust.

In many Asian countries, we pay a lot of respect to our ancestors. We have an ancestors’ altar in each home. On the full moon day of the seventh month, we offer flowers, fruits, and drink to them. It is a happy day, because we feel that our ancestors are with us. But, at the same time, we are aware that many souls, “hungry ghosts,” have no home to go back to. So we set up a table for them in the front yard and offer them food and drink. Hungry ghosts are hungry for love, understanding, and something to believe in. They have not received love, and no one understands them. They have large bellies and their throats are as small as a needle. Even if we offer them food, water, or love, it is difficult for them to receive it. They are very suspicious. Our society produces thousands of hungry ghosts like that every day. We have to look deeply if we want to understand them, and not just blame them.

To be happy and stable, we need two families — a blood family and a spiritual family. If our parents are happy with each other, they will be able to transmit to us the love, trust, and the values of our ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, we are connected with our ancestors through them. But if we are not, we can easily become a hungry ghost, rootless. In our spiritual family, we have ancestors, too, those who represent the tradition. If they are not happy, if they have not been lucky enough to receive the jewels of the tradition, they will not be able to transmit them to us. If we are not on good terms with our rabbi, our pastor, or our priest, we will want to run away. Disconnected from our spiritual ancestors, we will suffer, and our children will suffer too. We have to look deeply to see what is wrong. If those who represent our tradition do not embody the best values of the tradition, there must be causes, and when we see the causes, insight, acceptance, and compassion will arise. Then we will be able to return home, reconnect with them, and help them.

Transmission has three components — the one who transmits, the object transmitted, and the receiver. Our body and our consciousness are objects transmitted to us; our parents are the transmitters; and we are the receiver of the transmission. Looking deeply, we can see that the three components are one — this is called the “emptiness of transmission.” Our body and many of the seeds we carry in our consciousness are actually our parents. They did not transmit anything less than themselves — seeds of suffering, happiness, and talent, many of which they received from their ancestors. We cannot escape the fact that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. To be angry at our parents is to be angry at ourselves. To reconcile with our father and mother is to make peace with ourselves.

One young American man who came to Plum Village told me that he was so angry at his father that even after his father passed away, he still could not reconcile with him. The young man put a photo of his father on his desk, with a small lamp near it, and every time he got close to the desk, he would look into the eyes of his father and practice conscious breathing. Doing this, he was able to see that he is his father, a true continuation of his father. He also saw that his father was incapable of transmitting seeds of love and trust to him, because his father had not been helped by anyone to touch these seeds in himself, seeds that were covered over by many layers of suffering. When the young man became aware of that, he was able to understand and forgive. His father had been the victim of his father. He knew that if he did not practice mindfulness and deep looking, the seeds of love and trust in him would remain buried, and then when he had a child, he would behave exactly as his father did, continuing the wheel of samsara. The only thing to do is to go back and make peace with his own parents, and through his parents, reconnect with all of his ancestors.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we can also discover important jewels and values in our spiritual traditions. In Christianity, for example, Holy Communion is an act of mindfulness — eating a piece of bread deeply in order to touch the entire cosmos. In Judaism, you practice mindfulness when you set the table or pour tea, doing everything in the presence of God. Even the equivalents of the Three Jewels and the Five Wonderful Precepts can be found in Christianity, Judaism, and other great traditions. After you practice mindfulness according to the Buddhist tradition, you will be able to return home and discover the jewels in your own tradition. I urge you to do so — for your nourishment and the nourishment of your children.

Without roots, we cannot be happy. If we return home and touch the wondrous jewels that are there in our traditions — blood and spiritual — we can become whole.

I would like to offer an exercise that can help us do this. It is called Touching the Earth. In each of us, there are many kinds of ideas, notions, attachments, and discrimination. The practice is to bow down and touch the Earth, emptying ourselves, and surrendering to Earth. You touch the Earth with your forehead, your two hands, and your two feet, and you surrender to your true nature, accepting any form of life your true nature offers you. Surrender your pride, hopes, ideas, fears, and notions. Empty yourself of any resentments you feel toward anyone. Surrender everything, and empty yourself completely. To do this is the best way to get replenished. If you do not exhale and empty your lungs, how can fresh air come in? In this practice, the body and the mind are working together, in harmony, to form a perfect whole.

