Dharma Talk: The Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Noble Eightfold Path is made up of Right View, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Thought, Right Action and Right Effort. Right View is the insight that we have within us of the reality of life. Our insight, understanding, wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and the happiness of those around us depend very much on the degree of Right View that we have. That is why Buddhist practice always aims at helping us develop a deeper understanding of what is going on within us and around us.

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Right View can be termed prajna. It can also be described as enlightenment, understanding, or wisdom. There are people who practice hard, but instead of developing Right View, they become more narrow-minded. By looking at their insight, their capacity of understanding, their ways of loving others, we can know whether their practice is correct or not. It is not a problem of the mind or the heart. It is a problem of right practice. Right practice is always pleasant and joyful in this very moment and always leads to dissolving notions and developing Right View.

Can Right View be transmitted to another person? This is an important question. Sometimes parents have a deep understanding of life, but they are unable to transmit their insight to their children. There are many reasons for this. One is communication. If the line of communication is broken, no matter how much insight you have, you cannot transmit it. Another is that you do not speak the same language. A third is that your insight might be too personalized. It works for you, but it must be practiced and presented in another way to others.

Wisdom insight is the kind of energy that makes us happy, alive, and loving. Sometimes we try to express it in words, as in the sutras or the Abhidharma, the treatise on the Dharma. When the Buddha was fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he had that kind of energy in him, prajna. It made him very happy and loving. He wanted to share that insight with others; that is why he thought of the five ascetics who had practiced with him in the past. But before he set off for the Deer Park in Sarnath, the Buddha remained near the Bodhi tree to enjoy his enlightenment. Enlightenment is enjoyable. The Buddha practiced sitting, walking, smiling to the trees, and playing with children from the village of Uruvela.

One day he went to a nearby lotus pond and sat for a long time, contemplating the lotus flowers and leaves. It was at that moment he discovered a way to communicate his insight to others. Insight is not made of concepts, but if you want to share your insight, you must use concepts, words, and notions. As the Buddha was looking at the lotus pond, he realized that people are of many different psychologies. Like the lotuses, some have roots deep in the mud, some have leaves still curled and underwater, some have buds partially exposed to the air, and some have leaves entirely above the water. That is why we need different means to share the Dharma with various kinds of people. The intention to create different Dharma doors was born at that time. One Dharma door is not enough.

During his 49 days of enjoying himself – sitting and walking around the Bodhi tree – the Buddha continued to translate his insight into notions and words. Then, during his first Dharma to the five ascetics, he spoke about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are the eight right practices. A sutra, or a Dharma talk, is a translation of the insight that has been achieved. Dharma talks are not insight in and of themselves. Sutras are just means of presenting insight in terms of concepts and notions. Even if it is a good description of the insight in terms of notions and words, there may be some difficulty. When you buy a map of New York City, you know that the map is not the city. You just use it to enjoy the city. It is important not to mistake the map for the city itself. Many people get caught by notions and words and miss the real insight. The Buddha said, “My teaching is like a finger pointing to the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.” Do not get caught by the words and the notions, or you will never touch the real insight.

The Buddha also said, “My teaching is like a raft that can help you get to the other shore. Don’t grasp at the raft and think that the raft is the shore.” Another day he said, “It is dangerous to misunderstand my teaching. If you don’t learn and practice with intelligence, you will spread more harm than good. It is like a person who does not know the better way to catch a snake. He may get bitten by it. A clever person will use a forked stick to catch the snake by the back of the neck, so he can pick it up safely. If you catch a snake by the tail, you may be bitten. Learning and practicing the Dharma is the same. You need intelligence, you need a teacher, you need sisters and brothers in the Dharma to help you learn and practice.”

Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. Right View is living insight that fills a person with understanding, love, and peace. It is quite different from Dharma talks, sutras, or books. We must use words and notions and the understanding behind them. Imagine someone who has never eaten a kiwifruit. When he hears the word “kiwi,” many concepts or notions are created in his mind. If you try to explain a kiwi to him, you might describe it as a fruit of such and such size, a certain color, feel, and taste. But no matter how well you do the job, you cannot give the other person the direct experience of the kiwi. It must be tasted. That is the only way. No matter how intelligent the other person is, kiwi cannot be understood until he places a slice of kiwi into his mouth. The same difficulty confronts anyone trying to convey insight or enlightenment. You must have direct experience. We practice mindfulness, concentration, and looking, touching, and understanding deeply, so that insight might be possible.

Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View are the basis of the practice. The practice of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are easy and natural when the practice of Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View have become solid. The Venerable Nyanaponika, a German-born bhikkhu, has described mindfulness as the heart of Buddhist meditation. I fully agree. Right Thinking is a practice, and its essence lies in mindfulness. If you are not mindful, your thinking cannot be right. If you are not mindful, how can you practice Right Speech? You can make a lot of people unhappy and create a war within your community or family. That is why mindfulness in speaking is the heart of right speech. Right Action – not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc. – cannot be practiced properly unless mindfulness is the foundation of your being. The same applies to Right Livelihood; if you are mindful of the ecosystem and the suffering of other species, your attempt to practice Right Livelihood has a chance to succeed. If you are not mindful about what is happening to the earth, the water, the air, the suffering of humans and animals, how can you practice Right Livelihood? Mindfulness must be the basis of your practice. If your efforts are not mindful, those efforts will not bring about the good result you hope for. Without mindfulness, the more effort you make, the more you can create suffering and disorder. That is why Right Effort, too, should be based on mindfulness.

When you practice Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration is easy. The energy of mindfulness already contains the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking, listening, and touching deeply, and out of that deep looking, listening, and touching, Right View is the fruit. Understanding and insight grow. As Right View continues to grow, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort will become stronger. When you sit correctly, your thinking is clear, and you act accordingly and practice Right Livelihood. Everything depends on Right View, and Right View depends on Right Mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness, concentration, and Right View are the essence of Buddhist practice. They are called the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight). Mindfulness is the foundation of all precepts. When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to protect all life. I vow not to kill.” That First Precept is born from mindfulness of the suffering caused by the destruction of life. Precepts are a concrete expression of mindfulness. I you don’t practice the precepts, you cannot say that you are practicing mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to practice the precepts in your daily life.

“Aware of the destruction of families and couples, aware of the suffering of the children who are sexually molested by others, I promise to practice protecting the integrity of the individual and the family. I vow to protect children from abuse. I vow to refrain from any act that creates a disintegration of families or couples. I vow to do my best to protect children.” This Third Precept is born from our mindfulness of what happens when we practice sexual misbehavior. All precepts, whether they number 5, 10, 14, 250, or 380, are born from the practice of mindfulness. Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are all practices of the precepts. When you live your daily life this way, your mindfulness will grow. The energy of mindfulness brings about concentration. You are concentrated in your daily life. You are concentrated in your sitting and walking meditation, and you look deeply and touch deeply, which brings about more and more insight. More insight helps you practice mindfulness in your daily life more easily.

If we look into any one of the eight branches of the path, we see that the other seven are present in it. If we look at Right Speech, insight is present because correct speech is born from insight. We can see that we have concentration. If we are speaking mindfully about something, we know what we are saying. Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also found in Right Speech. We can see the nature of interbeing in all elements of the path.

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Mindfulness practice must be applied to our daily life in order to be true practice. At Plum Village, we practice not only in the meditation hall, but in the kitchen, the garden, and the bathroom as well. It is helpful to slow down. We enjoy walking, reading, bending down, and all that we do in mindfulness. When you drive, hold your baby, wash your dishes, or work at the office, you can practice mindfulness. But for that to be possible, you need the support of a Sangha. You must create a Sangha where you live, because you need the support of brothers and sisters in the practice. The Buddha was quite clear that the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of our daily lives, not of intensive retreats alone. The Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of an engaged Buddhist. Right Action – not to kill but to protect all life, not to steal but to be generous in giving time and energy for the people who suffer, not to break up families and couples, not to harm children but to protect them – all these things are meant to be practiced in real life.

To say “engaged Buddhism” is redundant. How can it be Buddhism if it is not “engaged?” To communicate, we must use words, and hopefully our words will be heard and understood. In his first Dharma talk to the five ascetics at Deer park, the Buddha offered the Noble Eightfold Path, and in his last Dharma talk, spoken to the monk Sudhana, the Buddha also offered the Noble Eightfold Path. He said that where there is the Noble Path, there is insight. We must use our intelligence to apply the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to our daily lives.

