happiness

Dharma Talk: True Transmission

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Thich Nhat Hanh, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

True Transmission

Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery

August 22, 2001

You have to organize your daily life so that it will express the Fourth Noble Truth: showing the path, teaching the living Dharma with your own life. 

There is a lot of Dharma talk in the air, and there is a lot of air in the Dharma talk. Today is the 22nd of August 2001 in the Deer Park Monastery.

There is a sutra with the title Yasoja—that’s the name of a monk, the Sangha leader. This sutra is found in the collection called Udāna, Inspired Sayings.

Yasoja was a Sangha leader of a community of about five hundred monks. One day, he led the monks to the place where the Buddha lived, hoping they could join the three-month retreat with the Buddha. Ten days before the retreat began, they arrived very joyfully, anticipating seeing the Buddha and all the other monks. There were a lot of greetings, a lot of talking, and from his hut the Buddha heard a great noise.

He asked Ananda, “What is that noise? It sounds like fishermen landing a catch of fish.”

Ananda told him the Venerable Yasoja had arrived with five hundred monks and they were all talking with the resident monks.

The Buddha said, “Ask them to come.”

When the monks came, they touched the earth before the Buddha and sat down. The Buddha said, “You go away, you cannot stay with me. You are too noisy. I dismiss you.”

So the five hundred monks touched the earth, walked around the Buddha, and left the monastery of Jeta Park. They went to the kingdom of Vajji, on the east side of Kosala, which took them many days to reach. When they arrived on the bank of the River Vaggamuda, they built small huts, sat down, and began the Rain Retreat.

During the ceremony opening the retreat, Venerable Yasoja said, “The Buddha sent us away out of compassion. You should know that he is expecting us to practice deeply, successfully. That is why he sent us away. It was an expression of his deep love.”

All the monks were able to see that. They agreed that they should practice very seriously during the Rain Retreat to show the Buddha that they were worthy to be his disciples. So they dwelled very deeply, very ardently, very solidly. After only three months of retreat, the majority of them had realized the three enlightenments, the three kinds of achievement. The first is about remembering all their past lives. The second is to realize the truth of impermanence, to see clearly how the lives of all beings come and after a time they go. The third realization is that they have ended the basic afflictions in themselves: craving, anger, and ignorance.

One day after the Rain Retreat, the Buddha told Ananda, “When I looked into the east I noticed some energy of light, of goodness. And when I used my concentration, I saw that the five hundred monks that I sent away have achieved something quite deep.”

Ananda said, “That is true, Lord, I have heard about them. Having been dismissed by the Buddha, they sat down in the Vajji territory and began serious practice, and they all have realized the three realizations.”

Buddha said, “That’s good. Why don’t we invite them to come over for a visit?”

Teacher-Disciple Relationship

When the five hundred monks heard the invitation of the Buddha, they were very happy to visit him. After many days of traveling, they came at about seven o’clock in the evening and they saw the Buddha sitting quietly, in a state of concentration called imperturbability. In this state you are not perturbed by anything; you are very free, very solid. Nothing can shake you, including fame, craving, hatred, or even hope.

When the monks realized that the Buddha was in the state of imperturbability, they said, “The Lord is sitting in that state of being, so why don’t we sit like him?”

So they all sat down, very beautifully, very deeply, very solidly. All of them penetrated the state of imperturbability and sat like Buddha. They sat for a long time.

When the night had advanced and the first watch had finished, the Venerable Ananda came to the Lord, knelt down, and said, “Lord, it is already very late in the night. Why don’t you address the monks?”

The Lord did not say anything. They continued to sit until the second watch of the night had gone by. About two or three o’clock in the morning, Ananda came, knelt down, and said, “Lord, the night has gone very far. It is now the end of the second watch. Please address the five hundred monks.”

Calligraphy exhibit in Bangkok, Thailand, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Calligraphy exhibit in Bangkok, Thailand, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

But the Buddha kept silent and continued to sit. All the monks continued to sit also. 

Finally, the third watch of the night was over, and the sun began to appear on the horizon. Ananda came for the third time, and kneeling in front of the Buddha, said, “Great teacher, now that the night is over, why don’t you address the monks?”

The Buddha opened his eyes and looked at Ananda. He said, “Ananda, you did not know what was going on and that is why you have come and asked me three times. I was sitting in a state of imperturbability, and all the monks also sat in that state of being, not disturbed by anything at all. We don’t need any greetings. We don’t need any talk. This is the most beautiful thing that can happen between teacher and student. We just sit, dwelling in a state of peace and solidity and freedom.” 

