Healthy and Free

By Jerome Freedman, Ph.D.

On Superbowl Sunday in 1997, I was admitted to the hospital with what turned out to be bladder cancer. On the day of the vernal equinox, I felt a remarkable healing take place during a session of guided imagery. Every year, the equinox reminds me of the famous Zenrin:

Sitting quietly, doing nothing
Spring comes, and the grass grows all by itself.  

During the guided imagery session, I had a tremendous insight, which allowed me to transform this Zenrin to reflect my situation:

Lying still, breathing in, breathing out,
Healthy cells grow all by themselves, and I am free of cancer.

This insight was followed by a practice that I still maintain today. Every time I place my left foot—at least, when I am mindful—I think: Healthy. Whenever I place my right foot, I think: Free. I also use these words to trigger mindfulness when doing meditation. These mindfulness practices were naturally a result of my understanding and love of Thay and his simple method of teaching the Dharma.

Seven months later, I was able to attend one of Thay’s retreats at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I walked on the beach with Thay, practicing “healthy/free” while holding his hand. I feel that his willingness to allow this to happen was inspirational in my recovery. In addition, I had a conversation with Sister Chan Khong about cancer and my use of mindfulness in dealing with the pain and suffering I was experiencing. Her compassion, attentiveness, and loving kindness helped me cope with the rough road ahead of me.

In February 2000, I visited Plum Village for a few days. During the period after my visit to Plum Village in 2000 until my visit in 2006, I was a founding member of the Mountain Sangha in Marin County, California and participated in Lyn Fine’s aspirant group. I also had no recurrence of cancer and wanted to teach a class on mindfulness in healing as part of my aspiration to be ordained in the Order of Interbeing.

When the possibility of visiting Plum Village came up in March 2006, I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could participate in the Spring Retreat. It took several phone calls and an email to Sister Chan Khong to get the answer I was hoping for. She responded, in part: “Please come, I guarantee that you can see me, but for Thay it depends on his health.”

Thursday, March 23 was a day of mindfulness with Thay. His talk was in Vietnamese, with Sister Chan Khong translating into English. After the Dharma talk, I approached Sister Chan Khong and reminded her who I was. She asked me to get my shoes and follow her to get my breakfast. Then she took me to Thay’s room! She told me not to eat until Thay came down for breakfast. I was literally beside myself, so I merely drank my cup of tea until he came down. Sister Chan Khong asked me how I would work with someone who had metastatic cancer, and as I fumbled with my answer, Thay came down the stairs.

I jumped up to hug him and sat down when he did. His first words were for me to share his sticky buns with him and the two attendant nuns by my side. I told Thay that I thought the Dharma was in good hands with the likes of Brothers Phap Dung and Phap An teaching as well as they did. He said to me, “I think you are doing very well yourself!” A little while later, I reviewed my practices with Thay and began to answer Sister Chan Khong’s question about cancer, starting with the famous Zenrin mentioned above.

Most of the time, I noticed Thay sitting quite calmly in a posture of complete equanimity. He was really enjoying his break- fast. At other times, other subjects were discussed, but when Thay finished his breakfast, he needed to rest before walking meditation. I left feeling the joy of being with such remarkable beings. Thay is a man of peace and he inspires me every day. His loving kind- ness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and generosity have penetrated my being.

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Jerome Freedman, True Precious Light, has been a student of Thay’s since 1985 and was ordained as an OI member in 2008. He was a founding member of the Mountain Sangha (www.mountainsangha.org). For more information about his illness and recovery, visit www.yellowstream.org.

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Dharma Talk: Five Wonderful Precepts

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

When we think about peace, we usually think about the absence of war and nuclear weapons, or the absence of social injustice. But I would like to raise a question concern­ing our ability to enjoy peace. Even if peace is present, if we are not able to enjoy it, then what is the use of having peace? Peace is relative. Even if we do not have perfect peace, we can have some peace right now, in the present moment. But many of us do not seem capable of enjoying peace in the present moment, in ourselves, or around us.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Many of us find peace boring, and so we do things that create war. We drink cognac, for instance, in order to feel better, when we feel bored with life—with the air we breathe, the sky above, the river that flows—and we need something else. But drinking cognac is not making peace, because cognac is made of grain, and many people in the world starve because they don’t have enough grain to eat. The fact that we drink cognac means that we are not reconciled with the people in the Third World, and there­fore, drinking cognac is not an act of peace.

We do other things, such as commit sexual misconduct and intoxicate ourselves, because we feel a vacuum within ourselves and we want to fill it. By doing these things, we destroy our happiness and the happiness of our children and grandchildren. I think this is due to the fact that we have not developed the capacity of enjoying peace. We have to educate ourselves and our children to learn to enjoy peace. By enjoying peace, we make peace stronger and more real in the world. Practicing mindfulness in the present moment is the basic way of making peace and building peace.

I know that the lack of mindfulness has led to a lot of suffering in our daily life. Many families have been broken because of sexual misconduct, alcoholism, and drug addic­tion, and their children and grandchildren continue to suffer and to transmit suffering to future generations. The seeds of suffering that they have will be transmitted to their children and grandchildren. Eventually, you will need a Twelve-Step Program to get out of it. Taking the precepts and practicing them is a “One-Step Program.” It’s much easier.

In my recent tour of North America, I emphasized very much the practice of looking deeply into the causes of our suffering so that we can overcome them. I have encouraged people in the U.S. to practice in the way the Buddha and his disciples practiced. When the Buddha was about to pass away, he told his disciple, “Ananda, after I am gone, the community of monks and nuns should look upon the practice of the precepts as their teacher.” So I encouraged people who participated in retreats to take the Five Precepts and to practice them.

In the past, I was not very fond of ordaining people or having disciples. I tried to avoid that, especially when I saw that there were many other teachers. But during my visit last year, I changed my idea. We have to support each other, and the practice of the precepts is very important to help us. We do not practice meditation alone. We practice with a teacher and with friends. When you have a good sangha, your prac­tice is easy, because you are supported by the sangha. A sangha that is practicing a good Dharma is healthy, joyful, and happy. If you have a sangha like that, it is very easy to practice. You have to build your own sangha. You yourself have to be the first element of a good sangha, When the flower in you is real, you can help other members of the sangha. If you have a good sangha, you are a happy person.

The Five Precepts are the foundation for practicing with others. They have been practiced for more than 2,500 years. Buddha gave the Five Precepts to the father of a monk named Yasa, when he asked the Buddha what he could do that would allow him to live more like his son. Yasa was the Buddha’s sixth disciple, a wealthy young man, ordained just after the Buddha ordained his five ascetic friends. If members of a family or a sangha observe and recite these precepts regularly, Buddhism becomes a living reality. Once the precepts are received, we have to practice and recite them at least once a month. If we do not practice the precepts, the precepts’ body will cease to be a reality and the practice of Buddhism will become impossible. Bud­dhists of many generations have practiced these precepts in order to maintain happiness and to be of help to others. The Five Precepts are principles for peaceful co-existence between people and also between nations.

No one can impose anything on us. We are free people, and we do only the things we want to do. But we know that there is a kind of illness in our society, and practicing the precepts is a very good medicine that can protect us and our families and safeguard our happiness. Buddhist precepts are not commandments. To word them in a way that does not sound like commandments may be useful for a lot of people, but we have to word them in a clear, strong way. The wording of the Five Precepts may not be perfect, and those of you who practice them might like to think about the words and help all of us express the precepts in a clear way. But we want to avoid any misunderstanding.

Mindfulness is the fundamental precept. Think of the precepts as the manifestation of mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are responsible. Precepts do not have to dictate our behavior. We don’t need an elaborate code of behavior. Mindfulness is enough. Mindfulness is a torch that can show us the way. Buddhism, the practice of Buddhist meditation, should address the real issues of our life. It should address the issues of our suffering. Whatever suffering we have in the present moment, the practice of Buddhism should help. We should not say that these are only personal things, that we only deal with ultimate reality, supreme enlightenment. These do not mean anything if they have nothing to do with our daily life, with our daily suffering. So, please confront the real issues, the real problems of our life, and inquire.

If we students and teachers do not practice the precepts, we are not faithful to the tradition. We can even destroy each other. Therefore, in a community practicing Buddhist meditation, students and teachers alike have to practice the precepts, the basic teaching of Buddhism. We have to help each other. You know that you or your teacher is not practicing intelligently when you drink alcohol or engage in sexual misconduct. You believe that your teacher has insight, but if someone has insight, how could he or she do things like that? You know that alcoholism has destroyed so much of this country. Sexual misconduct has destroyed so many families and caused many young people to suffer. Even someone who does not practice Buddhism knows this and tries to avoid these kinds of things. How could practi­tioners of Buddhist meditation not practice this?

Someone said, “In the Zen tradition, people are not restricted, they are free. They don’t practice the Five Precepts.” To me, Zen Buddhism is just Buddhism. Every Buddhist practices meditation. Zen is meditation—whether it is in Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana—people practice meditation. To practice the Five Precepts is the minimum. The Five Precepts are Zen itself. So, you cannot say that Zen does not practice the Five Precepts. That is a distortion. To me, to teach, we have to preach by our own lives, not just by a sermon or a Dharma talk.

It is in practicing that we get enlightened in every second, every minute of our lives. The Buddhist teaching on suffering is very deep, very complete, about how to deal with your anguish, fear, anger, and frustration, and about how to deal with your family and your community. All these can be found in the teaching of the Buddha. If you practice correctly, you will get healed, you will be happy and joyful. You don’t need to practice ten years in order to get results. Only one day or two days a week will bring you something positive and good. As you progress on your way, you will be able to help other people also. I believe it is the time that practitioners of Buddhism in this country begin to practice the precepts seriously, responding to the kind of sufferings that have been going on in many Buddhist communities.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the spirit of the Five Precepts is present. If you go back to your traditions, you will find the equivalent of these precepts. I see very much the need for this kind of practice, and I urge you, if you don’t want to practice the Five Precepts in this Buddhist version, to go back to your Jewish or Christian traditions and ask that the equivalent of the Five Precepts be restored.

Peace is important but we have to educate ourselves and our children to enjoy peace. Otherwise, peace will be boring. There are so many positive elements, peaceful elements within us and around us, and we have to live mindfully in order to get in touch with these in order for us to have a joyful and happy life. Someone said, “Thay, when do I know that I am ready for the precepts?” I said, “The sooner the better.”

The First Precept 

Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. 

The more we practice and study the precepts, the more we understand their depth.The First Precept, not to kill, is not easy, and no one can say that he or she observes it perfectly. If we are mindful in trying to practice this precept, we will see that we may be unintentionally killing people, animals, or plants, for example, by consuming alcohol, reading newspapers, or eating meat. I think all these things pertain to the precept of non-killing. So we have to be very careful to be able to practice this precept. Things are inter-con­nected. When we eat grapes or drink coffee, we may think that it has nothing to do with killing, but that is not true. So we have to be very mindful in order to deeply practice the precepts.

Sometimes we do not speak out against killing, and that is also violating the precepts. “Do not kill. Do not let others kill.” It is very difficult. You cannot do it perfectly. To practice the precept means you have the intention to go in the direction of not killing. You do the maximum in your power not to kill and not let others kill. The essential is not to be perfect but to go in that direction. When we boil some vegetables to eat, we may think that we are avoiding killing, but by boiling the vegetables, we kill many tiny beings in the water. So our vegetable dish is not entirely vegetarian. No one, including the Buddha, can practice this precept perfectly. He told his disciples not to travel much during the rainy seasons, in order to avoid stepping on tiny living beings. They were trying their best to avoid killing.

We should not be too proud of being nonviolent. Trying to be nonviolent is like looking at the North Star in order to go north. We do not intend to arrive at the North Star; we only want to go north. That is the spirit of the precepts. We want to go in the direction of non-killing, nonviolence, and we make a little progress every day. We have to try all our lives in order to understand the precept better and to practice it better.

The precept is a guideline, a direction. Every time you practice the recitation of the precept, the person who leads the ceremony will say something like this: “This is the first of the Five Precepts. Have you made an effort to study and to practice it during the last two weeks?” You don’t say yes or no. You breathe three times and let the question enter, and you act from there. That is good enough, because “yes” is not entirely correct. You might have made an effort but still think that it is not enough. So, the intention is to help you move in that direction. If you say, “No,” that is not correct either, because you have practiced.

This precept needs a lot of study and practice. It is not as easy as you may think. Trying to go in the direction of the precepts, we become a shining light, and people will follow our example. 

The Second Precept 

Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffer­ing of other species on earth.

Bringing to our awareness the pain caused by social injustice, this precept urges us to work for a more livable society. This precept is linked with the First Noble Truth (awareness of suffering), Right Livelihood (of the Eightfold Path), and the First Precept (the protection of life). In order to deeply comprehend the Second Precept, we need to meditate on all these teachings.

Developing ways of preventing others from enriching themselves on human suffering is the primary duty of legislators, politicians, and revolutionary leaders. However, each of us can also act in this direction. To some degree, we can stay close to oppressed people and help them protect their right to life and defend themselves against oppression and exploitation. 

The Third Precept 

Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.

It is quite clear. This is not just Buddhist; it is universal. It is the right medicine for our illness. When we and our children take the precepts, it means we accept the medicine to protect us.

Sexual misconduct is the cause of many troubles in society, and therefore, the Third Precept is very important. Many things in our lives—films, commercials, magazines—stimulate and create impulses for sexual aggression. This kind of sexual expression has caused a lot of mental stress, and therefore, I think we should look for effective ways to heal society in this respect.

Even in practicing communities, this precept is not practiced seriously enough. I think we need a conference, a long retreat, in order to work on this very big issue. Various forms of suffering have resulted from the Iack of the practice as far as this precept is concerned. Therefore, I would urge young people to begin to practice the Five Precepts, and the parents also should be companions of their children, practicing the Five Precepts. 

The Fourth Precept 

Do not say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or the community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.

The Fourth Precept is about right speech. You know that sometimes we destroy our happiness just because we are not mindful in saying things. Saying things is an art. To use our speech is to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance, and we should be very artful and mindful while speaking. What is described in the precept is not everything, just a few essential lines. Words can build up a lot of happi­ness, but they can also destroy. Practicing right speech, loving speech, is very important in our lives. We have to learn a lot about the art of speaking.

The essence of the Fourth Precept is concord. Commu­nity life is only possible with concord. There are six principles of community life prescribed by the Buddha: living together at one place, sharing material resources, observing the same precepts, sharing the understanding of Dharma and the experience of practice with each other, reconciling differing viewpoints, and practicing kind speech to avoid all quarrels. These Six Concords have been practiced by Buddhist communities since the Buddha’s time and are still relevant.

Kind speech is born from understanding and patience. Only understanding and care can bring about change. Reconciliation is a great art which requires us to understand both sides of a conflict. Not only do both sides bear partial responsibility, but we who are not in the conflict also bear some responsibility. If we had lived in mindfulness, we could have seen the beginning phases of the conflict and helped to end or avoid it.

Our awareness of the need to reconcile will empower us to work in that direction. The success of reconciliation will be the success of understanding and compassion for the other side as well as for ourselves.

The Fifth Precept 

Do not use alcohol and any other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors, your parents, and also to betray the future generations. 

When we realize the interconnectedness between our ancestors, our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves, we see that by taking care of ourselves, we take care of all of them. Someone who practices the Fifth Precept could not say, “This is my body. I can do anything to it. I have the right to.” They cannot say that, because they know that their body belongs to all their ancestors, themselves, and the future generations.

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Meditation is to look at things in a way that you can see the roots and the fruits of those things. Mindfulness allows that kind of perception. When we look at a glass of whiskey with mindfulness, concentration and understanding will come. We will see the roots of the whiskey. A lot of grain is used to produce meat and alcohol. If we look more deeply at the glass of whiskey, we will see that many people in the world starve because they do not have enough grain to eat. When we see that, we will stop drinking whiskey very soon. Cereals, and the lack of cereals for hungry people, are the roots of whiskey. We know that the fruits of the whiskey include the death of hungry children, liver cancer, and a nervousness that you have in the future. These are all fruits of the whiskey. So mindfulness is the base of all precepts. Drinking a glass of whiskey with mindfulness is already practicing the precepts, because if you drink with deep mindfulness, you will live with the reality of the world and you will stop drinking very soon.

Someone asked me, “I don’t get drunk. I only have a glass of wine when I attend a reception. Isn’t it okay to drink a little bit of wine in situations like that?” 

I don’t think so. I don’t think that those who practice the Fifth Precept should drink even a glass of beer or wine, because one glass of wine will bring about the second glass, and so on. Those who are alcoholic all begin with one glass. That is why it is better not to take a drop of alcohol. During a reception, if you are offered a glass of alcohol, you say, “Thank you very much, but I do not drink alcohol. May I have a glass of juice, or something?” That is beautiful. The best teaching is with your own life, not with a sermon.

It is like when someone offers you a cigarette, you say, “Thank you, I do not smoke.” It’s very good. So those who practice this precept should be clear about it, because you do not practice it for yourself alone. You practice for your friends and other people. There are many things that are delicious to drink, so many wonderful things to drink, and nobody will die if they don’t drink alcohol. I am very firm on this, because the first drop wilt bring the second drop. And when we become alcoholic, it’s very difficult, very difficult. Too many children suffer because their parents are alcoholics. So please just stop. This is the One-Step Program.

Just stopping is a compassionate act for future genera­tions and also for our friends. Many generations have suffered from alcoholic parents and then had to undergo a very long procedure to heal the wounds. Taking precepts is much easier. That is why we should encourage our children to receive and practice the Five Precepts. And we ourselves have to practice in order to support our children. Practicing the Five Precepts is not only for our own good, but for the good of the society.

 

The Five Wonderful Precepts 

  1. Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life. Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.
  2. Do not steal. Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering and the suffering of other species on earth.
  3. Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the suffering you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.
  4. Do not, say untruthful things. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or con­demn things that you are unsure of. Do not utter words that can cause division and hatred, that can create discord and cause the family or community to break. All efforts should be made to reconcile and resolve all conflicts.
  5. Do not use alcohol and other intoxicants. Be aware that your fine body has been transmitted to you by several previous generations and your parents. Destroying your body with alcohol and other intoxicants is to betray your ancestors and your parents and also to betray the future generations.

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Dharma Talk: Precepts as a Way of Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh

There are many problems in the world today—alcoholism, sexual abuse, oppression, exploitation of the environment, and so forth. If we look deeply, we can see that our stability and the stability of our family and society require us to discover practices and antidotes to overcome these prob­lems.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha offered us the Five Wonderful Precepts. These precepts can perform miracles. The moment we decide to receive them, a transformation already occurs in us that touches everything. I have seen this many times. During the ceremony to receive the precepts, our internal knots are untied, and afterwards we actually look different. Many small doors are closed, and one big door is opened wide. When we confirm our determi­nation to go through that door, we look and feel happier and more stable. With the community’s support, we attain peace and loving kindness right away.

The foundation of all precepts is mindfulness. We begin each precept with the awareness of a particular problem, saying, “Aware of …” Then, instead of saying, “Don’t do this,” or “Don’t do that,” we say, “I am determined to do this. I am determined not to do that.” Because forgetfulness is such a strong tendency in us, it is very helpful to practice the Five Precepts with a sangha, a community of friends.

The First Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life.

To practice the first precept is to protect life. Life has many forms, inside us and around us. When we practice mindfulness, we see that lives are being destroyed every­where, and we vow to cultivate compassion and use this as a source of energy for the protection of the lives of people, animals, and plants. The first precept is the precept of compassion and loving kindness.

We should not lose awareness of the suffering in the world. We can nourish this awareness by means of sounds, images, direct contact, and so on. But most of the suffering we endure every day—perhaps 95%—is not necessary at all. Because we lack insight, we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves and others, especially those we love. But when we have contact with the remaining 5% of suffering, we feel compassion, the kind of energy necessary for us to trans­form ourselves and help relieve the world’s suffering. But if we touch too much suffering, it may be harmful for us. Medicine always needs to be taken in the proper dosage. We should stay in touch with the suffering only to the extent that we do not forget it, so that compassion will flow in us and be a source of energy that can be transformed into action. According to Buddhism, compassion is the only source of energy that we can use, and compassion is born from insight.

After we have developed compassion, we have to continue practice in order to learn the many ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants. Just feeling compassion is not enough. We also have to develop understanding and insight so that we know what kind of action to take. We say “learning the ways.” We do not know everything. We have to come together as a sangha to discuss together how we can protect life. Confucius said, “To know that you don’t know is the beginning of knowing.” This is the best way to study and practice the precepts. There are many problems in our society that did not exist at the time of the Buddha, so we have to come together and discuss these things. We and our children have to learn and practice the ways of protecting the lives of people, animals, and plants.

The first sentence is: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants.” This is about awareness of the destruction of life, the cultivation of compassion, learning the ways of action, and keeping our awareness of suffering alive. There is e­nough in this sentence for us to practice the rest of our lives.

The second sentence is: “I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing, in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.” This sentence reflects our determination not to kill, either directly or indirectly. But we must also learn how to prevent others from killing. No killing whatsoever can be justified. If you were in Nazi Germany and someone asked you why things were the way they were, if you were practicing the first precept you could not say, “They did it. I am not respon­sible. My hands are clean.” During the Gulf War, if you did not do anything, that is also an offense against the first precept. Even if you attempted to do some things and did not succeed, what is most important is that you tried something. We must make the effort to stop all wars.

According to the Buddha, the mind is the basis of all actions. To kill with the mind is more dangerous than to kill with the body. When you believe that you have the only way and that everyone who does not follow your way is your enemy, millions may be killed. And it is not just by killing with our hands and our thinking that we can break the first precept. If, in our way of life, we allow killing to go on, we also commit an offense. We must look deeply. When we buy something or consume something, we may be participating in an act of killing.

If someone were to ask me, “What is the best way to practice the first precept?” I would have to say, “I don’t know.” I myself am still learning together with you. We should be modest and open. Because we have made efforts together in looking deeply, we have been able to write a more profound version of the precepts. If we continue to practice, we may be able to offer our children an even better version tomorrow.

The Second Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn the ways of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of others species on Earth.

Stealing comes in many forms. Oppression is one form of stealing, and it causes much suffering both here and in the Third World. Countries are torn by poverty and oppression. We want to help hungry children and adults help themselves, but we are caught in a way of life that keeps us so busy that we do not have time to help. Sometimes all that is needed is one pill or one bowl of rice to save the life of a child, but we are caught up in the tiny problems of our daily lives. We could send hundreds of thousands of pills or millions of bowls of rice, but we feel helpless, unable to do anything to alleviate the suffering.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there are street children who call themselves the “Dust of Life.” They wander the streets and sleep under trees, scavenging in garbage heaps to find things they can sell for five dong. Nuns and monks in Ho Chi Minh City are organizing daily classes in the temples for these children. If they agree to come in the morning and stay for four hours, learning to read and write and playing with the monks and nuns, they are offered vegetarian lunches. After that, they can go to the Buddha Hall to take a nap. (In Vietnam, we like to take naps after lunch, because it is so hot. When the Americans came, they brought the practice of working eight hours, and many of us tried to follow, but we couldn’t. We desperately need naps after lunch.) At two o’clock there is more teaching and playing, and the children who can stay four more hours receive dinner. The temple does not have a place for them to stay overnight, so they leave after dinner and come back in the morning. We in Plum Village have been supporting these nuns and monks. It only costs twenty cents per child per day, for lunch and dinner, and it keeps the children off the streets, preventing them from becoming delinquent and entering prison later on. We don’t need a lot of money to help these children. We only need a little time. There are so many things like that we can do to help, but because we cannot free ourselves from our own small problems and our lifestyles, we don’t do anything. The first sentence of this precept is about aware­ness of the suffering and about cultivating loving kindness and learning the way of working for the well-being of people, animals, and plants. The second sentence is: “I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.” This is very specific. We may have a feeling of generosity and a capacity of being generous, but we must also develop specific ways of expressing our generosity. Time is more than money. Time is life; time is happiness; time is for bringing joy and happiness to other people. Even if you who are very wealthy, unless you are happy, you cannot make other people happy.

I know one very poor gentleman in Vietnam who has been practicing generosity for fifty years. He owns only a bicycle, but because his heart is so generous, he is able to help many other people in need. When I met him in 1965, I was a little too proud about our School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). We organized to rebuild many villages and promote social reform in the fields of education, health, and economic development. Our project was ambitious—we trained 300 workers, including monks and nuns, who went to the villages and helped the people modernize the economy, health, and education. Eventually, there were nearly 10,000 workers throughout Vietnam. As I was telling this gentleman about our project, I looked at his bicycle and thought that he could bring only a little help to people in one province. But in fact, he has taught me an important lesson.

Although the SYSS accomplished many of its goals, when the communists took over, they stopped our work, while this gentleman continues his small work to this day. Unlike us, he did not have anything for the government to confiscate. Thousands of our workers had to hide; and many orphanages, clinics, and schools were shut down. Because we have learned from this gentleman, now we are more humble. When you practice generosity, looking is very important, so that you can learn all the time.

In Buddhism, we say there are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of helping people rely on themselves. We call this the gift of Dharma. The third is the gift of non-fear. We human beings are afraid of being left alone, of becoming sick, and of dying. Helping people not be destroyed by fear is the greatest gift of all.

The second precept is a very deep practice of sharing time, energy, and material resources. Time is for being deeply present with the other person. Time is not just to make money. It is to produce the three kinds of gifts.

