Dharma Talk: The Horse Is Technology

By Thich Nhat Hanh

November 10, 2013
Plum Village

mb66-Dharma1

Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is the 10th of November, 2013, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall of the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village. The Winter Retreat will start in five days and will last ninety days. The Winter Retreat is the most beautiful retreat in Plum Village because we can go deep into the teaching, and we have plenty of time to build brotherhood and sisterhood and transform ourselves.

mb66-Dharma2

During this Winter Retreat we should stay in the compound of Plum Village, in the Sangha. We do not have permission to go out, even with the Internet. So there will be no individual email addresses and no Facebook. Facebook is neither good nor evil, but how you use it can bring more negative things than positive and can waste a lot of time. With Facebook, we are looking for something outside of us, and we do not have time to go back to ourselves and to take care of ourselves. So there will be absolutely no Facebook during this retreat. If you have anything that is not the Dharma, including iPod, iTouch, iTablet, films, and music, you have to throw it out.

Teaching at Google

On the 23rd of October, we spent the day at Google. We were in three groups at different locations, with Thay in one group and sixty monastics spread through the groups. Thay’s talk was seen and heard by everyone simultaneously.

We began with breakfast, and then at 8:30 we gave instructions on walking meditation. The people in the Google complex––they call it Googleplex––did walking meditation very seriously. At one point during the walking, we sat down, and Thay invited the small bell three times and had a cup of tea. Those who came late saw the calm atmosphere; it was very rare.

Then a Google representative delivered a welcome speech, and Thay gave a talk followed by a session of questions and answers. Thay offered a guided meditation that was used the next day at a plenary session broadcast worldwide. There were gifts exchanged, and at noon after sharing instructions on how to eat mindfully, Thay ate lunch with everyone. At 1:45, Sister Chan Khong led a session of total relaxation. At 3:00, Thay and some of the monastics met with senior Google executives, including a number of engineers. We had a long and deep discussion on how to make good use of technology in order to help people suffer less.

Google offered the theme, “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” They wanted to know the interplay between intention, insight, and innovation, not only in terms of work, but also in all aspects of life. The basic question was: How can technology become a force for integration rather than destruction? Because so far, it is a force of destruction; it’s pulling us away from each other.

Before we went to Google, a number of monastics wrote to Thay, describing the situation there and suggesting some questions to address. The first question was, “How can we innovate in order to take good care of ourselves?” Second, “How can we take care of the health of our workforce and take care of Mother Earth?” There is enlightenment in this question: it shows that they see the negative aspects of technology. They have found that emotional health is decreasing and distress is increasing in the Google workforce. They want some teaching and practice to deal with that situation.

Another question was, “Given the high rate of burnout, is there a way that we as a corporation can assist employees to create a better work-life balance?” Many Googlers are addicted to their work, they have a hard time detaching from it, and it can take over their lives. Maybe each of us feels that way also. We are being taken over by our work, and we do not have the time and the capacity to live our life deeply. Life is a gift, and we are not able to enjoy it, to make the best of that gift.

Strangely, there is an eagerness to find a technological solution to technology addiction. There is a disease called technology addiction, and yet you want to use technology to heal. Can we heal drug addiction with drugs? Can we heal anger with anger? Can we heal violence with violence? That is a contradiction.

So that is the First Noble Truth, not only for Buddhists, but for everyone. We have to contemplate the First Noble Truth of ill-being. Technology is destructive. Technology is taking our time away. We do not have the time to take care of ourselves, our families, and nature. Our civilization is going in a wrong direction.

This question is the beginning of a kind of awakening. We recognize the ill-being, and we want to transform it. We are looking for the way, the path, to heal that ill-being. That is the Fourth Noble Truth: the noble path leading to the transformation of ill-being.

mb66-Dharma3

Where Are We Going?

There is a Zen story about a person sitting on a horse, galloping very quickly. At a crossroads, a friend of his shouts, “Where are you going?” The man says, “I don’t know, ask the horse!”

This is our situation. The horse is technology. It carries us and we cannot control it. So we have to begin with intention, asking ourselves, what do we want? The unofficial slogan of Google is “Don’t be evil.” Can you make a lot of money without being evil? That’s what they try to do, but so far, not very successfully. You want to be wealthy. You want to be Number One, but that costs you your life, because you are carried away by work.