I find that sutra very, very beautiful. The communication between teacher and disciple is perfect. A student should expect nothing less than the freedom of the teacher. The teacher should be free from craving, free from fear, free from despair. When you come to the temple you should not expect from your teacher anything less than that. You should not expect small things, like having a cup of tea with the teacher or having him praise you. These kinds of things are nothing at all. 

You should expect much more than that. If your teacher has enough freedom, enough peace, enough insight, then that will satisfy you entirely. If he does not have any solidity, any freedom, then you should not accept him or her as your teacher because you’ll get nothing from him or her. 

What do you expect from a Dharma teacher or a big brother or sister in the Dharma? What do you expect from your students? You should not expect small things. You should not expect him or her to bring you a cup of tea, a good meal, a cake, some words of praise. These things are nothing at all. You should expect from your students their transformation, their healing, their freedom. 

When teacher and students are like that, they are in a state of perfect communication. They don’t have to say anything to each other. They don’t have to do much. They just sit with each other in a state of solidity and imperturbability. That is the most beautiful thing concerning a teacher-student relationship. 

I find this sutra very, very beautiful.

When a student practices well, he or she can see the teacher in himself, in herself. And when a teacher practices well, he can see himself in the student. They should not expect less than that. If you always see the teacher as someone outside of you, you have not profited much from your teacher. You have to begin to see that your teacher is in you in every moment. If you fail to see that, your practice has not gone well at all. And as the teacher, if you don’t see yourself in the students, your teaching has not gone very far. 

True Transmission

When I look into a person, a disciple, whether she is a monastic or a layperson, I would like to see in her that my teaching has only one aim: to transmit my insight, my freedom, my joy to my disciples. If I look at him and I see these elements in his eyes, I am very glad. I feel that I have done well in transmitting the best that is in me. Looking at his way of walking, of smiling, of greeting, of moving about, I can see whether my teaching has been fruitful or not. That is what is called “transmission.” 

Transmission isn’t organized by a ceremony with a lot of incense and chanting. Transmission is done every day in a very simple way. If the teacher-student relationship is good, then transmission is realized in every moment of our daily life. You don’t feel far away from your teacher. You feel that he or she is always with you because the teacher outside has become the teacher inside. You know how to look with the eyes of your teacher. You know how to walk with the feet of your teacher. Your teacher has never been away from you. This is not something abstract; we can see this ourselves. When you look at a monk or a nun or a lay disciple and you see Thay in him, you know that he is a real disciple of Thay. And if you don’t see that, you might say that this is a newly arrived person, he has not got any Thay within himself. That is seen very clearly. 

When we look into ourselves, we can see whether our way of walking or smiling or thinking has that element of freedom, of joy, of compassion. If we see it, then we know that Thay has been taken into ourselves; we are a true continuation of our teacher. You don’t need another person to tell you; you can see it for yourself. And when you look at your fellow students, you can see it as well, if the teacher-student relationship is good. If it is good, that transmission is being done in every moment of our daily life. 

Every time we take a step, we know for ourselves whether that step has peace, joy, solidity, or not. You don’t need your teacher to tell you. You know whether your step is a real step, containing solidity and freedom. If your step does not have freedom, you know it doesn’t. If your step does not have the element of solidity, you know it doesn’t. It’s not hard; it’s so obvious. 

[Thay holds up an empty glass.]

Your step is like the glass. It can be empty and then maybe some juice or some tea goes in. 

[He pours tea into the glass.]

If there is some tea in the cup, it is obvious. With the tea in the cup, you can drink and enjoy it.

[Thay sips the tea. He draws a row of circles indicating steps on the whiteboard.]

Suppose I make a step here, a step here, a step here. My practice is to fill each step with the elements of solidity and peace, because I know that each step like that is highly nourishing and healing. When I make a step, I say, “I have arrived, I am home.” There is the element of arrival here, and you know whether you have arrived or not. 

We have been running all our lives. We do not know how to enjoy every step we make. Now that we have become a student of the Buddha, we want to make real steps. Every step should be full of the element of arrival, full of the element of here and now, full of the elements of stability, solidity, and freedom. 

In the time of the Buddha, there were no airplanes, there were no buses, there were no cars. The Sangha just walked from one country to another. They spent time in many countries, and yet they only walked. With their way of walking, they were able to enjoy every step. The Buddha was a monk, and many of his disciples were monks. They were traveling monks, walking from one place to another. They only stopped traveling during the three-month retreat, so they had plenty of chances to practice walking meditation. Wherever they went, they inspired people because of their way of walking and sitting. 