The practice of Right View helps us develop a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. If you have deep insight into the truth of the suffering of beings, the truth of origination, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path, you have Right View. In fact, if you have a deep insight into any of these Four Noble Truths, you have deep insight into all four. Each truth contains all the others. This is the teaching of the Buddha about Right View from the historical dimension.

From the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said about Right View. There is a Zen story about two monks walking together. One sees a beautiful bird fly by. It is so beautiful that he wants to share the sight with the other monk. But the other monk has a pebble in his shoe and he is bending down to remove it. When the other monk looks up, there is no bird at all. So he asks, “What is it you want me to see?” But the bird is no longer there. All the first monk can say is, “A beautiful bird has just passed by.” It is not the same as showing him the bird. It is impossible for him to share his wonderful feeling. Sometimes we must just be quiet, when it is impossible to convey the insight.

A philosopher came to the Buddha and asked, “Is there a self? Is there a world?” Bombarded with questions like these, the Buddha said nothing. The philosopher became frustrated and left. Finally Ananda asked the Buddha, “You always say there is no self. Why didn’t you tell him?” The Buddha replied, “Anything I would have said would have done him more harm than good. I said nothing at all, to protect him from wrong views.”

Another time, an ascetic asked the Buddha to explain ultimate reality without using the terms being and nonbeing. The Buddha maintained silence for a long time, and the ascetic bowed three times and left. Ananda marveled and stated, “Lord, you did not say anything, yet he seemed to understand you.” The Buddha replied, “For a good horse, you don’t need a whip.”

Sometimes in Zen circles, they use language that is difficult to understand. This language is not made of concepts. It is a language to help us drop our concepts. From time to time, I try to use that kind of language myself. In 1968, when I was in Philadelphia for a peace demonstration, a reporter asked me, “Are you from the north or the south?” He wanted to put me in a box. If I said I am from the north, he would think I was anti-American. If I said I am from the south, he would think I was either with the National Liberation Front or pro-American. So I smiled and said, “I am from the center.” I hoped that would help him find a way to transcend the conflict. To understand the speech used in Zen circles, you must become familiar with this kind of language.

One Zen student said to his teacher, “I have been at the monastery for three years, and you have never told me about the true way of ultimate reality.” The teacher pointed his finger and said, “Monk, do you see the cypress in the front yard?” It is very important to notice the trees in the front yard. That monk had been living in the monastery for several years and he passed that cypress tree thousands of times, yet he never became aware of its presence. If he had been mindful, he could have touched the ultimate reality directly. How could he expect to touch ultimate reality if he had not even touched the tree in the front yard?

The story of that cypress tree became very well known throughout China. Another monk who heard the story of the cypress tree traveled very far to visit that teacher to ask him about it. But by the time the monk arrived, the teacher had already passed away. He was distraught as he now had no chance to ask his question. Another monk pointed him in the direction of the former teacher’s head disciple and suggested he direct his questions to him. The visiting monk went through many formalities to obtain an audience with this disciple, who was now senior monk. After listening to the visitor’s inquiry about the famous cypress tree, the senior monk answered, “Cypress tree? There is no cypress tree here.” The visitor could not believe it; the entire country had heard about that cypress tree. It had become an important topic of debate. Yet the head of the very temple where it originated did not seem to know anything about it? He tried to explain to the head monk that it was a very deep subject of meditation. He asked him if he was really the disciple of the master. The senior monk replied, “I am.”

When I first heard this story, I understood the senior monk’s intention to “kill” the cypress. Too many people were caught by it. If the visiting monk is intelligent enough, he can be enlightened by this “new” cypress. The cypress is a Dharma door. When you understand this type of exchange, you change your way of looking and understanding, and that can help lead you to enlightenment.

Another teacher when asked a philosophical question, replied, “Have you eaten breakfast?” When the disciple said, “Yes,” the teacher said, “Then please go and wash your dishes.” Washing the dishes mindfully is the door to the ultimate reality, the key to Right View and the whole Noble Eightfold Path. In the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said. In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra it is said, “no ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path; no understanding, no attainment” – no Right View, no Right Thinking. These are all notions, and you must free yourself from notions and words. The Buddha said, “My teaching is just a raft to help you get to the other shore. Don’t be caught by the raft.” We do our best practice this way.