Searching for information on your computer becomes a way to distract you from your problems. In this way we run away from ourselves, from our family, from our Mother Earth. As a civilization, we are going in the wrong direction. Even if you don’t kill or rob anyone, you are losing your life. If you do not have time to take care of your family and nature, making money that way costs you your life, your happiness, and the life and happiness of your beloved ones and Mother Earth. So that way of making money is evil. But is there a way to make money without being evil?

People have suffering within themselves: loneliness, despair, anger, fear. Most people are afraid of going home to take care of themselves, because they think they will be overwhelmed by the suffering inside. Instead, we try to run away from ourselves or to cover up the suffering inside by consuming. Technology is helping us to do this, so in this way technology is evil.

The horse is supposed to carry us to a good destination, as is technology. But, so far, technology has mostly helped us to run away from ourselves at the cost of our own life and happiness, and the happiness of our beloved ones and the beauty of Mother Earth. So you cannot say that we are not evil, because while realizing your dream of being wealthy, you sacrifice your life, you sacrifice the happiness of your beloved ones, and you cause damage to Mother Earth. So it’s not so easy not to be evil.

But if technology can help you to go home to yourself and take care of your anger, take care of your despair, take care of your loneliness, if technology helps you to create joyful feelings, happy feelings for yourself and for your beloved ones, it’s going in a good way and you can make good use of technology. When you are happy, when you have time for yourself and your beloved ones, maybe you can be more successful in your business. Perhaps you will make more money if you are really happy, if you have good emotional health, if you reduce the amount of stress and despair within yourself.

The Four Nutriments

During his talk at Google, Thay spoke about the four nutriments. In Buddhist psychology there are five universal mental formations: contact, sparsa; attention, manaskara; feelings, vedana; perception, samjna; volition, cetana. They are always present, expressing themselves in our consciousness. The first one is contact, and the last one is volition. These two mental formations are considered to be the kind of food we don’t consume with our mouth.

Some of us use technology to consume in order to forget the suffering in us, in the same way that we sometimes use edible food. When we are lonely or fearful, we search in the refrigerator for something to eat, not because we need it, but we want to forget the suffering in us. Many of us are addicted to eating and become fat and suffer from many kinds of diseases, just because of this kind of consuming. Edible food is the first of the four nutriments.

The second nutriment the Buddha taught was sensory impressions. We pick up a book to read, hoping to have a sensation. We go to the Internet, looking for pictures and songs and music to have a certain feeling. When you listen to music or read a book or newspaper out of routine, you are doing it so you won’t encounter yourself. Many of us are afraid of going home to ourselves, because we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside of us. So we look for sensory impressions to consume. Technology, the Internet, is helping us to do this.

Many young people do this. A teenager confessed to us in a retreat that he spends at least eight hours each day with electronic games, and he cannot stop. At first he was playing games to forget, and now he’s addicted to it. In real life he does not feel any love or understanding in his family, school, or society. Many young people are trying to fill up the loneliness, the emptiness inside, by looking for sensory impressions. That is the second source of nutriment.

Now, as a Buddhist monk or nun, are we doing the same? If you go to the Internet and download a film and a song to enjoy, then you are doing the same. You have to do what the Buddha taught you to do: learn to go home to yourself without fear. Breathe and walk to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and insight, and go home and take care of the loneliness inside. We do not have time to look for sensory impressions to fill up the vacuum in us. If we do that, we are not really monastics, we are acting just like the people in the world. That is why in this Winter Retreat, we have to practice letting go from our own choice, not because Thay tells us to do it. We do it because there is an enlightenment, there is an awakening in this way of living, and you can help people in the world by choosing to live differently. We have to learn to go home to ourselves and take care of the suffering inside and get the peace, the joy that we need, so that we can help people.

That is why having no email address, no Internet, no Facebook, is not something that makes you suffer, but helps you to become a real practitioner. If you do it, if you wake up to that kind of truth, you will do it with joy, not with a sense of deprivation. There are many people who check their email several times a day and find nothing new. Because you are empty inside, you are looking for something new. You have to learn to generate something really new: a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness. That is possible with the practice of mindfulness.

What Is Your Intention?

Volition is the third nutriment, another source of food. Volition is intention. What do you want to do with your life? That is the question. Of course, you have the right to look for material and affective comforts, but that is not your deepest desire. Do you have an ultimate concern? Do you know the meaning of your life? That can be a tremendous source of energy.