The Third Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. 

We know that in our soul there are memories, pains, and secrets that we want to keep to ourselves or share only with those we love and trust the most. In the royal capital, there is a zone where only the king and his family can circulate. There is a place like that in our soul, where we don’t allow anyone to approach, except our most beloved. The same is true of our body. Our body has areas that we do not want others to approach or touch, except for our most beloved, the person we respect, trust, and love the most. In the Buddhist tradition, we speak of the oneness of body and mind. Whatever happens to the body also happens to the mind. A sexual relationship is an act of communion between body and spirit. This is a very important event, not to be done in a casual manner. When you are approached casually or carelessly, with an attitude that is less than tender, you feel insulted in body and soul. Someone who approaches you with respect, tenderness, and utmost care is offering you deep communication, deep communion. Only in that case will you not feel hurt, misused, or abused, even a little. This cannot be obtained without true love and commitment. Casual sex cannot be called love. 

“True love contains respect.” This Vietnamese expres­sion means that a couple respects each other as honored guests. Respect is one of the most important elements of a sexual relationship. Sexual communion should be like a ritual, performed in mindfulness with great love, care, and respect. If you are just motivated by desire, that is not love. “Love” is a beautiful word, and we have to restore its meaning. When we say “love” to describe our appetite, as when we say, “I love hamburgers,” we spoil the word. We should not misuse words in this way. We make them sick. We have to make the effort to heal the words by using them properly and carefully.

If love is understood in this way, why do we need to add the phrase, “long-term commitment”? If love is real, there is no need to say or do anything else. We don’t even need a wedding ceremony. True love guarantees everything. It includes the sense of responsibility, accepting the other person as he or she is, with all strengths and weaknesses. If you like only the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept his or her weaknesses and bring your patience, understanding, and energy to help the person transform. According to the teaching of the Buddha, true love is maitri, the capacity to bring joy and happiness, and karuna, the capacity to transform pain and suffering. This kind of love can only do good, and it is safe.

In the West and in Asia, we use the phrase “love sick­ness.” The kind of love that makes us sick is attachment, or addiction. Like a drug, it makes us feel wonderful, but once we are addicted, we cannot have peace. We can’t study, work, or sleep. We just think about the other person. This kind of love is possessive, even totalitarian. We want to own the object of our love, and we don’t want anyone to prevent us from possessing them totally. It creates a kind of prison for our beloved one. He or she is deprived of the right to be himself or herself. This is neither maitri nor karuna. It is the willingness to make use of another person to satisfy our own needs.

The expression “long-term commitment” is in this precept to help us understand that in the context of love, commitment can only be long-term. “I want to love you. I want to help you. I want to care for you. I want you to be happy. I want to work for your happiness. But just for a few days.” This is not love. The two people are afraid to make a commitment to the precepts or to one another.

To love our child deeply, we have to make a long-term commitment and help him or her through the journey as long as we are alive. When we have a good friend, we also make a long-term commitment. We need him or her. How much more so the person with whom we want to share our body and soul! The phrase “long-term commitment” cannot begin to express the depth of our love, but we need to say some­thing so that people will not misunderstand the word love, especially those who do not have time to join a Dharma discussion or read precepts’ commentaries.

A long-term commitment made in the context of a sangha can be long-lasting, strong, and fruitful. If your long­term commitment is just between the two of you, you will not have the support of friends and family. So we have a wedding ceremony for families and friends to witness. The priest and the marriage license are just symbols. What is important is that your commitment to come together to live as a couple is witnessed by friends and family so that they will support you. The feeling between you may not be enough to sustain your happiness. Without the support of family and friends, what you now describe as love will turn sour later on. If a tree wants to be solid, it sends many roots deeply into the soil. If it has just one root, it may be blown over by the wind. In the same way, a couple needs to be supported by families, friends, ideals, practice, and the sangha.

Every time we have a wedding ceremony in Plum Village, we invite the entire community to celebrate. During the ceremony, the couple recites the Five Awarenesses (See Mindfulness Bell #2), and they agree to recite them every full moon day, with the knowledge that friends everywhere are supporting their relationship so that it will be stable, long-lasting, and happy. If you do not accept the institution of marriage, you still need some commitment, and it is best made in the presence of a sangha—friends who love you and want to support you in the spirit of loving kindness and understanding. Even if you do not have a marriage license and are not bound together by the law, your relationship will be stronger if you make a commitment in front of family and friends. 

“Responsibility” is the key word of the third precept. In a community of practice, if everyone practices this precept well, there will be peace and stability. Practicing in this way, we respect, support, and protect each other as Dharma brothers and sisters. If we don’t, what happens in our community will also create trouble in the larger community. We have seen that if a teacher cannot refrain from sleeping with one of his students, he will destroy everything. So we refrain from sexual misconduct because we are aware that we are responsible for the well-being of the entire community, including the future generations. If we do not refrain, we will destroy everything.

The third precept also applies to society. There are many ways that our families and society are destroyed by sexual misconduct. I know one person who still suffers every day because she was molested as a child. The best way for her to heal herself is to observe the third precept: “As a victim of sexual abuse, I vow to become someone who will protect all children and adults from sexual abuse.” In that way, her suffering can be transformed into a positive energy that will help her protect others. When you take the third precept, you vow to protect children and also those who abuse children sexually. The ones who cause suffering must also become the objects of your love and protection. You see that the molesters are the product of an unstable society. Whether it be an uncle, an aunt, a parent, or a grandparent, he or she should be observed, helped, and healed.

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Practicing the third precept is to help ourselves and others avoid being wounded. We usually talk of women being wounded, but men also get deeply wounded by love relationships. We have to be very careful, especially in short-term commitments. The practice of the third precept is a very strong way of restoring stability and peace within ourselves, our families, and our society. We should also discuss the many problems relating to this precept, such as the “sex industry,” advertising, and loneliness. The feeling of loneliness is universal in our society. There is so little real communication, even in our own families. That feeling of loneliness can push us into a sexual relationship. We believe in a naive way that having a sexual relationship will make us feel less lonely. But when there is no communication between you and the other person on the level of the heart and the spirit, having a sexual relationship can only widen the gap. It can destroy you and the other person. Your relationship will be stormy and will cause both of you much suffering. You will both feel even more lonely. The belief that sexual relationships help us feel less lonely is a kind of modern superstition; we should not be fooled by it. The union of the two bodies can only be positive when there is understanding and communion on the level of the heart and the spirit. If the communion between husband and wife doesn’t exist on this level, then the coming together of their two bodies will separate them further. It is better to refrain from sexual relations until you make a breakthrough to communicate.

The third precept can help us protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, communities, and society. So many children and adults, couples and families, communities, and nations have been destroyed by sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. For many people, this kind of responsible behavior may be easy to practice, but for others, it is quite difficult. These people have to come together to share their experiences and help each other learn and practice responsibility and non-harming. We all have to do the same.

The Fourth Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to recon­cile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

This precept is directly linked with the second precept. There is a saying in Vietnamese, “You don’t need a lot of money to have kind speech.” Loving speech is freely available. We only need to be mindful, choosing our words carefully, and we can make many other people happy. This is generosity. Many of us think that we can only practice generosity if we spend a lot of money. We dream of getting rich so that we can bring happiness to others. We don’t understand that once we are rich, it may actually be more difficult to practice generosity. When we are motivated by loving kindness, maitri and karuna, we can bring happiness to others through our kind speech. With kind speech, we offer people joy, happiness, confidence, hope, and trust. Mindful speaking is a deep practice. Avalokitesvara is able to speak in a way that helps people let go of their fear, misery, and despair. Without looking deeply into ourselves, this is not easy. When we have a lot of suffering in our­selves, it is difficult to speak mindfully or with loving kindness. So we have to look deeply into the nature of our anger, despair, and suffering in order to free ourselves and be available to others.

Suppose your husband tells you something that hurts you. If you reply out of anger and suffering, you risk hurting him and making the suffering deeper. But if you suppress your anger and remain silent, you will suffer more later on, and your suffering will also bring about more suffering for your partner. I recommend that you breathe in and out: “Breathing in, I know I am angry. Breathing out, I calm my anger.” Then, when you are calm enough, you can say, “Darling, I am angry. What you said hurt me.” You will feel some relief just from saying that. During that moment, you are really in touch with your anger. You are not denying it.

Then you can invite your spouse to meet with you on Friday evening so that the two of you can look together at the disturbance. If you discuss your feelings right away, while you are still angry, you risk saying something that will make the situation worse. Between now and Friday night, you both have a few days to look deeply into the nature of your anger. While driving the car to work, for example, he may ask himself, “Why did she get so upset? There must be a reason.” Hopefully, before Friday night, one or both of you will see into the true nature of the problem and say, “I’m sorry, I was not very mindful.” Then, when Friday comes, you won’t have to look at the problem. Instead, you can have a cup of tea together. Making an appointment will give both of you time to calm down and look deeply.

When Friday night comes, if the suffering has not already been transformed, you can both practice deep listening. You sit quietly together and then one person expresses himself or herself, while the other person sits and listens. When you speak, try to tell the deepest kind of truth and practice loving speech, knowing that only with that kind of speech will there be a chance for the other person to understand and accept. The other person, while listening, knows that only with deep listening can he relieve the suffering of the other person. If he listens with half an ear, he cannot do it. His presence and his listening must be of good quality. It is good to meet on Friday night, so that after you have neutralized the negative feeling, you still have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy the weekend and each other.

Let me offer another illustration of practicing the fourth precept. Suppose you have some kind of internal formation regarding a member of your family or your community. It may not be very deep, but because of it, you don’t feel much joy when you are with that person. You don’t mind talking to him to settle a number of minor things, but you don’t like to confront him about the deeper things that are troubling you. Then one day, while you are doing housework, you notice that he is not sharing the work that needs to be done. You feel uneasy and begin to wonder, “Why am I doing so much while he is not doing anything?” You should be practicing mindful working, but because of this comparative thinking, you lose your happiness, comparing yourself with another person, expecting that person to share the work with you. But for some reason you are unable to go to him and tell him, “Please brother, come help with the work.” Instead, you say to yourself, “He is an adult. Why should I have to say something to him? He should be responsible enough to help without my asking.” You behave like that because you already have some internal information about him. In fact, the shortest way to deal with it is directly. You go to him and say, “Brother, please come help.” But you don’t do that. Instead you keep it to yourself and blame him.

The next time that kind of thing happens, your feeling is even more intense. Your internal formations have grown little by little, until you suffer so much that she needs to talk about it with a third person (“C”). You (“B”) look for sympathy in order to share your suffering. Instead of talking directly to “A,” you talk to “C,” who you think has a similar internal formation. You look at “C” as a kind of ally who will agree with you that “A” is not good enough in the practice.

Since you already have some internal formations concerning “A,” you will be glad to hear that there is someone who feels as you do. Talking to each other makes you feel better. You don’t know that you are becoming allies—”B” and “C” against “A.” Suddenly “B” and “C” feel close to each other and distant from “A.” Very soon “A” will notice that. He may not be at all aware that “B” feels some resentment towards him. He is capable of helping “B” if “B” can express her feelings directly to him. But “A” doesn’t know. Suddenly “A” feels some coolness between himself and “B,” but he does not know why. He sees that “B” and “C” are very close to each other, and they are looking at him in a cold way. “A” suffers. “They don’t want me. Why should I try to be close to them?” So he steps farther back from them, and the situation becomes worse. A kind of triangle has been set up.

If I were “C,” I would try to practice like this: First of all I would try to listen to “B” attentively. I know that “B” needs to share her suffering. So I listen deeply in order to relieve “B” of her suffering. The second thing I would do is to offer my help to “B.” “My sister, why don’t you go directly to talk to him? If needed, I will go with you to talk with him.” After practicing the art of deep listening, “C” will try to practice mindful, loving speech with “B” and convince her to go directly to “A.”

The third thing “C” can do is also very important. She is determined not to transmit what “B” has told her to another person. She knows that if she is not mindful, she will transmit to others what “B” has told her, and very soon the family or the community will be in a mess. If “C” can do these three steps, she will be able to break the triangle. She will help solve the problem, and peace and joy can be assured in the family, the society, or the community. It is best to do this as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. We shouldn’t let things drag on for a long time. They will become much more difficult to solve. 

“Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.” When we tell someone something that makes him or her happy, that is a great gift. When we say something that is cruel or distressing, the other person may lose hope, even the joy to live. Our speech can be constructive or destructive. This is linked to the first precept, not to kill. When we advocate an ideology, we may feel that our way of thinking or of organizing society is the best. We can even put anyone standing in the way of our realizing our ideology into a gas chamber, because of our beliefs. Ideology, a kind of speech, can be used to kill millions of people.

The fourth precept is also linked to the second precept, not to steal. Just as there is a “sex industry,” there is also a “lying industry.” Recently, a corporate executive whose job is to write articles about his company’s products told me that he has to practice lying in order to earn his living. If he tells the truth about the products, people will not buy them. There are many people like that in business and in politics. Communists, capitalists, socialists, and others lie all the time. Even in regards to the third precept, when someone says “I love you,” it may be a lie. It may be just some desire. Advertisements are also linked with sex.

We must use words that inspire self-confidence, espe­cially with our children. If we treat our children as worth­less, they will suffer in the future. If we encourage them with positive words, they will flower.

In the Buddhist tradition, the fourth precept is described as refraining from: (1) lying, (2) exaggerating, (3) saying one thing to one person and something else to another person, and (4) using insulting, abusive language. 

“I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”

We can practice reconciliation with our deep listening and our mindful, loving speech. To reconcile means to bring peace and happiness to nations, people, and members of our family. This is the work of a bodhisattva. In order to reconcile, we have to refrain from aligning ourselves with either party in order to understand both parties. This is not just the work of diplomacy. It is not because we travel by air a lot and meet with foreign ministers that we can do the work of reconciliation. We have to use our bodies. We can be suppressed or even killed by the people we want to help. We have to listen to both sides and then tell each side of the suffering of the other. This work takes courage. We need people to do this in South Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

The fourth precept is a bodhisattva precept. We need to study it deeply in order to be able to practice within our­selves, our family, our community, and in the world.

The Fifth Precept 

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future genera­tions. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

I would like to explain the “emptiness of transmission.” In the formal meals at Plum Village, the monks and nuns pick up their bowls, look into the emptiness that is inside it, and recite this gatha: “This bowl was handed down to me by the Tathagata. I now have the honor of holding it in my two hands. I vow to realize the threefold emptiness.” The Buddha gives us transmission, and we receive it. Between the two, there is the object of transmission. When we eat the food in our bowl, we contemplate the emptiness of the one who made the offering, the one who received the offering, and the offering itself. These three things are empty, empty of a separate self. When we look deeply, we can see that the three are one.

The gift, the giver, and the receiver are one. We are practicing not only for ourselves, but also for the one who made the donation. This is the true practice of giving and the true practice of receiving. The giver should give in that spirit and not think, “I am the one who gives, and you should be grateful to me.” She knows that she is one with the recipient. And the recipient does not think only that this is a gift given by someone. He knows that what has been given is for him to maintain himself for the practice, and the practice will benefit everyone, not just himself. In that kind of spirit, we are grateful, and this is called the “emptiness of giving.”

When we hear the words, “Love your enemy,” we may ask, “How can we love our enemies?” When we are able to love our enemies, they will stop being our enemies. We are practicing the “emptiness of loving.” There is no distinction between lover and beloved. The other person is not our enemy, but ourselves. Loving our enemy means to love ourselves. When we look at our father with anger, we do not see that we and our father are one. At the moment we understand and love our father, we realize the emptiness of loving. Loving ourselves is to love our father, and loving our father is to love ourself. The fifth precept needs to be practiced in this spirit.

We take care of our body and our consciousness and keep ourselves healthy for our ancestors, our parents, and future generations. We do it for everyone. We are not practicing as separate entities. When we take a glass of wine, we are doing it for our ancestors. All of our ancestors and all future generations are taking the wine with us. That is the true spirit of the emptiness of transmission.

People who drink alcohol and get drunk are destroying their bodies, their families, and their society. They really should refrain from drinking. But what about drinking two glasses of wine a week? Why should you stop? What is the use of refraining if your drinking does not hurt you or other people? The answer is that, although you have not harmed yourself, your drinking may have an adverse effect on your children, your grandchildren, and your society. We only need to look deeply to see it. We are not practicing for ourselves alone. We are practicing for everyone. What if your children have seeds of alcoholism in them? When they see you drinking wine, they may think that it is completely natural, and later, they may become alcoholic. If you give up your two glasses of wine, even though they have not brought any harm to your body, you are showing your children, your friends, and society that your life is not only for yourself, that it is also for your ancestors, the future generations, and society. This is a very deep practice. It is the insight of a bodhisattva. That is why the emptiness of giving is the basis of the fifth precept.

In modern life in the West, young people have the impression that their body belongs to them, that they can do anything they want to their body. They feel they have the right to live their own lives however they please. And the law supports them. That is individualism, but according to the teaching of emptiness, your body is not yours alone. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations, and it also belongs to society and all other living beings. All of them have come together to bring about the presence of this body—the trees, clouds, every­thing. Keeping your body healthy is to express gratitude to the whole cosmos—to all ancestors and to future genera­tions. We practice this precept for everyone. If you are healthy, physically and mentally, all beings will profit from it, not just men and women, but animals, plants, and the whole cosmos. The practice of the fifth precept should be based on that kind of insight. This is a bodhisattva precept. When we practice the Five Precepts, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva.

When it is clear to you that you are practicing not only for yourself, you will stop drinking even one or two glasses of wine a week. At a reception, when someone offers you a glass of wine, you can smile and decline. “No thank you. I do not drink alcohol. Do you have any juice or mineral water?” You do it gently, with a smile. This is a true act of a bodhisattva—setting an example by your own life.

Everything a pregnant woman eats, drinks, or fears has an effect on the baby inside her. If she is not aware of the nature of interbeing between her and the child, she may cause damage to both at the same time. If she drinks alcohol, she can destroy herself and also the child. Modern research has shown that when expecting mothers drink alcohol, it creates brain damage in the fetus. Studies at the University of Vancouver and elsewhere have proven that mothers who drink alcohol during certain periods of their pregnancy give birth to children with Fetal Alcohol Syn­drome.

We are what we consume. If we look deeply into the items we consume, we will know our own nature. Mindful consumption is the main object of the fifth precept. We all have to eat, drink, and consume, but if we do so unmindfully, we can destroy our bodies and our conscious­ness, expressing a lack of gratitude to our ancestors, parents, and future generations.

When we are mindful, we know that the food we eat comes from the cosmos, nature, and all living beings. If we can touch even one piece of fruit with our eyes and our mindfulness, we show our gratitude and experience great joy. If we look at our food for just half a second before putting it into our mouth and chewing it mindfully, we see that one string bean is the ambassador of the whole cosmos. This is the practice of being in touch.

When we are mindful, we see whether there are toxins in our food. Before eating, we can look at our food mindfully, perhaps even calling out the name of each dish: “tofu,” “tomato,” “rice.” Calling something by its name is a good way to touch it deeply, to see directly into its true nature. At that moment, mindfulness will reveal to us whether the food is nutritious and healthy, or whether it contains toxins. Children can enjoy doing this if we show them how.

We can also talk about a diet for our consciousness. (See Mindfulness Bell #5.) We should refrain from ingesting intellectual and spiritual food that brings toxins into our consciousness. Some television programs contain toxins; others can educate us and help us lead a healthy life. We should make time to watch good programs, but there are other programs that can poison our consciousness, and we should refrain from watching them. This can be a practice for everyone in the family.

We label cigarette packs: “Warning: Smoking may be hazardous to your health,” but we still have to be strong, because smoking advertisements are so compelling that they make us feel that if we don’t smoke, we are depriving ourselves of everything worth living for. Smoking is linked with nature, expensive cars, beautiful women, high standards of living, and airplanes. This kind of advertising penetrates into our consciousness. There are so many wonderful and healthy things to eat and drink. We have to show our young people how this kind of propaganda creates a very wrong impression. Now it is possible to take an airplane without suffering from the smoke. We have to make more effort in that direction. We have to write articles and do everything in our power to step up these kinds of campaigns against smoking and drinking alcohol. There is the danger that even if we don’t drink alcohol ourselves, we may get killed by a drunken driver. In persuading one person to refrain from drinking, you make the world safer for all of us.

I know that drinking wine is an important element running deep in Western civilization, as is evident in the ceremony of the Eucharist and the Passover meal. I have spoken with Catholic priests and nuns to see whether it might be possible to substitute grape juice for the wine, and they think it is possible. I suggested that they use real bread—not just symbolic bread—in the Eucharist for people to enjoy eating. We can make the ceremony into real life, something like a tea meditation. We really enjoy the cookie, not just as a symbol but truly.

Sometimes we don’t need to consume as much as we do. But consuming has become a kind of addiction, because we feel so lonely. It is similar to the third and fourth precepts. We feel lonely, and we want to engage in a conversation or a sexual relationship, hoping that our loneliness will go away. Drinking and eating may be the result of our loneli­ness. When we feel truly alone, we may want to drink to forget our loneliness. Loneliness is one of the afflictions of modem life. When we are lonely, we ingest food in our body and into our consciousness that can bring toxins into us. We watch television, read magazines or novels, or pick up the telephone. We make our condition worse by unmindful consumption. If we spend one hour watching a film filled with violence, we water the seeds of violence, hatred, and fear in us. We do that, and we let our children do that. We need to have a family meeting to discuss an intelligent policy for television watching. We may have to label our TV sets the same way we label our cigarette packages: “Warning: Watching television can be hazardous to your health.” Many children have become violent, some have even joined gangs. They have seen so many violent images on television. We must have an intelligent policy concerning the use of television.

Of course there are many healthy and beautiful programs, and we should arrange our time so that the family will benefit from these. You don’t have to destroy your televi­sion set. You only have to use it with wisdom and mindful­ness. There are a number of things that we can do, such as asking the television stations to establish healthier programs and suggesting to manufacturers to offer us TV sets that only transmit the signals from television stations that broadcast healthy, educational programs. During the war in Vietnam, the American army dropped hundreds of thou­sands of radios in the jungle that could only receive the station that broadcasted anti-communist propaganda. This is not psychological warfare, but I think many families would welcome a kind of television set that would allow us to see healthy programs. We need to be protected because the toxins are overwhelming, and they are destroying our society, our families, ourselves. Dharma discussions on this subject can generate ideas as to how we can protect ourselves from destructive programs.

We also have to discuss in our family and our commu­nity the kinds of magazines we and our children read. We have to boycott the magazines that spill toxins into our society. Not only should we refrain from reading these magazines, we should also make an effort to warn people of the danger of reading and consuming these kinds of products and conversations. From time to time, after speaking with someone, we feel paralyzed by what we have heard. The same is true of what we read or see. Mindfulness in TV watching, reading, and conversations will allow us to stop the kinds of activities that overwhelm us with their toxins.

The idea of a diet is the essence of this precept. War and bombs are the fruit of our collective consciousness. Our collective consciousness has so much violence, fear, craving, and hatred in it, it manifests in war and bombs. We hear that the other side has very powerful bombs, so we try to make bombs that are more powerful. When the other side hears that we have powerful bombs, they try to make even more powerful bombs. Bombs are a product of the fear in our collective consciousness. Just to remove the bombs is not really the work of peace. Even if we were able to transport all the bombs to the moon, we would still be unsafe, because the roots of the war and the bombs are still in our collective consciousness. We cannot work to abolish war with angry demonstrations. Transforming the toxins in our collective consciousness is the only way to uproot war.

Therefore, we have to practice a diet for ourselves, our families, and our society, and we have to do it with every­one else. To have healthy television programs, we have to work with artists, writers, filmmakers, lawyers, and law­makers. We have to step up the struggle. Awareness should not be only in us, but in our families and in our society. We have to stop the kind of consumption that poisons our collective consciousness. I don’t see any other way than the practice of these bodhisattva precepts to produce the dramatic changes that we need. To practice as a society will not be possible if each of us does not vow to practice the Five Precepts.

The problem is very big. It is the survival of our species on the Earth. It is not a question of enjoying one glass of wine. If you stop drinking your glass of wine, you do it for the whole society. The fifth precept is exactly like the first one. If you are not able to entirely stop eating meat, at least make an effort in order to reduce eating meat. If you reduce eating meat by 50%, you perform a miracle. You will solve the problem of hunger in the Third World. Practicing the precepts is to make a little progress every day. That is why, during the recitation when we are asked whether we have made an effort to study and practice the precept read, we answer just by breathing deeply. That is the best answer. Mindful breathing means, “I have made some effort, but I can do better.”

The fifth precept can be like that also. If you are unable to stop drinking completely, then stop 75% or 50%. But alcohol is not the same as meat. Alcohol is addictive. That is why I encourage you to stop drinking even one glass of wine. When you see that we are in great danger, refraining from the first glass of wine is a manifestation of your enlightenment. You are doing it for all of us. You set an example for your children and your friends. On French television they say, “One glass is alright, but three glasses will bring about destruction.” They don’t say that the first glass brings the second, and the second brings the third, because they belong to a civilization of wine. In Plum Village, we are surrounded by wine. Many of our neighbors are surprised that we don’t profit from living in an area where the wine is so good. We are a pocket of resistance. Please support us.

