Touching the Blue Sky

The Story of Thay Phap An

By Thay Phap An

mb57-Touching1

Before I became a monk, I suffered from depression but did not know it. This created a deep need within me to look for something, although I did not know exactly what I was looking for. All I knew was that I wanted to search for some direction, some path. This longing began early in my childhood and it became dominant when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

I looked for meditation books and pursued different types of practice, beginning in the ninth grade, and continuing after I escaped from Vietnam to live in a refugee camp and then in America. I was a very good student, but there was this sense of sadness deep within me. Often it lasted for days, and it paralyzed me, so that I could not feel the joy of life. However everything seemed very normal to me. Sometimes we suffer and we are not aware of our suffering, so we perceive it as something normal.

“Who Am I?”

When I graduated from college at age twenty-three, I felt a strong wish to become a monk. But my parents did not want this; they encouraged me to continue my studies. So I did. After graduate school, I began to work as a mathematical researcher for an oil company. At that time, I took up the practice of koans very seriously. A koan is a set of practices in which you raise your question and allow it to go deep into your consciousness. You do not look for an answer; any answer that comes to you may not be valid, because it comes from your intellect. It may be merely a set of perceived ideas, a projection. Later on, when the conditions are sufficient, your consciousness will offer its answer to you.

I practiced the koan, “Who am I?” Whenever I moved my hand, I asked, “Who is moving my hand?” Whenever I walked, I asked, “Who is walking?” Whenever I was about to go to sleep, I would ask, “Who is sleeping?” I continued to ask the question, “Who am I?” This question began to work very deeply in me and started to interfere with my work. When I asked the question, “Who is thinking?” my thinking disappeared. This created a problem. I had to think in order to solve problems for people and earn a living.

I fell into a very deep spiritual crisis. I did not know what the best path for my life was, but I knew that I wished to become a monk. However, I loved my family very much, and wanted to respect their wishes, so I could not yet take that step. I stopped working for the oil company and took a post-doctorate position in order have more time to practice meditation and look deeply into what direction I wanted to take for my life.

mb57-Touching2

I shared with my post-doc advisor my long-time wish to become a monk. He advised me, “For once in your life, you have to listen to your heart. Otherwise you will regret it.” He kindly offered me the option to try out being a monk, and if I didn’t like it I could return to the university and he would still have a job for me. Even now, when I talk about him, I feel very moved and grateful to him for giving me this advice. I collected all my belongings and sent them back home. On March 26, 1992, I left the U.S. to become a monk. I didn’t realize at that time what a shock and source of suffering this was for my family.

When I came to Plum Village, I practiced but did not have much joy. I listened to Thay’s teaching about the present moment, about cultivating joy and happiness, but a deep sense of sadness still hung over me. I tried my best to live in the present moment, in the here and now, and to cultivate happiness. But I could not touch the reality of happiness.

After practicing for three years, I began to lead retreats around the world. I invited people to practice being happy in the present moment. But I was aware that a block of sadness in the back of my mind prevented me from being truly happy. One time, I went to Russia to lead a retreat. A young woman served as my assistant. A few years later, she traveled to Plum Village before she returned home to Vietnam. She became a very close friend who shared openly with me. I remember one time she shared with me, “I have to be very honest with you. You gave a very good Dharma talk about happiness and being in the present moment. But it really puzzles me that you do not look very happy. You look sad all the time.” She meant to ask whether my practice was effective. I offered the teaching to cultivate happiness and live in the present moment, but I still had this block of sadness within me. That was six or seven years after I became a monk.

I had a lot of questions about everything in life. Did our lives have any meaning? Was there something called reality out there that I had to touch? Whenever I had an opportunity, I would ask Thay a question. Whenever there was a question and answer session, I would ask a question right away.

mb57-Touching3

Thay tried to help me to get in touch with the beauty of life around me. When I was attending Thay, he would say, “Look! Phap An! Don’t you see the beautiful blue sky?” He would pour tea for me when I was about to ask another question, and invite me to enjoy a cup of tea. During our walking meditation together, he would stop, point out a flower and teach me, “Look! Phap An! The flower is very beautiful.” Or he would point to a cloud and ask, “Don’t you see the cloud is beautiful?” He had a lot of compassion. He didn’t give me a jumble of thoughts or theories. He pointed me directly to the source of happiness and joy, because he wanted me to taste it for myself.