We prostrate ourselves six times to help us realize our deep connection to our own roots. The first bow is directed towards all generations of ancestors in our blood family. Our parents are the youngest, closest ancestors, and through them we connect with other generations of ancestors. If we are on good terms with our parents, the connection is easy. But if we are not, we have to empty our resentments and reconnect with them. Our parents had seeds of love and trust they wanted to transmit to us, perhaps they were not able to do so. Instead of transmitting loving kindness and trust, they transmitted suffering and anger. The practice is to look deeply and see that we are a continuation of our parents and our ancestors. When we understand the “emptiness of transmission,” reconciliation is possible. Bowing down, touching the Earth, we should be able to surrender the idea of our separate self and become one with our ancestors. Only then should true communion become possible and the energy of our ancestors able to flow into us.

The second bow is directed towards Buddhist ancestors who came before us, those who have transmitted these teachings and practices to us for more than 25 centuries. The third bow is directed towards our land and the ancestors who made it available to us. The fourth is to channel and transmit the energy of loving kindness to those we love. We touch the Earth, look deeply into our relationship, and see how we can improve it. The fifth bow is directed towards those who have made us suffer. Looking deeply, we see that these people suffer also, and do not have the insight to prevent their suffering from spilling over onto others. Motivated by compassion, we want to share our energy with them, hoping it will help them suffer less and be able to enjoy some peace and happiness.

The sixth bow is directed towards our own spiritual ancestors. If we are lucky, it may be easy for us to connect with the representatives of our spiritual tradition — our rabbi, pastor, or priest. But if we have had problems with them, our effort is to understand how they themselves were not able to receive the jewels of the tradition. Instead of feeling resentment toward them, we vow to go back and rediscover the jewels of our tradition ourselves. Getting connected with our church, synagogue, rabbi, or priest will enable us to touch all our spiritual ancestors.

Photos:
First photo by Karen Hagen Liste.
Second photo by Stuart Rodgers.

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Dharma Talk: The Four Noble Truths

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The first Dharma talk of the Buddha after his enlightenment was about the Four Noble Truths. They express the cream of his teachings and method of practice. The Buddha continued teaching the Four Noble Truths right up until his “great passing away” (mahaparinirvana). It is important for us to study and learn deeply the practice of the Four Noble Truths.

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The first noble truth is dukkha, which means ill-being, uneasiness, pain, or suffering. All of us suffer to some extent: we have some malaise within our body and our psyche. We have to recognize and identify it, to acknowledge the presence of ill-being and to touch it. Sometimes we may need the help of a teacher.

The second noble truth is samudaya, the origination of ill-being: how our ill-being came to be, its roots. We suffer and we recognize that suffering is there, and then we look deeply to see its origins. Without first touching our ill-being, there is no way we can look deeply into it and understand the second noble truth of origination. “This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not.” It is very simple. There is no need to make it complicated.

The third truth is nirodha, cessation: the absence or extinction of ill-being. This is good news. IT means ill-being can be transformed or removed. If you think that Buddhism says that everything is suffering and that we cannot do anything about it, that is the opposite of the Buddha’s message. The Buddha taught us to recognize and acknowledge the presence of ill-being, but we must not forget that he also taught the third noble truth, the possibility of the cessation of ill-being. If there is no possibility of cessation, what is the use of learning and practicing Buddhism? When a doctor diagnoses an illness she also tells us how to remove that illness. That healing is possible is the third truth, and it makes both the patient and the doctor happy.

The fourth noble truth is the path, magga: Right Views, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Just as the second noble truth is the origination of ill-being, the fourth noble truth is the origination of well-being.

To summarize: (1) This is dukkha, ill-being. (2) This is samudaya, the origination of ill-being. (3) This is nirodha, the cessation or annihilation of suffering. 4) This is magga, the path or way. It is important for us to understand the interbeing nature of the Four Noble Truths. To understand dukkha, we have to understand origination, cessation, and path. If we don’t know the three other truths, we don’t understand dukkha. In Buddhism, dukkha has a specific meaning that can be understood only when we also understand the truths of origination, cessation, and path.

When we look deeply into the nature of ill-being, we see origination. But we also see the cessation of ill-being and the path. In fact, we need ill-being in order to see the path. The origination of ill-being, the cessation of ill-being, and the path for the cessation of ill-being are all found in the heart of ill-being. If we are too afraid to confront ill-being, we cannot realize the path. Don’t try to run away from your ill-being. Make peace with it, touch it. The Buddha said, “The moment you understand the nature of your ill-being, the moment you know how your ill-being has come to be, you are already on the path of release from it.” (Samyutta Nikay 247) If you know what has come to be and how it has come to be, you are already on the way to emancipation.

