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: True Presence

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Four Mantras 

When you love someone, you have to be truly present for him or for her. A ten-year-old boy I know was asked by his father what he wanted for his birthday, and he didn’t know how to answer. His father is quite wealthy and could afford to buy almost anything he might want. But the young man only said, “Daddy, I want you!” His father is too busy – he has no time for his wife or his children. To demonstrate true love, we have to make ourselves available. If that father learns to breathe in and out consciously and be present for his son, he can say, “My son, I am really here for you.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The greatest gift we can make to others is out true presence. “I am here for you” is a mantra to be uttered in perfect concentration. When you are concentrated – mind and body together – you produce your true presence, and anything you say is a mantra. It does not have to be in Sanskrit or Tibetan. A mantra can be spoken in your own language: “Darling, I am here for you.” And if you are truly present, this mantra will produce a miracle. You become real, the other person becomes real, and life is real in that moment. You bring happiness to yourself and to the other person.

“I know you are there, and I am very happy” is the second mantra. When I look at the moon, I breathe in and out deeply and say, “Full moon, I know you are there, and I am very happy.” I do the same with the morning star. Last spring in Korea, walking mindfully among magnolia trees, I looked at the magnolia flowers and said, “I know you are there and I am very happy.” To be really present and know that the other is also there is a miracle. When you contemplate a beautiful sunset, if you are really there, you will recognize and appreciate it deeply. Looking at the sunset, you feel very happy. Whenever you are really there, you are able to recognize and appreciate the presence of the other – the full moon, the North Star, the magnolia flowers, or the person you love the most.

First you practice breathing in and out deeply to recover yourself, and then you sit close to the one you love and, in that state of deep concentration, pronounce the second mantra. You are happy, and the person you love is happy at the same time. These mantras can be practiced in our daily life. To be a true lover, you have to practice mindfulness of breathing, sitting, and walking in order to produce your true presence.

The third mantra is: “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” When you are mindful, you notice when the person you love suffers. If we suffer and if the person we love is not aware of our suffering, we will suffer even more. Just practice deep breathing, then sit close to the one you love and say, “Darling, I know you suffer. That is why I am here for you.” Your presence alone will relieve a lot of his or her suffering. No matter how old or young you are, you can do it.

The fourth mantra is the most difficult. It is practiced when you yourself suffer and you believe that the person you love is the one who has caused you to suffer. The mantra is, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” Only five words, but many people cannot say it because of the pride in their heart. If anyone else had said or done that to you, you would not suffer so much, but because it was the person you love, you feel deeply hurt. You want to go to your room and weep. But if you really love him or her, when you suffer like that you have to ask for help. You must overcome your pride.

There is a story that is well-known in my country about a husband who had to go off to war, and he left his wife behind, pregnant. Three years later, when he was released from the army, he returned home. His wife came to the village gate to welcome him, and she brought along their little boy. When husband and wife saw each other, they could not hold back their tears of joy. They were so thankful to their ancestors for protecting them that the young man asked his wife to go to the marketplace to buy some fruit, flowers, and other offerings to place on the ancestors’ altar.

While she was shopping, the young father asked his son to call him “daddy,” but the little boy refused. “Sir, you are not my daddy! My daddy used to come every night, and my mother would talk to him and cry. When mother sat down, daddy also sat down. When mother lay down, he also lay down.” Hearing these words, the young father’s heart turned to stone.

When his wife came home, he couldn’t even look at her. The young man offered fruit, flowers, and incense to the ancestors, made prostrations, and then rolled up the bowing mat and did not allow his wife to do the same. He believed that she was not worthy to present herself in front of the ancestors. His wife was deeply hurt. She could not understand why he was acting like that. He did not stay home. He spent his days at the liquor shop in the village and did not come back until very late at night. Finally, after three days, she could no longer bear it, and she jumped into the river and drowned.

That evening after the funeral, when the young father lit the kerosene lamp, his little boy shouted, “There is my daddy.” He pointed to his father’s shadow projected on the wall and said, “My daddy used to come every night like that and my mother would talk to him and cry a lot. When my mother sat down, he sat down. When my mother lay down, he lay down.” “Darling, you have been away for too long. How can I raise our child alone? She cried to her shadow.” One night the child asked her who and where his father was. She pointed to her shadow on the wall and said, “This is your father.” She missed him so much.

Suddenly, the young father understood, but it was too late. If he had gone to his wife even yesterday and asked, “Darling, I suffer so much. Our little boy said a man used to come every night and you would talk to him and cry with him, and every time you sat down, he also sat down. Who is that person?” she would have had an opportunity to explain and avert the tragedy. But he did not because of the pride in him.

The lady behaved the same. She was deeply hurt because of her husband’s behavior, but she did not ask for his help. She should have practiced the fourth mantra, “Darling, I suffer so much. Please help. I do not understand why you will not look at me or talk with me. Why didn’t you allow me to prostrate before the ancestors? Have I done anything wrong?” If she had done that, her husband could have told her what the little boy had said. But she did not, because she was also caught in pride.

In true love, there is no place for pride. Please do not fall into the same trap. When you are hurt by the person you love, when you suffer and believe that your suffering has been caused by the person you love the most, remember this story. Do not act like the father or the mother of the little boy. Do not let pride stand in the way. Practice the fourth mantra, “Darling, I suffer. Please help.” If you really consider her to be the one you love the most in this life, you have to do that. When the other person hears your words, she will come back to herself and practice looking deeply. Then the two of you will be able to sort things out, reconcile, and dissolve the wrong perception.

The Practice of Loving Kindness

In our daily lives, we are often caught by wrong perceptions. We are human, and we make mistakes. When we listen unmindfully, we misunderstand the other person. We have to be aware of that. The Buddha said that we are caught many times a day by our wrong perceptions. We have to be careful not to be too sure of our perceptions. You might like to calligraphy these three words and put them on your wall as a bell of mindfulness: “Are you sure?”

When we look deeply, we often discover that it is we who cause ourselves the most suffering. We think our suffering is brought about by others – our parents, our partner, our so-called enemy – but when we look deeply, we see that out of forgetfulness, anger, or jealousy, we have said or done things to create our own suffering and the suffering of those around us. Suppose in the past I said something unkind to someone and made him suffer. Now, touching deeply the present, I can breathe in and out, smile to that person, and say, “I am sorry. I will never do that again.” When I practice this, I see the other person smiling to me even if he is not there, even if he has already passed away, and my wound can be healed. Touching the present deeply, we can heal the past. The practice of dwelling in the present moment can help us calm ourselves and transform our pain. If you were abused by your parents or your society, it is important to learn how to transform the violence that is within you, so that violence will stop destroying you and those around you.

Whenever there is a fight between parents and children, both sides lose. Children who have been sexually abused by adults often feel helpless. They feel that violence will eventually destroy them. It is very important to learn the art of transforming the energy of violence in you into something more positive, like understanding or compassion. If you have suffered because of violence, you may tend to use that violence against yourself. That is why it is so important to practice looking deeply to take good care of the violence that is within you. Looking deeply, you will be able to see what could have caused the other person to act so violently towards you. You see the person who sexually abused you as someone who is sick and needs to be helped. Children who have been victims of that kind of sickness also need to be helped. If you are aware of their suffering, you will be able to generate the energy of compassion and bring about healing. In the past, you may have been animated by the energies of hatred, violence, and blaming, but through the practice of looking deeply, those energies can be gradually transformed into understanding and compassion. Compassion helps us understand others, even those who have caused our suffering. With compassion and loving kindness in us, we suffer much less.