If your volition is only to make money, to become the number one corporation, that’s not enough, because there are those who have a lot of money, a lot of power, and yet they are not happy. They feel quite lonely and they don’t have time to live their life. Nobody understands them and they don’t understand anyone. Happiness is not there because there is no understanding or love.

So your volition is not to have a lot of money, to have social recognition, to have a lot of power or fame. What you really want may be something more. Maybe you want to reverse the direction of civilization. You want to help people know how to handle the suffering in themselves, how to heal and transform, how to generate joy and happiness, how to live deeply every moment of their life, so that they can help their beloved ones to do the same and help the Earth to restore her beauty. That is a good desire, a good nutriment. As a corporate leader, if you have that kind of energy, you will become very strong. That is the first item they wanted Thay to speak about at Google: the intention, the motivation that pushes us to do what we are doing.

The Buddha had a strong desire to transform himself, to have the freedom and compassion to help people suffer less. That is a good desire; that is good food. Animated by that kind of energy, he spent forty-five years teaching and helping all kinds of people. He had very strong energy.

So those of us who have a good source of the nutriment of volition can be very happy. To generate understanding and compassion, to be truly happy and to be able to help many people: that is good volition, good intention. If a corporate leader has that kind of bodhicitta, he can reverse the trend of civilization. He can be himself, he can control the horse, and he can make good use of technology.

mb66-Dharma4

mb66-Dharma5

With a knife, you can chop vegetables and peel potatoes. The knife is a helpful tool. But a terrorist can use a knife to kill people also. Technology is like that. If you have compassion and insight, you can come up with innovations that make good use of technology, that will help you and others go home to themselves, take care of themselves and their beloved ones.

The fourth nutriment is consciousness. Your individual consciousness is a source of food. There are many good things in your consciousness: you have the capacity to love, to forgive, to understand, to be compassionate. You need to know how to cultivate these elements in your consciousness. We all have the seed of compassion in us. If we know how to water the seed of compassion every day, it will grow. Every time we touch the seed of compassion, it becomes a mental formation, and with compassion alive in you, you don’t suffer anymore. That is good food.

But compassion is not the only good food you have. You have the seeds of joy, of happiness, of tenderness, of forgiveness, of nondiscrimination––many good things in yourself. You have to learn to cultivate more of these elements so that you have good food to nourish you and make the people you love happy. In you, there are also negative seeds, like a seed of anger, a seed of despair, a seed of loneliness. If you consume in a way that waters these negative seeds, then when you read a newspaper or play an electronic game or have a conversation, anger, despair, jealousy may arise in you, and you cultivate food that is not healthy for you.

As a gardener, you grow things that are good for you to consume. We know that there are plants that can make us sick, like poison oak, so we don’t cultivate those. That is true with anger, despair, violence, discrimination. These are not good food.

All of us have the seeds of these negative things in us. The collective consciousness is also food. There are neighborhoods now full of violence, fear, anger, and despair. If you happen to live in that neighborhood, you consume the collective energy of anger and fear. You don’t want to be angry and fearful and violent like them, but if you continue to stay there for a few years, you consume that collective energy and you become like them. That is not good food.

When you come to a retreat, you see hundreds of people who know how to breathe, how to concentrate, how to release tension, how to generate compassion. They generate a powerful collective energy of mindfulness and compassion, and you consume it. You feel the peace, you feel the joy, you feel brotherhood, and you consume it. That is good food. Collective consciousness can be good food or can be poisonous. The collective consciousness nutriment is very important.

But at Google, we spoke more about volition, because understanding volition was the most direct response to their inquiry about intention. A corporate leader should have a clear volition, a desire to help people suffer less. If you have that kind of good food, you become a happy person and you can be a good leader. A corporate leader needs to learn how to go home to himself first, to listen and understand his own suffering, to have compassion and take care of himself. Then he can help people in his family to do that and his family will be his support. And then he can try to help his associates do the same, and they will practice helping all employees in the workforce to go home and take care of themselves and their families. You can inspire them to have that kind of volition, that kind of intention, that kind of motivation. You give them the third nutriment. As leader, you might say, “Dear friends, you come here not just to have a job and to feed your family. You come here to join us in helping people to suffer less. We work in a way that helps people go back to themselves and take care of themselves. In order to do that, we have to do it for ourselves.”