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When I was a novice, I learned that from time to time we had to use alcohol in preparing medicines. There are many kinds of roots and herbs that have to be macerated in alcohol so that they will have an effect. In these instances, alcohol is allowed. When the herbs have been prepared, they are put in the pot and boiled. Then they no longer have an intoxicating effect on us. I think if you use some alcohol in cooking, it is the same. After the food is cooked, the alcohol in it will not have an intoxicating nature. So I am not narrow-minded about this.

I know that no one can practice the precepts perfectly, including the Buddha. The vegetarian dishes that were offered to him were not entirely vegetarian. Boiled veg­etables contain dead bacteria, and the vegetables themselves were also alive. But because of the real danger in our society—alcoholism has destroyed so many families and has brought about so many unhappy people, old and young—we have to do something. We have to live in a way that will eradicate that kind of damage. That is why even if you can be very healthy with one glass of wine every week, I still urge you with all my strength to abandon that glass of wine.

We need to have Dharma discussions to share our experiences and deepen our understanding and practice of the Five Wonderful Precepts.

This is excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s forthcoming book on the Five Wonderful Precepts.

Photos:
First photo by Tran van Minh.
Second photo by Michele Hill.
Third photo by Simon Chaput.

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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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Dharma Talk: Loving the Unlovable

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Dear Sangha, today is the 28th of January, 1996. We are in the Lower Hamlet (of Plum Village). It is the Winter Retreat. With us today are friends from the Lotus Bud Sangha in Australia. In France we are in the middle of winter. In Australia it is the middle of summer. Time and space have been brought together. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the beginning of 1996, Plum Village invented the Telecom Dharma talk. The first was directed to Vietnam. The Vietnamese monks and nuns here were very happy and moved to be able to “go back” to our ancestral temple. This is the second Telecom Dharma talk, directed to the Australian continent. 

Do you have someone to love? If you do not love anyone, your heart may dry up. Love brings happiness to ourselves and to those we love. We may want to love children who are hungry, disabled, or abused, to relieve them of their suffering. We carry that love in our heart and hope that someday we will be able to realize it. But when we actually contact these children, they may appear to be difficult to love. They may be rude, they may lie, they may steal. After a short time, our love for them may fade. We had the idea that loving children who need our help would be wonderful, but when confronted with the reality, we cannot sustain our love. When we discover that the object of our love is not lovable, we feel deep disappointment, shame, and regret, as though we have failed. If we cannot love a poor or disabled child, who can we love?

Everyone has an image of the Buddha. We think that if we meet the Buddha, he will be easy to love. He has so much compassion and understanding. But what if scientists were to find a way for us to see the faces of those who lived in the past? We see stars that perished thousands of light-years ago. Perhaps images do not travel in straight lines. When you fly from Paris to Los Angeles, the plane goes in a circular route. Maybe the image of the Buddha is also traveling in a circle. The sight of the Buddha teaching his disciples on Gridhrakuta Peak, the sound of his voice, those images went into space 2,500 years ago. With the right instruments, perhaps we could capture those images and sounds and see and hear the Buddha. Then we would be able to compare the Buddha’s teachings with the recorded sutras and discover mistakes that were made when the sutras were written down after being transmitted orally for several centuries.

A monk at Plum Village said to me, “My image of the Buddha is so beautiful. If I could see the real Buddha, I am afraid he might not be as beautiful. What do you think the Buddha looked like?”

I said, “He may have looked like Mahatma Gandhi.” The monk was disappointed. To him, Gandhi is not as handsome as his image of the Buddha. I have visited families in Lumbini and Kapilavasu, belonging to the same Shakya clan as the Buddha, and I got an idea what the Buddha may have looked like.

We have beautiful images of Buddha and Jesus. We love our images and hold them in our store consciousness. But if we were to meet the Buddha at the Sainte Foy la Grande station (near Plum Village), I am not sure if we would love him. If we met Jesus in the Leclerc Supermarket, I am not sure we would love him as much as our image. Our images of the Buddha and Jesus may be quite different from the real Buddha and the real Jesus.

There were people at the time of the Buddha who did not love him. Some of his own monks left the Buddha’s Sangha to start an opposing Sangha. Some people tried to murder the Buddha. Others brought the body of a young woman to the Jeta Grove and accused the monks of violating and killing her. Love is not merely about enjoyment. It has to do with understanding. If we don’t truly understand, our love will vanish.

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We think we love disabled and hungry children, but the truth might turn out to be different. A number of monks, nuns, and laypeople from Plum Village want to go back to Vietnam to help the children there and to bring about unity and faith among people. They want their country to have a future. The war created much division, hatred, suspicion and destruction in the hearts of people. These monks, nuns, and laypeople want to go home and walk on their native land. They want to embrace the people, relieve them of their suffering, and help them taste joy and peace.

But before they go back, they must prepare themselves. The people they want to help may not be easy to love. Real love must include those who are difficult, those who have been unkind. If we go back to Vietnam without first learning to love, when we find the people being unpleasant, we will suffer and we may even come to hate them.

When you lose your ability to love, you lose your life. We think we can change the world, but we should not be naïve. Don’t think that the moment you arrive in Vietnam, you will sit down with all the conflicting factions and establish communication immediately. You may be able to give beautiful talks about harmony, but if you are not prepared, you will not be able to put your words into practice.

In Plum Village, we live together 24 hours a day. Do we cooperate to bring each other happiness? Do we work together in harmony? Are we able to overcome our individual views in order to bring together the views of everyone? Or do we maintain our own view and think that it alone is correct? If you cannot practice “harmony of views,” bringing your views together with the views of others to arrive at a collective view that everyone can accept, if you cannot love and accept each other, if you do not use loving speech every day, what will you be able to offer our countrymen when you return to Vietnam?

In Vietnam there are people who can give very good Dharma talks, who can explain how to reconcile and live in harmony, but not everyone can do it. We should not only talk about it. If we do not actually practice what we preach, what can we offer anyone? If older sisters do not hold each other’s hands like children of the same mother, how can the younger children have faith in the future?

We must practice harmony of views and harmony of speech. We bring our views together to have a deeper understanding, and we use loving speech to inspire others and not hurt anyone. We practice walking together, eating together, discussing together, so we can realize love and understanding. If you are able to breathe and smile when your sister says something unkind, that is the beginning of love. You do not have to go someplace else to serve. You can serve right here by practicing walking meditation, smiling, and shining your eyes of love on others.

We want to go out and share what we have learned. But if we do not practice breathing to untie the knots of pain in ourselves – the knots of anger, sadness, jealousy, and irritation – what can we teach others? We must understand and practice the teachings in our daily lives. We can only teach from our experience. People need to hear how we have to be able to overcome our own suffering and the irritations in our own heart. When we talk about the Dharma, our words need to have energy. That is not possible if our words come only from ideas, theories, or even sutras. We can only teach what we have done ourselves.

When we practice the First Prostration, we have to be able to see our blood ancestors and our spiritual ancestors at the same time. Some of our ancestors have done beautiful things, and others have made big mistakes. But all of them are our ancestors, and we have to accept them all, those only 20 years older than us and those 2,000 years older, those who are wonderful, and those who are very difficult. Our parents and some of our ancestors may have made us suffer, but they are still our parents and our ancestors. Until we accept them, we cannot feel at peace. If we say, “That person is not worthy of being my ancestor,” we will suffer our whole life.

After that, we get in touch with our descendants – our younger sisters and brothers, our disciples, our grandchildren, and our students. Some of them are beautiful. Some may argue with us. Some may be rude to us. When we practice the First Prostration, we have to accept all our children, those who are good and those who are difficult. That is the only way to find peace. The Three Prostrations are not just a devotional practice. They are a practice of insight, of looking deeply. We see that we are part of a stream of life comprised of all our spiritual and blood ancestors. We transcend our personal self, which is a basic Buddhist practice, and see what is meant by “no self.” When we realize that we are our ancestors and our descendants, our “self” dissolves and we accept everyone, however wicked or wonderful they have been. If we do not have that insight when we prostrate, we are still caught in the individual self, a self apart from the Sangha. We think we are not our brother, our sister, or our teacher. If we think like that, we are not ready to go out and teach other people. We have a theory about no-self, but we do not yet have the insight.

At Plum Village we practice dwelling peacefully in the present moment. By abiding peacefully in the present moment, we avoid running around in circles and we begin to have happiness. When we breathe and walk on the meditation path, when we eat a meal together in mindfulness, we see that we have the capacity for happiness every day. If we do not know how to make use of these practices and enjoy them, if we look for happiness somewhere else, we will never find it.

In Vietnam we say, “Standing on the top of one mountain, you look with envy at the top of another mountain.” We don’t realize how beautiful our mountain is. We look at the other mountain and think, It is much more beautiful over there. If only I could go over there, I would be happy. We have a husband, but we look at another family and think, Her husband is much kinder than mine. We are a child and we say, His mother is much sweeter than my mother. I wish I could exchange mothers. If we stand on this mountain peak and want to be on the other, that is because we do not know how to have happiness in the present moment in this very place. We do not have the capacity to accept the conditions for happiness that are already within us and all around us. In our Sangha, there are people who have the capacity to live happily in the present moment. They do not have the attitude of standing on the top of one mountain wanting to be on the other. They can sit very still, without feeling as though they are sitting on hot coals, wanting to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

Those who cannot be happy may think, If I could be a Dharma teacher, or a monk or a nun, I would be happy. But those who have the capacity to dwell peacefully in the present moment say, I am not a Dharma teacher or a monk or a nun, but I am just as happy. If you are not happy, becoming a Dharma teacher, a monk, or a nun will not make you happier.

How high is this peak? It represents the year 2050. We have only four more years to get to the 21st century. I am advanced in years, and I don’t know if I am going to arrive at the foot of the 21st century hill. But I think about that hill every day. I think about my descendants who are going to climb it. I don’t know whether I am going to live two years. Some things we cannot know. But one thing is certain. I am going to climb this hill with my descendants. I don’t agree with being a teacher for just three or four more years. I want to be a teacher and a companion for thousands of years.

You may think that Brother Phap Canh will get to the top of the mountain in the year 2050. He is 20 now, so he will be 74 years old. When he stands there, what will he see? He will look down and see the Sangha climbing up together. At 74, he will probably have many disciples, both lay and monastic. They will call him “Grandfather Teacher.” What I want to say is we have to climb this hill together. We cannot go up as individuals. Our practice lies in doing it together. We cannot go up as individuals. If we go as a Sangha, we will reach our goal. If we go as individuals, we will never get anywhere. We must go up the hill of the 21st century together. That is how we will transcend our individual selves.

Your grandfather teacher is called Thanh Guy. He is present with us today in this Dharma Hall. He gave me the Dharma Lamp Transmission. He sent me out on the path with all his love and care. Now he is carrying me in his passing. I am carrying him in my passing, and I am transmitting him to you so you can carry him with you. If it were not for my teacher, how could I be here? We are just a stream called “life.” When we give Dharma Transmission, we are not giving it just to one person. We give it to many people at the same time. When your receive Dharma Transmission, you also receive it for many.

The Sangha body of the Buddha has never ceased to be. Today we bear in our heart the Sangha of the Buddha, which is more than 2,500 years old. We may still be young, but we are also very, very old. Our Sangha body is sitting in the Dharma Nectar Hall in France and in the Lotus Bud Sangha in Australia. But the Sangha is much greater and wider than this.

You have seen me teach the Dharma a little bit everywhere, and you have experienced the Sangha in many different parts of the world. Each part of the Sangha nourishes itself using different methods and different teachings, yet we are present in all these Sanghas, and our descendants will be present in them, also. To see this is the realization of no-self. You need this insight to be able to take stable steps on the path of life. We are not individuals suffering in isolation. When one horse in the stable is sick, none of the horses will eat hay. Our suffering is the suffering of others. Our smile is the smile of others. Our joy is the joy of others. Only when we live this way is the Buddha’s teaching of no-self a reality.

If you think you are standing outside, that is an illusion. You are standing on this mountain thinking you should be standing on that one. Everything depends on your way of looking. To have a cup of tea with Thay may be happiness. But not drinking tea with Thay is also happiness. Can you be at peace in the present moment? Can you accept the elements of happiness that are already here? If you don’t have happiness, it doesn’t matter whether you are a monk, a nun, a Dharma teacher, or a layperson.

During this winter retreat, we have been studying “The Living Tradition of Buddhist Meditation.” Today we are going to learn a little more about the poem by Nhan Tong, the Bamboo Forest Master, called “Living in the World of the Dust, but Enjoying the Path of Practice.”

If you understand,
All wrongdoings from the past are wiped away.
If you are able to understand,
Past wrongdoings will not be repeated.
Practicing in daily life,
Keep your true nature shining.
Realizing that Buddha is you mind,
You don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu.
When you are mindful, here and now,
When your light is shining,
Why ask about the methods of Ma Tsu?
Don’t even think about his methods.
When you realize that Buddha is your mind,
You will never ask again about Ma Tsu’s methods.  

If you understand, all wrongdoings from the past are wiped away. We misbehave because we do not really understand what we are doing. Once we understand, we will stop. How can we understand what we are doing? By looking deeply. That is called the “shining nature” in us.

At times we have to prostrate before six other people and ask them to shine light on our practice. When we do this, we will receive great benefit. We have wrong perceptions that imprison us. We need at least six people to shine their light on us. They will do this only if we prostrate before them, and, with all our sincerity, ask for their help. The Sangha’s wisdom is greater than that of any individual. I always take refuge in the Sangha. Six is the minimum. You can ask sixty people if you like. When you ask them to shine light on your practice, it can reveal the darkest places in yourself, the things that bring about your suffering.

If you are able to understand, past wrongdoings will not be repeated. Practicing in daily life, keep your true nature shining. You perfect yourself in the Three Trainings of precepts, concentration, and insight. Gin means protect, maintain, look after. Tinh sang means the essential nature that is shining and clear and resides in all of us. The energy of mindfulness is light. With mindfulness, we know what is happening. When we are angry and we know we are angry, we can transform it, because mindfulness is there. If we nourish our mindfulness for ten or fifteen minutes, our anger will be transformed. Keep your true nature shining. The shining nature is not a vague idea. It is mindfulness itself, and it helps us have concentration. With concentration, we look deeply, see, and understand. That is called prajna, wisdom or insight.

Keep your true nature shining so you do not enter the path of wrong practice. Ta is wrong or crooked. Dao is path. This is the path of suffering and self pity, the path that leads away from our teacher and our Sangha. The Sangha is a precious jewel, even with its weaknesses. It is essential for our practice. There are things you cannot accomplish without a Sangha. To lose your Sangha is like falling into the ocean without a life jacket. You might die. Keep your true nature shining so you do not venture onto the path of wrong practice. Keep the light of mindfulness shining so you develop the power of concentration and see the truth in your heart, in the environment, and in the Sangha. That will prevent you from falling into the path of suffering.

Always improve yourself by true practice. The word tu, “practice” in Vietnamese means, literally, “to make more beautiful or correct” or “to repair.” If you have a leaky roof, you repair it. If you have some jealousy, you have to transform it. To better yourself, to cultivate happiness, all these things are included in the Vietnamese word for “practice.”

Always improve yourself by true learning. Always follow the “right tradition,” which is the true teaching of the Buddha, not the things people added to the teachings later. The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, but there has always been a tendency to bring in other teachings that are more complicated. We have to be careful not to travel down paths of wrong teaching, or we will lose our way. The way of practice in the right tradition is the tradition of precepts, mindfulness, and living with the Sangha. To say that we can take drugs or drink alcohol while practicing meditation is an example of wrong teaching. To practice meditation without also practicing precepts, concentration, and insight is not following the right tradition. When Zen Buddhism first came to the West, people thought it had something to do with drugs, and they did not practice the precepts. That kind of practice always brings about suffering. Please follow the right tradition.

Realizing that Buddha is your mind, you don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu. Mind is Buddha. Buddha is your mind. Buddha is not some statue made of wood or jade. Buddha is not a god. Buddha cannot be found in heaven. The Buddha is in your heart and mind. When your mind has precepts, concentration, and wisdom, Buddha is present. The Buddha is not the mind of forgetfulness. He is the mind of mindfulness.

When you are mindful, here and now, when your light is shining, why ask about the methods of Ma Tsu? Don’t even think about his methods. You don’t have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu, such as kung an, questioning, shouting, or using the stick. Yelling and hitting are tools that can help meditation students untie the knots of suffering in themselves. These kung an, questions and answers, are used by the Dhyana masters to undo the knots of the students. I prefer simpler methods, like asking “What are you doing?” Sometimes when Sr. Chan Khong is looking through her files, I ask her, “What are you doing?” Sometimes she says, “You’ve caught me. I wasn’t practicing mindfulness.”

When you are cooking, sweeping, or working in the garden, practice mindfulness. If not, it is a waste of time. When I ask, “What are you doing?” if you are present, you can just look at me and smile. But if you are not practicing, you have to say, “Thay, you’ve caught me. I’m not practicing.”

When you realize that Buddha is your mind, you will never ask again about Ma Tsu’s methods. Ma Tsu was a very famous Dhyana master from China. He was born in 707 and he lived to be 81 years old. There is a story about a conversation between Ma Tsu and one of his students. One day, the student was sitting diligently practicing sitting meditation. The teacher asked, “What are you doing?” and the monk answered, proudly, “I am practicing sitting meditation.” The teacher said, “Why are you doing that?” and the student replied, “To become Buddha.” Ma Tsu began polishing a tile, and the student asked, “Master, why are you doing that?” Ma Tsu replied, “To make a mirror.” The student said, “Polishing the tile will not make a mirror.” Ma Tsu replied, “Sitting in meditation will not make a Buddha.”

To become a Buddha, you have to know how to smile, how to speak, how to stand, how to walk, how to work, how to wash pots, and do all those things while you look deeply in the state of Samadhi (concentration). Meditation is not just sitting. Once a student came to Master Ma Tsu and asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” Ma Tsu said nothing. He just beat him. You see how kind the teacher of Plum Village is.

The great Bamboo Forest Master, realizing that Buddha is mind, said that you do not have to ask about the methods of Ma Tsu. If you are free from attachments, you will be happy. Wealth and sex, for example, are like worms on the end of a hook. If you don’t look deeply, you will get caught, and suffer a lot. If you see the dangers of wealth and sex, you can behave according to the precepts and keep your freedom. Without inner freedom, you can never be happy.

Thoi means the behavior or way of life that is pure. Layman P’ang lived at the time of Ma Tsu in 8th century China. He had a wife, a daughter, and a son, and the four of them practiced together. Although they came from a wealthy family, they gave up their luxurious ways when they tasted the Dharma. They were very pleased to live simple lives.

One day Layman P’ang’s daughter came to Master Ta Dao and asked, “If I don’t want to be friends with all dharmas, objects of mind, what can I do?” Master Ta Dao just put his hand over his mouth. The next time Layman P’ang met Master Ma Tsu, he asked the same question, “If I don’t want to be friends with all dharmas, how should I act?” Ma Tsu said, “Layman, if you can drink all the water in the Han River, I will answer your question.” Upon hearing that, he was awakened.

Layman P’ang and his family symbolize happiness with a simple life. This is the opposite of thinking you have to buy a lot of things to be happy. If you are not attached to wealth, it is because you have realized your shining nature of enlightenment.

You don’t have to go to a mountain to practice. If you follow the precepts, you will not be carried away by sounds and appearances. Some appearances infatuate us and we get carried away by them. Some sounds make us angry, others make us afraid. We practice mindfulness in order to stop – to stop our wrong perceptions, to stop being carried away by sounds and appearances, to stop our mind from running from place to place, unable to settle anywhere. We can do this because we have learned the art of mindful living.

The First Prostration

The Stream of Life

Contemplate while touching the earth with your knees and forehead:

Touching the earth, I connect with ancestors and descendants of both my spiritual and blood families. My spiritual ancestors include the Buddha, the bodhisattvas, the noble Sangha of Buddha’s disciples, and my own spiritual teachers still alive or already passed away. They are present in me, because they have transmitted to me seeds of peace, wisdom, love, and happiness. They have awakened in me my resource of understanding, and compassion. When I look at my spiritual ancestors, I see those who are perfect in the practice of the precepts, understanding, and compassion, and those who are still imperfect. I accept them all, because I also see shortcomings and weaknesses within myself. Aware that my practice of the precepts is not always perfect, that I am not always understanding and compassionate, I open my heart and accept all my spiritual descendants. Some of my descendants practice the precepts, understanding, and compassion in ways that invite confidence and respect, but there are others who come across many difficulties and are constantly subject to ups and downs in their practice. 

In the same way, I accept all my blood ancestors on my mother’s and father’s sides. I accept their good qualities and virtuous actions, and also their weaknesses. I open my heart and accept all my blood descendants with their good qualities, their talents, and also their weaknesses. 

My spiritual ancestors and my blood ancestors, my spiritual descendants and my blood descendants are all part of me. I am them and they are me. I do not have a separate self. All of us are part of a wonderful stream of life.

The Second Prostration

The Wonderful Pattern of Life 

Touching the earth, I connect with all people and species that are alive at this moment. I am one with the wonderful pattern of life that radiates out in all directions. I see the close connection between myself and others – how we share our happiness and our suffering. I am one with those who were born disabled or who become disabled because of war, accident, or illness. I am one with those who are caught in war or oppression. I am one with those who find no happiness in their families, who have no roots or peace of mind, who are hungry for understanding and love and who are looking for something beautiful, wholesome, and true to embrace and believe in. I am someone at the point of death who is very afraid, not knowing what will happen. I am a child who lives in poverty and disease, whose arms and legs are like sticks. I am the manufacturer of bombs that are sold to poor countries. I am the frog swimming in the pond, and I am also the snake that needs the body of the frog to nourish itself. I am the caterpillar or the ant that the bird is looking for to eat, but I am also the bird that is looking for the caterpillar or the ant. I am the forest that is being cut down. I am the river and air that are being polluted, and I am also the one who cuts down the forest and pollutes the river and the air. I see myself in all species, and I see all species in me. 

The Third Prostration

Limitless Time and Space 

Touching the earth, I let go of my idea that I am this body with a limited life span. I see that this body, made up of the four elements, is not me, and I am not limited by this body. I am part of a stream of life of spiritual and blood ancestors that for thousands of years has been flowing into the present and flows on for thousands of years into the future. I am one with my ancestors. I am one with all people and all species, whether they are peaceful and fearless or suffering and afraid. At this very moment, I am present everywhere on this planet. I am also present in the past and in the future. The disintegration of this body does not touch me, just as when the plum blossom falls, it is not the end of the plum tree. I see myself as a wave on the surface of the ocean. I am in all the other waves, and all the other waves are in me. My nature is water. The appearance and disappearance of my form as a wave does not affect the ocean. My Dharma body and wisdom life are not subject to birth and death. I see myself before my body manifested and after my body disintegrates. I see how I exist everywhere. Seventy or eighty years is not my life span. My life span, like that of a leaf or a Buddha, is limitless. I have gone beyond the idea that I am a body that is separated in space and time from all other forms of life.

Photos:
First photo by Sr. Jina van Hengel.
Second photo by Joseph Lam.

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Dharma Talk: Transforming Negative Habit Energies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I would like to speak a little bit about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell. I have been in Paradise and I have also been in Hell. I think if you remember well, you know that you too have been in Paradise, and you have been in Hell.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, The Jataka Tales. Among these hun­dreds of stories, I remember one very vividly about a former life of the Buddha. In this story, the Buddha was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha, he had suffered a lot in many lives. Like all of us, he made a lot of mistakes. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes. The Buddha had done something wrong and caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. So he found himself in the worst of all Hells.

Another man was in Hell with the Buddha. Together they had to work very hard, under the direction of a guard who did not seem to have a heart. The guard did not seem to know anything about suffering. He did not know about the feelings of other people, and he beat up the two men. It seemed his task was to make them suffer as much as possible.

I think the guard also suffered a lot. It looked like he didn’t have any compassion within him. It looked like he didn’t have any love in his heart. It looked like he did not have a heart. When looking at him, when listening to him, it did not seem that one could contact a human being because he was so brutal. He was not sensitive to other people’s suffering and pain.

The guard had a weapon with three iron points. Every time he wanted the two men to work harder, he pushed them on the back with the points, and of course, their backs bled. The guard did not allow them to relax; he was always pushing, pushing, pushing. But he also looked like he was being pushed.

Have you ever felt that kind of pushing? Even if there was no one behind you, you felt pushed to do things you don’t like to do, and to say things you don’t like to say. And in doing these things, you created a lot of suffering for yourself and the people around you. Sometimes we say and do horrible things that we did not want to say or do. Yet we felt pushed by something, so we said it, we did it, even if we didn’t want to. That was what happened to the guard in Hell; he pushed, because he was being pushed. He caused a lot of damage to the two men. They were very cold and hungry, and he was always pushing and beating them.

When I read this story, I was very young, seven years old. And I was astonished that even in Hell, there was compassion. That was a very relieving truth: even in Hell there is compassion. Can you imagine?

The other man saw the Buddha die, and for the first time he was touched by compassion. He saw that the other person must have had some love, some compassion to have the courage to intervene for his sake. Compassion arose in him also. He looked at the guard, and said, “My friend was right, you don’t have a heart. You only create suffering for yourself and for other people. I don’t think that you are a happy person. You have killed him.” The guard became very angry with him also, and he planted the weapon in the second man’s stomach. He too died right away and was reborn as a human being on Earth. Both of them escaped Hell, and had a chance to begin anew on Earth, as full human beings.

