Dharma Talk: Cultivating Our Deepest Desire

By Thich Nhat Hanh

When a woman becomes pregnant, something happens in her body, mind, and heart. The presence of the baby in her transforms her life, and a new energy arises that allows her to do things she normally could not do. She smiles and trusts humanity and the world more, and she becomes a source of joy and hope for many others. Even when she experiences morning sickness or other adversi­ties, deep within her, an inner peace, a deep source of satisfaction, has been awakened.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We who practice meditation also need to become “pregnant”—pregnant with the desire for enlightenment. A seed that has been buried in us for many years, under layers of suffering, sorrow, and forgetfulness, needs to be touched, and when it is, transformation occurs right away. In Mahayana Buddhism, this seed is called “the mind of enlightenment,” bodhicitta, the capacity to become a buddha. The moment we get in touch with this capacity, people will see joy, energy, and hope in us, and everything we do or say will manifest its presence.

We have many desires—the desire to be happy, to be enlightened, to discover, to understand, and to bring happiness to other people. Desire has very much to do with our practice. We want something, we aspire to it. If you smoke, you know what I mean. When you need a cigarette, you feel it. First of all, you know you lack something, but you don’t know what it is. This is a desire, but not the deepest kind. When you find out what it is—”I need a cigarette. I will not be really happy until I have one”—it is a kind of enlightenment, although a shallow one. When we are motivated by the desire to awaken our deepest understanding, we become a bodhisattva right away, and everything we do or say will be an expression of that desire.

The seed of our deepest desire lies in the depths of our consciousness. We may not be aware of it in the upper level of our consciousness, because it is still buried in the lower part, the “store consciousness,” and we have not been able to touch it. But when someone—a friend, a lover, a teacher, an aunt—provokes in us the possibility that we can become pregnant with bodhicitta, we are motivated to get in touch with it. The words “conviction,” “resolve,” and “determination” mean that we are motivated to find out what we really want, not just on the surface but deep down. Deep down we have the need to love, to be loved, to make people happy, and to understand the reality of life inside us and all around us. For the practitioner, especially in the Mahayana tradition, the first task is to find out what is our deepest desire.

How can we know and get in touch with it? We may need the help of a sangha or a teacher. We may think other things are important, but our true love, our deepest desire, is always the most important. If we find out how to touch it, it will be there with us all the time. We will only need to feed and nourish it, like a baby. When we are pregnant, we know our baby is there, and everything we eat and do nourishes our baby. Motivated by our deepest desire, we do it effortlessly. When we see a dharma brother or sister who is in touch with his or her deepest desire, we see great joy, energy, and happiness, even if that person is only a beginner in the practice.

When we are not in touch with our motivation, even if we struggle to make a lot of effort, even if we torture ourselves and make ourselves suffer, concentration will not come easily. It is much better not to fight, but to touch our deepest desire and concentrate on that. When that desire is strong in us, the concentration needed to realize real awakening arises effortlessly. Whether we are eating, drinking, walking, or washing dishes, even when we think we are not very concentrated, we are concentrated. Scientists and philosophers who are concentrated on their special subjects also have this kind of desire. One philosopher named Diogenes was so absorbed in his topic of concentration that when he went out during the day, he wasn’t aware it was day and he lit his lamp as if it were night. He was very much one with his subject, although at that moment he was not very mindful of his own body. When we touch our deepest desire, concentration will come easily and stay with us for a long time. We will be in constant concentration, not only in the meditation hall, but in the bathroom, the backyard, the kitchen, while shopping, and so on. Otherwise the concentration we acquire during practice will be shallow, and we will have to struggle for even that.

In the Zen tradition, the teacher’s role is to help the student touch his or her deepest desire. To do that, the teacher must understand the student. After observing the student for one, two, or three years, the teacher may propose a kung an (koan), and if the teacher and student succeed, after the transmission of the kung an, the student becomes really pregnant of that kung an. But successes like this do not happen every day. Both teacher and student need the right opportunity and also enough luck.