This lecture was given in Plum Village during the 1994 Summer Opening. A book on Basic Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh will be published later this year.

Photos:
First photo by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.
Second photo by Tran Van Minh

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Dharma Talk: The Practice of Prayer

By Thich Nhat Hanh

What is prayer? To whom should we pray? Does prayer bring results?

Thich Nhat Hanh

A five-year-old boy who loved playing with his pet mouse was deeply wounded when his mouse tunneled deep into the earth and didn’t come back, but the mouse never returned. Later, when he was a college student, the same young man attended a class that began each day with a prayer. The prayers mostly seemed silly to him, such as, “I pray it will be sunny tomorrow so we can have a picnic.” But one day a fellow student came into class crying. She told the professor that doctors had just discovered that her mother had a brain tumor and might survive only one more week.

The professor stood up, looked deeply at each student, and said, “If you do not believe in the healing power of God, please leave the room. We are going to pray for Nancy’s mother.” The young man wanted to leave but didn’t have the courage. Then the professor asked everyone to kneel down, and he offered a short but very powerful prayer: “God, I thank you for healing Nancy’s mother right now. In the name of Christ, Amen.” Two weeks later, they learned that Nancy’s mother’s tumor had disappeared without a trace. Her healing was a miracle, and the young man’s belief in prayer was renewed.

Why do some prayers succeed and some not? Are there methods that can guarantee our prayers? If your prayers do not bring good results, is it because we do not have enough faith or love? In the Bible, is says that faith can move mountains. If we want our bulb to light up, there has to be current running through the electrical line.

Last summer a practitioner at Plum Village was very ill with cancer. Sister Chan Khong suggested that she pray to her grandmother, who had lived to be 97. Sister Chan Khong said, “The strong genes of your grandmother are in you. Ask them to help you transform the sick cells that are also in you.” Sister Chan Khong taught her for only fifteen minutes, but because she had a lot of faith, she understood the teaching and put it into practice. The young lady prayed to her grandmother in herself while she ate, while she walked, while she sat, and while she touched the earth.

When I practice sitting meditation, I always send loving energy to my students. Sister Dam Nguyen in Vietnam and Jim Fauss in California both have had cancer. Whether my students know I love them or not, when I send my energy to them, I am sure it arrives. What matters most is that my heart is open. I only need to touch the source of love in me and send my love in my thoughts and also in my actions. This is a basic form of prayer that can be practiced not just in church or a meditation hall, but in every act. You touch the deep source of beauty and goodness in yourself and share it. When you pray or chant the words of the Buddha or Christ, it encourages peace in yourself, in others, and in the environment. Behind it is the practice of mindful living.

All the Vietnamese Buddhists know this prayer (De Tu Kinh Lay): “I have been a victim of craving, anger, arrogance, jealousy, and confusion, living in suffering and darkness for thousands of generations. Thanks to the light of the Buddha, I now see the roots of my afflictions, and I vow to begin anew to transform these afflictions in order to live happily.” This prayer is a mirror, an effort to look deeply into ourselves and see the seeds of craving, anger, ignorance, and confusion in us. “The light of the Buddha” is our mindfulness. We look deeply into our negative habit energies, see our shortcomings, and try to transform them.

I vow to avoid wrong actions and to take the path of goodness. I ask for the Buddha’s compassion to help me to have a healthy body and a mind free of suffering and confusion.” We pray for a body without disease and a mind without suffering, so we can enjoy peace, stability, and liberty and be released from the cycle of suffering. This prayer helps us live a life filled with health, happiness, and stability, free from craving, anger, and ignorance. We make some effort, and outside efforts follow. In fact, there is no boundary between our efforts and those from outside.

Whom should we address our prayers to? God? Buddha? Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva? We have to look deeply into the nature of God, the nature of the Buddha, the nature of Avalokiteshvara. Whenever we join our palms and bow our heads, we can ask, “Who am I and who is the object of my venerations and what is the connection between us?” If we think there is no connection between God and us, that we are different from God, our prayer is just superstition.