Looking deeply, we can see the other person as our mother, father, or ourself. Then it is easy to act with compassion. The hatred and anger we have towards the other person prevent us from being happy or peaceful. But if we practice looking deeply into the other person, we see that she also suffers. She may be living in hell, and she needs help. Maybe you are the only one who can help. With that kind of insight, the stream of compassion suddenly begins to flow in your heart, and you suffer much less. Your insight is the fruit of your practice of looking deeply.

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Just as there is no need to worry about the past, there is no need to worry about the future. The future is made only of the present. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment. If you walk deeply, drink deeply, and act deeply – in ways that bring real peace and joy to yourself and those around you – the future will be assured. When you have a fight with the person you love, try closing your eyes and visualizing yourself and the other person 200 years from now. After three breaths, open your eyes and I am sure you will see the other person differently. You will only want to take him or her into your arms and practice hugging meditation. Breathing deeply and holding the one you love, the energy of love, care, and mindfulness will penetrate her and she will be nourished and bloom like a flower. You will want to do everything you can to make her happy now. Don’t wait until tomorrow.

Taking care of the present moment, you recognize the presence of the sunset, the morning star, the magnolia blossoms, and the person in front of you. When you practice this way, you will not be lost in your worries or anxieties about the future, or caught by the suffering of the past. The teaching of the Buddha is clear. You only have to practice it. With the presence of a loving Sangha, it is easy.

Buddhist meditation is, first of all, living mindfully. We practice precepts (sila), concentration (Samadhi), and insight (prajna). Being present helps us touch and look deeply into whatever is there. When you live deeply each moment of your life, you will have insight into yourself and also the person you think is the cause of your suffering. When insight is present, it is easy to love and accept, and you will see that the other person is not your enemy. He is yourself, and he needs you in order to be transformed. With that insight, the nectar of compassion is born in your heat. That nectar is the Buddha, the Holy Spirit, God, and it is available to us twenty-four hours a day.

After practicing taking ourselves as the object of love, we change the word “I” into “he” or “she.” (See The Nine Prayers, below.) We can do that only when we have some understanding, peace, and solidity within ourselves. Self-love is the foundation for the love of others. We begin with love for someone we have sympathy with; then for someone we are fond of; and then for someone who has made us suffer. The children in Somalia, the victims of war in the former Yugoslavia, the children in my mother’s native village may be considered first as neutral, people we don’t really know. But if we touch them deeply, looking into them, they are no longer neutral to us. We see that they are ourselves, and suddenly compassion and loving kindness are born in us. They become true objects of our love. Finally, we come to the person we consider our enemy, the person who made us suffer. With the practice of deep looking and deep understanding, that person can also become the object of our love.

But first, we have to learn to look at ourselves with the eyes of understanding (prajna) and love (maître). Many of us cannot accept ourselves. We are at war with ourselves and want to run away from ourselves. Practicing looking deeply into ourselves and seeing the nature of the joy and pain within us, gradually we are able to accept, love, and take care of ourselves. “Know thyself” is the practice of love. If we look deeply into ourselves, we discover the conditions that have formed us and then we can accept ourselves – both our suffering and our happiness. So first of all, we accept ourselves as we are. Then we can accept the other person as she or he is. Looking deeply, we see how that person has been formed. Just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements, that person has been made of elements that are not him – his ancestors, his parents, his society, and so on. Once we see the causes and conditions that have made him, we are able to accept him and take good care of him.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, love is made of understanding. With understanding, you can love. To understand is to see all the difficulties, pain, and problems the other person is having. If you ignore the suffering and aspirations of the other person, how can you say you love him or her? But to love and understand is also to see the aspirations and hopes of the other person. To understand him more, you can go to him and ask, “I want to make you happy, but I do not understand you. Please help.” If you want to love someone you don’t understand, you might make him or her suffer more. A father has to go to his son and ask, “My son, do I understand you enough? Or is my love making you suffer?” Husbands have to ask wives the same question. Otherwise our love can suffocate the other person. It may be just a person for him or her. The practice of mindfulness helps us be there, look deeply, and understand the other person. We need to say to the other person, “I really want to love you and make you happy, but I need your help. Tell me what is in your heart. Tell me your difficulties. Tell me whether my way of loving is making you happy or unhappy.” That is the language of true love. We need the other person’s help to love properly and deeply.

All of us are subject to wrong perceptions. We have an idea of happiness and we want the people we love to follow that idea, but by forcing them to do so, we make them suffer. True love is always made of true understanding. That is in the teaching of the Buddha. “Looking with the eyes of compassion” is an expression from the Lotus Sutra, describing Avalokiteshvara. When you look at others with the eyes of compassion, not only do they feel pleasant but you also feel very pleasant, because understanding and love pervade your heart. The amount of happiness you have depends on the amount of compassion that is in your heart. Compassion always carries with it joy and freedom. If you love someone without understanding, you deprive her of her freedom.

In Buddhist psychology, we say that our consciousness is made of two levels. The lower level is called store consciousness (alayavijnana), like the basement. We keep all our seeds down there, and every time we or someone else waters a seed, that seed will sprout and manifest itself on the upper level of our consciousness, called mind consciousness (manovijnana). Mind consciousness is like the living room consciousness. Seeds in the storehouse consciousness manifest themselves in the living room consciousness. There are also mental formations. Mental formations are of 51 kinds, according to the Northern tradition of Buddhism. Mindfulness, loving kindness, hatred, violence, fear, equanimity, and faithfulness are mental formations. They manifest themselves on the upper level of our consciousness.

Our store consciousness is described as the soil, the earth, containing many positive and negative seeds. We have to be aware of all these seeds and their importance. We have seeds of suffering in us, but not only seeds of suffering. When we look deeply into ourselves, we hay touch the suffering first, but we should know that there are other seeds present. Our ancestors have transmitted to us seeds of suffering, but also seeds of peace, freedom, joy, and happiness. Even if these seeds are buried deep in our consciousness, we can touch them and help them manifest.

To touch the seeds of joy, peace, and love within you is a very important practice. You can ask your friends to do the same for you. If you love someone, you acknowledge their positive seeds, and practice touching them every day. Touching and watering the seeds in one person is a very concrete practice of love. If you love me please refrain from watering only the seeds of anger, despair, and hatred in me. If you love me, recognize the seeds of joy, gladness, peace, and solidity in me also and touch them, several times a day. That will help me grow in the direction of health, joy, and happiness.

To practice mindfulness is to practice selective touching. Your happiness and suffering depend on you and the people around you. If they refrain from touching your negative seeds, if they know the art of touching the positive seeds in you, you become a happy person and your suffering will gradually be transformed by that kind of selective touching.

We learn how to touch the beauty of the sky and the autumn leaves even if pain and sorrow are still there. If it is difficult, we have to rely on the presence of a Dharma sister or brother ot help us do so. If one mindful person, capable of joy and happiness, sits close to us, her energy of mindfulness and joy will support us and help restore our balance. Suddenly, with her sitting close, we are able to touch the blue sky and the colors of autumn again. I think all of us have had that kind of experience. Alone it may be difficult. But with someone beside you, solid and free, it is less difficult. We profit very much from his or her presence. If you find yourself in a desperate situation and that person is far away, you go to her, because her presence can help you restore your balance and get in touch with the positive elements that are within and around you. That is why a Sangha and a practice center are so crucial.