Touching Images from the Past

I struggled very much with my depression. There were moments during sitting meditation when I would invite my sadness to come up and embrace it. Looking at the sunshine through the window, tears would fall from my eyes. Sadness simply overwhelmed me. When I embraced my suffering, memories slowly surfaced and the roots of my sadness began to reveal themselves. One image led to another. In the midst of this stream of my past experiences, I continued to go back to my breathing and stay aware of my body. The wave of sadness returned, over and over, until it slowly calmed down. I continued to go back to the emotion, embrace it, and observe it. I saw many different images from my past.

I discovered that I had been wounded as a child in the war in Vietnam. I was born in a rural part of Central Vietnam. There, the war was very intense. Every night I heard bombing in the distance. There were people who lived around me who became mentally ill; the pressure of the war became too much for them. There were soldiers who took off their clothes and ran around naked. I remember a woman who screamed and cried every night. She lived next to our house. As I lay down to sleep, I listened to her moaning and screaming all night long in the dark. I felt a lot of love for her and also a lot of fear.

We lived next to an air force base, and fighter jets flew by in the middle of the night. They flew above the roof of our house as they took off. The sound was very loud, and my brother who slept next to me would sit up and scream along with the jets, in his sleep. He didn’t wake up. He simply sat up in the bed and screamed. I was one year older than him. I woke up because of the noise. Every night, when he sat up screaming, I gently pushed him back down to sleep. It happened almost every night.

I lived with a lot of fear and uncertainty. Once or twice a year, the communists would attack our village. Houses burnt down. We had to get out. One time, during an attack, my father was standing. Something fell to the ground; he bent down. Just as he bent down, a bullet hit the box behind him. If he had been standing, he would have been killed. Luckily the bullet missed him and broke the box behind him. In just one single moment he would have been killed.

From time to time, South Vietnamese soldiers would come to our parents’ pharmacy and shoot into the shelves of medicine. They held up a grenade and threatened to throw it if we didn’t leave. Then they broke into the cash register and took whatever medicines they wanted. There was no law around, so they came very often, to take money and medicine. They used harsh language. They shot anywhere they liked.

Slowly but surely, I went back to the past to touch all these images as I sat in meditation. Then I saw the image of myself as a little boy. I think that I was only four or five years old. I was hiding myself in a medicine cabinet. Looking out, I could see military men in the front of our house—Americans and South Vietnamese in camouflage uniforms. They were carrying all kinds of equipment, with many weapons of war, and setting up camp in the twilight and drizzling rain. As I looked out, I felt so scared.

In my meditation, I had a clear memory that that little boy said to himself, “There’s no future for my life and I don’t want to grow up. What’s the point? If I grow up, I’ll be like these men who carry guns around, and either I will kill someone or be killed by someone.” As I looked back, I asked myself: how could I have such a thought when I was so young, only four or five? This incident continued to affect me without my knowing it.

mb57-Touching4

At the age of seven or eight, I began to draw human faces. I would spend a lot of time in my room, looking at magazines and drawing the beautiful faces I saw in them. I drew like this for about five years, until the war was over. Deep within the mind of that little boy was the belief that humans were cruel and ugly. I sensed the dark side of human beings, so I drew beautiful human faces as a defense mechanism. I accumulated several books of drawings of faces, but because of the war we fled to the South and I lost all of them.

When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, every day at about sunset, from about five to six o’clock in the afternoon, I experienced a pain in my forehead, which I now understand was a migraine. I couldn’t stand it and my father took me to the hospital, but the doctor couldn’t figure out the reason for my chronic headaches. When the war ended, the migraines went away. Thanks to my meditation, I now understand what was happening. Around sunset, the military men came and camped in front of our house. That was also the first time I had the thought that my life had no future, that life had no meaning, and that I didn’t want to grow up. Whenever the sun set, this feeling was re-activated. My depression was triggered by the sunset.