What happened to the guard, who had no heart? He felt very lonely. In that Hell, there had been only three people, and now the other two were dead. He began to see that to live with other people is a wonderful thing. Now the two other people were dead, and he was utterly alone. He could not bear that kind of loneliness, and Hell became very difficult for him. Out of that suffering, he learned that you cannot live alone. Man is not our enemy. You cannot hate man, you cannot kill man, you cannot reduce man to nothingness, because if you kill man, with whom will you live? He made a vow that if he had to take care of other people in Hell, he would learn to deal with them in a nicer way, and a transformation took place in his heart. In fact, he did have a heart. Everyone has a heart. We just need something or someone to touch that heart. So this time the feeling of loneliness and the desire to be with other humans were born in him. Suddenly, the door of Hell opened, and a radiant bodhisattva appeared. The bodhisattva said, “Good­ness has been born in you, so you don’t have to endure Hell very long. You will die quickly and be reborn as a human very soon.”

When I was seven, I did not understand the story fully, but it had a strong impact on me. I think it was my favorite Jataka tale. I found that in Hell, there could be compassion. It is possible for us to give birth to compassion even in the most difficult situations. In our daily lives, from time to time, we create Hell for ourselves and for our beloved ones. The Buddha had done that several times before he became a Buddha. He created suffering for himself and for other people, including his mother and his father. That is why, in a former life, he had to be in Hell. Hell is a place where we can learn a lesson and grow, and the Buddha learned well in Hell. After he was reborn as a human, he continued to practice compassion. From that day on, he continued to make  progress in the direction of understanding and love, and he has never gone back to Hell again, except when he wanted to go there and help the people who suffer.

I have been in Hell, many kinds of Hell, and I have seen that even in Hell, compassion is possible. With the practice of Buddhist meditation, you may very well prevent Hell manifesting, and if Hell has already manifested, you have ways to transform Hell into something much more pleasant. When you get angry, Hell is born. Anger makes you suffer a lot, and not only do you suffer, but the people you love also suffer at the same time. When we don’t know how to practice, from time to time we create Hell in our own families.

Hell can be created by Father, Mother, Sister, or Brother. You have created Hell many times in your family, and every time Hell is there, other people suffer, and you also suffer. So how to make compas­sion arise in one of you? I think the key is practice. If among three or four people, one person has compas­sion inside and is capable of smiling, breathing, and walking mindfully, she or he can be the savior of the whole family. He or she will play the role of the Buddha in Hell. Because compassion is born in him first, compassion will be seen and touched by some­one else, and then, by someone else. It may be that Hell can be transformed in just one minute or less. It is wonderful! Joy and happiness are possible, and if we are able to practice mindfulness, we will be able to make life much more pleasant in our family, our school and work, and our society.

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Dear friends, the energy that pushes us to do what we do not want to do and say what we do not want to say is the negative habit energy in us. In Sanskrit, the word is vasana. It is very important that we recognize habit energy in us. This energy has been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors, and we continue to cultivate it. It is very powerful. We are intelligent enough to know that if we do this or say that, we will damage our relation­ship. Yet when the time comes, we say it or we do it anyway. Why? Because our habit energy is stronger than we are. It is pushing us all the time. The practice aims at liberating ourselves from that kind of habit energy.

I remember one day when I was sitting on the bus in India, with a friend, visiting Untouchable commu­nities. I was enjoying the beautiful landscape from my window, but when I looked at him, I saw that he looked very tense. He was struggling. I said, “My dear friend, there is nothing for you to worry about now. I know that your concern is to make my trip pleasant, and to make me happy, but you know, I am happy right now, so enjoy yourself. Sit back. Smile. The landscape is very beautiful.” He said, “Okay,” and sat back. But when I looked back two minutes later, he was as tense as before. He was still strug­gling. He was not capable of letting go of the struggle that has been going on for many thousands of years. He was not capable of dwelling in the present moment and touching life deeply in that moment. He has a family, a beautiful apartment, and a good job, and he does not look like an Untouchable, but he still carries all the energies and suffering of his ancestors. They struggle during the day; they struggle during the night, even in dreams. They are not capable of letting go and relaxing.

Our ancestors might have been luckier than his were, but many of us behave very much like him. We do not allow ourselves to relax, to be in the present. Why do we always run, even when we are eating, walking, or sitting? Something is pushing us all the time. We are not capable of being free, of touching life deeply in this very moment. You make yourself busy all of your life. You believe that happiness and peace are not possible in the here and the now, but may be possible in the future. So you use all your energy to run to the future, hoping that there you will have happiness and peace. The Buddha addressed this issue very clearly. He said, “Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom.”

The Buddha said that living happily in the present moment is possible: drsta dharma sukha vihari. Drsta dharma means the things that are here, that happen in the here and the now. Sukha means happiness. Vihari means to dwell, to live. Living happily in the present moment is the practice. But how do we liberate ourselves in order to really be in the here and the now? Buddhist meditation offers the practice of stopping. Stopping is very important, because we have been running all our lives, and also in all our previous lives. Our ancestors ran, and they continue to run in us. If we don’t practice, then our children will continue to run in the future.

So we have to learn the art of stopping. Stop running. Stop being pushed by that habit energy. But first, you must recognize that there is such an energy in you, always pushing you. Even if you want to stop, it doesn’t allow you to stop. At breakfast, some of us are capable of enjoying our meal, of being together in the here and the now. But many of us are not really there while having our breakfast. We continue to run. We have a lot of projects, worries, and anxieties, and we cannot sit like a Buddha.

The Buddha always sits on a lotus flower, very fresh, very stable. If we are capable of sitting in the here and the now, anywhere we sit becomes a lotus flower, because you are really sitting, you are really there. Your body and your mind together, you are free from worries, regrets, and anger. Though each of us has a cushion during sitting meditation, the cushion can be Heaven or Hell. The cushion can be a lotus flower or the cushion can be thorns. Many of us sit on the cushion, but it’s like sitting on thorns. We don’t know how to enjoy the lotus flower.

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Our joy, our peace, our happiness depend very much on our practice of recognizing and transforming our habit energies. There are positive habit energies that we have to cultivate, there are negative habit energies that we have to recognize, embrace, and transform. The energy with which we do these things is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us be aware of what is going on. Then, when the habit energy shows itself, we know right away. “Hello, my little habit energy, I know you are there. I will take good care of you.” By recognizing this energy as it is, you are in control of the situation. You don’t have to fight your habit energy. In fact the Buddha does not recommend that you fight it, because that habit energy is you and you should not fight against yourself. You have to generate the energy of mindful­ness, which is also you, and that positive energy will do the work of recognizing and embracing. Every time you embrace your habit energy, you can help it transform a little bit. The habit energy is a kind of seed within your consciousness, and when it becomes a source of energy, you have to recognize it. You have to bring your mindfulness into the present moment, and you just embrace that negative energy: “Hello, my negative habit energy. I know you are there. I am here for you.” After maybe one or two or three minutes, that energy will go back into the form of a seed. But it may re-manifest later on. You have to be very alert.

Every time a negative energy is embraced by the energy of mindfulness, it will no longer push you to do or to say things you do not want to do or say, and it loses a little bit of its strength as it returns as a seed to the lower level of consciousness. The same thing is true for all mental formations: your fear, your anguish, your anxiety, and your despair. They exist in us in the form of seeds, and every time one of the seeds is watered, it becomes a zone of energy on the upper level of our consciousness. If you don’t know how to take care of it, it will cause damage, and push us to do or to say things that will damage us and damage the people we love. Therefore, generating the energy of mindfulness to recognize, embrace, and take care of negative energy is the practice. And the practice should be done in a very tender, nonviolent way. There should be no fighting, because when you fight, you create damage within yourself.

The Buddhist practice is based on the insight of non-duality: you are love, you are mindfulness, but you are also that habit energy within you. To medi­tate does not mean to transform yourself into a battlefield with right fighting wrong, positive fighting negative. That’s not Buddhist. Based on the insight of nonduality, the practice should be nonviolent. Mind­fulness embracing anger is like a mother embracing her child, big sister embracing younger sister. The embrace always brings a positive effect. You can bring relief, and you can cause the negative energy to lose some of its strength, just by embracing it.

A practitioner has the right to suffer, but does not have the right not to practice. People who are not practitioners allow their pain, sorrow, and anguish to overwhelm them, to push them to say and do things they don’t want. We, who consider ourselves to be practitioners, have the right to suffer like everyone else, but we don’t have the right not to practice. We have to call on the positive things within our bodies and our consciousness to take care of our situations. It’s okay to suffer, it’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to allow yourself to be flooded with suffering. We know that in our bodies and our consciousness, there are positive elements we can call on for help. We have to mobilize these positive elements to protect ourselves and to take good care of the negative things that are manifesting in us.

What we usually do is call on the seed of mindful­ness to manifest as a zone of energy also, which we will call “energy number two.” The energy of mindfulness has the capacity of recognizing, embracing, and relieving the suffering, calming and transforming it. In every one of us the seed of mindfulness exists, but if we have not practiced the art of mindful living, then that seed may be very small. We can be mindful, but our mindfulness is rather poor. Of course, when you drive your car, you need your mindfulness. A minimum amount of mindfulness is required for your driving; otherwise you will get into an accident. We know that every one of us has the capacity of being mindful. When you operate a machine, you need a certain amount of mindfulness, otherwise, you will have un accident de travail (an industrial injury). In our relationship with another person, we also need some amount of mindfulness; otherwise we will damage the relationship. We know that all of us have some energy of mindfulness, and that is the kind of energy we need very much to take care of our pain and sorrow.

Mindfulness is something all of us can do. When you drink water and you know that you are drinking water, that is mindfulness. We call it mindfulness of drinking. When you breathe in and you are aware that you are breathing in, that is mindfulness of breathing, and when you walk and you know that you are walking, that is mindfulness of walking. Mindfulness of driving, mindfulness of … , you don’t need to be in the meditation hall to practice mindfulness. You can be there in the kitchen, or in the garden, as you continue to cultivate the energy of mindfulness.

Within a Buddhist practice center, the most important practice is to do everything mindfully, because you need that energy very much for your transformation and healing. You know you can do it, and you will do it better if you are surrounded by a community of brothers and sisters who are doing the same things as you are. Alone you might forget, and you might abandon your practice after a few days or a few months. But if you practice with a Sangha, then you will be supported, and your mindfulness will grow stronger every day, thanks to the support of the Sangha.

When we practice mindfulness as an art of daily living, the seed of mindfulness in our store con­sciousness becomes very strong. Anytime we touch it or call on it for help, it will be ready for us, just like the mother who, although she is working in the kitchen, is always ready for the baby when the baby cries.

Mindfulness is the energy that helps us know what is going on in the present moment. When I drink water, I know that I am drinking the water. Drinking the water is what is happening. When I walk mindfully, I know that I am making mindful steps. Mindfulness of walking. I am aware that walking is going on, and I am concentrated in the walking.

Mindfulness has the power of bringing concentra­tion. When you drink your water mindfully, you are concentrated on your drinking. If you are concen­trated, life is deep. You can get more joy and stability just by drinking your water mindfully. You can drive mindfully, you can cut your carrots mindfully, and when you do these things mindfully, you are concen­trated. You live deeply each moment of your daily life. Mindfulness and concentration will bring about the insight that we need.

If you don’t stop, if you don’t become mindful, if you are not concentrated, then there is no chance that you can get insight. Buddhist meditation is to stop, to calm yourself, to be concentrated, and to direct your looking deeply into what is there in the here and now. The first element of Buddhist meditation is stopping, and the second element is looking deeply. Stopping means not to run anymore, to be mindful of what is happening in the here and the now. Mindfulness allows you to be in the here and the now, with body and mind united. In our daily lives, often our body is there, but our mind is in the past or the future, caught in our projects, our fear, and our anger. Mindfulness helps bring the mind back to the body, and when you do that you become truly present in the here and the now. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be fully present. If you are fully present, with your mind and body truly together, you become fully alive. Mindfulness is that energy that helps you be alive and present.

You have an appointment with life—you should not miss it. The time and the space of your appoint­ment is the here and the now. If you miss the present moment, if you miss the here and the now, you miss your appointment with life, which is very serious. Learning to come back to the present moment, to be fully present and alive, is the beginning of medita­tion. Since you are there, something else is also there: life. If you are not available to life, then life will not be available to you. When you stand there with friends, contemplating the rising moon, you need to be mindful, you need to be in the here and the now. If you allow yourself to get lost in the past or the future, the full moon is not for you. If you know how to practice mindful breathing, you can bring your mind back to your body and make yourself fully present and fully alive. Now, the moon will be for you.

With the practice of mindfulness, you stop running, because you are really there. You stop being carried by your habit energy, by your forgetfulness. And when you touch something beautiful with mindfulness, that something becomes a refreshing and healing element for you. With mindfulness, we can touch the positive things and we can also touch the negative things. If there is joy, mindfulness allows us to recognize it as joy. Mindfulness helps us profit from that joy and allows it to grow and help us in the work of transformation and healing.

Of course, there are negative things within us and around the world. Mindfulness will help us to recognize and embrace them, bringing some relief. If you continue to look deeply into the nature of your pain, of the pain of the world, insight will come, about how that pain came to be. Insight always liberates us, but there will be no insight without mindfulness and concentration. Mindfulness pro­duces your true presence, produces life, and helps us with nourishment and healing. Mindfulness helps bring relief. Every time we embrace our pain and our sorrow with mindfulness, we always bring relief. 

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This article was adapted from a Dharma talk given in PIum Village on August 6, 1998. 

Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

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Dharma Talk: Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine

By Thich Nhat Hanh on Poetry and Interbeing

Offered to Social Workers from Vietnam Visiting Plum Village in May, 2002

Sunshine rides on space and poetry on sunshine.
Poetry gives birth to sunshine, and sunshine to poetry.

Every time we use the expression armful it is usually used to refer to an armful of hay or an armful of logs but rarely do we say an armful of poetry.   When people speak about drops they speak of drops of rain or drops of dew or a drop of soy sauce but no one says a drop of sunshine.  This poem is an invitation to look deeply in an awakened way and to see poetry as an armful and sunshine as a drop.

Without sunshine how can we have poetry?  Without sunshine we would die.  How can we make poetry?  We feel sunshine also comes from poetry.  Poetry is not only pleasant and sweet, it can also be explosive, like thunder.  In sunshine there is not only the pleasant image, there is also a strong aspect.  Sometimes sunshine is also dry and burning.  When we read poetry we feel something sweet and it can also be like a shout denouncing  injustice.  In these two sentences we can see the interdependence of poetry and sunshine.

Sun treasured in the heart of the bitter melon,
poetry made of steam rising from a bowl of soup in Winter.

I wrote this poem during winter. In the previous summer we grew many bitter melons, more than we could eat. We put them in the freezer and in the midst of winter we took them out and made soup. The bitter melon stores so much sunshine within it. In the winter we could not see the sun at all, it was only gray and cloudy with a cold, sharp wind. We took a log of wood and put it into our stove. At that time in Plum Village we did not have any central heating. We only used wood stoves. We could not see the sunshine outside, but we could  touch the sun in the wood log and in the bitter melon in a hot bowl of soup.  Even in the depths of winter you know that the sun has never left you. In the warmth inside your home you see the sun in your bowl of soup; you feel the sunshine is still there.

We are eating but we don’t know that we are consuming sunshine. The sun is our father. Without the sunshine not a single being can survive on this planet. All the animals, vegetables and humans on this planet are children of the sunshine. When we eat the bitter melon we are also eating the sunshine. Our father is nourishing us.   Without  the sun our father we cannot have the Earth our mother and we cannot have food. The sun is our father and the Earth is our mother.

The wind is lurking outside, swirling.
Poetry is back to haunt the old hills and prairies.
Yet the poor thatched hut remains on the river shore, waiting.

When I heard the howling wind outside I thought of Vietnam with many poor thatched roofs. Of course there are also many good houses in Vietnam, but I thought of those families who are most destitute. I thought of the poor thatched roofed hut by the river shore waiting for our support. My mind is in touch with the wood log; my mind inter-is with the material things, the phenomenal world.  At the same time, when I heard the sound of the wind, it touches my store consciousness and I remembered the images of our country. When I left Vietnam, over thirty-five years ago, there were so many poor people living in huts like that. My mind is in touch with the bitter melon and then hearing the howling wind my mind touches the image of the day I left Vietnam, with many people suffering under the bombs and now they are still poor and waiting for help.

Spring carries poetry in its drizzle.
The fire sparkles poetry in its orange flame.
Sunshine stored in the heart of the fragrant wood,

Today it is May and we can see poetry everywhere. But in this poem it is not yet Spring, it is Winter and everything is dark, yet I am still in touch with sunshine and poetry in the bowl of bitter melon soup. There is poetry in each drop of rain in Springtime.  The poetry is stored in the fragrant wood. If you are practicing, you bring a piece of wood and put it in the fire and you are aware that you are putting sunshine into the stove. 

warm smoke leading poetry back to the pages
of an unofficial history book.

An unofficial history book is the book Hermitage Among the Clouds about the true story of Tran Nhan Tong, a Zen teacher in the fourteenth century. During that Winter I wrote that book and I ate the bitter melon soup. My poetry is what I have truly lived. You need to read that book; it is very beautiful. Poetry is everywhere.

Sunshine, though absent from space,
fills the now rose-colored stove.
Sunshine reaching out takes the color of smoke;
poetry in stillness, the color of the misty air.

It seems that sunshine is absent from space, outside it is so dark and gloomy, but sunshine fills the woodstove.  When you prepare the stove the heat that radiates out is poetry. The bitter melon soup is also poetry. That is the deep look that is not caught in the form. We have to learn to see things free from the form. When the person that you love is not there you think that he has died but when you look deeply you see that he or she is still there. We complain that there is no sunshine, but sunshine is there in the bowl of green vegetables, sunshine is there in piece of wood.

Spring rain holds poetry in its drops
which bends down to kiss the soil,
so that the seeds may sprout.
Following the rain, poetry comes to dwell on each leaf.

Every drop of rain in Spring enters into the leaf. In a drop of rain there is also sunshine.  During the Summer there is a lot of sunshine evaporating the water from all the ponds and lakes, forming clouds. Thanks to the cold air the clouds will become Spring rain.  We can say that the rain is kissing the Earth, but we can also say that the sunshine is kissing the soil because the sunshine is in each drop of rain. We see the deep connection between the sun and the Earth. In Plum Village there are so many stinging nettles. In winter you do not see this wild plant. But in spring all you need is the drops of rain and you will see it everywhere. Here in France they call them weeds but they are very good for eating.

Sunshine has a green color and poetry a pink one.
Bees deliver warmth to the flowers from the sunshine
they carry on their wings.
On sunshine footsteps to the deep forest,
poetry drinks the nectar with joy.
With the excitement of celebration,
butterflies and bees crowd the Earth.
Sunshine makes up the dance, and poetry the song.

Usually people  say  that  sunshine is golden yellow, but nobody says that sunshine has a green color. But with deep looking we can see that the sunshine is green. In the poem “Cuckoo telephone” I said that snow is also green. Why? When snow melts and becomes water it makes the plants very lush and green. If we see in a superficial way we only see that the snow is white. But if we look deeper we can see the snow is also green.

When we look at butterflies or bees you can see plenty of sunshine. What do they carry on their wings if not sunshine? Bees deliver warmth from the sunshine to the flowers.  The flower has plenty of sunshine. When the bees come and visit the flower the bees bring back honey. Bees deliver warmth to the flowers. If you look deeply you see poetry everywhere; it happens every second and every minute of our life. Things are happening in every moment in May.  If you have the time to lie down on the grass you will hear the excitement of spring. Every little being is inspired to sprout. The Earth is crowded with butterflies and bees and many other things. Don’t miss your appointment.

Drops of sweat fall on the hard ground.
Poems fly along the furrows.
The hoe handily on my shoulder,
poetry flows from my breath.
Sunshine wanes away down the river,
and the silhouette of the late afternoon lingers reluctantly.
Poetry is leaving for the horizon
where the King of Light is blanketing himself in clouds.

After being in touch with the beauty we are also invited to be in touch with the suffering.  We see the sweat of the farmer who works so hard to grow vegetables for us to eat and we see poetry in that beautiful act of the farmer. The King of light means the sun is going to sleep and he uses the clouds as a blanket. The sun going to sleep is a beautiful atmosphere.

A green sun found in a basketful of fresh vegetables,
a tasty and well-cooked sun smells delicious in a bowl of rice.

If you look at the basket of vegetables but you cannot see the sunshine you are not a good practitioner. Without the sunshine how can you have green, fragrant vegetables?  In Vietnam there is a variety of rice called, “eight fragrances rice.”  When you taste that delicious rice you know you are tasting the sun. You can see poetry everywhere.

Poetry looks with a child’s eyes.
Poetry feels with a weather-beaten face.
Poetry stays within each attentive look.
Poetry – the hands that work the poor and arid land somewhere far away.

When you are far away from your homeland and you eat some delicious rice you can see the hard work of the farmer; you can see the eyes of children, thin and malnourished. We have seen so many children without enough  food.  When we eat some delicious rice we see right away the hard work of the peasant and the poor children who don’t have enough to eat. While eating I can see the look of these children.

I remember one day when I was at Kim Son Monastery in San Jose, California there was a friend from the local newspaper, the Mercury News, who came to interview me about mindfulness.  The editor wanted to publish an article about mindfulness. This journalist was of Vietnamese origin but she was also very good in English.  She asked me, “How can I help you?  I am a journalist; maybe I can help you with my talent as a journalist.”  That day I was sitting under a redwood tree.  She sat next to me and I said, “Please do in such a way that every child in Vietnam will have one cup of soymilk to drink every day. That is my only wish.”  There are many of children in Vietnam who cannot grow up healthy and strong for lack of proper nourishment. This morning I received a photo of many toddlers from three to five-years-old taken in Do Linh village, the hometown of my mother which is in a very poor area. I see each child as my mother. My mother was a toddler, poor and undernourished like that. If these undernourished children can grow up properly, as my mother did because she had a good family, they can become a healthy person and give birth to someone like me. If I am a bit thin and small-boned it is because when I was a child I never had a cup of milk to drink. If you can help me every child will have a cup of milk.

Do Linh is just an illustration, but everywhere in Vietnam the poor hungry children could become good mothers if they have a chance like my mother had. Every child in every poor country could be my mother. If you give five dollars per month you can offer a child a cup of milk every day; cow’s milk or soymilk are both helpful. I look at every child in Do Linh as my mother, every child in Vietnam is my mother; every child in Thailand is my mother. I see that every child in Africa and everywhere could be my mother.  I wish that every child would have a cup of milk to drink.  When you look deeply you can see like that. That is what we call,  “attentive  look.”  Poetry stays within each attentive look.  With an attentive look you can see the toddler and you can also see the past and the future of that child.  hat child can become a strong mother who gives birth to a healthy child or a weak mother who gives birth to handicapped children.

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There are farmers that work so hard but it is not enough to feed their own children.  You dwell in the present moment but you see far away all over planet. You dwell in the present moment, but you can see the past and the future. Dwelling in the present moment doesn’t mean that you are limited to the present moment.

The smiling sun brightening up the sunflower;
the ripe and full sun hiding itself in an August peach;
poetry follows each meditative step,
poetry lines up the pages.

A person who walks mindfully and beautifully looks like a poem. When you write a compassionate line that is poetry.

Discreetly,
within closed food packages,
poetry nurtures love.

At the time that I wrote this poem it was impossible to send money to Vietnam. It was impossible to reach the poorest children, the elderly people. The government forbid our social work and charity work.  The work of the School of Youth for Social Service, that we had set up in Vietnam to help mend the wounds of war, was stopped and the director was in jail.  Many social workers were prevented from doing anything. Yet we found a way  to provide food to the poorest people  in Vietnam.  We bought ordinary French medicine.  At that moment all Western medicine was blocked from entering Vietnam. So we bought French medicine and each family received one kilogram that they could exchange into 300 kilos of rice to nourish the children. Sister Chan Khong and myself and others wrapped the medicine and sent it everywhere in Vietnam. If the person had the family name “Nguyen” for example, then we would give ourselves that name also. If we put our own names, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, the recipients would have been arrested.  So we addressed each package as if a family member had sent it. The communist government did not have the ability to check if that person was really in France.  We sent thousands of parcels like that to thousands of families. A parcel like that was like a gift from heaven; it could nourish the whole family. We did that work in the wintertime nineteen years ago.  We had to use many different handwritings or else the communist government would have been suspicious and arrested the recipients. We gathered twenty persons to write in twenty different handwritings. We included instructions on how to consume the medicine: like that is aspirin or multivitamins do not take more than a certain amount and also how many kilos you can exchange it with for rice. We did that work with a lot of love. We brought a hundred packages to the post office every day. The post office workers said, “You are Santa Claus. But why does Santa Claus come every day and not just at Christmas time?”

With the deep look of a practitioner every moment can be poetry, you can see very deeply and very far while dwelling in the present moment.

Today if I read that poem it is because there are a number of social workers who have come to Plum Village from Vietnam. They have helped me to transmit all of this to the poor people in Vietnam. They have worked in very difficult situations and they have encountered many dangers to be able to do that work.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong.