You need a practice center where you can find brothers and sisters, so that in difficult moments you know where to go to get support. Even if you cannot come, just thinking about it can give you some relief. Building a practice center, building a small Sangha in your city so that you have the opportunity of meeting other brothers and sisters for the practice of walking meditation, mindful breathing, tea meditation, and recitation of the precepts is very important. It is a raft that can rescue us.

One young American who practiced during the Winter Retreat at Plum Village was asked to write down all the positive traits of his father and his mother. He found it easy to list positive things concerning his father, but he was having difficulty with his mother. He was able to write only two or three positive things about her. But when he began to look deeply, he was surprised to find that he could touch many positive things in his mother. He practiced walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindful breathing, and all the activities of the Sangha. Then when he sat down to write, the insight came very naturally. In a few days he discovered dozens of positive qualities in his mother. The more his discovered, the more his resentment toward his mother vanished, and he reestablished his deep connection with her. Compassion and love flowed in his heart. Then he sat down and wrote a love letter to her.

When his mother received the letter, she was very moved. Her son had never talked to her that way, in the language of true love. He recognized all her qualities and felt grateful for her presence. She rediscovered her son and her own happiness. She regretted that her mother was not still alive so she could write the same kind of letter to her. The son then wrote another letter, saying, “Mother, my grandmother is still alive in you. You think that she has passed away, but she is still alive in you. You can touch her deeply. So why don’t you write that letter now? I am sure Grandmother will read your letter, even as you are writing it.” That was the insight he got in the practice – that all our ancestors are still alive in us. Our parents, even if we hate them and do not want anything to do with them, are still inside us. We are only a continuation of them. The son wrote the second letter to his mother, and his mother practiced writing the same letter to her mother. One person practicing may help the whole family to practice.

The practice of Buddhist meditation is the practice of true love. True love has the power to liberate us ad bring happiness to ourselves and to living beings around us. True love is the love that retains liberty and creates joy. We cannot be peaceful and happy if we do not have true love in us.

The Nine Prayers

  1. May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
  2. May I be free from injury. May I live in safety.
  3. May I be free from disturbance, fear, and anxiety.
  4. May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and of love.
  5. May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
  6. May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
  7. May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
  8. May I be able to live fresh, solid and free.
  9. May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

NOTE: After practicing “May I be…”, you can practice, “May he (or she) be…”, visualizing first someone you like, then the one you love the most, then someone who is neutral to you, and finally the person whom thinking of makes you suffer the most. Then you can practice, “May they be…’, beginning with the group, the people, the nation, or the species you like, then the one you love, then the one that is neutral to you, and finally the one you suffer the most when you think of.

Photos:
First photo by Simon Chaput.
Second photo by Debora Faust.

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Dharma Talk: The Four Immeasurable Minds

By Thich Nhat Hanh

During the lifetime of the Buddha, those of the Brahmanic faith prayed that after death they would go to Heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal God. One day a Brahmin man asked the Buddha, “What can I do to be sure that I will be with Brahma after I die?” and the Buddha replied, “As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahma-viharas—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” A vihara is an abode or a dwelling place. Love in Sanskrit is maitri; in Pali it is metta. Compassion is karuna in both languages. Joy is mudita. Equanimity is upeksha in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali. The Brahmaviharas are four elements of true love. They are called Immeasurable, because if you practice them, they will grow every day until they embrace the whole world. You will become happier and those around you will become happier, also.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddha respected people’s desire to practice their own faith, so he answered the Brahmin’s question in a way that encouraged him to do so. If you enjoy sitting meditation, practice sitting meditation. If you enjoy walking meditation, practice walking meditation. But preserve your Jewish, Christian or Muslim roots. That is the way to continue the Buddha’s spirit. If you are cut off from your roots, you cannot be happy.

According to Nagarjuna, the second-century Buddhist philosopher, practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Love extinguishes anger in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Compassion extin­guishes all sorrows and anxieties in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Joy extinguishes sadness and joylessness in the hearts of living beings. Practicing the Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity extinguishes hatred, aversion, and attachment in the hearts of living beings.

If we learn ways to practice love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we will know how to heal the illnesses of anger, sorrow, insecurity, sadness, hatred, loneliness, and unhealthy attachments. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha teaches, “If a mind of anger arises, the bhikkhu (monk) can practice the meditation on love, compassion, or equanimity for the person who has brought about the feeling of anger.”

Some sutra commentators have said that the Brahma-viharas are not the highest teaching of the Buddha, that they cannot put an end to suffering and afflictions. This is not correct. One time the Buddha said to his beloved attendant Ananda, “Teach these Four Immeasurable Minds to the young monks, and they will feel secure, strong, and joyful, without afflictions of body or mind. For the whole of their lives, they will be well equipped to practice the pure way of a monk.” On another occasion, a group of the Buddha’s disciples visited the monastery of a nearby sect, and the monks there asked, “We have heard that your teacher Gautama teaches the Four Immeasurable Minds of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Our master teaches this also. What is the difference?” The Buddha’s disciples did not know how to respond. When they returned to their monastery, the Buddha told them, “Whoever practices the Four Immeasurable Minds together with the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path will arrive deeply at enlightenment.” Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are the very nature of an enlightened person. They are the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.

The first aspect of true love is maitri, the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness. To develop that capacity, we have to practice looking and listening deeply so that we know what to do and what not to do to make others happy. If you offer your beloved something she does not need, that is not maitri. You have to see her real situation or what you offer might bring her unhappiness.

In Southeast Asia, many people are extremely fond of a large, thorny fruit called durian. You could even say they are addicted to it. Its smell is extremely strong, and when some people finish eating the fruit, they put the skin under their bed so they can continue to smell it. To me, the smell of durian is horrible. One day when I was practicing chanting alone in my temple in Vietnam, there was a durian on the altar that had been offered to the Buddha. I was trying to recite The Lotus Sutra, using a wooden drum and a large bowl-shaped bell for accompaniment, but I could not concentrate at all. I finally carried the bell to the altar and turned it upside down to imprison the durian, so I could chant the sutra. After I finished, I bowed to the Buddha and liberated the durian. If you were to say to me, “Thay, I love you so much I would like you to eat some of this durian,” I would suffer. You love me, you want me to be happy, but you force me to eat durian. That is an example of love without understanding. Your intention is good, but you don’t have the correct understanding.

Without understanding, your love is not true love. You must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs, aspirations, and suffering of the one you love. We all need love. Love brings us joy and well-being. It is as natural as the air. We are loved by the air; we need fresh air to be happy and well. We are loved by trees. We need trees to be healthy. In order to be loved, we have to love, which means we have to understand. For our love to continue, we have to take the appropriate action or non-action to protect the air, the trees, and our beloved.

Maitri can be translated as “love” or “loving kindness.” Some Buddhist teachers prefer “loving kindness,” as they find the word “love” too darigerous. But I prefer the word love. Words sometimes get sick and we have to heal them. We have been using the word “love” to mean appetite or desire, as in “I love hamburgers.” We have to use language more carefully. We have to restore the meaning of the word love. “Love” is a beautiful word. We have to restore its meaning. The word maitri has roots in the word mitra, which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.