Making Good Use of Technology

Some of our brothers have proposed to Facebook and Google to create a website where people can come and learn how to breathe, how to walk, how to handle a strong emotion, how to generate a feeling of joy and happiness for themselves and for other people. Facebook has promised to help make that happen. If Google has a mindfulness website, all the employees of Google can go there and learn how to take care of themselves and their families. Then they will have insight into what kind of electronic gadget or device will help us to go in that direction.

Suppose you talk to your smartphone. “Dear friend, I suffer. What shall I do?” And your smartphone says, “Oh! The first thing you have to do is to breathe in mindfully and go back to yourself.” This is the advice of a good teacher. An electronic device can tell you, “Dear friend, you are not in a good situation to do something. You have anger in you. You have to go home and take care of your anger.” When you are driving a car while falling asleep, a sensor would detect that. It might invite the bell to sound and say, “Dear friend, you are sleepy. Wake up! It’s dangerous to drive in this condition.” That is the practice of mindfulness.

The electronic devices that you invent can do that kind of work. iReminder; iReminding; iReturning. Returning to yourself. We spent two hours consulting with Google executives and engineers to find ways to make good use of technology to help people take care of themselves and suffer less.

There are many new functions they can put in telephones to help us, like the bell of mindfulness every quarter of an hour so that you remember to go back to yourself and to take care of yourself. In Plum Village, every time we hear the bell, we stop our thinking, we stop our talking, we stop our action, bringing our mind back to our body, and having the insight, “Ah, we are alive! We are present, sitting, walking on this planet, how wonderful.” You enjoy breathing in and out three times in mindfulness in order to celebrate the fact that you are still alive. When you are confused, when you are angry, you can talk to your phone, and your phone can remind you what to do and what not to do.

There was a young engineer who said, “But if we do these things, it’s like we are imposing on others what they don’t need.” Thay said that there are real needs, and there are needs that are not real. When you look for something to eat when you are not hungry, but are trying to forget the suffering in yourself, that is not a real need. If technology is trying to satisfy these kinds of needs, you are not helping people, you are only giving them the kind of sense impressions that cover up their suffering. But they have real needs, like going home to themselves and taking care of themselves, taking care of their families. That is why you have to help people to identify the real needs, and needs that are not real.

I think we planted a lot of good seeds in the minds of these Googlers. Let us see what will come after a few months.

Enjoyment Is the Practice

Thinking that work is one thing and life is another thing is dualistic thinking. For example, after you park your car in the parking lot and begin to walk to your office, you can choose between mindful walking or walking just to arrive at your office. If you know how to walk mindfully, then every step from the parking lot to your office can bring you joy and happiness. You can release the tension in your body and touch the wonders of life with every step. Walking this way is a pleasure. On the one hand, you see walking as life; on the other hand, you see walking as labor, as work.

When you wash the dishes, there’s a way to do it that helps you to enjoy every moment of dishwashing, so washing the dishes is not work, it is life. If you want to know how to wash dishes, read my book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. If you know how to mop the floor and cook your breakfast in mindfulness, it becomes life, not work. When a doctor receives a patient, it is work. But with compassion, with joy, you can transform the meeting between you, the doctor, and the patient, into a beautiful relationship, and that’s life. So life and work are not two different things.

When Thay does calligraphy, he begins every session with a cup of tea. Tea was invented by monastics in the Zen tradition who found that by drinking it, they were more awake for sitting meditation. So tea and meditation have been together for thousands of years.

Then Thay mixes some of the tea with the ink, and when he draws half a circle, he follows his in-breath. When he draws the second half of the circle, he breathes out. So there is the breathing in the circle, there’s mindfulness in the circle. From time to time he invites his own teacher to do the circle with him. In his hand is the hand of the mother, of the father, of the ancestor, of the teacher, of the Buddha. To do the circle in mindfulness, there must be the hand of the Buddha in his hand. So during that practice of drawing the circle, there is mindfulness, there is concentration and insight. This insight is made not by a self, but by a collective of selves. The Buddha is there and helps to make the circle in mindfulness.

So if you say that Thay is working hard, you are not right, because he enjoys making the circle. That is also his life and his practice. Meditation, working, and practicing become one.