A New Perception

I worked on this block of sadness and the tendency to withdraw for many years. Sometimes, it seemed there was no hope. Many times Thay told me that the sky was very beautiful, and the blue sky was indeed very beautiful, but I could not touch that blue sky. Many other young brothers and sisters came to Plum Village and lived without much difficulty. They could be happy and play with each other. But I could never taste such joy. Therefore, I felt quite lonely in the community. I was in that state of loneliness, with my own struggle, but I tried to embrace my sadness whenever I had a chance.

I learned to go straight to this primary perception. The sadness was due to the perception that there was no future, no point to growing up because life was very ugly. It was very difficult to embrace the sadness. At first I didn’t understand how to do it, but gradually, I learned. I had to balance my mind with the energy of joy and happiness before I could embrace this pain. Over the years, I have been trying my best to embrace my emotion and I have learned that it is inseparable from the perception that I had as a little boy, that there was no future for my life. After many years of practice, I have been able to purify and transform this emotion and am cultivating a new and more positive perception of life.

In Upper Hamlet, there is a walking meditation path, from which we can see the sunset. Many times when the sun set this sense of sadness would come up. I practiced walking meditation along this path in the middle of sunset, and tears would come. With each of my steps, I would tell myself, “This is truly beautiful. This is truly beautiful.” I would say, “I’m really happy now. I’m really happy now.” I trained myself like that. This exercise does not do violence to ourselves; instead, it is a training that tries to cultivate a new kind of perception. I tried to look at each flower on the road, to look at each stone, and say, “I’m really happy now. The war is over. I’m not living in a time of war anymore. It’s okay. It’s safe. There’s life. There’s a meaning to life. It’s very beautiful now.” I practiced this often, for many years. I tried to build a new perception to balance the child who saw no future.

mb57-Touching5

We have to train ourselves to develop a new perception. At the beginning, this new perception is weak. It’s just a skinny bone, a skeleton; there’s no flesh to it. Over the years we have to build new flesh, to build a thicker layer around our new perception. As I cultivated this new perception, I built new flesh around it. As I said to myself, “This is truly beautiful,” I tried to feel beauty and happiness. I continued to build layers of flesh so that I could balance the block of pain and suffering that I had gone through. Over the years, bit by bit, it worked.

In addition to transforming my perceiving, I also changed my way of eating. I noticed that around five or six o’clock in the evening, at sunset, I had trouble with my colon. I couldn’t digest food, and suffered from a lot of gas. It became very disturbing. My depression had come into my body and embedded itself into my colon. I decided to stop eating dinner. I did this for two to three years. Amazingly, as the colon healed, the depression also healed.

This transformation has to do with both the body and the mind. We cannot focus on the mind alone, because our sadness and depression have turned into a part of our body. We have to purify our body in order to purify our mental difficulties. It took me a long time, but I was able to transform this block of sadness and depression within me by looking deeply into my food, taking good care of myself, fasting, exercising, and building a new perception.

I Could Feel the Blue Sky

After seven or eight years of practice, during the springtime, I was in Thay’s hermitage. He organized a picnic day for the monastics; the brothers and sisters were playing volleyball, cooking, and having a barbecue. I was standing at the veranda, looking at my brothers and sisters playing joyfully. I didn’t join them but I stood near them. Then I looked at the poplar trees, with no leaves, standing against the blue sky in spring. I followed my breathing and practiced the mantra Thay taught us. “I’m here for you. Breathing in, I am aware that the poplar tree is there, that the blue sky is there. Breathing out, I’m really here for you.”