We have to understand the language the Buddha used. Ill-being means the absence of well-being. When ill-being is there, well-being is not there. Cessation means the absence of ill-being, which is the presence of well-being. When night is no longer there, something else must be, and that is day. In the West, when you want to teach someone mathematics, you say, “I will teach you mathematics.” But in Asia we sometimes say, “I will remove the lack of knowledge of mathematics from you.” The meaning is the same, but the expression is different. In Buddhism, we always encounter language like that. So we have to understand that the presence of ill-being means the absence of well-being, and the absence of ill-being means the presence of well-being. If we prefer, instead of saying “cessation,” we can use the word well-being. They mean exactly the same thing.

There are two pairs of cause and effect – ill-being and its origination, and well-being and its origination. There is a path leading to ill-being and there is also a path leading to well-being. If well-being is there, if happiness is there, if you are able to smile and enjoy the here and the now, there must be causes for your well-being, for the origination of your well-being. The fourth noble truth, the path leading to well-being is called by the Buddha the Noble Eightfold Path. In Chinese and Vietnamese, we call it the Path of Eight Right Practices. This path leads to the cessation of ill-being and to the presence of well-being.

The second noble truth, origination, is also a path. We can call it the Ignoble Eightfold Path, or the Path of Eight Wrong Practices. So there are two pairs of cause and effect: (1) Ill-being and the path leading to ill-being, which the Buddha called origination (which we can also call the Ignoble Eightfold Path, or the Path of Eight Wrong Practices) and (2) the cessation of ill-being, namely the presence of well-being, and the path leading to it, which is called the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Path of Eight Right Practices.

To share the teaching of the Buddha with the people of our time, we should be able to translate it into the kind of language that even young people can easily understand. This is why we have retranslated the Five Wonderful Precepts, using language capable of conveying the meaning of the Buddha to the people of our time. Each era needs a new kind of language that can convey fresh insight and understanding. We cannot renew our tradition without insight, and when we have true insight, we need language that is appropriate to convey it. This has happened throughout the history of Buddhism.

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In our practice, we learn the way to transform ill-being and bring about well-being. It is important for us to learn the Noble Eightfold Path and put it into practice in our daily lives. We have to penetrate the interbeing nature of the eight elements. Each element contains the other seven. We cannot understand one if we do not also understand all eight. In geometry, to define line we use the notion of point, and to define point we use the notion of line. A point is the intersection between two lines. A line is a point that moves. The Eightfold Path is the same. The first element of the path is Right View, but we cannot understand Right View if we don’t understand the other seven rights.

Right View means right understanding, insight, and wisdom, which are both the fruits of the practice and the base of the practice, the cause and effect. By practicing, we improve the quality of our views. In fact, if we continue to practice, we find out that all our views are wrong views. But we have to make the effort to have views that are relatively free from errors. We all have the seeds of Right View in us: seeds of understanding, awakening, and wisdom, but they may be buried deep in our store consciousness. Our parents may have treated us badly, as if we were not capable of anything. Instead of inspiring self-confidence in us, they gave us low self-esteem. Our teachers, friends, and society also may have only watered the seeds of our low self-esteem, saying we were stupid and good for nothing. The Buddha taught that each of us has in us the seeds of Buddhahood, the capacity of waking up and understanding the nature of reality. That see of understanding in us is the baby Buddha herself.

When we stand before another person, we can place our hands together to form a lotus flower, bow, and say, “A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.” We can recognize and touch the seed of Buddhahood in that person. This is not just being polite. We really touch the seed of Buddhahood in the other person and help it grow. When we bow to a child in that way, we help her grow up beautifully, with self-confidence. If we allow the seed of Buddhahood in us to be watered, to be taken good care of, it will grow and flourish.

Right View has to do with perceptions. When we walk in the twilight, without a flashlight, we may perceive a piece of rope as a snake, and we might even scream. We suffer because of our fear, which is born from that wrong perception. The degree of Right View in us depends on our perceptions. That person has love for us. She really wishes us to be happy, but we don’t see it. We think she hates us and is trying to destroy our reputation. That person may be your mother, your lover, or your friend. It happens all the time. We are unable to see things clearly. We have wrong perceptions that prevent us from having Right View so our level of understanding and awakening is quite low.