In the monastic life of Plum Village, we do four things in our daily life. We study the Dharma and we practice the Dharma. Third, we work: cleaning, cooking, organizing a retreat. And fourth, we play: having tea with each other, playing basketball, and things like that. These are the four aspects of monastic life.

These four aspects inter-are. You do not enjoy only the time of playing, because the time of playing is also learning, is also building brotherhood, sisterhood, and cultivating health. Enjoyment is the practice. So within the playing is the studying, the practice, and the work.

We learn and practice in a way that cultivates joy. We can do walking meditation and sitting meditation the same way we play a game. It can be very joyful, just sitting together and doing nothing, or walking together. When you listen to a Dharma talk, allow the seeds of joy in you to be watered. It’s not good practice if you suffer.

When we organize a retreat or a Day of Mindfulness, we do it with compassion. We have a chance to serve, and that gives us a lot of joy. That’s not work, that is practice. When people come and practice, we practice with them. So there is no distinction between working and living and practicing.

That is the meaning of monastic life. The four aspects of life: learning, practicing, working, and playing. Each of the four has the three others inside it. As a lay practitioner, you can do the same. That is why you have to transcend dualistic thinking about work and life. We have to train ourselves to do our work in such a way that every moment of work is a moment of life.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

PDF of this article

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

The Spirit of Non-Self

Living in Sangha Paradise 

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

A mist thickly covers the forests and mountains of Deer Park Monastery. The entire practice center is embraced by an atmosphere of stillness. The activity bell wakes all from slumber at exactly 5:00 a.m., followed by reverberating sounds of the Great Temple Bell in front of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. The powerful sounds of the bell, harmonizing with the light and flowing voice of a sister chanting, enhance the peacefulness of a new day.

mb61-Spirit

Today is the fourth day of a five-day retreat, “Opening the Door of Your Heart,” for people who speak Vietnamese. In the tranquil atmosphere of the morning, the Sangha queues up to get a packed breakfast in preparation for hiking up the misty mountain and enjoying their first meal of the day.  About 500 monastic and lay friends practice walking meditation along the winding path. When the Sangha reaches Elephant Peak, some people are, perhaps, surprised to see Thay already seated in meditation with    his attendants. Standing here, one faces an ocean of clouds that covers an area of the city of Escondido. It feels as if one is hovering among the clouds of a faraway land of enchantment. It is truly a Zen experience to be in the spaciousness of earth and grand open sky. Everyone finds a comfortable place to sit among the huge flat rock formations that have been here for hundreds of years.

mb61-Spirit2

After practicing sitting meditation for half an hour, I slowly open my eyes to see that the sun has risen and made the sea of clouds appear even clearer. The Sangha begins eating breakfast in silence. After some time, Thay shows me a cluster of tiny ants carrying crumbs dropped from our rice cakes. They carry their food in just one direction. Some ants move rice cake crumbs or potato skins many times larger than themselves. Sometimes two or three ants clutch one piece together. Thay compassionately gives them some more food that they can bring back to their nest for the colony to enjoy.

Thay tells me to take a photo of these ants. I do so and feel curious about where they are taking these provisions and how big their colony is. I follow their trail and feel pity to see how small they are, because they have to carry food so much larger than their bodies. Their paths wind up and down the rock surface. Some lose their balance and topple over due to their heavy load. I just let them be and don’t interfere, as if I were not there. My observation takes me to the entrance of their nest, a crack in the rock with a lot of sand surrounding it. I feel despondent that I can’t continue farther while they unaffectedly carry on their task. A sense of curiosity continues in my store consciousness for the next few days.

Like A Colony of Ants

Recently, I saw a short documentary film called “Animal Planet,” which examined the life and activities of a colony of ants. Thousands of them followed each other in a meadow of tall green grass that resembled the young plants in a rice paddy. Many climbed grass stems and bit off young shoots, while those on the ground carried the shoots back to the nest. Each had its own particular task to do, be it to bite off the shoots, transport provisions, or remain inside to build the underground nest from the grass that had been carried back. They seemed to work like an ensemble without a leader or discrimination. None of them seemed to complain about each other. The way they lived reminded me of our Sangha.