The teacher has to practice looking deeply in order to understand the student. Out of that kind of relationship, one day he may be able to give a kung an that is suitable for the student. Then the student has something to work with, a baby within him or herself. When the student is pregnant with his kung an, his practice is only to nourish that kung an—nothing else. In daily life, when he practices sweeping the floor or washing the dishes, these things have the power of nourishing the kung an. When he hears the bell of mindfulness, he practices breathing in and out, concentrating on the bell. He appears not to be concentrating on the kung an at all, just the sound of the bell and breathing in and out. But that is a dualistic way of seeing things. When the student practices listening to the bell deeply, the concentration that is generated penetrates into his store consciousness, bringing energy and support to nourish the kung an. Not only while listening to the bell, but while doing any­thing, he or she will practice motivating the best seeds in the store consciousness to come and nourish the baby.

The object of concentration while you practice listening to the bell is the sound of the bell, the in-breath, and the out-breath. But, at the same time, it is also the kung an within yourself. Without listening deeply to the bell, you will find that your kung an has no chance to grow. Whether proposed by a teacher or discovered by the student directly, the kung an needs to grow and develop in the store consciousness. It is the duty of the student to bury the kung an deep in the store conscious­ness. Mind consciousness needs to let the kung an reach store consciousness and not just play with it. Mind consciousness is the gardener; store consciousness is the garden that brings forth the flower of understanding. Entrust your kung an to your store consciousness. You have to have faith in your store consciousness.

If the kung an is a real one, it will touch the deepest level of your being, and you won’t need to make any additional effort for it to be to object of your concentra­tion, just as a mother-to-be does not need to make a special effort to be aware of the presence of the baby in her. Waking up in the morning, she knows she is pregnant, and she smiles to her baby. If you are strug­gling to be mindful, it is because you are not one with the object of your concentration, your kung an. Be pregnant with a wonderful baby, and you will know what to do. The deep desire to understand, love, and be loved is bodhicitta, the mind of the highest understanding. When you have that within you, you are a Bodhisattva, filled with energy to understand and to help. Mindful­ness is energy. A Zen student who is practicing with a true, living kung an is very concentrated, mindful of his kung an twenty-four hours a day, even while sleeping. Then one morning when he wakes up, the fruit of practice may be there, offered up by his store conscious­ness.

When you are pregnant, you trust your body. You know it has the power of healing, of nourishing your baby. Your mind consciousness is the gardener that has to bury the kung an deep in the soil of the store con­sciousness. After that, you take care and do everything in your power to help bring about a healthy birth. You practice concentration twenty-four hours a day. Breath­ing, walking, eating, drinking, or hugging—everything is to nourish the kung an within you.

When someone you love comes to visit, you are so happy. You try your best to keep her with you—one or two hours, or longer—because you know that with her there you are truly happy. But when your love is bodhicitta, your true kung an, you don’t have to detain her. She will stay with you wherever you go. True mindfulness is present twenty-four hours a day. Even if people come and talk to you, you are still concentrated. When a book is interesting, you don’t need to make an effort to pay attention. But if it is not interesting, concentration is difficult. When you are interested in something, when it is important to you, everything becomes interesting—a leaf, a pebble, a cloud, a pond, a child. You feel eager to look deeply into all of these things, to find out their true nature. When concentration  becomes easy and natural, it is true, effortless concentra­tion.

So if you want to succeed in the practice, make it interesting. If you are interested enough in the object of your practice, concentration will be easy, and it can touch the deepest level of your consciousness. Under­standing is a fruit of mindfulness and concentration. If you are not interested in something, you can never understand it. If you are not interested in someone, you can never understand that person. If you are interested in her deeply, you will be mindful and concentrated, and it will be easy to find out all about her.