We all have the seeds of love in us. We can develop this wonderful source of energy, nurturing the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return. When we understand someone deeply, even someone who has done us harm, we cannot resist loving him or her. Shakyamuni Buddha declared that the Buddha of the next eon will be named Maitreya, the Buddha of Love.

The second aspect of true love is karuna, the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows. Karuna is usually translated as “compassion,” but that is not exactly correct. “Compassion” is composed of com (“together with”) and passion (“to suffer”). But we do not need to suffer to remove suffering from another person. Doctors, for instance, can relieve their patients’ suffering without experiencing the same disease in themselves. If we suffer too much, we may he crushed and unable to help. Still, until we find a better word, let us use “compassion” to translate karuna.

To develop compassion in ourselves, we need to practice mindful breathing, deep listening, and deep looking. The Lotus Sutra describes Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who practices “looking with the eyes of compassion and listening deeply to the cries of the world.” Compassion contains deep concern. You know the other person is suffering, so you sit close to her. You look and listen deeply to her to be able to touch her pain. You are in deep commu­nication, deep communion with her, and that alone brings some relief.

One compassionate word, action, or thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring him joy. One word can give comfort and confidence, destroy doubt, help someone avoid a mistake, reconcile a conflict, or open the door to liberation. One action can save a person’s life or help him take advantage of a rare opportunity. One thought can do the same, because thoughts always lead to words and actions. With compassion in our heart, every thought, word, and deed can bring about a miracle.

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha had enough understand­ing, calmness, and strength. That is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

The third element of true love is mudita, joy. True love always brings joy to ourselves and to the one we love. If our love does not bring joy to both of us, it is not true love.

Commentators explain that happiness relates to both body and mind, whereas joy relates primarily to mind. This example is often given: Someone traveling in the desert sees a stream of cool water and experiences joy. On drinking the water, he experiences happiness. Ditthadhamma sukhavihari means “dwelling happily in the present moment.” We don’t rush to the future; we know that everything is here in the present moment. Many small things can bring us tremen­dous joy, such as the awareness that we have eyes in good condition. We just have to open our eyes and we can see the blue sky, the violet flowers, the children, the trees, and so many other kinds of forms and colors. Dwelling in mindful­ness, we can touch these wondrous and refreshing things, and our mind of joy arises naturally. Joy contains happiness and happiness contains joy.

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Some commentators have said that mudita means “sympathetic joy” or “altruistic joy,” the happi­ness we feel when others are happy. But that is too limited. It discriminates between self and others. A deeper definition of mudita is a joy that is filled with peace and contentment. We rejoice when we see others happy, but we rejoice in our own well-being as well. How can we feel joy for another person when we do not feel joy for ourselves? Joy is for everyone.

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimi­nation, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upe means “over,” and ksh means “to look.” You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. If your love has attachment, discrimination, prejudice, or clinging in it, it is not true love. People who do not understand Buddhism sometimes think upeksha means indifference, but true equanimity is neither cold nor indiffer­ent. If you have more than one child, they are all your children. Upeksha does not mean that you don’t love. You love in a way that all your children receive your love, without discrimination.

Upeksha has the mark called samatajnana, “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides. We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others. As long as we see ourselves as the one who loves and the other as the one who is loved, as long as we value ourselves more than others or see others as different from us, we do not have true equanimity. We have to put ourselves “into the other person’s skin” and become one with him if we want to understand and truly love him. When that happens, there is no “self’ and no “other.”

Without upeksha, your love may become possessive. A summer breeze can be very refreshing; but if we try to put it in a tin can so we can have it entirely for ourselves, the breeze will die. Our beloved is the same. He is like a cloud, a breeze, a flower. If you imprison him in a tin can, he will die. Yet many people do just that. They rob their loved one of his liberty, until he can no longer be himself. They live to satisfy themselves and use their loved one to help them fulfill that. That is not loving; it is destroying. You say you love him, but if you do not understand his aspirations, his needs, his difficulties, he is in a prison called love. True love allows you to preserve your freedom and the freedom of your beloved. That is upeksha.

For love to be true love, it must contain compassion, joy, and equanimity in it. For compassion to be true compassion, it has to have love, joy, and equanimity in it. True joy has to contain love, compassion, and equanimity. And true equanimity has to have love, compassion, and joy in it. This is the interbeing nature of the Four Immeasurable Minds. When the Buddha told the Brahmin man to practice the Four Immeasurable Minds, he was offering all of us a very important teaching. But we must look deeply and practice them for ourselves to bring these four aspects of love into our own lives and into the lives we love. 

This Dharma talk is from Teachings on Love, to be pub­lished by Parallax Press in March. 

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Dharma Talk: Sangha

By Thich Nhat Hanh

We all need love. Without enough love, we may not be able to survive, as individuals and as a planet. It is said that the next Buddha will be named “Maitreya,” the Buddha of Love. I believe that Maitreya might not take the form of an individual, but as a community showing us the way of love and compassion.

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The basic condition for love is mindfulness. Unless you are present, it is not possible to love. Learning to be present may sound easy, but until you get the habit, it is not. We have been running for thousands of years, and it is difficult to stop, to encounter life deeply in the present moment. We need to be supported in this kind of learning, and that is the work of a Sangha.

In Buddhist circles, we speak of Buddhakaya (Buddha body) and Dharmakaya (Dharma body), but we rarely speak of Sanghakaya (Sangha body). As practitioners, we carry the body of the Buddha in us. The body of the Buddha is mindfulness, and mindfulness always leads to concentration, insight, and love. When we notice that we have mindfulness, concentration, insight, and love, we know that the body of the Buddha is in us. Mindfulness is something we can touch in ourselves.

The Dharma is the way of calming, healing, looking deeply, and transforming. When we are able to walk in mindfulness, the Dharma body is in us. Every time we take one peaceful step, every time we breathe mindfully, the Buddha and Dharma bodies in us grow.

The Sangha is a jewel, no less important than the Buddha and the Dharma. Please practice Sangha building. Stick to your Sangha. Without a Sangha body, sooner or later you will abandon the practice. Take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Sangha always carries within it the Buddha and the Dharma. The Sangha is a holy body. Don’t look for holiness somewhere else. Don’t think that holiness is only for the Dalai Lama or the Pope. Holiness is within you and within the body of your Sangha. When a community of people sit, breathe, walk, and eat in mindfulness, holiness is there, and we can recognize it. When you take one peaceful step, you touch the earth with your holiness. If members of the Sangha practice mindfully together, the Sangha is holy. We have to learn to take care of our Sangha body. We nourish our Sangha body by practicing deeply together with friends. We know that such-and-such a food is toxic for us, but we continue to eat it. Alone, we are tempted. But surrounded by others, it is easy to stop. Ten years ago, a young boy came to Plum Village whose most acute suffer­ing was the absence of television. He felt he could not survive even one day without TV. His mother persuaded him to stay half a day and we brought other youngsters to play with him. At noon he decided to stay the whole day. Then he stayed for another day, then for two weeks. He was able to survive without television because of the Sangha. He found by being with other young people that life is possible without television.