I followed my breathing for a long time, and remained in touch with the poplar and the blue sky. Suddenly, for the first time, I could feel the blue sky. Tears ran down my face. I just stood there crying. I was able to touch that moment with such deep joy and happiness, from the depths within me. The blue sky was so beautiful that day. The poplar tree was so beautiful. After seven or eight years of practice, I was finally able to touch all that.

Nowadays, I am more stable. My anger, my temper, my sadness and depression have transformed to a large extent. This year marks my eighteenth year of practice as a monk, and I have changed a lot. I have healed my body and healed my mind, for the most part. I do not get caught by anger much. I do not get trapped by my sadness and depression much. It is very important to identify the very beginning of a negative perception before it turns itself into a mental loop, a block of strong emotion. We can learn to embrace and understand it before it begins to affect our life and our relationships.

mb57-Touching6Thich Chan Phap An, True Dharma Seal, was born in 1963 in Vietnam. He was ordained into monkhood in 1992 and received Transmission of the Lamp of Wisdom in 1999. Since 2008, he has served as the Director and Dean of Studies at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

This article is an excerpt from a Dharma talk given on January 29, 2010. It was edited by Thay Phap An, Sister Chau Nghiem, Charles Wheeler, and Natascha Bruckner.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: A Peaceful Heart

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Just before the land offensive in the Gulf, the Soviet Union proposed a six-point peace plan to end the war. The first point was that Iraq consent to withdraw all its troops from Kuwait within twenty-one days. But President Bush said that Iraq must evacuate Kuwait in just seven days, and he ordered the allied troops to begin attacking and killing the next day at noon. After the attack began, President Bush addressed the nation, saying, “Whatever you are doing at this moment, please stop and pray for our soldiers in the Gulf. God Bless the United States of America.” I think that many Moslems were also praying to their God at that moment to protect Iraq and the Iraqi soldiers. How could God know which nation to support?

Many people pray to God because they want God to fulfill some of their needs. If they want to have a picnic, they may ask God for a clear, sunny day. At the same time, farmers who need more rain pray for the opposite. If the weather is clear, the person going to the picnic will say, “God is on my side. He answered my prayers.” But if it rains, the farmers may say that God heard their prayers. For the most part, that is how we pray to God.

In light of the Persian Gulf War, I would like to discuss the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught a style of life that can bring people happiness. I think it is important for us to go back to the Gospels to discover Jesus’ true, simple teachings: 

“Seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.'” When you know that you are spiritually poor, you are no longer spiritually poor. When you think that you are spiritually rich, then you are spiritually poor. When you know that you do not have enough wisdom, that is when you begin to have wisdom. When you believe you already have wisdom, you are blocked, and you do not have enough “spiritual riches” to make yourself or other people happy. Confucius said, “If you know that you don’t know, then you can begin to know.” We can understand this passage from the Bible in the light of the teaching of Confucius.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be com­forted.” When you mourn, when you suffer, you have an opportunity to learn. If you do not suffer, it is difficult to learn what happiness is. If you are not hungry, it is difficult to realize the joy of eating. If you do not have bad weather, it is difficult to appreciate good weather. If you are aware of your suffering, you can learn from it, and you will have the conditions to be happy. 

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” If you are not humble, you may remain in ignorance for a long time and miss many opportunities to learn. Humility is a condition for you to advance in your understanding. 

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteous­ness: for they shall be filled.” God requires that we love and understand each other, that we stop killing each other and making each other suffer.

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” God is merciful to those who are merciful to others. You don’t have to wait. The moment compassion springs from your heart, you benefit from it immediately, maybe even before the other person benefits from it. If you want to make another person happy, you are transformed the moment you have that intention, and a smile is born on your lips. Even before you do or say anything, the other person notices your transformation. Compassion is the capacity and the willing­ness to remove pain and suffering from others. This kind of love does not require anything in return; it is unconditional love. It pervades your whole being, and you find peace right in that moment. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” “Pure in heart” means that you do not have the intention to harm other people. This is equivalent to the Buddha’s teaching: “To refrain from doing evil things, to practice doing good things, and to keep your heart pure.” When your heart is pure, you see reality. You step into the Kingdom of God, into the Pure Land. When the heart is pure, the land must be pure. Land is a creation of the heart. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” Those who work for peace must have a peaceful heart. When you have a peaceful heart, you belong to the Kingdom of God. You belong to the Pure Land. You are children of the Pure Land. There are those who try to work for peace, but their hearts are not at peace. They still have anger and frustration, and their work for peace is not really peaceful. We cannot say that they belong to the population of the Pure Land.