In light of the practice in Mahayana Buddhism, the first thing to do is to produce the mind of enlightenment. Enlightenment means both understanding and love. In fact, love and understanding are the same thing, because if you don’t understand, the love in you is not true love. When your love is true love, you know it is made of understanding. When the Bodhisattva produces the mind of understanding, the deepest desire in her or him to understand is touched. It means love. A good teacher, a good dharma brother or sister, is someone who can help us touch that. If someone has been able to help us do that, we should be very grateful to her.

I was nine years old the first time I was really touched by something in that way. I saw on the cover of a magazine an image of the Buddha sitting on kusha grass, very calm and relaxed. I was impressed to see someone sitting that way, looking as if he had nothing else to do. He seemed to be entirely himself. I wanted to be calm, relaxed, and happy like that, able to inspire confidence and joy in those around me. That drawing was a dharma talk for me, a dharma talk without words. The seed of peace—the desire to be peaceful, relaxed, and happy in order to be able to help others be peaceful, relaxed, and happy—was touched in me.

There is a seed like that in every little boy and girl. It is important to show children beautiful images of the Buddha. An eight or nine-year-old boy or girl can be struck by such an image and motivated to practice deeply and help people. If you have young children, you can touch that desire within your child. I remember a series of articles in that magazine on “Buddhism in the World,” about practicing in society and in the family, not just in temples. Reading articles like that sparked in me the desire for awakening.

Two years later, when I was eleven, five of us—three brothers and two friends—discussed what we wanted to be in the future. One boy said, “I want to be a doctor.” Another said, “I want to become a lawyer.” We talked about choices like these. Then my big brother said, “I want to become a monk.” This was original and new. I don’t know why, but all five of us came to the conclu­sion that we wanted to be monks. For me it was easy, because I had already fallen in love with the Buddha. During our discussion, it was clear that some strong aspiration was already there in me. I did not know what it meant—being a monk was a vague idea, something about following the path of the Buddha—but I knew inside that it was what I wanted.

Six months later, our school went on a trip to Na Shun Mountain, in the northernmost province of central Vietnam. Each of us brought rice balls with sesame seeds for a picnic lunch. I had heard that there was a hermit on that mountain, and I really wanted to see him. I had met Buddhist priests, but I had never seen a hermit. I felt some affinity for him.

We walked seven miles to get to the foot of the mountain, and then we climbed up quite far. When we arrived, tired and thirsty, the hermit wasn’t there. I was disappointed. I didn’t understand that being a hermit meant you did not want to see too many people. So when the class stopped to eat lunch, I went off to search for the monk. I found a narrow rocky path and I tried to find the place where the hermit was hiding. I climbed for a few minutes, and suddenly, I heard water dripping. I fol­lowed the sound and discovered a beautiful, natural wellspring, clear and fresh, lined with stones. I felt so happy! When I looked into the well, I saw every detail at the bottom. I kneeled down and drank the water. It was cool and delicious. That spot was so quiet and wonderful that I felt I was meeting the hermit. I was completely satisfied; I did not need anything else. Then I lay down by the well and fell asleep. I slept for just a few minutes, but when I woke up, I didn’t know where I was. It must have been a very deep sleep. Then I remembered my friends, and I began walking down. On my way, this sentence appeared in my mind, not in Vietnamese, but in French: “I have just tasted the best kind of water.”

My friends had been searching for me, and they were very happy when I returned. But, during my lunch, while the other boys talked a lot, I was absorbed with the image of the well. I knew I had found the best kind of water to quench my thirst.

Nhu, my big brother, became a monk first. It was difficult for him, because our parents did not want him to do so. They thought that the life of a monk was very hard. So, although I too had that desire in me, I waited until the right moment before telling my parents. The seed continued to grow steadily in me, and four years later, thanks to my brother who did everything to help me, I became a novice at the beautiful temple Tu Hiau Temple in Central Vietnam, near the imperial city of Hue.

This essay is drawn from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s first lectures of the June 1992 retreat at Plum Village on “Looking Deeply in the Mahayana Tradition.” A book, Cultivating the Mind of Love, based on the complete lecture series, will be published by Parallax Press in 1994.

Photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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