When I was sixteen, my teacher asked me to memorize this sentence: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty.” I recited this sentence for ten years before I realized its meaning. The Buddha is in me, and I am in the Buddha. We are two, yet we are one. We are both empty of a separate self, so the communication between us is perfect. We can pray to God, because we are a part of God. We don’t need time or space. The deep link is immediate. There is electricity in our power line.

For prayer to bring results, the first condition is the establishment of communication and the second is the establishment of the electrical line, which is mindfulness, concentration, understanding, and love. When we have these conditions, the power line will surely work, and the result of our prayer will be realized immediately, beyond time and space. When body and mind are in oneness, when there is concentration and understanding, you can touch the actual cells of your grandmother in you, and these cells can be transformed and healed. When you touch God, the Buddha, or the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in you, their energy and your energy become one. Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is the symbol of love. Manjushri is the symbol of understanding. Samantabhadra is the symbol of action with understanding. We cannot deny their existences. When love exists, Avalokiteshvara exists.

If God’s will decides everything, what is the use of praying? How can we change the fruit of our actions? The answer is understanding. When we understand deeply that our ancestors are in us, that there is no distance at all between our cells, our grandmother’s cells and our cancer can be transformed. The will of God is also our will, because we and God are one. If we decide to change, everyone, even those hostile to us, will change also.

To pray, we must have great understanding. If we want God, the Buddha, or a bodhisattva to do something for us and if we make a kind of program for them to follow, we may think that will make us happy. We might pray that no living beings will be killed, no trees cut, or no river polluted and we create a program for God to implement point by point. But in God’s program, there is also death. If insects don’t die, millions of acres of wheat may be destroyed. Living beings eat other living beings, and the result is a kind of balance. Do we have the insight to create a balanced environment? If we do not, our prayer may be naïve. We pray for ourselves and those we love, but if God fulfills these prayers it may cause disorder in the world. Our prayers must always go together with understanding and insight. To develop insight, we practice mindful breathing to calm ourselves and restore the peace and serenity in us.

An American doctor has said that God is like a communications satellite. Our wishes and aspirations are sent to that satellite, and then God sends back grace to those we pray for. Buddhists would call that satellite our collective consciousness (alaya vijnana). Whenever there is a transformation in our individual consciousness, there is also a transformation in the collective consciousness, including the consciousness of those we pray for. In this way, our mind is a creator of the collective consciousness. So we have to go back to our mind and transform ourselves. When we do so, it is quicker than a satellite. When you send a prayer to a satellite, it takes a few ksana (a fraction of a second) to arrive. Even light takes time. But when we touch our store consciousness and thereby the collective store consciousness, the part of God that is within us, we touch God right away. This satellite is not out in space; it is within us. As long as we have the notion that we and God are separate entities, it takes time for our prayer to reach the satellite and for God to receive and send it to the one we pray for. But in deep Christianity and deep Buddhism, we see that the one we pray to and the one we pray for are both in the same satellite, which is in us. Collective consciousness and individual consciousness exist simultaneously. When we are in touch with our own consciousness, we are already in touch with the collective consciousness. Touching the collective consciousness, we also touch our individual consciousness.

We think that those who have passed away no longer exist, but according to Buddhism, that is not correct. They are still there, everywhere, including in us. Although your grandmother has passed away, she is still in you. When you understand this, your prayers will be effective. Buddha is the nature of beauty and goodness in you. When you touch the Buddha in you, you can do what he had done. When you are angry or sad, if you touch those seeds of beauty and goodness in you, you will see more clearly. The Buddha in you helps you overcome difficulties. He helps you accept thinks that are difficult to accept. He transforms you.

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If you hear that the Buddha will lead a walking meditation on Gridhrakuta Mountain and if you want to fly to India to join him, I would certainly understand. But if you practice walking meditation every day and know how to be deeply in touch with life, you will not need to fly to Gridhrakuta Mountain. Buddha is not a concept, but the true nature of awakening. You can take a step right here and now, and you are already walking hand in hand with the Buddha.