The Sangha can be described as a stream of life going in the direction of emancipation, joy, and peace. The only condition for us to enter the stream of the holy Sangha is that we practice. If we do, we will obtain “stream entrance” right away. This was the word used by the Buddha. If we embrace the practice of mindful living, we join the Sangha and enter the stream. This is the first holy fruit we obtain as a practitioner. It is not difficult. If you want to practice in a joyful way, build a Sangha where you are. The Sangha is your protection. It is the raft that will carry you to the shore of liberation. Without a Sangha, even with the best of intentions, your practice will falter. “I take refuge in the Sangha” is not a declaration of faith. It is a daily practice.

If there is love between teacher and student and among the students themselves, you will be able to put down roots in the Sangha. When I became a monk, I was loved by my teacher and fellow monks. Later, when I had to leave the warm atmosphere of the temple, I encountered many storms. But the roots that had grown in the temple could never die, and I was able to continue steadily on the path of practice. Many people today are unable to put down roots in their families, churches, or society. If these people come to a Sangha of practice and see it as wholesome, true, and worthy of their confidence, they will be able to put down roots. It may be easier to love in a Sangha than in our own family, because in a Sangha we are all going in the same direction. Later, we can return home and help rebuild our family, church, and society.

If you are going to dig a well, you cannot dig down a few inches and say, “I give up. There are too many stones.” Your teacher and your brothers and sisters are the earth you are digging into. Digging a well is not easy. If you throw away your practice—your shovel—you will not succeed. Dig down inside yourself, into your own mind. Drink the pure, sweet water of the earth. When you have difficulties with your teacher or friends, you have to find the roots of the difficulties. It may be a matter of needing to reorganize things or something simple like that. Be open to discovering new ways of being together. Thanks to such difficulties, we see how to continue the work of transforming.

If you have a difficult Dharma sister or brother, help her, because she is you. If you cannot help her, you will not be successful in your own practice. If you continue to exist as an individual and think that happiness is an individual matter, you will not succeed. When you have put your roots down in each other, the feelings of isolation and loneliness will be transformed. You are no longer merely an indi­vidual. You carry in your heart all your brothers, sisters, and ancestral teachers.

Sangha building is an art. To take care of the Sangha is to take care of the Buddha. Through a Sangha, it is possible to be in touch with the living Dharma. To take care of the Sangha is to take care of ourselves, and to take care of ourselves is to take care of our Sangha. When we eat and drink in moderation, we are looking after our Sangha body. When we look after a brother or sister and help them smile again, we are looking after the Sangha. When we take our younger sister’s hand and console her, we are looking after the Sangha. When we reconcile with our brother, the whole community will feel better, and we are looking after the Sangha. It is not enough just to go into the meditation halland offer incense to the Buddha. When we cause our Sangha to be healed, we are healing the body of the Buddha.

A young man told me, “I am happy to take refuge in the Buddha and the Dharma, but I cannot respect the Sangha.” He did not understand that each jewel contains all three jewels. Without the Sangha, there can be no Buddha and no Dharma. An elderly friend told me, “I only take refuge in a Holy Sangha, the Sangha of saints who lived in the past. In the present time, there is no Holy Sangha.” But a Sangha that is made of people of this world is the only Sangha we have. If my friend had been on Vulture Peak when the Buddha was giving teachings, he would have seen many dis­turbing elements in the Buddha’s own Sangha. When we read the Vinaya, we can see that. We need a Sangha that we can touch in the present moment, made up of all kinds of people. They may not be fully enlightened, but if they can support us in our practice, that alone makes them a worthy object of our refuge. They may not be saints, but they are the Sangha we have.

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The best way to improve the quality of the Sangha is to improve the quality of our own practice. If members of the Sangha practice mindfulness and have been liberated from the worst part of their suffering, the Sangha is a jewel that can help many people. Our community in Plum Village is by no means perfect. It is a community of ordinary people on the path of practice. But if our Sangha practices well, it can become a Sangha of deep realization. The holy element is there in each member of the Sangha. And with daily practice, we practice holiness every day.

In any community, it is clear that some people have more peace than others. If we leave a Sangha because some of its members are not very holy, we are leaving the holy elements as well. The practice is to help build a Sangha that has peace and joy. Every member of the community can practice this. This is the way to cultivate faith in the Sangha.

If you do not have the means to travel and live with an established Sangha, create a Sangha where you are. It can be a small community of practice with your family and friends. You can meet every day, or once a week, or even just once a month to recite the mindfulness trainings together. The work you do for the Sangha is not just washing the dishes, working in the office, or performing ceremonies. It is organizing yourself and your life in a way that brings happiness to the Sangha.

We have to learn to practice meditation collectively—as a family, a city, a nation, and a community of nations. A Sangha that practices love and compassion together is the Buddha we need for the twenty-first century. It is up to us to bring the next Buddha into existence—Maitreya, the Buddha of Love, Ms. Love, Mr. Love. We have the privilege and the duty to prepare the ground for bringing that Buddha to life—for our sake and the sake of our children and our planet. Each of us has a role to play. Each of us can bring the Buddha into our daily life by practic­ing mindful living. Each of us is a cell in Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the twenty-first century, the Buddha of Love. 

This article, based on a Dharma talk given at Plum Village in September 1996, will appear as a chapter in Thich Nhat Hanh’s forthcoming book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, to be published by Parallax Press.

 

The Six Concords

The Buddha taught Six Concords to help his disciples have happiness in their daily life together. Concord is the basis of a Sanghakaya. 

The first is the Concord of “bodily action.” A Sangha lives together like a family. Our actions affect all those with whom we live, so our actions need to be conducive to concord. 

The second is the Concord of “sharing the benefits.” We share food, sleeping accommodations, and the opportunity to practice sitting and walking meditation. We listen to the Dharma together. We share all sorts of benefits with each other. If one person has three days to go on retreat, others in the Sangha should have the same opportunity at some time. We support each other. 

The third is the Concord of “keeping the same mindfulness trainings.” Our aspirations are the same, and we agree that practicing the same mindfulness trainings is the best way to realize those aspirations. 

The fourth is the Concord of “speech.” Our speech also needs to inspire concord. We need to base our speaking on certain principles, such as knowing how not to react when we hear something we do not like, knowing how to make note of what the other says in order to be able to meditate on it before we reply, and knowing how to encourage and increase the confidence of those we talk to. 

The fifth is the Concord of “view.” We come from different backgrounds. We cannot possibly share the views of everyone in our community. But we do not assume that our view is correct and others’ views are wrong. We don’t argue about our different views. When we have an idea, we share it with the other members of our Sangha, and we modify our ideas as we listen to others. A Dharma discussion is an opportunity to listen carefully to all the different viewpoints in order to have deeper insight. Our own idea is only one small part of the picture. When others speak, we listen carefully to find the wisdom in their words. If we cannot listen to others, we cannot learn. We need to help others know they are accepted and appreciated. 

The sixth is the Concord of “activity of mind” We have different ways of thinking and different feelings. We should not isolate ourselves on the island of our thinking. We have to communicate. When we see someone drowning in their thinking, their sadness, and their suffering, we can say to them, “A penny for your thoughts,” or, “A penny for your feelings.” When the other person is able to share his feeling, he is no longer isolated. When we express what is happening in our mind to another person, it relieves our isolation. If you ask someone, “What are you feeling?” and she says, “I am unhappy,” you can practice walking meditation together and that alone will bring some joy.