We must do anything we can to preserve peace. But this is only possible when our hearts are at peace with the world, with our brothers and our sisters. When we try to overcome evil with evil, we are not working for peace. You may say, “Saddam Hussein is evil. We have to prevent him from continuing to be evil.” But if the means you use are exactly like the ones he has been using, you are exactly like the person you are fighting. Trying to overcome evil with evil is not making peace. 

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When you practice purity, nonviolence, understanding, and mutual acceptance, even if you are persecuted, you have peace in your heart. You are in the Kingdom of Heaven. You know that what you are doing is right and that you are not harming anyone or anything. This teaching is about patience. You have the strength to continue your nonviolent way of securing peace. If people put you in jail, persecute you, or call you names, you can still be happy and peaceful, because you are dwelling in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the Pure Land. Even if you are in prison, even if you are beaten or killed, you will continue to be in the Pure Land. You are at peace with yourself, at peace with the world, and even at peace with those who are persecuting you. This is the most important contribution to life that the followers of Jesus can bring to the world. This is to practice Jesus’ way here, not elsewhere. It means the Kingdom of Heaven has to be realized here. Nowadays people think that the Kingdom of God is somewhere else.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” In this passage, Jesus describes his followers as salt. Food needs salt in order to be tasty. Life needs under­standing, compassion, and harmony in order to be livable.

This teaching is equivalent to the teaching about the sangha. Without a sangha, we cannot do much. Therefore, elements of sangha have to practice being the taste of life, the taste of liberation. You have to practice so that you become salt yourself – practice until you become freedom, understanding, and love. When practicing, if you do not “become salt,” then people cannot make use of you, because you are not real salt. So a true sangha is one that practices the teaching of liberation and becomes free; practices the teachings of understanding and develops understanding; practices compassion and becomes more compassionate. A true sangha contains the Buddha and the dharma. If a community of Christians practice so that they become the salt of life, then they will be a true community of Christians.

In the Buddhist canon, salt is compared to emancipation, liberation. Happiness, in Buddhism, is not possible without liberation. You must be liberated from your own ignorance in order to be really happy. If you want to make other people happy, you must also work to help them liberate themselves from their afflictions and internal formations. 

“Ye are the light of the world.” When you practice meditation, you get wisdom, comprehension, understanding, and that kind of wisdom will shine upon the world. Anyone who feels the light emanating from you will be enlightened and will profit from your understanding. You don’t need to be a saint to emanate tight. You need only to be mindful, and you will begin to send light around you already.

“A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candle­stick; and it giveth light unto all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Each of us is a light for the whole world. Don’t keep the light for yourself. Share it with others. Show yourself. Jesus said, “You have benefited from my teaching. You have to bring this teaching to many people.”

He also said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool,’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”

Jesus did not say that if you are angry with your brother, he will put you in hell. He said that if you are angry with your brother, you risk the danger of being in hell. Because anger is hell. When you get angry, you jump into hell right away. You don’t need someone to put you there. When you commit murder, you are put into jail. But Jesus went one step further: Before you commit murder with your body, you commit murder in your mind. That is jail already. You  don’t need to kill with your body to be put in jail. You need only to kill in your mind and you are already there. This is a wonderful teaching. In Buddhism, we say that among the three kinds of actions—actions by thinking, by speech, and by the body—the first is the most basic.

We know that in the Persian Gulf, many people have been learning and practicing killing in their minds. Iraqi, American, French, British, and many other soldiers, have been practic­ing killing day and night. They know that if they don’t kill, the other person will kill them.