We can pray not only to God, the Buddha, or our ancestors, but also to those who are still alive. When we have difficulties, if we think of someone who has stability, joy, peace, and a clear mind, we feel supported. These living bodhisattvas have the ability to listen to us and use their energy to help us. We should pray no only to bodhisattvas who are in the clouds, like Avalokiteshvara, but to those who are alive on earth. Your own roommate may be a bodhisattva, but if you don’t hold her in high enough esteem, you will not see her. If she listens with all her heart, with all her attention and compassion, she is Avalokiteshvara. If you open your heart only to bodhisattvas in the clouds, you may miss many real bodhisattvas here who have love and care, who listen to you deeply. Bodhisattvas are people who have practiced day after day so that their insight has grown. When you walk in mindfulness and have more peace and joy, your insight is growing. It is not only the Buddha who has insight. You also have your insight. You might have been less compassionate in the past, but through the practice your compassion has grown.

I often pray to those who are still alive. There are many small Sanghas everywhere of people who really practice and transform their suffering. I feel deeply supported by them. This is real prayer. I also pray to trees, the moon, and the stars. They are strong and stable, and they can support us. Do not pray to God as a concept. Touch God in His creations. You are a creation, so you can touch God in yourself and in those around you. Let us look at The Lord’s Prayer: 

Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Amen. 

“Thy Kingdom come.” The best way to chant, sing, or pray is to touch the kingdom of God right here and now. ”Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the key. The Lord’s will must be realized not only in heaven, but also on earth. Don’t wait until you reach the kingdom of God – until you pass away – to obtain stability, peace, and joy. Touch it here and now. A Zen master was asked, “Where do you find the world of no-birth and no-death?” And he said, “Right in the world of birth and death.”

Give us this day our daily bread,” is the practice of mindfulness. We only need food here and now. “Form is emptiness” is not enough. Emptiness is also form. We always want to save for the future, but to live in the present moment deeply is most important. We have to pray throughout the day, not only before going to sleep. How can there be eternity if there is no present moment?

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Trespasses are the mistakes we have made with those we love. We have said something unkind; we have acted or thought in ways that have caused suffering. We have made many mistakes and hurt others. We have to live in a way that allows us to forgife ourselves and forgive those who have hurt us. We have not been mindful, and we have to release our hurts and the hurts of others. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer of action.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” What kinds of temptation? – craving, anger, arrogance, doubt jealousy, suspicion. Practice is much easier with a Sangha, a community of friends. When you are alone, you are easily tempted, but with a Sangha, when you become angry or afraid, your brothers and sisters will help calm you down. With a Sangha, you are very stable and will not fall into the lower realms. Many people are in hell right now, living in loneliness, anger, or despair. Others are in heaven, living beautifully.

We have to learn the art of praying deeply. Usually, when we have some difficulty, we call upon God and say, “Help me.” This is okay, but we also have to learn to pray on a large scale. Our aim is to cross the ocean of birth and death without fear. Asking God to do something for us is too superficial. At other times we bargain with God: “If you give me such and such, I will shave my head and be a vegetarian for three months.” When they cross the ocean, many Vietnamese boat people say that if they survive they will shave their heads for three months. There is nothing wrong with that. I only want you to practice more deeply, so you can smile to that bargaining part of you.

We usually pray for good health, success, or harmony. But it is a dream to think our health can be perfect. We are alive now because we were sick in the past. Thanks to our illnesses, we have immunity from certain diseases. Don’t dream of perfect health. Please learn to live with these little diseases, and enjoy the 98% health you have.

There has been a lot of progress in medicine in the past fifty years. People now see that the health of the body is deeply linked to the health of the mind. If we learn how to resolve the blocking points in our mind, many of our diseases will be cured. A good physician must look deeply.

We are at the gateway to a new step in medicine, that can be called “collective-manifestation-medicine” or the “medicine of one mind.” We see that many elements, near and far, make us sick and cure us. We may suffer from something our grandfather did two generations ago, or from the effects of an atomic bomb that was dropped in the South Pacific, or from someone else’s unhappiness. When someone is unhappy, he may hurt us deeply. Because we don’t have a separate self, we are connected in all directions, through time and through space.

Success is also usually seen as an element for our happiness. But our success may requires another person’s failure. When we are able to pray for ourselves, for those we love, and also for those who cause us problems, the energy of mindfulness, concentration, understanding, and love in us grows stronger. If you cannot pray for those who cause us difficulty, do not blame God or the Buddha if you do not have good results.