Photos:
First photo by Karen Preuss.
Second photo by Michael Grossi.

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Dharma Talk: The Path of Awakening

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Often we have the feeling that there is nothing good, beautiful, or true inside us. We feel incomplete, so we wear cosmetics and other adornments, or even undergo cosmetic surgery in order to compensate. When we do these things, we feel we are somehow being deceptive, but we cannot stop. At the same time, we realize that others are also deceiving us. All of us are victims, trying to make ourselves feel less unworthy. We feel we are half a person, and we wander all over the globe looking for our other half. If we would look more carefully, we would see that this feeling arises from a wrong perception.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We all want something that is good, beautiful, and true, something we can believe in, and yet we look for these qualities in others and not in ourselves. Then, when we think we have found goodness, beauty, and truth in some­one, love arises in us, and we become involved in a relation­ship. It is only after some time that we realize that we have misperceived—that what we thought was good, beautiful, and true was really just superficial—and we feel wronged and go and look for another relationship, another object on which to project the ideals of goodness, beauty, and truth.

For our spirit, we do the same. We look for a perfect teacher, and sit at the feet of this teacher and that teacher as part of our search. We are a “spiritual seeker,” and, as such, we are happy that people see us as good, beautiful, and true. We have the appearance of virtue and of loving others, but these are only more cosmetics. Then we find a teacher we like, and we feel that we have found our missing half. But, like so many teachers, our new teacher turns out not to be in touch with his own truth, beauty, and goodness, and when we discover this, we abandon him and go forth looking for another teacher. We can continue these patterns the whole of our life, always looking for someone to love and someone to guide us.

Then one day, we meet a very special teacher who tells us, “Don’t look outside yourself, Within you are all of the qualities you have been looking for!” She is our root teacher, and she tells us, “All living beings have the pure, clear, complete nature within themselves. You only have to return to yourself to be in touch with the good, the beautiful, and the true that are already within you.” The search that has been going on for many lifetimes finally comes to an end.

Sitting at the foot of the bodhi tree, the Buddha discov­ered that the good, the beautiful, and the true are to be found in everyone, and he said, “How amazing that all living beings have the basic nature of awakening, yet they don’t know it. So they drift on the ocean of great suffering lifetime after lifetime.” The Buddha wants us to see this. He does not want us to be a slave or to lean on him. So he says very clearly, “You are what you have been looking for.” Someone who speaks this way is worthy of being our teacher. He can show us how to take refuge in the teacher in ourselves, and not look outside. When we touch these qualities in ourselves, we have deep faith and confidence in the practice.

The Buddha’s love is so great that we want to be around it all the time. But French author Antoine de Saint Exupery warned us that to love each other does not mean that we just sit and look at each other, but that we both look in the same direction. When we take the hand of the Buddha, we discover that we not only love each other, but we love all species. True love is always collective. We and the Buddha are “associate lovers,” protecting ourselves and each other, being faithful to ourselves and each other, and always bringing transformation to ourselves and to many others.

Sometimes when we fall in love, we forget to look in the same direction; we just sit there and look at each other. In the time of the Buddha, a monk named Vaikali was very attached to the Buddha. Whenever he was near the Buddha, he felt peaceful and happy, and that was all he wanted. He didn’t listen deeply to the Buddha’s Dharma talks. He only wanted to be near the Buddha. Because of that, he was only able to touch the shadow of the Buddha, and not the Buddha’s deepest aspects, great wisdom and great love.

The Buddha observed that Vaikali was not getting stronger in the practice, so he forbade Vaikali from coming near him. When the Buddha walked to the Jeta Monastery, he did not allow Vaikali to join him. And he did not allow Vaikali to be his attendant. Vaikali felt that the Buddha had cast him off, that the Buddha didn’t love him anymore, and he wanted to commit suicide. The Buddha understood what was happening and he went to him and said, “Dear Vaikali, your love is sincere, but it is not the deep love of a monk. It is a superficial attachment. In yourself, deep down, there are good, beautiful. and true qualities. You should be looking for these in yourself and not running after a mere image of them in the Buddha. These qualities are the ground of your being, your basis. I always practice this way myself, and I always teach this to others.” After that, Vaikali practiced properly.

A good teacher is someone who shows us that there is also a teacher in us and a student in him. We have to learn to take refuge in the teacher in us and not just be attached to the external teacher. If our teacher is a true teacher, she will always encourage us to go back to ourselves and be in touch with the true teacher within us. When we learn how to practice this way, we will never be disappointed. We will always be able to see the good, the beautiful, and the true in ourselves and others, and we won’t be deceived by adorn­ments. When we see people deceive each other, we’ll only feel compassion and do our best to help them wake up.

Real beauty is always good and truthful. True goodness contains true beauty and real truth. Truth is always good and beautiful. Truth, beauty, and goodness inter-are. If what we thought was beautiful does not contain goodness and truth in it, it is not real beauty. When we love someone, we have to avoid losing contact with our own goodness, beauty, and truth, and with theirs as well, and then we won’t be deceived by appearances. This is the Great Awakening. When we are awakened, we understand what the Buddha meant when he said, “How amazing that all living beings have the basic nature of awakening, yet they don’t know it. So they drift on the ocean of great suffering lifetime after lifetime.”

Love is a great opportunity. If it happens that you can touch the truth, beauty, and goodness in someone you love, you will be able to go back and touch the same within yourself. A true lover always helps his or her beloved do this. The same is true in the teacher-student relationship.

In the time of the Buddha, a young lady named Matanga fell in love with the monk Ananda and wanted him to disrobe and marry her. She was very sick and said that she would die if she did not have Ananda as her husband. The Buddha asked her what she loved in Ananda, and she said that she loved everything about him: his eyes, his nose, his mouth, his manner of walking, sitting, standing, and so on. The Buddha said, “You have not seen the most beautiful aspects of Ananda such as his compassion, his wisdom, his freedom, and his ideal to relieve the suffering of living beings. If you see these good and beautiful traits, you will not want to keep Ananda all for yourself. Ananda is like the sunshine. You cannot lock the beautiful sunshine in a box. Ananda will not be beautiful if you deprive him of his freedom and compassion. The only way to love Ananda is to be like him, to do the things he does.”

Mantanga was healed and she asked the Buddha to ordain her as a nun. She was able to touch the ideal of freedom and compassion within herself. True love always goes together with the capacity to look deeply and to touch deeply. When your beloved focuses his attention and energy on something that he considers to be truly beautiful and good, don’t try to stop him. Instead of saying, “My beloved, you are not paying enough attention to me. You are neglect­ing me. You have abandoned me. You do not love me,” you can say, “How wonderful what you are experiencing there, my beloved! May I join you? Shall we be associate lovers?” Joining in the search for goodness is the essence of love. It is the only way to nurture and consolidate love.

Teachers and students need to be “associate lovers,” helping each other and all living beings touch the good­ness, beauty, and truth in themselves. This is the Path of Awakening.

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This talk was given at Plum Village on November 20, 1997. It was translated from the Vietnamese by Sister Annabel Laity and edited for publication by Arnie Kotler. 

Photos:
First photo courtesy of Plum Village.
Second photo by Jessica Tampas.