They use sand­ bags to represent the enemy, and holding their bayonets, they run, shout, and plunge their bayonets into the sandbags. They practice killing every day in their hearts and minds. The damage caused by that kind of practice is very great.

mb4-dharma2

I happened to see just a few seconds of that kind of practice. Even if President Bush had not given the order for a land offensive, a lot of damage had already been done in the minds and hearts of one million people in the Gulf. This kind of wound, this kind of damage will last for a long time in the lives of these soldiers, if they are able to survive the war. This kind of wound will be transmitted to their children, and to the children of their children, over a long time. It is very depressing. If you don’t practice killing, and if it happens that you have to kill, the damage in your heart and mind will be much less. But if you train yourself for days and months to kill—”killing” during the day and then dreaming of killing during the night because you have spent so much time concentrating on that—the damage, the wound, is very deep. If you survive, you will go back to your country and bear that kind of scar for a long time. Even if you don’t want to kill, you have to learn to kill and to practice it, every day, in your heart and your mind, This is a tragedy.

We have to tell people about this. Usually they count bodies in order to measure the damage of a war. They do not count this kind of wound in the hearts and minds of people.  But it will last for a long time. If I am killed, my children can “continue” me. You can only kill my body. You cannot kill the things I have transmitted to my children. So the damage is not as great. But if I have learned to kill in my heart and my mind, if I survive, I will transmit that kind of wound, that kind of “internal formation,” to my children and their children. We have to count the wounds in this way and tell people of the long-term damage that war causes to humanity. Soldiers live in hell, every day and every night, even before going to the battlefield.

“Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother has anything against thee; leave there thy gift  before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” This is a practice of loving kindness. You want to make an offering to God, but if, when you are facing the altar and looking at God, you become mindful of the fact that you are in conflict with one of your brothers, you cannot make an offering in that state of being. God will not accept it, and you will not accept it because God is in you. So Jesus said to put down your offering, go back to your brother, and reconcile with him first.

Being mindful, we know when we are in conflict with someone. We know that we have to go to that person in order to reconcile with her or with him. The altar and the offering are not separate. The altar is right where your brother or your sister is. We may have the impression that God and the altar of God are separate. We leave the offering there and go back to our brother or sister. But in the practice of mindfulness, God follows us all the time. When we go back to our brother or our sister, God is with us, and the offering is with us also. By reconciling with our brother, we offer our gift to God at the same time.

You may have the impression that altars are old fash­ioned, but you still have many things you consider to be sacred. For example, the flag of your nation is a kind of altar. On many occasions, you stand up and salute your flag.

In  a way it looks funny, because the flag is only a piece of cloth. But it represents something—a country, a people—and you stand and salute it. In Asia, we have altars for many things, but we do not kill anyone because of them. If we understand the teachings of Jesus, we will not die and kill anyone because of the flag. We will pursue the avenue of reconciliation.

We have learned that all transgressions, all mistakes come from mind; that mind is the ground for all wrongdo­ings. Knowing this, we can go back to the mind and transform the mind and suddenly, the wrongdoings are no longer there. This is “beginning anew.” When we change our thinking and our attitude, our mind is transformed, and we feel as light as a cloud floating in the sky.

Many people think of peace as the absence of war. They think that if the superpowers would agree to reduce their weapons, we would have peace. But according to the teachings of Jesus, and also the teachings of the Buddha, when you look into the weapons, what you see is your mind. If you look deeply into any bomb, you will see fear and ignorance. Even if we were able to transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of the bombs are still in our hearts, and sooner or later, we will make more bombs. It is most important that we take care of the roots of war that reside in our mind. Working for peace means to uproot war in the hearts of men. If we start a war and give the opportunity to one million men and women to practice killing day and night in their hearts, that is not uprooting the roots of war. That is planting more seeds of war—the fear of being killed, the anger, the frustration. Seventy-five percent of the people in America supported the President in the Gulf War, I think even more than that.

This is Jesus’ teaching about revenge: Matthew 5:38: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.”