In daily life, we have to look deeply at our perceptions and not believe so easily in them. We must always return to our perceptions and question whether we got it right or not. To do that, we have to practice mindfulness and concentration in daily life. Otherwise we might take this sound or that image in ways that are opposite of what they really are, of what was intended.

I know one young man who suffered terribly because of a wrong perception. His father had been away, and when he returned home, he learned that his wife was pregnant. His neighbor had been visiting regularly and been very helpful, and the father was sure that the child was not his but his neighbor’s, and this wrong perception settled in so deeply that he became icy and distant from his wife. She had no idea why he had become so cold, and she suffered a lot. And of course, the baby within her also suffered. All three of them suffered, as did other members of their family seeing them like that. One wrong perception made many people suffer for many years.

The child was born and grew in that atmosphere of suspicion and wrong perceptions. When he was twelve, his uncle, who was visiting, commented on how much the boy looked like his father and only then did the boy’s father accept him as a son. Much damage had been done in twelve years to the whole family, and now, many years later, the extent of the damage continues to reveal itself.

We have to be very careful about our perceptions. We may think that the other person hates us, and much suffering can come from just one wrong perception. The Buddha said that most of our suffering comes from wrong perceptions. That is why we have to listen and look carefully and avoid wrong perceptions as much as possible. We must always go to the person who said or did something and ask him if our perception was correct. We have to learn to see things more clearly in our daily lives and avoid wrong perceptions as much as possible. Our Right Views have very much to do with our perceptions.

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Wrong Thinking also has to do with wrong perceptions and Wrong Views. Because all eight folds of the path are linked to each other, we cannot practice just one. To practice is to practice all eight. We have to remember the nature of interbeing of the eight elements of the path.

The poor father was so caught in his pride that he suffered enormously. Although he suspected that the child was not his, he did not have the courage to tell his wife. That is always a huge mistake. Don’t be so sure of your impressions. If you suspect something, go to the other person and ask. Pride has no place in true love. Do not let pride stand between you and that person. Always go to the other person and say, “I suffer. Please help me. Please tell me, why did you do that?” If you act like the father, you will cause suffering to yourself, to the one you love, and to many other people. The mantra I would like you to practice is, “Are you sure?” Are you sure of your perceptions? Don’t stick to that feeling, that perception, that belief, that impression. You will avoid a lot of suffering in the future if you are open to reexamine and explore each of your views.

In Buddhist literature, ditthi (Sanskrit: drsti, views) always means wrong views. Your view is from just one point. That is why it is called a point of view. If you go to another point, you will see other things. The first view was not complete and therefore not entirely a Right View. In the sutras the word “view” always means Wrong View. That is why we hear the expression, “All views are wrong views.” Our practice is to eliminate more and more the elements that are wrong from our views. If you have a view of something, be aware that if you look more deeply and practice more mindfulness, attention, and concentration, you will discover that the quality of your view can be improved.

Nuclear scientists have a view concerning electrons that they are pleased with, but they are careful. They continue to develop better accelerators, because they know that there is more to be discovered. They know that all views about the electrons are wrong views. We practitioners must do the same. We can never be sure of our views. Attachment to views is the greatest obstacle in the practice. We should be patient and careful, never too sure of our perceptions.

In each of us there is a river of perceptions flowing day and night. To meditate means to sit on the bank of the river and observe all perceptions. With the energy of mindfulness, we can see the nature of our perceptions and untie the knots that bind us to our wrong perceptions. All our suffering has its roots in our wrong perceptions, so please practice the mantra, “Are you sure?” Always refer to it, and try to look more and more deeply. Our views can be more or less wrong. When we have true understanding, we transcend all kinds of views, even our views of the Four Noble Truths. Looking deeply, we can appreciate the teaching of the Prajnaparamita: “no ill-being, no origination of ill-being, no cessation of ill-being, and no path.” It means we have to look again. Our view that the Buddha taught that life is suffering, that all existence is ill-being is not correct. If we practice the Ignoble Eightfold Path, ill-being will arise naturally, but if we practice the Noble Eightfold Path, our life will be filled with joy, ease and wonder. We will examine the other Right Practices later on.

This article on The Four Noble Truths is edited from a Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in July 1994. It will be included in a book on Basic Buddhism, to be published by Parallax Press in 1995.

Photos:
First photo by Tran Van Minh.
Second photo by Lynn MacMichael.
Third photo by Therese Fitzgerald.

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.