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Dharma Talk: Immediate Protection

By Thich Nhat Hanh

In the 1960s, American young people marched in the streets, shouting “Make love, not war.” I reflected deeply on this. What kind of love were they speaking of? Was it true love? If it were true love, it would be the opposite of war. If it were only craving, one could not call it “true love.” Making love out of craving is making war at the same time. In 1971, during the war for Bangladesh indepen­dence, soldiers raped 250,000 women; ten percent of these women became pregnant. These soldiers made love and war simultaneously. That kind of love is not true love.

True love contains the elements of mindfulness, protection, and responsibility. It carries the energy of enlightenment, understanding, and compassion. A church has to dispense the teaching on true love to all members of the church and to the children. In the Buddhist teaching, detailed in the third Mindfulness Training, a sexual relationship should not take place without true love and a long-term commitment. We must be aware of the suffering we bring upon ourselves and others when we engage in unmindful sexual activities. We destroy ourselves. We destroy our beloved. We destroy our society.

Mindfulness in the act of loving is true love. This practice of mindfulness can take place today and serve as our immediate protection. All church members should begin today the practice of mindful sexual behaviors. This is what I call immediate protection for ourselves, our community, and our society. The role of church leaders, in my belief, is to first protect themselves and their own community. If not, they cannot help protect others. When we are on an airplane, the attendant reminds us that if there is not enough oxygen, we must put on our own oxygen mask before we help another person. Similarly, our self, our own family, and religious community should be the first target of our practice and action. The elements of awakening and enlightenment need to take place immediately in our own religious commu­nity.

Children and adults should be well-informed about the problems of HIV infection and AIDS. They should be aware of the suffering that can be brought upon the individual, as well as the family, commu­nity, and society, through unmindful sexual activities. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on. What is going on now is a tremendous amount of suffering. In the year 2000, more than five million people died of AIDS; many still weep over this loss. Members of the church must wake the church up to the reality of suffering.

The awareness of suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths emphasized by the Buddha. Next, every member of the church and of the temple has to be aware of the roots of the suffering. This is the second Noble Truth. During the forty-five years of his teaching, the Buddha continued to repeat his state­ment: “I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.” Only when we recognize and acknowl­edge our suffering, can we look deeply into it and discover what has brought it about. It may take one week, two weeks, or three weeks of intense activities before the whole community, the whole church, or the Sangha will wake up to the tragedies of HIV and AIDS in its own community, as well as in the world at large. When the church and all its mem­bers are aware of the reality of suffering and its root causes, we will know what to do and what not to do for protection to be possible. The appropriate course of action can transform our suffering into peace, joy, and libera­tion.

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Daily unmindful con­sumption in our society has contributed greatly to the present suffering. The Buddha said, “Nothing can survive without food.” Love cannot survive without food; neither can suffering. Consequently, if we know to look deeply into the nature of our suffering and to recognize the kind of nutriments that have fed and perpetuated it, we are already on the path of emanci­pation. Entertainment in the media is a deep source of suffering. Movies, television programs, advertise­ments, books, and magazines expose us and our children to a kind of unwholesome nutriment, which we ingest every day via our sense organs, namely eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All of us are subject to invasions of these images, sounds, smells, tastes, and ideas. Unfortunately, these sorts of sounds, sights, and ideas in the media often water the seeds of craving, despair, and violence in our children and in us. There are so many items in the realms of entertainment that have destroyed us and our children. Many are drowned in alcohol, drugs, and sex. Therefore, to be mindful of what we consume—both edible foods and cultural items—is vital. The Fifth Mindfulness Training guides us to look at each nutriment we are about to ingest. If we see that something is toxic, we can refuse to look at it, listen to it, taste it, touch it, or allow it to penetrate into our body and our consciousness. We must practice to ingest only what is nourishing to our bodies and minds. The church has to offer this teaching and practice to all its members. The practice of protecting ourselves and our family is difficult, because the seeds of craving, violence, and anger are so powerful within us. We need the support of the Sangha. With the support of the Sangha, we can practice mindful consumption much more easily. Mindful consumption can bring us joy, peace, understanding, and compassion. We become what we consume.

Mindfulness also plays a critical role in relation­ships and communication. Relationships in the family are only possible if we know how to listen to each other with calm and loving kindness, if we know how to address each other with loving speech. Without the practice of loving speech and mindful listening, the communication between members of the family becomes tenuous. Suffering may result from this lack of communication. Many lose themselves in forget­fulness, and take refuge in sex, alcohol, violence, and tobacco. The problems of HIV infection and AIDS are intricately linked to these issues of poor relation­ship in the family and reckless consumption of sex and drugs. The layman Vimalakirti said, “Because the world is sick, I am sick. Because people suffer, I have to suffer.” The Buddha also made this state­ment. We live in this world not as separated, indi­vidual cells, but as an organism. When the whole world is devastated by the pandemics of HIV infection and AIDS, and many fellow humans are in desperate situations, our sense of responsibility and compassion should be heightened. We should not only call for help from the government and other organizations. Religious leaders need to take active roles in rebuilding our communities and reorganizing our churches by the embodiment of their own practice. The practice should aim to restore the communication between church members, between family members, and between ethnic groups. Com­munication will bring harmony and understanding. Once understanding is there in the church and the community, compassion will be born.

We know that with diseases, medical therapy alone is inadequate. We know that many people with HIV and AIDS are alienated from their own families and society. The church can offer understanding and compassion to people who suffer. They will no longer be lonely and cut off, because they will see that understanding is there, awakening is there, and compassion is there, not as abstract terms or ideas, but as realities. To me, that is the basic practice of the Sangha; that is the basic practice of the church. Without understanding and compassion, we will not be able to help anyone, no matter how talented and well-intentioned we are. Without understanding and compassion, it is difficult for healing to take place.

Thus, the practice of mindfulness should take place in the context of a Sangha—a community of people who strive to live in harmony and awareness. There are many things that we cannot do alone. However, with the presence and support of members of the community, these things can become easier for us to achieve. For example, when we have the Sangha to support us and shine light on us, we can have more success in the practices of sitting medita­tion, walking mediation, mindful eating, and mindful consumption. To me, Sangha building is the most noble task of our time.

In the Buddhist tradition, after we have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we come together every fortnight and recite them. After the recitation, we gather in a circle to have a Dharma discussion, learning more about these Five Trainings. We also discuss and share our personal experiences, in order to find better ways to apply the teaching and the practice of these trainings into our daily life. The Dharma teacher, the priest, or the monk attends the entire discussion session, contributes and guides the Sangha with his or her experiences and insights. If an individual in the Sangha has difficulties, the whole Sangha is available to support that person.

A true Sangha is a community that carries within herself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Dharma. The living Sangha always embodies the living Buddha and the living Dharma. The same must be true with other traditions. The Sangha, with her Sangha eyes, through the practice of mindfulness and deep looking, will be able to understand our situations and prescribe the appropriate course ofpractice for the protection of ourselves, our families, and society.

Today, many young people are leaving the church because the church does not offer them the appropri­ate teaching and the appropriate practice. The church does not respond to their real needs. Renewing the church by dispensing the appropriate teachings and practices is the only way to bring young people back to the church. We need to renew our church, rebuild our communities, and build Sanghas. This is the most basic and important practice. Again, in order to carry out this task, church leaders, whether clergy or laity, should embody the teaching and the practice. Young people do not only listen to our verbal messages. They observe our actions. Thus, we teach not with our sermons or our Dharma talks alone, but we teach through our behavior and our way of life.