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Dharma Talk – The Different Faces of Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Teachings on the Dimension of Action of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion from the Universal Door Chapter of the Lotus Sutra

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When the bodhisattva named Inexhaustible Mind heard the name Avalokitesvara, he asked the Buddha, “Why did that bodhisattva get such a beautiful name?” The Buddha replied, “Because the actions of Avalokitesvara can respond to the needs of any being in any circumstance.” Then Bodhisattva Inexhaustible Mind asked, “How does this bodhisattva enjoy being on this Earth? How does he enjoy walking and contemplating and going about this planet?” The word used in this question is a verb that means you relax and enjoy yourself. Answering that question, the Buddha talked about the way Avalokitesvara spends his or her time on this planet.

We all have time to spend on this planet and the question is whether we enjoy it or not. What are we doing? Do we really enjoy our time sojourning on this planet? Do we carry a lot of luggage, making it feel too heavy to enjoy our time here?

Avalokitesvara is a manifestation and any manifestation has to be situated in time and space in the historical dimension. The Buddha Shakyamuni manifested himself as a prince, as a practitioner, as a monk, and as a teacher. His manifestation lasted eighty years. We are also manifestations. We manifest ourselves in the historical dimension and there are things we want to do and we want to enjoy what we do.

The Interbeing of the Historical and the Ultimate Dimensions 

Everything has its historical dimension as well as its ultimate dimension. In the ultimate dimension we are in touch with the essence, the substance, the ground of a person or a thing. In the historical dimension we get in touch with the appearance or the form of something or someone. If we speak about a bell, the substance that makes up the bell is metal. The form of the bell is a manifestation from that ground. So in the historical dimension you can see the ultimate dimension. We also carry with us our ground of being. It’s like a wave that manifests herself on the surface of the ocean. The wave is also the water and touching the historical dimension of the wave deeply, you touch the water, her ultimate dimension.

Yesterday there was a question about God. Our friend asked, “I thought that there is no God in Buddhism. Why is Thay speaking about the Kingdom of God?” It’s true that in Buddhism we do not talk about God but we do talk about nirvana, the ultimate dimension. If God means the ultimate dimension, the foundation of all manifestations, then there is God in Buddhism. Our ground of being is the nature of no birth and no death, no coming and no going. We call that “nirvana”, the ultimate. If you understand God to be the ultimate, to be the foundation of every manifestation, then we can speak about God. If by God we mean an old man with a beard sitting in the clouds and deciding everything for us, we don’t talk about that God.

The Dimension of Action 

What is the purpose of a bell? How does the bell serve? The bell offers sound for us to practice. That is the function of the bell. This is called the dimension of action. We all have this third dimension. Although we carry within ourselves our true nature we also enjoy manifesting ourselves through our jobs and activities. The Buddha Shakyamuni wanted to do something, that is why he manifested himself. The bell wants to do something, that is why she has manifested herself as a bell. There is something we want to do, in our current manifestation. The dimension of action is connected to the dimension of history, and the dimension of history is very much linked to the dimension of the ultimate.

Our body in the historical dimension may have a beginning and an end but our body in the ultimate dimension is indestructible. It is our Dharma body. Our body in the historical dimension is the body of retribution. The form and manifestation of our physical body is a result or retribution of the lives of our ancestors and our own way of living and being in the world. While using this body of retribution we can practice touching our Dharma body. Everyone has a Dharma body and if you can touch your Dharma body you are no longer afraid of birth and death. The moment the wave realizes that she is water, she is no longer afraid of being and nonbeing, birth and death. As water she doesn’t mind going up and going down. She can ride freely on the waves of history without fear. The role of the bodhisattva in the dimension of action is to help people to touch deeply their ultimate dimension because once you have touched your ultimate dimension you lose all fear of birth and death. You realize that this manifestation is just a continuation. Before this manifestation you were already there in your ancestors and after this manifestation disintegrates you will continue in your descendants and in all forms of life.

The Universal Door 

The twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra is called “The Universal Door Chapter.” This chapter is about the dimension of action of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The Universal Door refers to the kind of practice that can respond to all situations of suffering in every place and in every time. This chapter is about love, and Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of love and compassion.

Amb32-dharma2valokitesvara is translated as Quan Tu Tai or Quan The Am in Vietnamese. Quan means to observe, to look deeply or to recognize. In Sanskrit this word is the same as vipasyana, to look deeply. Vipasyana goes together with samatha, or stopping and concentrating. You select a subject, you stop and concentrate on that subject and you look deeply into it. It may be your anger, your despair or a difficult situation you find yourself in. Tu Tai means freedom. Thanks to looking deeply you get the freedom you need. In the Heart Sutra the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara found out that everything is empty of a separate existence. Upon having that realization he became free from all afflictions. The Am means the sounds of the world. Quan The Am is the one who looks deeply into the sounds of the world.

Living beings express themselves in different ways. Whether they express themselves well or not, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can always understand them. If a child doesn’t have enough words to express herself the bodhisattva is still able to understand the child. If the person expresses himself in spoken language or in bodily expression the bodhisattva also understands.

Avalokitesvara has the power of manifesting herself in so many forms, and she is capable of being present everywhere at the same time. When you go to a temple, whether it is in Vietnam or Tibet or China you might have a chance to see a statue of a bodhisattva with 1,000 arms. Each arm holds an instrument. One of her hands is holding a book; it may be a sutra or a book on political science. Another hand is holding a bell. Another hand is holding a flute or a guitar. And a bodhisattva of our time may hold in one hand a computer. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book there is an English translation of the verses of this chapter made by Sister True Virtue. In this translation the bodhisattva is called a she. And in Asia many people think of Avalokitesvara as a she. But in fact the person can be a he as is explained in the sutra. The bodhisattva can manifest herself as an artist, a politician, a musician, a Dharma teacher, a gardener, a little boy, a little girl, even as a millionaire or the head of a big corporation. If the situation needs his or her presence she will be there in the appropriate form to respond to the situation. Compassion can take so many forms.

Cultivating Compassion 

“Whoever calls her name or sees her image, if their mind is perfectly collected and pure, they will then be able to overcome the suffering of all the worlds. When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” 1

Calling the name of Avalokitesvara may give rise to something in your mind. Your mind becomes concentrated, mindful, calm, and lucid. If you call her name in such a way that your mind becomes still then you will be able to overcome your suffering. Evoking the name of Avalokitesvara is one of the ways to allow understanding and compassion to be born in our hearts. When something or someone can offer you freshness, joy, and loving kindness, the image of that person becomes the object of your contemplation. Every time you think of her or of him, suddenly the elements of compassion and understanding are born in your heart and you can overcome the suffering you are experiencing at that moment.

A place can also embody compassion and understanding. Suppose you come to Plum Village and you enjoy the beauty of the nature and the lifestyle. When you leave, every time you think of Plum Village you have a pleasant feeling. That is the meaning of mindfulness or contemplation. The object of mindfulness is the image or the sound that can inspire us and can produce the element of understanding and compassion in us. It is not just devotion. We should not invoke the name of Avalokitesvara or visualize the form like a machine; doing that will not provoke any calmness or mindfulness. To evoke the energy of Avalokitesvara is the practice of calming and concentrating our mind to bring back the nectar of compassion and understanding in us. That practice can help us avoid all kinds of dangers.

Avalokitesvara can also manifest himself in many names. The message of Jesus is love. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” Avalokitesvara may say, “I am the Universal Door.” We all have our Avalokitesvara, of different names and forms. What is essential is that that name can help us to calm down and to make understanding and compassion possible.

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“When those with cruel intent push us into a pit of fire, invoking the strength of Avalokita, the fire becomes a refreshing lake.” How can we understand this statement? If you are pushed into a pit of fire and you know how to be mindful and to recollect the powerful energy of Avalokitesvara then the pit will be transformed into a cool lake. The cool lake is inside and it is also outside.

In the same chapter of the Lotus Sutra we read, “If there is a person who is a victim of ignorance and that person knows how to be mindful of the great compassion of Avalokitesvara then he will free himself from ignorance. If a person is a victim of anger and she knows how to practice mindfulness of the great energy of Avalokitesvara then she will be free from her anger.” We have to understand all of these verses in that spirit.

Sometimes a whole nation is plunged into a pit of fire made of anger. Imagine how big that pit of fire must be. If you know how to be mindful of compassion, and of Avalokitesvara who is the symbol of compassion and understanding, then you will calm yourself down. You will be able to see more clearly and your anger will subside. After September 11th, I recommended that America engage herself in the practice of stopping, calming and looking deeply to see what to do and what not to do to respond to the situation with compassion and lucidity. This is the action of Avalokitesvara.

Drawing Dangers into Ourselves 

In the Universal Door Chapter we read about many dangerous situations such as: caught in a fire, caught in a flood, caught in a war, caught in a situation where we suffer so much. Usually we believe that dangers come from the outside. We do not realize that most of the dangers we are afraid of come from within us and not from some objective situation. When you do not have a clear view, a right understanding of reality, you create a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and danger. When you have the element of anger, delusion, and craving within yourself, you draw danger into yourself. You create your own suffering. The practice of compassion, the practice of deep looking helps you to be lucid, to be loving, and that lucidity and that loving kindness is a protection from all kinds of dangers.

It is clearly stated in the sutra that if you are caught in a situation of anger and you know how to produce mindfulness of love then you will be free from that situation. If you are caught in the situation of delusion and you know how to practice mindfulness of compassion then you can get out of that situation. That is the Universal Door.

The Fierce Bodhisattva and the Gentle Bodhisattva 

Is it possible to carry a gun and yet remain deeply a bodhisattva? This is possible. When you enter the gate of a temple, you see the statue of a very gentle bodhisattva on your left, smiling and welcoming. But looking on your right you see a figure with a very fierce face, holding a weapon. His whole face is burning. Smoke and fire are pouring out of his eyes and his mouth. He is the one who has the capacity to keep the hungry ghosts in order. Every time we organize a ceremony to offer food and drink to the hungry ghosts, to the wandering souls, we need to evoke the bodhisattva with the burning face (Dien Nhien Vuong) to come and help. The hungry ghosts only listen to him because he has that fierce, “You behave, otherwise you will get it!” look. He is a kind of Chief of Police bodhisattva. That is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. So when you see someone carrying a gun, you cannot necessarily say that he or she is evil. Society needs some people to carry guns because there are gangsters, there are people who would not behave if there were no one embodying strict discipline. It is possible that someone carrying a gun can be a real bodhisattva because the bodhisattva of the burning face is a real bodhisattva, a manifestation of Avalokitesvara. It is possible for the director of a prison or a prison guard to be a bodhisattva. He may be very firm with the prisoners but deep inside of him there is the heart of a bodhisattva. Our job is to help prison guards and police officers to have a bodhisattva heart.

Today there is a police officer here; she took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 1991. She knows a lot about the suffering of members of the police force in America. You are supposed to be a peacekeeping force but sometimes you are looked upon as the oppressors, as a symbol of violence. There is violence, there is suppression in society and you have been appointed to keep the peace. It’s very hard to do your job if you don’t have enough skillful means. If you don’t have enough understanding and compassion, a lot of anger, frustration, and despair may grow within you. Then it is possible that you can become the oppressor. The door of your heart is closed. No one understands you; they look upon you as an enemy. There is no communication between you and the world outside that you are supposed to serve. So the suffering of the police may be immense, the suffering of prison guards may be immense. They don’t enjoy their job and yet they have to continue. Avalokitesvara must appear in their midst and try to open their hearts. Avalokitesvara says that you can carry a gun, you can be very firm, but at the same time you can be very compassionate.

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If you play the role of a tender bodhisattva, you have to have real compassion and understanding in you. Usually the First Lady, the wife of the Prime Minister, the wife of the President or the Queen, should play the role of the tender bodhisattva, the figure of a mother, a gentle sister caring for the sick and the poor. While her husband is doing things like conducting the army, conducting war, the First Lady plays the role of a tender bodhisattva. But if she is a real bodhisattva her action will not be just a decoration, she will manifest real compassion and real understanding.

If you have to play the role of the fierce, burning face bodhisattva, even if you carry a weapon and demonstrate your firmness, you have to have a tender heart and deep understanding. If you look for Avalokitesvara only in a nice appearance, you will miss her, because she can manifest herself in all kinds of forms. She can manifest herself in all kinds of bodies: as a child, as an adult, as a judge, as a mother, as a king, as a schoolteacher, as a businessman, as a politician, as a scientist, as a journalist, or as a Dharma teacher. So you have to look deeply in order to recognize Avalokitesvara.

The Eye of Understanding 

The ten thousand arms of the bodhisattva are needed because love can express itself in many forms with many kinds of instruments. That is why every arm is holding a different instrument. But if you look closer, you see that in each hand there is an eye. The eye signifies the presence of understanding. Very often by loving someone we make that person suffer because our love is not made with understanding. The other person may be your son, your daughter, or your partner. If you don’t understand the suffering, the difficulty, the deep aspiration of that person, it is not possible for you to love him or her. That is why you need an eye for your arm to really be an instrument of compassion. It is important to check whether your loving has enough understanding and compassion in it. You can ask for help. “Darling, do you think I understand you enough? Do I make you suffer because of my love?” A father should be able to ask his son, a mother should be able to ask her daughter that question. “Daughter, do I make you suffer because of my lack of understanding? Please tell me so that I can love you properly.” That is the language of love. If you are sincere, your daughter will tell you about her suffering and once you have understood you will stop doing things that you thought would make her happy but really make her suffer. Understanding is the substance with which you can fabricate love.

Transformation Bodies of Avalokitesvara 

Several of us are acting like bodhisattvas with several arms. We are taking care of members of our family, and we also participate in the work of protecting the environment and helping the hungry children in the world. We think we have only two arms but many of us are present a little bit everywhere in the world. You can be at the same time here and in a prison. You can be at the same time here and in a far away country where children suffer because of malnutrition. You don’t have to be present with this body because you have other transformation bodies a little bit everywhere. And that is why it is very important that you recognize your transformation bodies. When I write a book I want to transform myself into thousands of me in order to go a little bit everywhere. Every book of mine becomes one of my transformation bodies. I can go to a cloister in the form of a book; I can go to a prison in the form of a cassette tape. Each of us has many transformation bodies. That is what the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara does. She can manifest herself in so many bodies. Being a bodhisattva is not something abstract; it’s something concrete that you can do.

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When I was young I read a book written by a French tourist who went to Africa and enjoyed hunting tigers in the jungle. He didn’t believe in God. One day, late in the afternoon, he got lost in the jungle. He didn’t know how to get out; he began to panic. He wanted to pray for help but because he didn’t believe in God he had never prayed before. In his panic, he said, “God, if you really exist, then this is the time to come and rescue me!” There was some arrogance in his way of praying. Right after he said that, there was some noise in the bush and an African gentleman appeared wearing nothing but a loincloth and thanks to that person the Frenchman was saved. Later in his book he wrote an ironic sentence that showed he was not very grateful. He said, “I called for God but only a Negro came.” He was not able to recognize God in the person of a native African. He didn’t know that the “Negro” who came to him was God, was Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. You have to be very awake in order to recognize the beautiful bodhisattva in an unfamiliar form.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara might be very close to you. You may be able to recognize her in the here and now and yet you are looking for him or her in the clouds. Compassion does exist; understanding does exist. It is possible for us to cultivate the energy of compassion and understanding so that the bodhisattva can be with us all the time in our daily life. Then we will be well protected.

Four Skillful Means for Embracing Living Beings

How does the bodhisattva act in order to help living beings to overcome their suffering and to realize their ultimate dimension? We speak of four skillful means used by the bodhisattva, in the dimension of action, to embrace living beings. They are: (1) making offerings, (2) using loving speech, (3) doing things to benefit the other person, and (4) “doing the same thing” or becoming one with the people you want to help.

Offering the Gift of Non-fear 

There are three kinds of gifts spoken of in Buddhism: material gifts, the gift of the Dharma, and the gift of non-fear. When you offer things to people, you are practicing compassion and you also open the way for reconciliation and healing. Giving her some beautiful music can help her to relax while listening. Giving him a book on the Dharma may help him to deal with his difficulties. The Buddha said when you are angry with someone and you are capable of giving him or her something, then your anger will die down.

The most precious gift that Avalokitesvara can offer us is the gift of non-fear. People are afraid of losing their identity, of dying, of becoming nothing. When you give the kind of teaching and practice and insight that helps people touch their ultimate dimension, they lose all their fear. But you need to have that gift of non-fear within you in order for you to be able to offer it to others.

Perhaps as a child you have played with a kaleidoscope, a very simple, wonderful toy. I have a few in my hut. In it there are loose bits of colored materials and two mirrors at one end that show many different patterns. Each pattern is a beautiful manifestation. If you turn it a little bit, that manifestation will be replaced with another manifestation. Every manifestation is beautiful. As a child, you don’t regret when one manifestation replaces another. The manifestations also, no matter how beautiful they are, do not feel sorrowful when they give their place to the next manifestation. The child just enjoys the changes without any regret because the next manifestation is as beautiful as the current one. There is no fear, no regret because all manifestations have the same ground, the little bits of colors in the kaleidoscope. The ground of all manifestations is always there. If you can touch the ground, you don’t mind the changes. You are not caught by this body, you know this is just one manifestation. You are ready to manifest in another form as wonderful as this one.

The Loving Speech of a Bodhisattva 

The second skillful means is to use loving speech. You can be very firm and uncompromising, and still use loving speech. Loving speech can convey your feeling and your idea to the other person better than shouting at them, blaming them, or being sarcastic and sour. A bodhisattva should be able to use loving speech.

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I would like to return to the example of the police bodhisattva. Seeing the way people react to the police, the police officers’ hearts harden every day. They feel very isolated; they feel they are victims of society. So the police bodhisattva can propose that the community of police officers organize an open house. They will prepare food and beverages and will invite the neighborhood to come and hear the story of the life of a police officer. You can tell them, “When I set out in the morning carrying my gun and going to the street, my spouse does not know whether I will come home safely because there is so much violence in society. Although we carry guns we can be killed or maimed by other people. So we start our day with fear, with uncertainty; we don’t know what will happen to us during that day. Our task is to impose order, but maybe we will be victims of violence on the street. If we do our job with anger and fear in us, we cannot do it well. That is why we suffer as police officers. We really want to help but we suffer very much. When we go home we cannot offer joy and compassion to the people in our home because it was so hard during the day. If there is no happiness in our home, we are not nourished.”

Then members of the community will have more understanding and compassion for you. Communication is possible. There can be collaboration between the police officers and community members. There must be a way out of even the most difficult situations. The way out is through listening with compassion and using loving speech. Once communication is restored we have hope and suffering will be lessened.

The third skillful means is to do things that benefit the other person. From your actions the other person feels safer and has more opportunities for a happy life. Showing people how to receive training to obtain a job, how to increase their family ‘s income, how to improve their health or have more security, are examples of the kinds of action that benefit people.

The Skillful Means of “Doing the Same Thing”

The fourth skillful means is, you become one of them. You look like them, you wear clothes like them, and you do exactly what they are doing, in order for them to have a chance to learn the path of understanding and love. That is the action of the bodhisattva.

Nowadays there are so many youngsters who belong to gangs. Each gang may have thirty or forty members, each with a leader. In order to help transform their hearts and minds, you have to transform yourself into a gang leader. You look like a delinquent but you are really a bodhisattva because that is the only way to approach them. You have to talk like them, you have to behave and wear clothes like them in order to be recognized and accepted, then you can begin to help transform their hearts. That is called the practice of “doing the same thing.” That is what Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara can do. So in the prisons you can manifest yourself as a fellow prisoner and you become the bodhisattva among prisoners. In the police force, you have to manifest yourself as a police officer, and you play the role of bodhisattva in order to bring about relief, understanding, and compassion.

A Bodhisattva in Prison 

There is a nun who is a student of mine who has spent a lot of time in prison. When she was young she had the opportunity to study English literature in a university in America. She ordained as a nun in Vietnam. She was imprisoned because she participated in activities to promote human rights. During the time she was in prison she practiced walking meditation and sitting meditation every day, although her cell was very small. Thanks to the practice she remained calm and fresh; anger and despair were not able to seize her. She was able to help the other prisoners. Other prisoners had a lot of anger that showed on their faces when they interacted with the prison guards. But she was treated well by the prison guards, not because she was a nun, but because she had the compassionate look of a practitioner. She was smiling and fresh that is why they didn’t worry about her.

The fact is that while being in prison she was not a victim of anger and despair. She was able to make use of her time there, like a retreat. She didn’t have to do anything ,just enjoy the practice. She grew up spiritually during her time in prison. Instead of transforming her prison cell into a pit of glowing embers, she transformed her dwelling into a cool lotus pond because she knew the practice of mindfulness, compassion, and understanding. If we find ourselves in a situation like hers and we know how to practice the Universal Door of mindfulness and compassion, then we will not suffer and we can help people who are in the same situation. We can also help people like the administrators and prison guards.

Praising Avalokitesvara 

“From the depths of understanding, the flower of great eloquence blooms: the Bodhisattva stands majestically upon the waves of birth and death, free from all afflictions. Her great compassion eliminates all sickness, even that once thought of as incurable. Her wondrous light sweeps away all obstacles and dangers. The willow branch in her hand, once waved, reveals countless Buddha lands. Her lotus flower blossoms a multitude of practice centers. I bow to her, to see her true presence in the here and now. I offer her the incense of my heart. May the Bodhisattva of deep listening embrace us all with great compassion. Homage to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.” – Verses of Praise from the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book.

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In this chant praising Avalokitesvara you begin to see that the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has a deep understanding of your situation, of the situation of the world. And she is able to convince you with her great eloquence to follow the path of understanding and love. She is free from the dust of craving, anger, and delusion. Her nectar of compassion can heal all kinds of sickness whether it is depression or cancer. The best kind of medicine is compassion. Without compassion it is very difficult to heal. You need compassion from the inside and from the outside. The light emitted by him or her sweeps away all kinds of dangers. You draw dangers into yourself by your craving, hatred, and delusion. But because you have the light of compassion, you can dissipate and be free from all of these dangers.

The bodhisattva holds a willow branch in her hand. When she waves it she reveals countless Buddha lands. The Buddha land is right here, right now, but because we are deluded and caught in our anger we don’t see the wonders of life, the wonders of the Pure Land in the present moment. We need her to use a willow branch in order to reveal it to us. She dips the willow branch into the nectar of compassion and as she spreads it, she transforms suffering into joy. With the nectar of compassion you can do everything. You can transform death into life, despair into hope. It is possible for you to cultivate the nectar of compassion like a bodhisattva. With her pink lotus flower she creates a multitude of practice centers. There are many practice centers in Germany, in England, in America, and in Israel. You are an arm of the bodhisattva; you are establishing Mindfulness Practice Centers everywhere. I bow my head; I praise her, I praise compassion, and I offer the incense of my heart. Please manifest yourself in the here and the now for us.

The Ten Virtues of Avalokitesvara: The Five Contemplations and the Five Sounds 

“Look of truth, look of purity, look of boundless understanding, look of love, look of compassion, the look to be always honored and practiced.”

If you want to know the nature and the practice of Avalokitesvara, you should be aware that she practices five kinds of contemplations: of truth, purity, great wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness. The first contemplation comes from the definition of her name, Quan, meaning looking deeply into the truth of reality. You have the capacity to distinguish the true from the false, the beautiful from the ugly.

The second contemplation is the contemplation on purification. Like a cloud in the sky, she has to purify herself so that when she becomes the rain, the rain will be pure for the sake of the world. To be a cloud floating in the sky is wonderful, but it is also wonderful to be the rain falling on the mountains and the rivers. To become the snow on the top of a mountain is also wonderful. To be a drink in a glass of water for a child is also wonderful. So water can manifest herself in many forms and every form is wonderful. That is why bodhisattvas are not caught in one form of manifestation, in one body. We know that this manifestation is linked to the next manifestation in terms of cause and effect.

If the cloud is polluted then the rain will be polluted also. That is why, while being a cloud you purify yourself so that when you become the rain you become very pure, delicious water. You know that there are many clouds that carry within themselves a lot of dust, a lot of acid. The clouds that hang over big cities are quite polluted. When they become snow the snow is not clean; when it becomes rain, it can carry a lot of acid and destroy the forests. So while you are a cloud try to practice self-purification so that when you are transformed into snow and water you will be more beautiful. By self-purification, you help with the purification of the world.

We know we draw dangers to ourselves because of the way we look at things and because we have craving, anger, and delusion in us. That is why self-purification, learning to look deeply to remove our anger, our craving, and our delusion is to remove danger. Especially when you touch the ultimate, you are no longer afraid of anything.

The third contemplation is the contemplation on the great wisdom, maha prajna paramita. The object of your contemplation is not just knowledge, but the great wisdom that has the power of bringing you to the other shore, the shore of safety, the shore of non-fear, the shore of well-being.

The fourth contemplation is the contemplation on compassion, the energy with which we can embrace all beings whether they are sweet and lovable or unkind and cruel. The fifth contemplation is the contemplation on loving kindness, the energy that is the opposite of what we feel towards an enemy. When we contemplate on loving kindness we feel our association and friendship towards all beings. We should practice contemplation of these five objects.

The Five Sounds of a Bodhisattva

“Sound of wonder, noble sound,
sound of one looking deeply into the world,
extraordinary sound, sound of the rising tide,
the sound to which we will always listen.”