As brothers and sisters in the Dharma, we work together like ants in a colony, or like cells in a body. In a body, there is no single cell that is considered the leader of all other cells. A retreatant once asked one of our sisters who plays the violin, “Why does Thay travel with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour?” She replied, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra.” The conductor would not attract an audience by himself; yet if there were no conductor, the quality of music produced by the orchestra would not be very high. Thay has never wanted to control us. He only seeks to open doors and clear obstacles for us. Thay just allows things to unfold naturally and tries to find the best way to help all of us develop our various talents. We inter-depend on one another; we inter-are with each other. When our individual skills are combined, they no longer belong to any particular person, but become the effectiveness of the whole Sangha.

Whether we are at our monastery or on the road, and especially during the recent retreats in North America, our brothers and sisters live and work together like a colony of ants; we flow as a river. Our 2011 U.S. Tour, which spanned three months, included five public talks, eight Days of Mindfulness (DOM), an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, seven retreats in as many states, a half DOM with the Google staff at their headquarters in California, and a talk for congressmen and women in Washington, D.C. Each retreat had from eight hundred to one thousand participants, the DOMs had from one thousand to sixteen hundred people, and the public talks attracted approximately twenty five hundred attendees. The majority of activities were organized by monastic brothers and sisters. The tour took the organizing team two years to plan.

We work together as an ensemble, and each person is allocated a task: some oversee logistics, others take care of registration, and others welcome and orient retreatants. Some brothers and sisters do the grocery shopping while others cook. Some manage the accommodations and others are in charge of hygiene. We have a transportation coordinator and children’s program supervisors. A team films the Dharma talks, a team produces the DVDs, and a team sells Thay’s calligraphies and books. All these tasks are tightly coordinated, and they all relate to each other.

When we’re on big teaching tours and retreats, the brothers and sisters do much work, but there are rarely complaints or criticism. Glitches are opportunities for us to learn new things and better understand each other. One brother is the treasurer, and he is on a cooking team, the CD producing team, and the organizing team. He has such a lot of work to do, but he is always fresh, smiling, and full of energy! One time when I saw that he had a great deal of bookkeeping work to do, I said to him, “Dear brother, you have so much work to do. May I give you a hand?” He looked at me kindly and replied, “The paperwork is a bit complicated. It’s okay, I’ll do it.” I continued, “But please take care of your health.” He smiled and said in his humorous way, “There’s no need to live a long life. Forty years is enough!” Matching his wit, I replied, “Thay has said that whoever goes before he does is not showing enough filial piety! The Buddha and Thay have entrusted their mission to us, so we can’t go so early!” We both laughed.

Recognizing Paradise

During our retreats there is much joy, and peals of laughter can be heard everywhere, especially in the kitchen. Each kitchen team has only five or six people, but they cook for over a thousand retreatants. They do so with happiness cultivated from the love of brotherhood and sisterhood. One day I went into the kitchen and saw a sister at the stove frying tofu. I was surprised at how tall she was that day, and then I realized that she was standing on a step in order to comfortably reach the stove top. I saw the large tray of delicious fried tofu pieces, and thought it must have taken her quite some time to fry all of that tofu in the midday heat, yet her face was still fresh. I said to her, “Sister, you are so good!”

mb61-Spirit3

An elder brother had been assigned to that same cooking team. He was cooking a huge pot of curry and using a large wooden ladle to stir. The curry was appealing, but the most amusing sight was that the pot was as tall as his ribs! This pot surely would need to be carried by three or four people. I had a funny thought: Cooking like this, one does not need to go to the gym and lift weights! I felt very happy because I knew for sure that the food cooked by the brothers and sisters had a lot of love in it, and that the retreatants would be able to taste and enjoy it.

mb61-Spirit4

When I have a bit of spare time during a tour, I like to watch children play together; I think they look like innocent angels. I particularly relish hearing their spontaneous laughter echoing in the summer air. At least a few dozen children come with their parents to each retreat. Brothers and sisters take care of the children’s program very skillfully; they are mostly “baby monks” or “baby nuns” who have grown up in the monastery. They wholeheartedly guide, play with, and offer their presence to the children. That’s why the children who attend Plum Village retreats are so happy. When I look into the bright eyes of these children, I know that we are sowing good seeds in them—seeds of peace, happiness, and liberation.