If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him. When someone wants to borrow something from you, lend it to him. How many Christians practice this?

There is a story about an American soldier who was taking a Japanese prisoner during World War II. While walking together, the American discovered that the Japanese soldier spoke English, and so they spoke to each other. The American soldier learned that the Japanese soldier had been a Christian before he abandoned his faith. So he asked, “Why did you abandon Christianity? It is an excellent religion.” The Japanese man said, “I could not become a soldier and continue to be a Christian. I don’t think a good Christian can become a soldier and kill another person.” He understood this passage of Matthew. There must be ways to solve our conflicts without having to resort to killing. We must focus our attention on this. We have to find ways to help people get out of difficult situations, situations of conflict, without having to kill. 

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

The rain that God made is for good people and for evil people—nondiscrimination. When you pray only for your picnic, and you don’t pray for the farmers who need the rain, you are doing the opposite of what Jesus taught. Jesus said, “Love your enemy, bless them that curse you.” When we contemplate our anger, we try to do that. When someone says or does something that makes us angry, we believe that if we do something to hurt him or her, we will feel relieved. But when we say or do something cruel, the other person suffers more, and he or she will try to say or do something even more awful to us. Here we have an escalation of anger.

When we look deeply into our anger, we can see that the person we call our enemy is suffering also. Because he suffers so much, his suffering spills over onto us and other people. As soon as we see that someone is suffering, we have the capacity of accepting him and having compassion for him. This is what Jesus called “loving your enemy.” Love, here, does not mean attachment. It means to encom­pass the other person with compassion. That is possible when we know that the other person is suffering and needs our compassion, not our anger. When we are able to love our enemy, he is no longer our enemy. The idea of “enemy” vanishes and is replaced by the someone who is suffering a great deal and needs our compassion. Sometimes it is very easy, easier than you may think. What is important is that you practice. If you read the Bible but don’t practice, it doesn’t help much. 

“And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?” Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? You love the people who love you just to profit from friends. It is not love, it is just profit. Sometime we don’t even love the people who love us. If you pay your taxes, the tax collector will smile at you. If you don’t pay the tax, well… And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? You just speak and spend time with the ones you love. You leave out other people. This is not the practice of love. Love here is to make an effort to understand the people that suffer, and go in the direction of these people. It is important to be aware of the suffering in the world.

In a community, we may find two, three, or four friends who are sweet, who bring us a lot of happiness. But if we stay only with these friends and ignore everyone else, that is not practicing love. We have to reach out, with the support of these friends, to the people who are not as sweet. They are not as sweet because they have suffering in them. 

“Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.” “When thou doest alms, let not thy left had know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”

When you give something to a needy person, do not make a big show of it. That would be a practice just for the sake of the form. If you practice for the sake of the form, there is no understanding or compassion, and you will have no transformation. In other words you will have no rewards from your Father in Heaven. Your Father is love and understanding. This is a very important teaching. When you help a needy person, do it in such a way that even your closest friend will not know about it. Then it will be a private matter. And your Father, who sees what you are doing, will reward you. 

“When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” You have to focus your mind our heart on your prayer. Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him. Because you are concentrated in your practice, you are sowing the seeds of wisdom, understanding, and love in your heart. You are planting good seeds in the land of your heart, and you don’t need to ask for anything. Praying is not just asking, praying is giving to yourself and to other people. If you make yourself happy, if you sow good seeds into your mind and heart, you do that not only for yourself but for other people as well. Happiness is not an individual matter. When you can smile, when you can be fresh and loving, not only you, but everyone benefits from it. 

“After this manner therefore pray ye: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Heaven is in our hearts. In the Buddhist teaching, the Pure Land is always present in our hearts. We need only one step to enter the Pure Land, and that step is mindfulness. When mindfulness, love, and understanding are present in your heart, whatever you see or hear belongs to the Pure Land. You can hear the birds and the wind in the willow expound the Dharma. When you pray to God in mindfulness, understanding and compassion arise, and the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven open at once. 