This verse in the Universal Door Chapter speaks about five kinds of sounds that characterize the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The five sounds are the sound of wonder, the sound of he or she who understands the world, the noble sound, the sound that is powerful like the sound of the rising tide, and the sound that surpasses all sounds in the Locadhatu, the mundane world.

First is the sound of wonder: you yourself are a wonder, the tree in the front yard is a wonder, the Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder, and the galaxy is a wonder. You should listen in such a way that you can hear the sound of the wonders. Otherwise you are living in a dream. You are in the kingdom of wonders and yet you are not in touch. That is why you have to listen. You listen to the mountain, you listen to the flower, you listen to the birds, you listen to yourself, and you become aware that everything is a wonder.

The second sound is the sound of he or she who practices looking deeply into the world. The Buddha is described as “he who deeply understands the world.” All of us who are friends, disciples, continuations of the Buddha, do the same. We try to look deeply into the world in order to understand better. That is the meaning of meditation. To meditate is to have the time to look deeply at what is there. And looking like that we come to understand the world, to understand ourselves, and we are free from afflictions, from making mistakes.

The third sound is the sound of nobility. There are sounds that are heavy, that carry a lot of craving, a lot of despair. But when you are a practitioner you are on a path of self-purification and the sound you emit every day becomes finer and finer, because every cell in your body, every mental formation in you is on the way to self-purification and transformation. That is why the sound emitted by our cells becomes more and more noble. That is what happens with the bodhisattva; her sound is a wonderful sound, that is high and noble. If you are mindful and concentrated, you can tune in to that sound for your pleasure, for your transformation, and for your healing.

The fourth kind of sound is the sound of the rising tide. When I was a student at the Buddhist Institute I invited other students to produce a newsletter for the students of the seminary and I proposed the title, “The Voice of the Rising Tide.” But because we wrote so many radical thoughts, later on we were forbidden to continue with our publication. The sound of the rising tide is very powerful. If you can tune in to that sound, you receive transformation and healing. That sound can embrace and take away the sounds that are vulgar, that are low. The fifth kind of sound is the sound that can transcend all the other sounds of the world. The Locadhatu emits the sound of the world, while the sound emitted by the bodhisattva reveals to us the Dharmadhatu, the realm of ultimate reality, the Pure Land.

When you practice being aware of Avalokitesvara, you get in touch with these five kinds of sounds and these five kinds of contemplations. This is the essence of Avalokitesvara. Avalokitesvara is not the name of a god. Avalokitesvara is a real person having real qualities characterized by these five contemplations and five sounds.

Compassion Like Thunder

“Strength of Thunder, Calmness of Clouds
Heart of compassion like rolling thunder,
heart of love like gentle clouds,
water of Dharma nectar raining upon us,
extinguishing the fire of afflictions.”

The element of karuna, of compassion, is like thunder. Compassion is not something soft, it is very powerful, like thunder. The element of maitri, of loving kindness, is like a wonderful great cloud causing the rain of the Dharma to fall down like nectar, extinguishing all the fire of afflictions. You have two images, the thunder and the cloud. When these two things come together, it produces the compassionate Dharma rain falling down, extinguishing all kinds of afflictions.

Taking Refuge in Holiness

“Contemplation on Holiness:
With mindfulness, free from doubts,
in moments of danger and affliction,
our faith in the purity of Avalokita
is where we go for refuge.”

In every moment, dwelling in mindfulness without any doubt, we have great confidence in the power of compassion and understanding. Avalokitesvara becomes the object of our mindfulness, of our recollection. Even in danger or dying, you maintain that kind of awareness because Avalokitesvara is a holy entity, a saint. Wherever there are the elements of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, there is the element of holiness. Avalokitesvara is a holy person and if we make him or her into the object of our mindfulness, we get the element of holiness in us. That is why we don’t have to be afraid of dangers anymore, even prison or death. She is the element of holiness and she is our refuge and our protection. That is the next to the last verse.

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Looking at All Beings with the Eyes of Compassion

“We bow in gratitude to the one
who has all the virtues,
regarding the world
with compassionate eyes,
an Ocean of Well-Being
beyond measure.”

The last verse says, fully equipped with all kinds of merits, she is capable of looking at living beings with compassionate eyes. I think this is the most beautiful sentence in the whole Lotus Suta. Use the eyes of compassion to look at living beings. When you understand the suffering of the other person, you can accept him or her and suddenly compassion flows out of your eyes and you will help that person to suffer less. Using compassionate eyes to look at living beings is the most beautiful practice. You have a compassionate eye; the Buddha eye has been transmitted to you. The question is whether you want to make use of that eye.

The merits are accumulating into an infinite ocean. Merits can also be translated as happiness or well-being. You cannot describe the great ocean of happiness. Happiness is made of one substance, called compassion. That is why in cultivating compassion you cultivate happiness for yourself and for the world. Happiness is described not in terms of pounds or kilograms but in terms of oceans. Our happiness accumulates and becomes an infinite ocean. We touch the feet of the bodhisattva with our forehead to express our deep gratitude and respect.

On the Gridakuta Mountain where the Buddha delivered the Lotus Sutra, Shakyumani was playing the main role, the role of the Buddha, and Avalokitesvara played the role of a bodhisattva. But in many sutras we have learned that Avalokitesvara became a Buddha a long time before and is a fully enlightened person. Yet coming to the Gridakuta Mountain, he played the role of a disciple of the Buddha. This is a kind of play because if there is a teacher, there must be students. If there are students, there must be a teacher. So you take turns in order to be a teacher or a student. Some time later you will become a teacher and I will be your student. This is the tenth door of the Avatamsaka Sutra. It’s like a formation of wild geese in the sky. If the leader gets tired, he slows down and lets another lead. Sometimes you play the role of the leader, sometimes you play the role of a follower and you don’t discriminate at all, you are equally happy. With that we can conclude the Universal Door chapter and we know that Avalokitesvara has played the role of the student very well. But if we look deeply into her personality, her action, her wisdom, we know that no one can surpass her in terms of compassion and understanding.

From Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh on June 9th, June 14th, and June 15th, 2002 during the twenty-one day Hand of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village, France. Transcribed and edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Steadiness.

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1 “Discourse on the Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma: Universal Door Chapter” found in Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2000). All following quotes in this article are from the same source unless noted otherwise.

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

Dharma Talk: The Day I Turn Twenty

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

mb31-dharma1Dear Sangha, today is the 13th of December 2001. We are in the Dharma Nectar Hall, at the Lower Hamlet, during the winter retreat. The committee, working on the book for the twentieth anniversary of Plum Village has asked me to talk about the history of Plum Village so that they can include it in the book. There are so many stories to recount that I don’t know where to start!

 

The Six Umbrella Pines

We found the Lower Hamlet on the 28th of September 1982. Before this, we had found the Upper Hamlet. When we went to take a look at the Upper Hamlet, I liked it immediately, because it was beautiful. I saw the path that could be for our walking meditation, and I fell in love with it at first sight. However, Mr. Dezon, the land owner of the Upper Hamlet, did not want to sell it. He loved that piece of land very much; he could not let it go. We understood this, since he had been a farmer there for a long time. After a few days, we found the Lower Hamlet. Having purchased the Lower Hamlet, we still wanted the Upper Hamlet. Therefore, we continued to pay attention to what was going on up there. That year, there was a hailstorm that destroyed all the owner’s vineyards. He got angry and put it on the market for a very high price, not to have more money, but so that he would not have to sell it. In spite of the increased price, we bought it, because we liked the land so much. As a result, we had the Lower Hamlet first, then after a few months, we had the Upper Hamlet as a part of Plum Village. In previous years we held the summer retreat in the Sweet Potato Hermitage in the North of France. It was, however, such a small center that we could not receive many meditation students. As a result, we came to the South to look for land and establish a practice center that could receive more people.

mb31-dharma2We decided to open Plum Village to the public right away during our first summer, in 1983. Thus, from the winter of 1982 to the summer of 1983, we had to work a lot. At the beginning of 1983, we began to plant some trees in the Upper Hamlet. The first trees we planted were six umbrella pine trees with the help of a local farmer. The land in the Upper Hamlet was full of rocks, so we needed his machine to dig holes for the trees . We put a little bit of cow manure in the bottom of each hole before planting the trees. It was raining on that day and everybody was soaked. Afterwards, I got sick and stayed in bed for three weeks. Everybody was worried. Fortunately, after a while I could get up and eat some rice soup.

In those days, we did not call it Plum Village, we called it Persimmon Village which was the name of a practice center the School of Youth for Social Service and the Order of Interbeing had planned on building in Vietnam, so that their members could come to practice and nourish themselves. In the 1950s, we had the Fragrant Palm Leaves center in the highlands of Vietnam, in Blao. You would know about that center if you have read the book Fragrant Palm Leaves. However, the School of Youth for Social Service wanted to have a center closer to the city. When I wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness, I also mentioned the idea of founding a practice center called Persimmon Village. Eight years later, we managed to find the Lower Hamlet and our vision came true. We had thought of planting persimmons but we realized that it was not practical, so we planted plum trees instead. We were still naive, thinking that if we planted many plum trees, we could have enough income to support ourselves. We were not horticulturists, so we did not do very well. We have enjoyed more plum blossoms than plums.

The name Plum Village is beautiful, so we changed it from Persimmon Village to Plum Village. In reality, we had only planted a few dozen persimmon trees, but we had planted 1,250 plum trees. Many of those first plum trees that we planted were bought with the pocket money given to us by children who came to Plum Village. The children were told that in seven years the plum trees would give fruits; those fruits would be dehydrated and sold, and that money would be used to help hungry children in Vietnam or in other poor countries. Many children saved their pocket money in order to plant plum trees. Sometimes the children would combine their pocket money to plant a plum tree. It cost thirty-five French francs to plant a baby plum tree. We planted 1,250 trees because that was the number of the original monastic Sangha of the Buddha.

In May of 1983 we held our first Summer Opening with 117 practitioners. We did not yet have the practice of touching the earth or the daily practice with gathas, meditation poems. However, we already had sitting meditation, walking mediation, tea meditation, and consultations. There were not yet monks and nuns, so I had to lead all the practices from the beginning to the end, from A to Z. I had to walk around and correct people’s sitting posture, straightening each person ‘s back and neck. During our first summer retreat, Westerners came to practice with Vietnamese people. In the second Summer Opening, there were 232 people. In the third 305, the seventh 483, and in the ninth there were 1030. In 1996, 1200 people came for the summer retreat and in 1998, there were 1450 practitioners. In the year 2000, the number increased to 1800. Of course, not all 1800 came at the same time. Some came for one, two, or three weeks, and some came for the entire four weeks of the retreat. There were also those who li ked it so much that after four weeks they asked to stay on longer. People also come throughout the year to practice with us. In the first few years, Western practitioners stayed in the Upper Hamlet while Vietnamese and Asian practitioners stayed in the Lower Hamlet so they could enjoy traditional dishes of their homeland.

The Atlantic cedars, which you see in the Upper Hamlet, were also planted during the first year. They were just four feet tall then. They took a long time to grow, but the more they grew, the more beautiful they became. They will be very beautiful in three hundred years. There are two different varieties of Atlantic cedars; one is a smoky gray color, and the other is a silvery blue. When we do walking meditation in the Upper Hamlet, we start at the linden tree. As we pass the Transformation Meditation Hall, we see the Atlantic cedars on the right. They are already so beautiful. I often look at a tree and see it as a monk or a nun who is growing strong in Plum Village. I stop to offer praise, this young novice is doing quite well because that cedar has grown healthily and beautifully. Twenty years have passed, and they are now grown – no longer four-foot high baby cedar trees. In Plum Village, many other things have grown up as well. Not only the monks and nuns and lay practitioners have grown up, but our methods of practice have also matured like the cedars.

The Signless Nature of Plum Village 

In 1983 , standing on the hill I already saw that all the plum trees were in flower, whitening the whole land. That was the sight in the ultimate dimension. Within four years, when the spring arrived, the plum trees really did blossom so beautifully. Every April, we organize the Plum Blossom Festival, with tea, cookies, singing, and poetry. In Plum Village, we have two flower festivals: One is called the Plum Blossom Festival, and the other, the Daffodil Festival. In the Upper Hamlet at the end of March, thousands of wild daffodils bloom in the Dharma Body Forest. We organize a Daffodil Festival and about half a month later, we have the Plum Blossom Festival in the Lower Hamlet. If you come to Plum Village in April you will be able to participate in the Plum Blossom Festival, which is beautiful and poetic.

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Now Plum Village also includes the New Hamlet, which is the Loving Kindness Temple, the Hillside Hamlet and the Gatehouse. Near Upper Hamlet we also have Middle Hamlet and West Hamlet. Many are surprised when they come and see that Plum Village is not what they had imagined. For example, we had forewarned a delegation of practitioners from the Buddhist Association of China before their arrival to Plum Village, saying that we had only trees and cow barns that have been converted into meditation halls and living quarters. We had told them this many times, but when they arrived they were still surprised. They had not expected that Plum Village could be so poor, simple, and rustic. Each one of us has a different understanding of Plum Village.

Novice monk, Brother Phap Can, grew up and studied in Germany and came to Plum Village to be ordained. Last year, he went back to Germany with a delegation from Plum Village, and he discovered a new Germany. During those years that he lived in Germany, he had never been in touch with the Plum Village Sangha there. This time going back, he encountered a large number of Vietnamese and German people following the practices of Plum Village. There were Dharma talks, where 3,000 and 7,000 German people attended. There were walking meditation processions with many hundreds of German people walking together. Returning to Germany, he discovered a completely new Germany. Plum Village exists in Germany, but he had never seen it during the seven or eight years he had lived there. We have to find the truth with the eye of signlessness. Plum Village elements exist everywhere; they exist in our own hearts.

Coming to Plum Village with a camcorder does not necessarily mean that you can record Plum Village. Plum Village is not a Vietnamese temple that is set up on European land. In Plum Village, we see the Indian culture, the Chinese culture, the Vietnamese culture, and the Western culture. When we look at Plum Village carefully, we see that non-Plum Village elements exist in Plum Village. Consequently, Plum Village is also an object of meditation. The deeper we look into it, the more clearly we see it. Otherwise, looking at Plum Village, we only have a superficial and vague notion about Plum Village. If we look at it deeply, we see that Plum Village is also unborn and undying.

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A few years ago, when we went to visit the Jeta Grove in India, one of the places where the Buddha lived, we found that the Jeta Grove Monastery was no longer there. A group of Japanese archeologists came to excavate the area, and they discovered remnants of many large monasteries adjacent to one another, buried under the earth over time. They could identify the places where the monks slept, the Buddha hall, the teaching hall, and so on. Yet, we know that the Jeta Grove has never died, because when we go to other countries like Japan, China, Korea, and Tibet we see that the Jeta Grove is still there in its new forms. Thus, the true nature of the Jeta Grove is that of no-birth and no-death. Plum Village is the same. For example, if tomorrow Plum Village is closed down, and people build large shopping malls in the Lower Hamlet and the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village will still be there in its new manifestations everywhere, especially in our hearts. When we come to Plum Village, we must look at it deeply to see its nature of no-birth and no-death; we must see the reality of Plum Village beyond all forms.

Old Path White Clouds 

The first years during the Summer Opening, I stayed in the room above the bookshop in the building near the Linden tree in the Upper Hamlet. We had very few rooms then, and I had to share the room with four or five children. They slept with me and at night they sprawled out on the floor. I thought that children needed to sing; that chanting alone was not enough. I intended to write the song, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life … ” for the children to sing. In the afternoon we did sitting in the mediation hall called the Bamboo Hall. The walls are made of stone. Facing a big block of stone, the tune for the song came to me. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life,” then “Namo Buddhaya.” I thought to myself, I am here to do sitting meditation and not to make up songs. Let’s continue it after the sitting meditation. However, after a few minutes, the music returned to me. I thought, if it’s – going to be like this, I may as well compose the song now. So I continued writing that song and, after the meditation, I recorded it in order not to forget it.

I remember at that time I was also writing the book, Old Path White Clouds. We did not have central heating yet, only a wood stove in the room and the weather was very cold. I wrote with my right hand and I put my left hand out over the stove. I was very happy writing that book. From time to time I would stand up and make myself a cup of tea to drink. Every day the few hours I spent writing was like sitting with the Buddha for a cup of tea. I knew that the readers would have much happiness while reading the book because I had so much happiness while writing the book.

Writing Old Path White Clouds was not hard work, it was an immense joy. It was also a time of discovery. There were sections that were, to me, more difficult than others. One section was when the Buddha first gave teachings to the three Kasyapa brothers and received them as disciples. There are some documents that say that the Buddha had to use miracles to do it, but I didn’t want to retell that he did it with miracles. I wanted to show that he did it with his compassion and understanding. The Buddha has a great capacity of understanding and compassion so why would he have to use miraculous powers? I had a strong faith that I would be able to write the chapter in that light. That was the most difficult chapter for me to write in Old Path White Clouds, but eventually I succeeded.

The second most difficult chapter was when the Buddha went back to visit his family after having already becoming enlightened. He was still the son of his parents and a brother to his siblings. I wished to write in a way that would retain his human qualities. The way he took the hand of his father upon their meeting, the way he related with his younger sister, with Yasodhara and Rahula was very natural. I could only write in that way because I felt the ancestral teachers were supporting me. In reading Old Path White Clouds, we find that Buddha is a human being and not a god because that is precisely the aim of the author, to help the readers rediscover the Buddha as a human being. I tried to take away all the mystic halos that people ascribe to the Buddha. Not being able to see the Buddha as a human being makes it difficult for us to approach the Buddha.

Blossoms of Awakening 

I became a monk in Vietnam. I grew up in Vietnam. I learned and practiced Buddhism in Vietnam. Before coming to the West I taught several generations of Buddhist students in Vietnam. But I can say that I realized the path in the West. In 1962, at Princeton University, where I came and learned more about the history of religions, I began to have many deep insights, flowers and fruits of the practice. If you have read Fragrant Palm Leaves you will see that my going to Princeton was like going into a monastery. It was far from all the pressing demands of the current situation in Vietnam. I had much time to do walking meditation, assisting the maturation of insights that had not yet ripened. I wrote the book, A Rose for Your Pocket in the summer of 1962. It is a very simple book but is in fact the fruit of awakening. It is in this book that the practice of “dwelling happily in the present moment” is first described. Each of us has a mother. A mother who is as fragrant as the “fragrant banana” or delicious as sweet rice or as sweet as sugar cane. Aware of those qualities of your mother, do not live superficially with your mother but live with full awareness. We need to live in a way that does not cause the wonderful things of life to slip right through our fingers. We need to live deeply with each moment in the present. This is what is contained in that little book. A Rose for Your Pocket can be considered as the first blossom of my awakening. And since then, that insight has just continued on its path of deepening.

The shortest and most profound Dharma talk I can give is “I have arrived, I am home.” Only six words. And this morning, I shared with Sister Chau Nghiem that, “I have arrived, I am home” can be considered as the Dharma Seal of Plum Village. Any Dharma talk, any teaching which goes against the spirit of “I have arrived, I am home” is not truly a teaching or method of practice of Plum Village. That Dharma seal was first expressed in that little book, A Rose for Your Pocket.

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In 1974, while I was working for peace in Paris I wrote the book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. I wrote it out of love for my monastic and lay students who were working in Vietnam in the dangerous circumstances of wartime. I wrote it for young social workers in Vietnam, monks and nuns and lay people. After that book was written I sent it to Vietnam to be published and over here I thought that our friends who had supported the work of calling for peace could also enjoy the practice as it was expressed in that book. So it was translated into English. This is a book that teaches us how to dwell in the present moment and to live mindfully with awareness of what is happening within us and around us. Between the writing of A Rose for Your Pocket in 1962 and The Miracle of Mindfulness in 1974, there was twelve years during which I wrote and published many titles. In those twelve years you can recognize the progressive change in my way of looking at things. That was the process of the blooming of a lotus.

In my life of practice I have had the opportunity to bring Buddhism back to the stream of the original teachings of the Buddha. Before coming back to the original stream of teachings, I already had the insight into dwelling happily in the present moment. Once back in the stream of the original teachings, that insight was experienced fully and with more clarity.

The book The Miracle of Mindfulness was published by Beacon Press and up until now, more than two decades later, this book is still in print and continues to sell very well. The Miracle of Mindfulness is a mediation guide that you can use if you want to share the Plum Village style of practice with people. Those of you who have not read The Miracle of Mindfulness should find a copy and read it. It has been translated into at least thirty different languages.

The meditation of mindfulness is the basic practice of meditation in Plum Village. Mindfulness means dwelling in the present moment to become aware of the positive and negative elements that are there. We should learn to nourish the positive and to transform the negative. Twenty years of Plum Village has helped me to learn so much and has helped the Sangha of Plum Village to grow up so much.

Going as a River 

In May 1966 when I left Vietnam I did not think I would be gone long. But I was stuck over here. I felt  like a cell of a body that was precariously separated from its body. I was like a bee separated from its hive. If a bee is separated from its hive it knows very well that it cannot survive. A cell that is separated from its body will dry up and die. But I did not die because I had gone to the West not as an individual but with the support of a Sangha’s visions. I went to call for peace. At that time our work in the areas of cultural development, education, and social development had strong momentum. We had established the Van Hanh University, a University for Higher Buddhist Studies, the School of Youth for Social Service, the La Boi printing press, and the weekly newspaper Hai Tri eu Am (The Sound of the Rising Tide.) We also had a campaign calling for peace within Vietnam. I went with all these things in my heart so I was not in danger of drying up. If I had gone as an individual, looking for a position, for a bit of fame then I surely would have dried up. The life and death issue is Sangha building. That is why I began building a Sangha with the people who were helping me do the work of calling for peace. The people who helped me were pastors, priests, professors, high-school students, and university students. I met with them, befriended them and invited them to join the path of service for peace.

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From 1968 until 1975 I established and lead a delegation in Paris of the Vietnamese Buddhists for Peace. During this time, many young people came and volunteered to help us. They would work, and at lunch time we offered them a simple meal. After dinner they stayed on to practice sitting meditation. Along with sharing the practice of sitting meditation with the young people, we also shared how to practice walking meditation, deep relaxation and singing. When we were working for the Delegation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in Paris, we organized sitting meditation sessions for Western practitioners in Paris once a week at the Quaker Center on Vaugirard Boulevard. By offering the practice to the young people who came to help with the social work and the peace work, many seeds were sown. This may be one reason why many young people came when we first organized the Summer Opening in Plum Village.

When I was in touch with individuals and communities who were very concerned about peace and social work, I saw that they had difficulties. After working for a period of time, they became divided, they grew tired and abandoned the cause. Thus, meeting with any organization or any individual, I shared with them my methods of practice. Before we had the Sangha gathered together in one place, we already had the Sangha as individual elements in many places.

Pastor Kloppenburg of Bremen, a Lutheran pastor in Germany, was someone who loved me very much. He initiated and organized occasions for me to give talks calling for peace everywhere in Germany and he helped me translate and publish the book, A Lotus in a Sea of Fire in German. He also provided material support for me to send to Vietnam so the School of Youth for Social Service could continue its work of service. He helped me to organize the peace talks in Paris. In Holland, there was Minister Hannes de Graff of the Dutch Reformed Church and he supported me immensely. On the path of calling for peace in Vietnam I made many friends in the religious circle, in the human rights circle and with the younger generation.

When we first established the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, we faced many difficulties, such as getting residential permits, finding enough food to eat and clothing to wear. During that time, our headquarters was small but housed so many people. There were nights when Sister Chan Khong, who had been a professor at a university in Saigon, had to ask to sleep overnight at a restaurant because we ran out of sleeping space. Instead of buying regular rice at a supermarket, we bought the cheaper broken rice, usually sold as birdfeed, from the pet store. One day the man who was selling the broken rice asked us, “Why do you come and buy so much rice? You must have a lot of birds in your house.” And we said, “Yes, many, nine in all, and each one is very big!” And we showed with our hands how big those birds were. But our life was full of happiness. I found a place to teach and I received one thousand French francs as a salary every month. Other people in the delegation also had to find work. Sister Chan Khong used to teach mathematics and tutor young students to add to our income.

There was a period when I took a course on printing as a trade. I am still a good printer and can bind books quite well. I always printed and bound books in mindfulness. I have printed several dozen books and I have bound thousands of books. At that time La Boi, the printing press of Vietnamese books, had not yet moved to the United States and we did the printing in France.

In all the years of my exile from Vietnam, I have never felt cut off from my Sangha in Vietnam. Every year I compose and send manuscripts to Vietnam and our friends in Vietnam always find ways to publish our books. When they were banned, the books were hand-copied or published underground or published under different pen names.

There are still many people in our Sangha who sleep in a sleeping bag. Sister Chan Khong still sleeps in a sleeping bag. In Plum Village I used to sleep on a very thin mattress on a plank of wood on top of four bricks. That fact does not prevent me from being happy. I have never wanted to build a luxurious, beautiful monastery here. When I am able to sell my books that money has been used to bring relief to the hungry and to victims of the floods in Vietnam.