We also pray for harmony in the world. But life is filled with harmony and disharmony, successes and failures, ups and downs. When we are in touch with the ultimate dimension, harmony or disharmony, success or failure are all okay. We try our best to make life more harmonious. That’s all. When you step into the world of the Avatamsaka, into the Kingdom of God, whatever happens to your health is okay, whether you have so-called success or failure is okay, whether you live one or ten more years is okay. When you have touched the ultimate dimension deeply, you can dwell in the cycle of samsara with a smile.

In the past, if you had a success, you were happy. If you had a failure, you were unhappy. But once you have touched the ultimate dimension, you see that failure is also fine. Because of your failure, other people may succeed. Others may see disharmony, but you see harmony. The deep aim of a practitioner is to touch the ultimate dimension in daily life. Everywhere you go, you see that you and others are one. Even if your health is not perfect, even if your success is not great, it’s okay. The prayer of the practitioner is very deep and not on the level of the historical dimension and touch the ultimate reality. Then your relationships with others, your relationship with God, and your relationship with the Buddha will be relationships of oneness.

At Plum Village, we try to open many doors of happiness to help you keep your balance. When you return home, you have to establish your own breathing room, your own Sangha, where you can breathe, listen to Dharma talks, and have Dharma discussions, so you have more peace to help you cope with the unhappiness of people. When others are unhappy and thrown their unhappiness on you, you have to receive it and transform it.

In the collective consciousness is the collective consciousness of many bodhisattvas, many buddhas, you yourself, and also those who are not happy. Try to use the new step in medicine to bring you to that realm of buddhas and bodhisattvas, where you will not be drowned in the sickness of negativity. This new medicine is not limited by time. It can happen millions of years in the past or the future. It is not limited by space. When Kepler discovered that the tides on earth are influenced by the moon, no one believed him. Even Galileo thought Kepler had imagined it. Now we know that the gravity of the moon influences the earth, and the stars influence us.

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Our health is the same. Those who live far from us can make us very happy or unhappy. In “oneness-of-mind medicine,” the doctor also has to pray for his or her patients, because we know that the mindfulness and compassion of our physician influences us. A physician cannot be just a mechanic: “Here is a prescription. Open your mouth.” She must go the next step. After making her best prognosis, she must say, “I will pray for you, too.” And she sends her love, care, and compassion to her patients. Before seeing a patient, she has to breathe, calm herself to restore the peace and happiness of her own body and mind, and then look deeply into the patient, diagnose, and while giving the patient a prescription, say, “Follow this, and I will pray for you. I will send my love to you.” We have to do this also, not just physicians. When your brother is sick, you cannot just say, “The hospital will take care of him.” You also have to send your love and care to your brother in the hospital. You have to send your love and care to all who are in danger. You cannot just say, “They will take care of themselves.” We deeply influence each other.

Dr. Larry Dossey says that in our time we have to open the door to this new step in medicine. He proposes that every physician encourage his patients to pray, and physicians who forbid their patients from praying be subject to suit. Physicians have to care not only about medicine and the body, but also about spirit. For your happiness with yourself and the happiness of your brothers and sisters in the Dharma and in your blood family, you have to send your love everywhere. With every step I take, I send compassion to myself and to brothers and sisters near and far away. It heals me and it will heal them. Even though Sister Dam Nguyen is in Hanoi and Jim Fauss is in California, when I send my love to them, I am sure they receive it right away.

Sending love to people is not a superstition. It is based on something scientific. When we sit together, we create a great collective energy that can support many near and far. Collective consciousness can be governed by understanding or by ignorance. The more our collective consciousness is full of ignorance, the more sickness we have in our body and mind. When we have more understanding, we have more loving kindness, and health and healing are possible. In the medicine of one mind, the collective consciousness plays a significant role in the happiness of our beloved ones and ourselves.

We have to find the root causes of our diseases, most of which come from the collective store consciousness. In medical school, they don’t teach you how to go into the unconscious domain. The unconscious of Western psychology is only a small part of the collective consciousness, and the healing of most disease comes from there. If you want to heal a diseases, organize a good store consciousness. Practice mindful sitting, walking, speaking, and  eating. Water the seeds of joy and peace in yourself every day. Enjoy the present moment and share your peace and love with other. This is real prayer.

This Dharma talk was given by Thay at Plum Village in March 1996.

Photos:
First and second photo by Gloria Norgang.
Third photo by Carole Melkonian.

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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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