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” In Heaven it is easier to realize God’s will because everyone is mindful. In New York or Paris, it is more difficult. People there suffer a lot. We have to bring the Kingdom of God into our hearts and then shine our lights upon the world. It is easy to pray in order to leave the world and go to paradise. But this is not what Jesus taught. He said to bring the light here and make this world livable, practicing love, forgiveness, and acceptance right here. The message is clear: We can practice God’s will right here on Earth. We do not need to wait until we go to Heaven or anywhere else. 

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Again, Jesus is reminding us to live in the present moment, here and now. He does not say, “Bring us to Heaven quickly. We suffer very much here. Help us to leave the Earth as quickly as possible.” He says give us today the food we need.

Nature, water, air, and soil are the source of our life. They give us our daily food, but we are destroying these resources. It means we are destroying God. How can we continue to pray like this, “Give us this day our daily bread,” when we are destroying the source of our own food? A theology of the environment should be taught in order to protect God, to protect man, to protect other living beings. Man is just one species among many. Without the presence of other species, man cannot be. Man is made by “non-man elements,” such as trees, water, soil, and sunlight. If we destroy the non-man elements, how can humans continue to survive? We are asking God for food, even as we are destroying God, the source, the ground of our being. 

“And forgive us our trespasses. as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Everyone can make mistakes. If we are mindful, we see that some of our actions in the past have made others suffer, and some actions of others have made us suffer. We want to be forgiving. We want to begin anew. “You my brother, you my sister have done me wrong in the past. I know that it is because you suffer, you did not see clearly. I understand that and I don’t have anger toward you anymore.” That is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the fruit of awareness. When you are mindful you can see all the causes that have led that person to make you suffer. If you see these causes, then forgiveness and release arise naturally. It is impossible to force yourself to forgive. It is only when you understand what has happened that you have compassion for the other person and you can forgive.

I think that if President Bush had more understanding of the mind of President Hussein, peace could have been obtained. President Gorbachev tried. He made a number of proposals that could have been acceptable to the allies. Many lives could have been saved. But because anger was there, President Hussein gave the order to burn the oil wells in Kuwait, and hundreds of wells are in flames, creating a huge amount of smoke all over the region. President Bush saw that, and he became angry. In an atmosphere of anger and distrust, he had to reject the Soviet Union’s proposal. But if he could see more clearly the suffering of the people of Iraq, he would not let his anger be expressed by starting a ground war. He asked the American people to pray for the allied soldiers. He asked God to bless the United States of America. He did not say that we should pray for the civilians in Iraq or even the people of Kuwait. He wanted God to be on the side of America.

mb4-dharma3

Who is President Bush? President Bush is us. We are responsible for the way he feels, for everything he does. Polls show that seventy, eighty percent of the people in America supported President Bush. Why blame him? Our degree of understanding, our degree of love, our capacity to understand and to love is so poor, so limited. We have not looked deeply enough, we have not brought our lamp high enough. We are not engaged enough in our effort to practice peace and to bring peace to the hearts of people. When I look at the way we prepare for war and practice killing day and night in our hearts and minds, I feel overwhelmed.

What people have been practicing in the sands of Saudi Arabia is fear. Aware that they may be killed, they have to practice day and night to prepare to kill, and also to prepare to die. They have to accept the killing and their death. There is no alternative. Practicing for six months like that, how many internal formations have been created? What have their minds become? When they go back to their country, what will their wives, their children, their brothers and sisters receive from them? The American society will receive all the seeds of affliction of the war. We cannot imagine the long-term effects.

In tradition of Christianity, we find the guidance we need for exactly this kind of situation. But what have we made of Christianity? Are we listening to Jesus? How can we help Jesus reveal himself again? These are a few of the questions I have when I read the Gospels. 

Based on a lecture given by Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France, on February 24, 1991, the day the land invasion of Iraq began. It will be included in a book of essays on nonviolent social action by Thich Nhat Hanh, to be published by Parallax Press later this year.

PDF of this article

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