From being like a cell that had been separated from my Sangha body in Vietnam, I was able to practice cloning and not only did I not dry up, like a bee separated from its hive, from a cell I have become a body. And that body became the Sangha body as we see today. The important factor is that we need to go with our heart full of our Sangha, then we will not dry up and die. I have said the other day that if you have come to Plum Village, you have to take home with you no less than Plum Village in its entirety. Bringing Plum Village home, you will be able to survive longer. The teaching and practice of, “I have arrived, I am home” always complements the teaching of, “going as a river and not as a drop of water.” If you are a drop of water then you will evaporate halfway, but if you go as a river you will surely reach the ocean. I have never gone as a drop of water. I have always gone as a river.

Responding to Suffering 

When mb31-dharma7we were working in Paris, the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation was able to sponsor more than 9,000 orphans resulting from the Vietnam War. We didn’t support the building of orphanages but we tried to find relatives of the orphans to unite them. We would send twenty-five French francs each month to those families to buy food and school supplies for the orphans. At that time I was very busy with different work, but every day I also spent some time to translate the files on the orphans. I was given twenty files of orphans each day. The files were made and sent to us in Paris by our social workers in Vietnam. There was a photograph of each orphan, the name of the father and the mother, and how the father and mother died. We had to translate these files into English, Dutch, French and German to find sponsors for each chiId. I used to hold up the file with the photograph of the child. Looking at the face of the child, I would smile and breathe. The energy of compassion would come up in me and my heart was full of love. Then I would be able to translate them easily,  the translation was very poignant because there was a lot of love and compassion flowing out of my pen. There was a Danish lady who was so inspired to help us with the program for orphans that she took a course to lean Vietnamese. Her Vietnamese was good enough to help translate the files.

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In 1975 when the Americans left Vietnam and the North took over the whole of Vietnam, our Sangha in Paris retreated to a hermitage in the countryside of Paris, Sweet Potato Hermitage, where we had gone every weekend to rest and renew ourselves. At Sweet Potato Hermitage, I wrote the books, The Moon Bamboo and The Sun My Heart and the second and the third volumes of The History of Vietnamese Buddhism. Sweet Potato Hermitage is still there. We should organize a pilgrimage there one day as a fun outing. It is near the forest of Othe. It is very beautiful and the climate is colder than Plum Village.

During this time at Sweet Potato Hermitage, from 1975 till 1982, Sister Chan Khong and a number of others in the Sangha organized relief work for the refugees, the boat people, who were escaping Vietnam at that time. We rented three boats, The Leopold, The Roland and The Saigon 200. We used these boats to transport the boat people on the ocean. Our aim was to pick them up on the ocean and to secretly take them to other countries like Australia. Once, we rescued five hundred and fifty people on our boat but our underground work was exposed. Both Sister Chan Khong and I were driven out of Singapore because we had secret headquarters there. The reason why our work was exposed was because some journalists were scouting for news. If this had not happened the refugees we rescued would have been taken to Australia to be processed as immigrants sooner. But instead, we had to turn them over to the United Nations High Council on Refugees. Those boat people had to stay in refugee camps for three, four or five years before their cases were finally reviewed and processed for immigration . So unfortunate!

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Before Sister Chan Khong left Vietnam to come and help me, she worked energetically and in high spirits with the School of Youth for Social Service. She has been present with me from the beginning of 1968 until now, supporting all the work for peace and social work. Since 1968, she has constantly worked, never once having the idea of giving up or surrendering. Of course I have had many other friends and many other disciples, but some have given up because there are many dangers, difficulties and obstacles on the path of calling for peace, human rights and building up Sanghas. Because of their difficulties, either personally or from the environment, others have abandoned the cause. But Sister Chan Khong has always accompanied me from the beginning to the end with great dedication.

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A Meeting of East and West 

The difficulties that we encountered in the process of establishing Plum Village were the problems that the Buddha also had but there were also new difficulties. We have benefitted from the experience of many previous generations of practitioners and we have also grown and learned from the difficulties of our own time.

One difficulty that the Buddha had a little of and we have had a lot of is the differences between cultures. Our Sangha is made up of twenty or more different nations and cultures. Plum Village is not a Vietnamese temple set up in Europe. It has roots in Vietnam but it has also had to grow and be appropriate for the environment in which it is growing. When we bring plants from Vietnam and we plant them in the West they do not grow the way they would in Vietnam. When we grow mustard greens in France they grow thorns, which would never happen in Vietnam. We have to know how to adapt to our surroundings and we have to know how to absorb the beautiful things from the cultures around us. Sometimes people from both the East and West come to Plum Village and find forms of practice that are not suitable for them, because they carry expectations that Plum Village will be like their respective cultures. But it is a combination of both. When a person from Asia hangs clothes out to dry, they hang the trousers lower than the shirts and the two legs have to be hung close together. It would be very strange for an Asian person to see them hung up any other way. If we use a normal bowl to feed the cat an Eastern person can never accept that. The bowl that the cat eats out of should be different from what humans eat out of. When a Western nun cooks, putting all her heart into cooking, a Vietnamese nun may look at the food and go somewhere else to eat instant noodles. This makes the Western nun very unhappy. This happens every day in Plum Village. So the cultural gap is there and it brings difficulties. It is not anyone’s fault, it is just differences.

If you want to offer something you have to have that thing in order to offer it. In the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition there are many jewels. But if we want to offer them we have to have them within ourselves. We have to put our roots down in our own tradition very deeply. We must put our roots down in our educational tradition, our ethical tradition, our cultural tradition, and in our spiritual tradition in order to be able to share them with others. We have to keep the most beautiful things in our culture to be able to offer them to others. The most beautiful and precious things I have received are not something I can ever take out of me. I can bring them out and share them, but how can I share them if people cannot accept them? In the process of sharing the practice we have to learn to understand the culture and the environment of the West. We have to present our own jewels in the way that is appropriate to the Western way of thinking.

There are two things necessary to transmit the teachings we have received. We have to have things firmly in ourselves and we have to understand the culture of the people we are offering the teachings to. If we don’t understand anything about the language or the behavior of the Western people how can we offer these things? There are teachers from the East who come to the West who have jewels from their own cultures but they have not understood the Western culture and so there is no way they can transmit their jewels to Western people. You have to understand Western culture and then you can share the jewels of your tradition. In these last thirty-five years I have learned so much in this process.

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I have not only learned from Westerners but I have also learned from the East. In the light of Western culture I have seen the beauties of the East in a way that I had not recognized before. Before I was only able to see 70% of the beauty of Vietnamese culture. But now under the light of Western culture I can see 90% or more of the beauty of Vietnamese culture. I have learned from the place where I am teaching and also from the place where the jewels came from. When Western friends come to Plum Village they also have to have their roots in their own culture and in their own spirituality. Then they have something to share with us. It is not that they are hungry ghosts, wandering around and that they have nothing to offer to us. If they have put down their roots in the Western culture and they come here they will have something to offer us. And because we are open we can receive from them and both sides will profit. The most basic condition to have a successful exchange between peoples of different cultures is for each person to have his or her roots firmly established. This is a process that takes place year to year and Plum Village is still in the process of learning these things.

Renewing Buddhism in Asia 

Plum Village has contributed a great deal not only to Buddhism in Europe and the United States but also to Buddhism in Vietnam and other areas of Asia. In did not have monastic disciples in Plum Village I would not have been able to write the book, Stepping into Freedom. It is a handbook that shares practical guidance and requirements for a novice. The book that is currently being used by novices in Buddhist countries was written over 400 years ago. I sensed that it was outdated and no longer appropriate. I sat down with my disciples to compose Stepping into Freedom, which has thirty-nine chapters on mindful manners instead of the original twenty-four. This new handbook includes mindful manners on such areas of practice as how to use a computer in mindfulness and how to facilitate discussions about the Dharma. The ten mindfulness trainings (novice precepts) are also presented in a very complete, practical and beautiful way.

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If we did not have the monastic Sangha here we would not have been able to offer to Vietnam the daily chanting book, written in modern Vietnamese, which many temples are now using. (Most traditional chanting books used in Vietnam are written in old or Sino-Vietnamese, which most people do not understand.) We now have a book for reciting the Bhiksu and Bhiksuni precepts in Vietnamese, English and French as well as the Grand Ordination ceremony in Vietnamese, English and French. While teaching the monks and nuns in Plum Village we have been able to write and publish many reference books that temples, meditation centers, and Buddhist universities in Vietnam and other countries in Asia can use and benefit from. For example, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, a book on basic Buddhism as taught to monks and nuns, is being used as course material in many Buddhist institutes in Vietnam by young Dharma teachers.

We have also created a four-year training program for monks and nuns. Upon completion, monastics are capable of organizing retreats and leading Days of Mindfulness. After being a monk or nun for five years you can be a candidate for receiving the transmission of the Dharma lamp to become a Dharma teacher. In Plum Village we have three kinds of Dharma teachers: monastic Dharma teachers, lay Dharma teachers and honorary monastic Dharma teachers. During the Winter retreat 2001-2002 we had the Lamp Transmission Ceremony in which thirty monastic and lay practitioners. About seventy monastics and thirty lay people have received the Dharma Lamp in Plum Village and have led retreats all over the world. There are also numerous honorary monastic Dharma teachers who received the lamp at Plum Village and are teaching in Vietnam.

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In Plum Village during the winter retreats, the monks and nuns have the benefit of long courses which allow deeper learning. For example, we have had retreats on the living traditions of Buddhist meditation, on Plum Village practice, on the Southern and Northern transmissions including the major sutras like the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Flower Adornment Sutra and on Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika Shastra. The material from some of those retreats has been transcribed and made into books and monastics in Vietnam have benefited from them. Thus the practice and study of monks and nuns in Plum Village has contributed a great deal to the study and practice of Buddhism in Vietnam, Europe and America.

The Relationship of Teacher and Disciple 

Early on I trained several generations of monks and nuns in Vietnam. I looked after the young monks and nuns with all my heart and thought taking care of them was enough and that I didn’t need to have disciples of my own. When I came to the West I still had that idea. Then one day I saw clearly that if I don’t have a direct teacher-disciple relationship, the practice of the disciple would not deepen. When I taught the students in meditation centers in North America and in Europe there was a link, a relationship of teacher and disciple. But after I left the relationship weakened and therefore the students never really matured in the practices I offered. The students did not practice the teachings offered continually and ceaselessly because of the lack of the teacher-disciple connection. After that I decided that I would have monastic and lay disciples. I saw that the relationship between teacher and disciple is very important, not only for the disciple but for the teacher as well. I have learned a lot having disciples living and practicing with me.

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The relationship with my students, which is direct and continuous, has helped me to see the ways of teaching which can most likely ensure success. It brought together the teachings and practice, of the mindfulness trainings and fine manners, so that the teachings and practice are not separate from each other. Through the course of teaching and our practice as a Sangha, we have been able to produce wonderful Dharma doors which lay and monastic people can use. For instance the idea of the Sangha body, the Sangha eyes, Shining Light, touching the earth and the second body system are the fruits and flowers of our practice here in Plum Village. They are not only used by monks and nuns but also by lay people. The presence of monks and nuns in Plum Village has brought me much happiness. The basic reason is their commitment for their whole life to the practice and their determination to go on the path of our ideal together. In Plum Village, monks and nuns vow to live together as in a family for the rest of our lives.

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In the past I also taught several generations of monastic disciples but I was never as happy as I am now as teacher and disciple live together and practice together. Every day I find ways to transmit to my disciples all that I have realized for myself, like the first banana leaf transmitting and sending nourishment to the second and third leaves. The happiness which monks and nuns give me is very great. Monks and nuns in Plum Village all have beauty, sweetness, bright smiles and twinkling eyes. I don ‘t know if they were so beautiful before they became monks and nuns or whether they became beautiful afterwards. Or is it just because I am like any other father and mother that I see my own children as more beautiful than other people’s children? But I do see them as beautiful, whether they are from North America or Europe or from Asia.

I think some of you must agree with me. Just a few hours after the ceremony for transmitting the novice precepts their faces are so much more radiant, their two eyes more bright and their smiles fresher. That has to do with their determination, their commitment, and with the precepts’ body. Sitting with the monks and nuns to drink tea or to have Dharma discussion, to talk about happiness in the present and the future is one of the things I like doing best of all I spend a lot of time with the monks and nuns and that time brings me a great deal of happiness.

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When monastic and lay disciples do something wrong, clumsy or unskillful that brings about difficulties and suffering the Sangha should help them. I have learned over thirty years not to use my authority as a teacher to resolve conflicts. We have to use awakened understanding and love. This has to be applied both in the East and in the West. If we do not do this we will not be successful as a teacher. Often our disciples cannot see the mind and heart of their teacher. We have to be patient. They think that their teacher’s heart is as small as a peanut. We think that Thay does not allow us to receive the precepts because he is punishing us, because he does not love us. We do not know that our teacher’s deepest desire is to see his disciples grow and to become big sisters and brothers for all our little sisters and brothers, to take our teacher’s place. The more they can do that the happier Thay is.

Therefore, the teacher is someone who has the capacity to allow his students to make mistakes. We have to learn from our mistakes. When we are a teacher we have to have the capacity to see all of our disciples as our continuation. We have to help everyone to grow up. We don’t just want to support one or two of our disciples. We want everyone to grow up like all mothers and fathers want all their children to grow up. If we are an older brother or sister in the Sangha we have to look after every younger brother and sister equally. If we do that we already have begun to be a teacher. If we know how to love all our disciples with equanimity, then when we officially become a teacher there is no reason why we should not be successful.

I really want there to be lay people practicing with the monks and nuns in all of our monasteries, to be a bridge between the monastic community and the lay people in society. We can really call these lay people upasika (lay disciples who have received the five mindfulness trainings) because they are close to the monks and nuns. With deep understanding, they will then have the capacity to hand on the insights and the happiness of the monastic Sangha to the community of lay people at large. There are many lay people in the Order of Interbeing and that is one of the reasons why we have made progress in developing the Order of Interbeing and sharing the practice in so many places. They are not like other lay people because they have received the fourteen mindfulness trainings. The fourteen mindfulness trainings are like a bridge which connects the monastic community to the lay community.

The Order of Interbeing began in 1962 with six people. Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chi Mai were among the first six core members of the Order. Today there are more than 700 members of the Order of Interbeing and they are present all over the world. Now we want to establish lay communities led by lay people like Intersein in Germany led by three lay Dharma teachers and Clear View in Santa Barbara, California led by two lay American Dharma teachers. We hope in the following years of the twenty-first century that there will be many similar lay centers led by lay members of the Order of Interbeing. We also hope there will be many Mindfulness Practice Centers set up to offer a secular practice of mindfulness without religious overtones. In these centers, people from any belief can come in order to comfortably practice, without fee ling they have to abandon their root religion and convert to a new religion.

Buddhism Beyond Religion 

When I was last in China I met with the vice minister of religious affairs. We offered his department a calligraphy saying “The Spiritual Dimension.” My idea was that although China is developing and strengthening many aspects of their society: the economy, education, the arts, and politics, the people still suffer if they lack the dimension of spirituality in their lives and activities. Giving support to Buddhism so that Buddhism can contribute to that spiritual dimension will help people in China suffer less.

Last winter the School of Medicine of a university in Geneva asked me to come and speak about the human brain. They have organized a week-long symposium on the brain and are gathering neuroscientists and brain specialists to offer illumination on this topic. I am not a brain specialist, but they invited me because they want to have the spiritual dimension represented. Also I was invited to contribute to the international conference of politicians and business leaders of major enterprises held at Davos, Switzerland. Neither am I a businessman, so why do they invite me? Because they see that the business people and those in politics do have suffering, worries and fears, and they feel the need for the spiritual dimension. The medical school in Harvard has also invited me to give a Day of Mindfulness for doctors and medical researchers. The spiritual dimension is called on to bring relief to people’s suffering, anxieties, and fears in all fields.

Monks, nuns and lay practitioners have to bring Buddhism out of its religious context, presenting Buddhism as a source of insight and a tradition of practice, to be able to share it with, and serve, the world. We have to bring Buddhism into prisons, schools, hospitals, and police headquaI1erS so the people in these areas can live a life with more ease and less suffering. Therefore we need to learn how to offer methods of practice that can be used in all sectors of society, without the limitations of being a religion.

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Looking at the scope of the Plum Village Sangha’s activities we can see that the practice of mindfulness in daily life has been able to reach many sectors of society. We host retreats not only in Plum Village but also in other countries of Europe, America, and Asia. We have had many retreats for families, where parents, children and teenagers practice together. We have hosted retreats just for young people in the United States, Australia and Europe. We have had retreats for psychotherapists in America and Europe. We have had retreats for war veterans, environmentalists, doctors, nurses, teachers, peace activists and business people. We have brought the practice into prisons. This year the Mind/Body Institute of the School of Medicine at Harvard University wants me to come and receive an award. They say our retreats have helped heal many people and greatly relieved their suffering. We are not doctors nor are we psychotherapists but our retreats have brought rejuvenation, joy and hope to thousands of people. They want to affirm that fact with an award. This is an indication that we have been able to surpass the limits of religion and enter the main stream of society.

The Seed has traveled far 

In the process of Plum Village growing up we have been able to modernize the methods of learning and practicing Buddhism. Our teachings have been received easily, enthusiastically and happily. Whenever we have a retreat, people from different religions practice together without any discrimination. Our methods of practice seem to be applicable for many schools of Buddhism as well. Whether practitioners come from Japanese Zen meditation, Korean meditation, Vipassana meditation, or Tibetan Buddhism they all come to practice together and feel at ease in our retreats.

Business people, who have participated in a retreat held in Plum Village for business people, reported that a few months after the retreat they still continue to have more insight into what they have learned. The seeds that were planted in the retreat continue to sprout bit by bit, offering deeper understanding. They now know more clearly what path they should take and what path they should not take. We have been able to present the teachings in such a way that young people and Westerners can understand them, accept them and apply them. That is quite an achievement of Plum Village, but it is not the work of one person alone or just the work of a few years. It is the work of thirty-five years that includes twenty years of Plum Village and the work of the entire Sangha.

We have been able to present the five mindfulness trainings in non-Buddhist terminology. The five mindfulness trainings are very true and very deep expressions not only of Buddhist teachings but also of the practice of Buddhism. The five mindfulness trainings are presented as a very concrete way of practicing mindfulness and not as restrictive commandments. We have also presented the fourteen mindfulness trainings as the essence and the practice of Buddhism. Many people who do not call themselves Buddhist like to recite the fourteen mindfulness trainings. We have established more than 800 local Sanghas all over the world. In large cities like London there are over ten Sanghas, within city limits. Small towns also have their Sanghas. In Israel there are Sanghas of Plum Village. In Australia, in Germany there are many Sanghas. In Vietnam there are numerous temples and Sanghas following the mindfulness practice of Plum Village. Other centers in the West also practice Plum Village practices. If you do not see these manifestations, about 800, all over the world you have not seen Plum Village.

One day while sitting in London during a retreat, I was very moved to receive letters from practitioners in Edinburgh, Scotland. I have never set foot in Scotland but the practitioners wrote thoughtful letters about their practice and about their Sangha there and shared their happiness. I was interested in Edinburgh because I had a friend who was a monk and he went there to study. He was sent to Colombo to study Buddhism but after several years he was sent to Edinburgh. He studied anthropology for several years there and then he went back to Vietnam. But he did not leave any trace. I have never been to Edinburgh but the seed of Plum Village had gone to Edinburgh and it has grown up in the soil there. That is something that surprised me and made me very happy. That is just an example of one of the many places I have never been to but the seeds of Plum Village practice have flown there. Here in France there is a kind of plant called pissenlit, the dandelion. When the dandelion plant ripens it turns white. The seeds are at the base of the white petals and the wind carries these seeds very far, maybe tens of kilometers. In the same way the seeds sown by Sanghas of Plum Village have spread very far. They have traveled into prisons, into Catholic cloisters, into schools, families, hospitals and communities in many places around the world and they will continue to go far in the future.

Harvesting Every Moment 

Yesterday Fei-Fei, a lay practitioner living in Plum Village, asked me, “Thay you work so hard, have you yet harvested the fruit that you want?” I responded, “My dear, what else do you want Thay to harvest? Every moment of my daily life is a moment of happiness, is a harvest. As I sit with you now and teacher and disciple drink tea together, it is not to achieve anything. When we drink tea together we are already happy. To give a Dharma talk is already happiness. To do walking mediation with my disciples is happiness. To organize a retreat is happiness. To help practitioners be able to smile is happiness. What more do you want me to harvest?” Our work should be happiness. Our practice is “dwelling happily in this moment.” Every Dharma talk I give has to reflect the Dharma seal of Plum Village, “I have arrived. I am home.”

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Dharma Talk: The Three Spiritual Powers

By Thich Nhat Hanh

This is an excerpt of a talk at the Sandy Beach Hotel in Da Nang on April 10, 2007. Thay spoke in Vietnamese to an audience of intellectuals and answered some fascinating questions from the audience. 

Thich Nhat HanhMost of us think that happiness is made of fame, power, money. Every one of us wants to have more power. We want to have more fame and money, because fame and money give us more power. We keep believing that when we have more money, fame, and power we’ll be happy. I have met a lot of people with great power, with a lot of money and fame, but their suffering is deep. They are so lonely.

William Ford, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company in America, is the fourth generation of the billionaire Ford family. He came to practice with us in our practice center in Vermont. I offered him the gift of a bell, and I taught him how to invite the bell each day. He told me stories of millionaires and billionaires in America who have a lot of fear, sadness, and despair.

mb46-dharma2Who has more power than the President of the United States? But if we look into the person of President Bush we see he’s not a happy person. Even President Bush doesn’t have enough power to take care of all the problems that confront him. He’s so powerful — he has a great army, a great amount of money — but he cannot solve the problems in Iraq. He can’t spit it out and he can’t swallow it. You’re very lucky that you’re not the President of the United States! If you were the President of the United States you would not sleep all night long. How can you sleep when you know that in Iraq your young people die every day and every night. The number of American young people who have died there has gone up to more than three thousand. In Iraq — in that country that you want to liberate — nearly a million have died. The situation in Iraq is desperate.

The writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that the people with the most power feel that they never have enough power, and this is true. We believe that if we have power, we will be able to do what we want and buy what we want. We can buy a position, buy our enemies, buy anything. If we have power in our hands, we can do anything we want. We have to re-examine that belief, because in reality, I have met people who have great power and money and fame, and who suffer extremely.

The Power of the Spiritual Dimension 

In Buddhism we also talk about power. But power in Buddhism is very different; it is a kind of energy that can bring us a lot of happiness and bring a lot of happiness to others.

In Eastern philosophy and literature, we talk about the spiritual path. Each one of us has to have a spiritual direction in our lives. Whether we are business people, politicians, educators, or scholars, we should have a spiritual dimension in our daily lives. If we do not have that spiritual dimension, we cannot take care of tension and despair, or the contradictions in our mind. We can never establish good communication with our co-workers, our family, our community. Each one of us must have the power of the true spiritual path.

In Buddhism, we talk about the three powers that we can generate through our practice: cutting off afflictions, insight, and the capacity to forgive and to love.

The first one is the power to cut off our afflictions — to sever our passions, hatred, and despair. If we cannot cut off passion and hatred, we cannot ever have happiness. We can learn concrete practices to do this. Once we sever the ties of passion and hatred that bind us, we become light and free and spacious. If we have passion and hatred we suffer — both men and women, you have experience with this. We cannot eat, we cannot sleep; that is hell. So the first power is the capacity to cut off afflictions.

The second power is the power of insight — in Buddhism it is called prajna. It is not knowledge that we have accumulated from reading books or learning in school. Knowledge can be beneficial, but it can also become an obstacle. In Buddhism we say that the only career of a practitioner is insight. The insight of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas — what we call enlightenment — has the capacity to cut off afflictions and to generate the noble sentiments of compassion, loving kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity. That’s our only career, to give rise to insight. Once we have insight we can unravel our afflictions and help others to take care of their difficulties very quickly, just like a medical doctor. You only need to listen to the symptoms and you’ll be able to make a diagnosis and give the appropriate treatment.

mb46-dharma3The third power in Buddhism is the capacity to forgive. When we have the capacity to accept and to love, we do not have reproach or enmity. That love manifests in the way we look, in the way we speak. When we look with the eye of compassion and loving kindness, when we speak loving words, we are the ones who benefit first of all. In the Lotus  Sutra, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looks at all beings with compassion. Looking at all beings with the eye of compassion is a wonderful way of behaving like the bodhisattva — without reproach, without hatred. And the person that we are looking at in this way feels forgiven and loved. We can help others to be liberated from ignorance and from the traps they are caught in.

Wealth as a Spiritual Tool 

When we have these three powers — the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to accept, love, and forgive — then fame, money, and power become wonderful tools. It is then that the more money we have the better, the more power the better, because they become means to help people, to enhance life. Buddhism does not accuse or judge people who want to become rich or successful in politics or business, but while you’re pursuing these things you should have a spiritual dimension. We must behave on a foundation of love, insight, and wisdom.

In the time of the Buddha, Anathapindika was an example of this kind of businessman. If you are a business person or a politician and you have love and compassion, then you become a bodhisattva. You have the capacity to cut off your passions and your hatred; you have insight to help resolve problems at your work; you have the capacity to accept and forgive people’s mistakes. You have a lot of power — spiritual power.

As Buddhist teachers we should not abuse our power. It is not because you are the abbot of a temple or the eldest in a temple that you have power. It is because you have the capacity to cut off afflictions, to forgive, and to love. It’s not because you are the abbess or the teacher that people listen to you, it’s because of your love and compassion.