Some people contract HIV or AIDS from blood transfusions, but often, the issue of HIV infection and AIDS is an issue of behavior. If mindfulness practice is there, and each person has the Sangha to help him or her be mindful, then we should be able to avoid bringing suffering upon ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society.

I often tell my students and others that the energy of mindfulness, generated by the practice in daily life, is equivalent to the Holy Spirit. The seed of mindfulness is there in each one of us. Once we know how to touch the seed of mindfulness in us through the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful thinking and consuming, then it will become a living source of energy in us. Mindfulness always brings about concentration, insight, understanding, and compassion. The practice brings back the energy of awakening and generates the energy of God in our daily life. I have trained people with terminal illness to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. If you know how to dwell in the here and the now, and invest 100% of yourself into your in-breath and out-breath, you become free of the past and of the future. You can touch the wonders of life right in the present moment. The Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, if you are a free person. This is not political freedom that I am talking about. This is freedom from worries and fear, freedom from the past and the future. If you can establish yourself in the here and the now, you have the basic condition for touching the Kingdom of God. There is not one day that I do not walk in the Kingdom of God. Even when I walk in the railway station, along the Great Wall, or at the airport, I always allow myself the opportunity to walk in the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is where stability is, mindfulness is, understanding is, and compassion is.

Each person has the energy of mindfulness within. Each person has the capacity of dwelling in the here and the now. Once you are fully in the present moment, you touch all the wonders of life that are available within you and around you. Your eyes are wonders of life. Your heart is a wonder of life. The blue sky is a wonder of life. The songs of the birds are wonders of life. If you are available to life, then life will be available to you. All the wonders of the Kingdom of God are available to you today, at this very moment. The Kingdom of God is now or never. Thus the question becomes, are you available to the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God can be touched in every cell of your body. Infinite time and space are available in it, and if you train yourself, it will be possible for you to walk in the Kingdom of God in every cell of your body.

When we are able to touch the Holy Spirit through the energy of mindfulness, we will also be able to have a deeper understanding of our true nature. The Buddha taught that there are two dimen­sions to reality. The first is the Historical Dimension, which we perceive and experience chronologically from birth to death. The second is the Ultimate Dimension, where our true nature is revealed. In Buddhism, we may call the ultimate reality “Nir­vana,” or “Suchness.” In Christianity, we may call it “God.” If you are a Christian, you know that the birth of Jesus does not mean the beginning of Jesus. You cannot say that Jesus only begins to be on that day. If we look deeply into the nature of Jesus Christ, we find that his nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. Birth and death cannot affect him. He is free from birth and death. In Buddhism, we often talk in terms of manifestations rather than creation.

If you look deeply into the notion of creation in terms of manifestation, you may discover many interesting things. I have a box of matches here with me, and I would like to invite you to practice looking deeply into this box of matches, to see whether or not the flame is there. You cannot characterize the flame as nonbeing or nonexistent. The flame is always there. The conditions for the manifestation of the flame are already there. It needs only one more condition. By looking deeply, I can already see the presence of the flame in the box, and I can call on it and make it manifest. “Dear flame, manifest your­self!” I strike the match on the box, and there, the flame manifests herself. It is not a creation. It is only a manifestation.

The birth of Jesus Christ is a manifestation, and the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is also a manifestation. If we know this, we will be able to touch the Living Christ. In the Buddhist teaching, not only the Buddha has the nature of no-birth and no-death, but every one of us, every leaf, every pebble, and every cloud has this nature. Our true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death.

I have learned from my practice that only by touching the Ultimate Reality in us can we transcend fear. I have offered this teaching and practice to numerous people with terminal illness. Many of them have been able to enjoy the time that is left for them to live with joy and peace, and their lives have been prolonged. In certain cases, the doctors told them that they had just three months or so to live, but they took up the practice and they lived fifteen to twenty more years. My wish is that the church will dispense teaching and practice on how to touch our Ultimate Reality to people who have been struck with the HIV/ AIDS, and also to those who have not. We should be able to help members of our community live in such a way that we can all touch Nirvana, that we can all touch the Ultimate Dimension within us in our daily lives. With the learning and the practice, we will be able to touch our true nature of no-birth and no-death. That is the only way to remove fear. Once the wave realizes that her nature—her ground of being—is water, she will transcend all fear of birth and death, being and nonbeing. We can help the people who do not have much time to live, so that they are able to live deeply with joy and solidity for the rest of their lives.

Once we can establish ourselves in the here and the now, and the fear of death is removed, we become the instruments of peace, of God, of Nirvana. We become bodhisattvas—enlightened beings working to free others from their suffering. Those of us who have been struck with HIV/AIDS can become bodhisattvas, helping ourselves and other people, and acquire that energy of healing called bodhicitta, or the mind of love.

During the Vietnam War, numerous Vietnamese and American soldiers and civilians died, and many who survived were deeply affected. Twenty-five years later, the survivors continue to be devastated by this war. I have offered a number of retreats to American war veterans. I tell them that they can become bodhisattvas because they already know what the suffering of war is about. I advise them that they should play the role of the flame on the tip of the candle. It is hot, but it will help create the awareness, the realization, that war is what we do not want. We want the opposite. We want true love. Each person can transform into a bodhisattva, creating the awareness in his or her own people, so that we will never have a war like this one again. Your life will have a new meaning and the energy of true love will guide you.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to end suffering and attain well-being. This path you have chosen to end suffering—your own and others’— is the bodhisattva path. Not only can you transcend the suffering of the past, but you bring joy and peace to yourself and your beloved ones, because you are helping to awaken people in your own community and society. The war veterans can practice creating awareness and waking people up, and the people who have been struck by HIV and AIDS can do likewise. Once motivated by the desire to work for true love, we can engage our daily lives in the activities that awaken and embrace others as well as ourselves. The work of a bodhisattva will help our healing process to take place very quickly. Our lives may become longer and of deeper quality than the lives of many who do not have HIV or AIDS.

Everything I have said comes from the experience of my own practice. I do not tell you things that I have read in books. It is possible for us to install immediate protection today, for ourselves, our families, and our communities. It is possible to provide understanding and compassion to those who suffer, so that everyone has the appropriate opportu­nities and conditions to heal. It is possible to experi­ence the Kingdom of God in the here and the now. It is possible to help the world heal as we are healing ourselves. Whatever our religious background, we must practice in such a way that we bring forth understanding, compassion, true love, and non-fear, so that possibilities become actualities. If our practice does not yield these flowers and fruits, it is not true practice. We must have the courage to ask ourselves: “Is our practice correct? Do we generate understand­ing, awakening, and compassion every day?” If we do not, we have to change our way of teaching and our way of practicing.

To me, the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, representing the energy of mindfulness, of awakening to the reality of suffering. We have to bring the Holy Spirit back to our religious communities in order for people to have true faith and direction. I sincerely believe that Sangha building is the way. It is the most noble task of the twenty-first century. Not only church leaders, but health professionals, gays and lesbians, schoolteachers, and members of different ethnicity should build Sanghas. Please reflect on this. The practice of Sangha building is the practice of giving humanity a refuge, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. When the Holy Spirit manifests in our church, God is with us.

Enjoy your breath, enjoy your steps, while we are still together as a Sangha. 

This article is from a talk given at the White House Summit on AIDS on December 1, 2000.

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