I also like to drop by the bookshop to see Thay’s new calligraphy, which helps remind people to practice mindfulness at home. The calligraphies may say, for example, “Breathe, my dear,” or “Peace is every step,” or “Happiness begins with your lovely smile.” The calligraphy stand is always full of people. An elder sister is happily helping her younger sisters distribute the calligraphies, even though she has many other things to do. Promoting calligraphy involves more than just selling individual sheets; there are also elements of practice and play. People often have many questions about the meaning of Thay’s calligraphies; therefore the stand is like a Dharma hall. This is an opportunity for elder sisters to pass on their experience to younger ones, while also working to serve and liberate all beings. The elder sisters explain the calligraphies in a dynamic way, while the younger sisters’ fresh faces and witty comments attract visitors, as well.

Despite the crowds, the atmosphere at retreats is serene and peaceful. One practitioner commented, “Even though there are about a thousand retreatants here, it doesn’t feel like it. The atmosphere here is totally different from outside.” There are not only those who are experienced in the practices of Plum Village, but also many newcomers. The long-time practitioners are a much-needed foundation and source of support for newer practitioners. During one walking meditation session full of people, one retreatant exclaimed, “This is a miracle! We are walking in paradise!” Thanks to the mindful presence and collective energy of the Sangha, we can recognize this paradise.

Our Source of Energy

mb61-Spirit5During a Dharma sharing session at Estes Park, Colorado, one retreatant commented, “In this retreat there are up to eight hundred people and everything is done by the brothers and sisters. I’m truly surprised to see that you do all of these things so wholeheartedly. I’m curious to know how you all have so much energy.” I looked at her and simply replied, “Your tears and smiles are our source of energy.” It is true that there are tears from pain and suffering, but there are also tears born of happiness. And smiles are signs of joy, peace, happiness, and transformation. Both tears and smiles are a source of inspiration that nourishes our mind of love. That is why we have so much energy to continue what we are doing. I feel so nourished and happy as a monastic because my brothers and sisters and I have come across a way of practice that is relevant to us. We are able to continue the Buddha’s task of liberating beings in the way that Thay has transmitted to us.

Personally, I think we monastics benefit the most from these retreats. When we conduct such retreats, we have the opportunity to come in contact with the suffering of people from many sectors of society. As monastics, there are places that we cannot go; there are things that only laypeople can do. However, through our interactions with lay friends, and listening to their life experiences and suffering, we are able to see different aspects of life more clearly. Sometimes, just by listening, we alleviate much of their pain and suffering. When I’m able to sit and listen to people’s deepest pain and hidden difficulties, then naturally the energy of compassion arises within me. This kind of energy makes me so happy whenever I’m able to generate it.

I think it’s truly wonderful to be a monastic, especially when I have the chance to help others. In my opinion, “miraculous” things don’t need to be lofty; it is what I can do every day that counts. To be able to help others benefit from their practice, to bring about healing, transformation, happiness, peace, and joy in others is already a miracle. My life is so fulfilling and happy. What else is there to search for?

The Spirit of Sangha

We monastics spend much time learning, practicing, and conducting retreats. Another art needs to be nourished every day, as well: the art of developing brotherhood and sisterhood. This is the foundation of happiness in our daily practice. Everything we do holds the purpose of building brotherhood and sisterhood, and drinking tea together is one of our favourite methods for doing so. Drinking tea is a meditation practice. Each pot of tea contains so many joyful stories that we share with each other, especially after a session of sitting meditation and chanting. And nothing beats hiking up a mountain and drinking tea together there. Our daily activities have all the elements of mindfulness practice, play, work, and learning. It is only when we live and work in this spirit of inclusiveness and inter-relatedness that large-scale teaching tours can be successful and beneficial for practitioners.

Living and practicing in the Sangha, as well as going on teaching tours with Thay, have given me a precious lesson—anything can be accomplished when we have ideals, aspirations, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Further, when we are able to let go of our individualism, then we can easily flow with togetherness. That is the spirit of living in the Sangha, the spirit of non-self. That is the love of brotherhood and sisterhood.

There is a popular proverb in Vietnamese: “One stick cannot make a mountain, but three sticks together create a solid peak.” It is a sensible proverb that everyone likes and appreciates. Before I was ordained, it did not hold much meaning for me. It was merely a nice idea. But after becoming a monk, having lived and practiced with the Sangha, I realize its depth and truth. I appreciate this proverb, thanks to the miraculous power of the Sangha and the wonders of a lifestyle of non-self. This lifestyle is truly a Sangha paradise.

mb61-Spirit6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

 

PDF of this article