In the political or business arena, the power of the owner or the leader has to be based on the power to cut off afflictions, the power of insight, and the power to love and forgive. Then you use your position skillfully and the things you do will not cause dissension. If you do not generate these three virtuous powers, power and money will corrupt everything, including the life of the owner or the leader. That is why spiritual direction is very important.

The Greatest Success 

The Buddha taught that we do not have to hurry towards the future to have happiness; we can be happy right now and right here. The greatest success is to live with love right in the present moment. We have the time to take care of ourselves. If we have pain, tension, irritation, and agitation, we suffer and naturally we cause others to suffer, including our loved ones. That is why we have to have time for ourselves. Then we’ll have time for our family and our community.

Come back to the present moment, do not allow the future to occupy all your energy and time. That is a very important principle from Buddhism. To come back is not easy, because we have the habit energy of running towards the future. Stopping that momentum, coming back to each step, to each breath — that is the basic practice. By living each moment of daily life, living in a way that is deep and free, we can be in touch with the wonders of life.

In a practice center, the basic practice is to use the breath and the steps to bring us back to the present moment. For example, when you listen to a bell you stop all your thinking and speaking and you come back to your breath. You breathe and you bring the mind back to the body, you are truly present in the present moment. In our daily life there are a lot of times our body is here but our mind is wandering in the past and the future. Our minds are not truly present in the body and we’re not present for ourselves. How can we be present for our loved ones, for our wives and husbands? These practices are very practical and clear, and they’re not difficult if we have the chance to begin.

I would like to leave the rest of the time so that you can pose questions related to the topic that we discussed today. Thank you for listening.

Question: Bringing Buddhism to the West 

Man from audience: First, I’m very surprised when your disciples still keep their religion. For example, if they are priests or pastors or ministers, do they keep their religion? Second, I know that besides being a monk, you are also a scholar. I have read a few of your writings, and I see that you have done work to spread and explain Vietnamese Buddhism to the world, just like Master Van Hanh (1). How have you contributed to the development of Vietnamese Buddhism as a scholar?

Thay: Back when Christian missionaries came to Vietnam, they often tried to convert the Vietnamese people and force them to give up their tradition to embrace the new religion. This caused a lot of suffering.

mb46-dharma4When we had boat people dwelling in refugee camps in Thailand or in other countries, there were also missionaries. They wanted to help those boat people and also tried to lure them to follow their religions. It’s a great pity to force somebody to lose their roots. That is why when we bring Buddhism to Westerners, we tell them, “Do not give up your religion; you can study Buddhist practices to help you take care of your difficulties of body and mind and to learn great love and compassion. You do not have to lose your root religion, because we don’t think that’s the best way.”

In the West, there is a great number of young people who leave their Christian religion because that tradition does not provide the practices that people need today. A lot of people give up their religion and many of them come to practice with us. I have told them, “Once you practice with us, you can go back to help renew your own tradition and religion.” If a country does not have a spiritual foundation, that nation will not endure. So the Westerners see that Buddhism is very inclusive, accepting all and embracing all without denying other traditions.

In Buddhism, we call that spirit of inclusiveness equanimity or non-discrimination. It means that we embrace all. If we say that you have to leave your religion so that you can take refuge in the Three Jewels — that’s not very Buddhist. Buddhism is very open. That is why we have been able to help the pastors and ministers. In their hearts they still love their religion, but they practice wholeheartedly because in Buddhism we have very concrete practices to help them take care of their tension and stress, and help them to help people. If we hold that only our religion has the right view, and other religions do not have absolute truth, this will cause war. Buddhism does not do that.

When we organize retreats or have public talks in the West, many thousands of people come to listen to me, but they’re not Buddhists. Most of them come from a Christian or Jewish background. Sometimes I give a teaching in a church and more people come than at Christmas time, because they see that Buddhism is very noble, very open. It is inclusive and non-discriminative. Moreover, now scientists find inspiration in Buddhism because they see interdependence and emptiness; these teachings attract a lot of scientists to Buddhism.

The second question addresses the issue of learning. In truth, each time we have a new retreat designed for a specific group of people, for example a retreat for police officers or Congress people or business people or environmentalists or war veterans, I have to do research. I have to study beforehand to understand their difficulties and suffering so I can offer appropriate practices. That’s why during all my years in the West I have learned a lot. If you do not understand the teachings and practices of the Jewish or Christian traditions, you cannot help those people. If you do not see the suffering of business people, you can never teach them to practice so they can take care of their tension and stress.

You do not need to become a scholar. As a monastic, we do not aim to become scholars, but we have to know enough in these areas to speak their language, to bring people into the practice. When you say that I’m a scholar and I spread Vietnamese Buddhism, that is not quite correct. When I taught at Sorbonne University [in Paris] about history or Vietnamese history or Vietnamese Buddhism, I had to do research. Just for that occasion I read books on the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. I had to use the pen name Nguyen Lang because I was not allowed to publish under my name Thich Nhat Hanh. The government said that I called for peace and that I was a friend with the Communists, so they didn’t allow my books to be published. My aim was not to become a scholar or a historian, but the truth is I had to teach in the university. And I just wrote it down, so that younger generations could benefit.

The meditation that I share in the West has its roots in Vietnam of the third century. We had a very famous Zen master, Master Tang Hoi, whose father was a soldier from India and whose mother was a young Vietnamese woman. When his parents passed away, the child Tang Hoi went to a temple in northern Vietnam to become a monastic. He translated commentaries on the sutras in that temple in Vietnam, then went to China where he became the first Zen master teaching meditation in China — three hundred years before Bodhidharma. I wrote a book about Zen Master Tang Hoi, and I said that Vietnamese Buddhists should worship this Zen master as our first Zen master of Vietnam. An artist drew his picture for me so we could have it on the altars at our different centers.

In Vietnam we have the Mahayana tradition and the Hinayana tradition. I was lucky that when I was trained in the Mahayana tradition I also had time to research the stream of original Buddhism. I discovered that Zen Master Tang Hoi had used the original Buddhist sutras with a very open view of the Mahayana tradition. That is why when we organize retreats in Europe or North America, many people come from different traditions and they feel very comfortable. Our practice combines both Mahayana and Hinayana traditions and the basic sutras we use in meditation are present in all different schools — in the Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, Korean, and Tibetan Canons of Buddhist scriptures. I have translated and written commentaries on sutras about meditation like Learning  the Better Way to Live Alone and The Mindfulness of Breathing. Even though I didn’t talk about them tonight, the spirit of my talk was based on the insight of these sutras.

Our true aim is not to spread Vietnamese culture in the world, but I want to help people to relieve their suffering by sharing with them the methods of practice. That’s why they know about meditation and practices that have Vietnamese roots. I say this so that you see clearly that when I go to the West it’s not to spread Vietnamese culture to other countries. I just want to help people.

When I went to the West to call for peace, I only asked to go for three months. The chief of the police station asked me, “What do you plan to do there? Whatever you do is okay, just don’t call for peace, okay?” And I did not reply. Because my aim was to call for peace, for the world to end the war, I just stayed quiet. Then I went to the United States and called for peace — how can we end the Vietnam war? So they didn’t allow me to come back to Vietnam. That’s why we cannot say that I left Vietnam to spread Vietnamese culture in the West. I only wanted to go for three months. Who would have suspected that I would stay forty years! The truth is that during the time I was in exile in the West, as a monk I had to do something to help people. If I couldn’t help my own people, then I could help Westerners. It seems like I had this aim to spread Vietnamese culture, but it happened naturally.

Question: Renewing Buddhism in Da Nang 

Man from audience: On this trip you came to Da Nang. How do you think we can help develop our city, including the Buddhist practice in Da Nang? And do you plan to have a monastery in Da Nang, where we have monastics and lay people, and where scholars in Da Nang can participate?

Thay: Da Nang is already very beautiful. It’s developing very quickly, very well. But we know that economic and technological development comes in tandem with social evils, such as gangs, suicide, and prostitution. If we know that, we should work to prevent it. The scholars and humanitarians, the monks and nuns, you have to sit down together and make a very concrete plan to prevent these social evils. That is something I can share.

The second issue has to do with our Buddhist path. Even though Buddhism has been in our country for many years, we have to renew it. If we do not, it does not have enough strength and it cannot carry out its mission. Our learning is still too theoretical, and mostly we still practice by worshipping or praying. That’s very important, but Buddhism is not just a devotional religion. If we can break through the shell of religious ritual, we can touch the deep source of insight. With that insight we can contribute a path for our nation that will bring true civilization, true culture. It will bring harmony, prosperity, auspiciousness. In the time of the kingdoms of the Ly and Tran dynasties (2) they also praticed with koans; they did not just worship and make offerings. Those were very auspicious eras, with love and understanding between the king and the people.

If Buddhism played such a role in the past, helping the country to be powerful and to dispel invaders, it can contribute to the country in the same way now and in the future. To that end we have to renew Buddhism in the way we study, teach, and practice. It is very necessary to establish monasteries, training new Dharma teachers and lay people to help young people with their problems in their families.

We think that Plum Village can contribute in this area. If the great venerables, the high venerables here in your Buddhist Institute want to stop these young people from getting corrupted, you need to establish monasteries. You can train five hundred or a thousand monks and nuns so that they can help people in society. They can help people in their districts and bring balance to those areas. They can help re-establish communication in the family so that young people do not go out to look for some sort of relief and then fall into the traps of prostitution, suicide, and drug addiction. That is the mission of Buddhism in this modern age. We can send Dharma teachers to you to help you train a generation of new monks and nuns. I think that our country is waiting for this rising up — to “uncloak the old robe” — and to renew Buddhism.

Question: Thinking About the Future

Man from audience: Respected Zen Master, from the beginning of this talk I listened to your teaching about meditation. My understanding — I don’t know if it’s correct or not — is that meditation is only for people who have suffering or misfortune, or people who have a lot of extra time. People who work, study, or have normal activities, they need to think about the past so that they can do certain things that are good for the present, but in meditation you talk about liberating yourself from the past. And they need to look to the future — only you know your dreams, how to be successful in your career— but in meditation you cut off thinking about the future. So the people who need to think about life, about society, about themselves for the future, should they practice meditation?

[Translator: Thay is smiling.] 

Thay: We can learn a lot from the past. We have to reexamine the past and learn from it. But that does not mean that we are imprisoned by the past. Those two things have nothing to do with each other.

While we are looking into the past, we can still establish our body and mind stably in the present moment. It is because we establish our body and mind stably in the present moment that we have the capacity to learn from the past. Otherwise we just dream about the past, or we are haunted by the past. The future is the same way. If we sit there and worry about the future, we only spoil the future. We have the right to design projects, to plan for the future. But this does not mean that you are frightened and worried about the future. These two things are completely different.

mb46-dharma5The future is made up of only one substance, and that is the present. If you know how to take care of the present with all your heart, you are doing everything you can for the future. Thinking and dreaming about the future does not take a long time — you don’t need twenty-four hours to dream about it! You only need one or two minutes, and that’s fine.

What is meditation? Meditation is not something you can imagine. Meditation first of all means you have to be present in the present moment. Earlier I brought up an image that the body is here but the mind is wandering elsewhere. In that moment you’re not present. You’re not present for yourself. You’re not present for your husband, your wife, your children, your brothers or sisters, your nation, or your people. That is the opposite of meditation.

In the present moment there are needs; for example, you have certain pains and difficulties. Your loved one has certain pains and difficulties. If you cannot be present in the present moment, how can you help yourself and the other person? That is why meditation, first of all, is to be present in the present moment. Being present in the present moment means you are not imprisoned by the past and your soul is not sucked up by the future. Meditation is not thinking, not something abstract.

Sitting meditation, first of all, is to be present, to sit still. Once we have that stillness, we’ll be able to see the truth. We can have projects and take actions that are appropriate to the truth in order to take care of a situation. That is why dwelling peacefully, happily in the present moment, is so important. You come back to the present moment to be nourished, to be healed, and also to manage the problems and issues in the present. If we can take care of the issues in the present, then we’ll have a future.

Dreaming about the future and planning about the future are two different things; one is a scientific way, the other one is running away. For example, perhaps there is sadness in the present and we want to run away. Dreaming about the future is a kind of calming medicine, like barbiturates, that can help you temporarily forget about the present.

We have to practice. Taking steps in freedom, with ease, is something that you have to practice. Once you have joy and happiness in the present moment, you know that these moments of happiness are the foundation of the future.

Please remember this for me: If you don’t have happiness in the present moment, there is no way to have happiness in the future.

To the friends practicing Pure Land tradition I say that the Pure Land is a land of peace, of happiness. There are those among us who think that the Pure Land is in the west and in the future. The west is not about Europe or North America — the western direction! Those who practice Pure Land, especially beginners, believe that the Pure Land is in the future. They think that only when we die we go there, and then we go in a western direction, the direction of extreme happiness.

People who have practiced Pure Land for a long time go more deeply. The Pure Land is not in the west or in the east, but right in our mind. When we practice meditation, and we practice properly, we practice in the Pure Land. Each breath, each step, each smile, each look can bring us happiness in the present moment.

The Buddha, wherever he went, never left the Pure Land. If now we can live in the Pure Land with each step, each breath, each smile, everything can give rise to the Pure Land; with certainty the Pure Land is something in our hand. But if we suffer day and night, and we think when we die we’ll go to the Pure Land, that something is not so sure.

That’s why I want to remind you once again: If you have no capacity to live happily right in the present moment, in no way can you have happiness in the future.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

1 This is the master who helped the first Ly king in the eleventh century when Vietnam had just gained independence from the Chinese.

2 The Ly and Tran eras spanned the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries in Vietnam.

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Dharma Talk: The Long Arm of the Fourfold Sangha

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Dharma talk at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism
June 11, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

 

During the war, Thich Nhat Hanh was moved to find an appropriate and beneficial way to bring the teachings and practices of the Buddha directly to the real suffering of the people. In 1966, the Tiep Hien Order, or Order of Interbeing, was founded when Thay ordained three women and three men (including Sister Chan Khong, at that time a layperson) as the Order’s first members. Thay invited these first ordinees to become the foundation of his vision of a fourfold Sangha of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen committed to studying and practicing the Bodhisattva path by living the Fourteen Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings. Today there are over 1,000 Order members worldwide and thousands more who have been inspired by the Tiep Hien Order and its Mindfulness Trainings.

Jeanne Anselmo,
True Precious Hand

Dear Sangha, today is the eleventh of June 2010. We are in the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in the Great Compassion Temple. The Institute is also called the No Worry Institute. Today we are going to hear a teaching about the Order of Interbeing.

When we wear the brown jacket, the brown robe of a monk or a nun, we have to manifest that spirit, the virtue of humility. We do not say that we are worth more than someone else, better than someone else, that we have more authority or power than someone else. We have a spiritual strength. That spiritual strength is very silent; it makes no sound. It is the silence of the brown color. When lay people put on the brown jacket, they should put it on in the spirit of humility; the spirit of the power of silence.

The Meanings of Tiep

 In English we say the Order of Interbeing, but the words are Tiep Hien in Vietnamese. The word Tiep has many meanings. The first meaning is to accept, to receive. What do we receive, and from whom do we receive it? We receive from our spiritual ancestors the beautiful and good things, understanding, insight, and virtue. We receive the wonderful Dharma, the seed of insight. The first thing an Order member needs to do is to receive what the ancestors have transmitted.

Sometimes our ancestors transmit, but we do not have the capacity to receive the transmission. For example, we can learn from the way Thay invites the bell. Thay invites the bell in such a way that the sound flies up into the sky. But sometimes even after two or three years some of us still cannot invite the bell properly. It’s still very sharp and astringent, or muted and obstructed.

If you practice watching Thay or an elder brother or sister, you will know how to invite the bell. When you are close to Thay and your elder brothers and sisters, you can learn a great deal from them. You can receive very quickly from them.

The way that Thay stands and walks is also a transmission. You just need to observe, and you can receive from the Buddha, from the ancestors, from those who have gone before. And sometimes we receive from those who are younger than us. What we receive is our heritage. This heritage is not land; it’s not money; it’s not jewelry. It is the heritage of the true Dharma. We have to ask ourselves: How much have I received? The ancestors really want to transmit, to give to us. But because we don’t have the capacity to receive, we let down the person who gives. We are not kind to the person who gives when we don’t receive the gift. So learning is a matter of receiving. We have to be there to receive, to learn. When we have received we can continue the ancestral line. Therefore the first meaning of Tiep is to receive.

Once we have received, we use it. We nourish it. Then we can be part of the continuation of the Buddha, of the ancestral teachers, of Thay. A child who is loyal to his parents or grandparents can receive direction from them. A student who has loyalty to his teacher is one who continues his teacher. We have to receive the aspiration and the practice of the Buddha, of the ancestral teachers, and our own teacher of this lifetime.

The third meaning of Tiep is to be in touch with. What do we have to be in touch with? We have to be in touch with the present moment, the wonderful life that is present in us and around us. The birds sing. The wind soughs in the leaves of the pine. If we’re not in touch, our life is wasted. When we are in touch we are nourished, we are transformed. We grow, we mature. Being in touch also means being in touch with the suffering in our own body and our own person, the suffering in our environment, in our family, and in our society. Then we will know what we need to do and what we should not do in order to transform this suffering.

On the one hand, we need to be in touch with what is wonderful, because that will nourish us. And on the other hand, we have to be in touch with our suffering so that we can understand, love, and transform.

The first meaning is receive. The second is continue. The third is to be in touch with, to be in contact. That is what is meant by the word Tiep.

The Meaning of Hien

Hien is the second word. It means the thing that is present. What is present? Life, paradise, our own person. Tiep Hien is to be in touch with what is happening now, here, what we can perceive now, in the present moment.

What are you seeing now? The Sangha, the pine trees, the drops of rain. Be in touch with them. And also we have to be in touch with the suffering in our lives. We cannot stay in our ivory tower with our dreams and our intellectual thoughts. We have to be in touch with the truth, the wonder of the truth. This is the Dharma door of Plum Village, living peacefully, happily in the present moment.

The word Hien also means to realize, to put into practice, to make something a reality, make something concrete. This allows us to have real freedom. We do not want to live a life of bondage, a life of slavery. We want to be free. Only when we are free can we be really happy. Therefore we want to break the nets or the prisons which keep us from being free. These prisons are our passion, our infatuation, our hatred, our jealousy. Just like the deer who gets out of the trap and is able to run freely, the monk or nun who practices is like a deer who is not caught in a trap, who is able to avoid all the traps and jump or run in any direction.

There is a very short sutra, just two sentences, that describes monastics as like the deer who overcome all the traps and are free to go where they like. As a monk or a nun, as a layperson, we are all disciples of the Buddha. We do not want to live a life of bondage. We want to be free. So we need to practice. Our daily practice liberates us. We are not caught in fame. We are not caught in profit. We are not looking for a position in society, for some authority or power. What we are looking for is liberation and freedom. That is realization. So Hien means to realize, to manifest.

Another meaning for the word Hien is to make appropriate. To update, to make suitable for our society here and now. So it is also important for us to be aware and responsible for offering the Dharma in a skillful way, appropriate for our society and our time.

Engaged Buddhism

With all these meanings of the two words, Tiep Hien, how can we possibly translate it into English as one or two words? We learn all the meanings from the Vietnamese (which have their root in Chinese), and then in English we just say Order of Interbeing. From this deeper understanding we know the direction of practice of the Order of Interbeing. We know that it means Engaged Buddhism, Buddhism that enters the world.

Engaged Buddhism means going into life. The monastery is not cut off from life. A monastery has to be seen as a nursery garden where we can put our seedlings. When those seedlings have grown strong enough, we have to bring them out and plant them in society. Buddhism is there because of life. Life is not there because of Buddhism. If there was no life, no world, there wouldn’t be Buddhism.

We have Buddhism because the world needs Buddhism. Therefore our practice center can be seen as a nursery garden in which there are the right causes and conditions for us to raise to maturity the small seedlings. Once they have been made strong enough, they are brought out and planted in the world, in society. So our training and our practice in the monastery are preparation to go into the world.

In Vietnam people started to talk about bringing Buddhism into the world as early as 1930. When Thay was growing up he was influenced by this kind of Buddhism. He knew that in the past Buddhism had played a very important part in bringing peace and making the country strong. He learned that Buddhism prospered in the Le Dynasty and the Tran Dynasty, and that the kings practiced Buddhism. Buddhism was the spiritual life, the spiritual force, the Dharma body of a whole people. The first Tran king, Tran Thai Tong, had a deep aspiration to practice by the time he was twenty. He was able to overcome great suffering with the practice of beginning anew. He wrote books about Buddhism which are still available today. His book called “The Six Times of Beginning Anew” proves that, although he was a king ruling the country, he was able to practice every day, offering incense, touching the earth, practicing sitting meditation six times, each time for twenty minutes. I don’t know if President Obama can do the same. As a ruler or a politician we should not say, “Oh, I’m too busy. I don’t have time for sitting meditation, for walking meditation.” If a king can do it, we cannot make the excuse that we have too much work, that we don’t have time to practice.

 

Applied Buddhism

Engaged Buddhism has been in our tradition for hundreds of years. We are not a new movement; we are only a continuation. When we understand what is meant by Tiep Hien, our process is very easy. And Engaged Buddhism leads to the next step, which is called applied Buddhism.

The word applied is used in a secular context. We use it like it is used in “applied science” or “applied mathematics.” For example, when we talk about the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—we have to show people how they can apply the teaching of the Three Jewels. How can we practice taking refuge in the Three Jewels? Just reciting “I take refuge in the Buddha, Buddham, Saranam, Gacchami” is not taking refuge. That is just announcing that you are taking refuge. In order to take refuge, you have to produce the energy of concentration, mindfulness, and insight. Then you are protected by the energy of the Three Jewels. When we practice “I come back to the island of myself, to take refuge in myself,” we have to practice breathing in such a way that we produce the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. When we practice like that, we produce the energy of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and then we really are protected by the Three Jewels. As members of the Order of Interbeing, our practice must be solid, so that whenever we have difficulties, we know what to do to get back our equanimity, our balance, our freedom, our solidity. One of the methods is taking refuge in the Three Jewels.

At universities in the West, you can now get degrees and doctorates in Buddhism. This kind of Buddhist study is not applied Buddhism. You can be fluent in Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan, and in all the different teachings of the two canons, but if you get into difficulties and don’t know what to do, your Buddhism doesn’t help you.

We need a Buddhism that will help us when we need it. When we teach the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Five Powers, the Five Faculties, and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, all these teachings have to be applied in our daily life. They should not be theory. We can teach the Lotus Sutra very well, but we have to ask ourselves: how can we apply the Lotus Sutra to resolve our difficulties, our despair, our suffering? That is what we mean by applied Buddhism. If you are a Dharma teacher, as a monk or a nun or a lay person, your life has to be an example of the teachings. You only teach what you yourself practice.

When we lead a Dharma discussion, when we give a Dharma talk, it is not to show off our knowledge about Buddhism. We just teach those things which we are really practicing. If we teach walking meditation, we have to practice it successfully, at least to some extent. If not, then we should not yet teach it. There are people who don’t need to give Dharma talks, but are very good Dharma teachers, because when they walk, stand, sit, and lie down, they are in touch with the Sangha. They’re always in harmony, peaceful, joyful, open. That is a living Dharma talk. These people are precious jewels in the Sangha. These people are not just monks and nuns. There are also lay people practicing very well, very silently, and the monks and nuns respect them very much.

Because our destiny is to bring applied Buddhism to every situation, we really need Dharma teachers. Therefore, the Order of Interbeing is an arm that stretches out very far into the world. The number of Order of Interbeing monks and nuns is not enough. We need Order of Interbeing laypeople also. The lay Order members are the long hand of the fourfold Sangha that stretches out to society. We need thousands of lay Order members to bring the teachings into the world.

With our brown jacket which represents our humility, which represents the power of our silence, we have to build a Sangha where there is no competing for authority or for power. Where there is brotherhood and sisterhood. Where we look at each other with loving kindness.

This is something we can do. If we are in harmony with each other, if we have brotherhood and sisterhood, we can do it. The fragrance of our Sangha will go far, and Thay will be perfumed by that fragrance. That is our work.

I hope that in the future we will be able to organize long retreats for Order members so they can strengthen their practice, strengthen their aspiration, strengthen their happiness, and fulfill the obligation which the Buddha has transmitted to them. We have to receive it and we have to realize it. That is what is meant by Tiep Hien, to make it a reality.

If our Sangha in the West is not yet a place where people can love each other, then we are not yet successful. Who takes responsibility to make the Sangha a beautiful Sangha with brotherhood and sisterhood, worthy to be given the name of Sangha? That is us, only us, as members of the Order of Interbeing. In our local Sangha, we can do that. We should not say, “Because that person is like that I can’t do it.” We have to say, “Because of me; my practice is not very good. Because I don’t have enough humility, because I don’t have enough of the strength, the power of silence, that is why we can’t do it.” Our destiny is to continue to receive, to be in touch to the best of our ability, and to realize the transmission of the Buddha.

Each member of the Order needs to have a fire in her heart which pushes us forward and makes us happy. Whether we are sweeping the floor for the Sangha, cooking for the Sangha, watering the garden for the Sangha, cleaning the toilet for the Sangha, we’re happy because we have the energy, we have the aim. The aim is not fame, profit, or position. The aim is the great love, wanting to be a worthy continuation of the Buddha, of our teacher and our ancestral teachers.

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