Walking is a kind of sitting. You can arrive fully when you walk, just like when you sit. You are not in a hurry; you are not looking for something outside yourself. You know that everything you are looking for is in the here and the now. That is why every step you make helps you to arrive in the here and now. That is why the teaching and the practice of arrival is so wonderful, so marvelous. 

Our society is characterized by running. Everyone is running to the future. You want to assure a good future, and since you see other people around you running, you cannot resist running too.

We participate in creating suffering, both collective suffering and individual suffering, when we are constantly running. That is why it is very important to learn how to stop. 

We do not have peace; we are not capable of being in the here and the now and touching life deeply. Running like that, we hope to arrive. But running has become a habit, and we are not able to arrive any more. Our whole life is for running. 

In this teaching and in this practice, the point of arrival is not somewhere else. The point of arrival is in every minute, in every second. Life is like that. Life is a kind of walk. [Thay taps each circle on the board.] Life can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, making a step. Here, here, here. We continue like this. So life can be found in a step and in the space between steps. If we expect to see life outside of these steps and the space between steps, we don’t have life. The great majority of people are running, and that is why the practice of arrival is so important. It’s a drastic kind of medicine to heal our society and ourselves, because we carry, in each of us, the whole of society. The whole of society is running, and therefore we are running. So awakening can bring the desire to resist, to stop.

The Three Doors of Liberation

The teaching of the three doors of liberation is crucial. The door of emptiness, the door of signlessness, and the door of aimlessness. Aimlessness means that you are not running anymore because you already are what you want to become. What you are searching for is already there in the here and the now. 

Your peace, your happiness, your solidity, your freedom are available in every step. Aimlessness means you should stop, you should not run anymore. If you think of getting peace and freedom, peace and freedom are right here, right now. The belief that peace and freedom are somewhere else is an error. That is why every step you take should be able to bring you to the place where freedom and solidity exist. Freedom and solidity are the grounds of true happiness. Without solidity, no happiness is possible; without freedom, no happiness is possible. That’s why every step can generate stability, solidity. Every step can generate the energy of freedom. If you practice walking correctly, then the energy of freedom and solidity can be generated in every step. Happiness is right there, in every step. 

Another person watching you walk is able to see whether your steps have the elements of solidity and freedom. But you don’t need him to tell you; you know very well whether the step you take has the elements of solidity and freedom. You are walking but you have already arrived with every step, and walking like that is your daily practice. Arrival is achieved in every step. It would be nice to send Thay a postcard with the inscription, “Thay, I have arrived.” It will make him happy. “I have arrived, I don’t run anymore.” 

The habit of running has become very strong. It is a collective habit, a collective energy. Mentally, you find it normal to run. But it’s not normal, because if you continue to run like that, happiness will not be possible, peace will not be possible. We participate in creating suffering, both collective suffering and individual suffering, when we are constantly running. That is why it is very important to learn how to stop. 

Freedom from Afflictions

The Buddha and his monks did not have a lot to consume. They did not have a bank account. They did not own big buildings and houses. Each monk was supposed to have only three robes, one begging bowl, and one water filter, which they carried with them. The monks and the nuns of our time try their best to follow this example.

If you want to become a monk or a nun, you should know that a monk or a nun should not have a personal bank account. No one in the Deer Park Monastery has a personal bank account. No one has a personal car. Even the robes we wear do not belong to us—they belong to the Sangha. 

If you need a robe, your Sangha will provide you with one, but that does not mean that it becomes your robe. It remains a robe of the Sangha. Even your body is not your personal property. When you become a monk or a nun, your body doesn’t belong to you as personal property. You have to take care of your body because it is part of the Sangha body. Other monks and nuns have to help take care of your body, and you have to allow them to take care of you. They can intervene in the way you eat and drink, because your body does not belong to you, it belongs to the whole Sangha—the Sangha body, Sanghakaya. You don’t own anything at all, including your body, and yet happiness is possible, freedom is possible. Happiness and freedom are easier if you don’t own many things. Usually if you don’t own anything, you are very afraid, you don’t feel any security. But the practice of a monastic goes in the opposite direction. What guarantees your well-being is not possessions but the giving away of all possessions. 

I remember when Sister Thuc Nghiem, Sister Susan, became a nun, along with others. They took everything from their pockets and they gave it to Thay, everything from coins worth thirty-five cents to the key to their car. They gave everything to Thay. To become a nun or a monk, you should give up everything. You have to donate everything before you can be accepted as an ordained novice. You are advised not to donate it to the temple where you are going to become a monk or a nun. You have to donate it to some other organization, not the temple you accept as your home.

One day Thay gave an exercise to all the monks and nuns: “Tell me of your daily happiness. List your daily happiness on a piece of paper.” Many of them filled up more than two pages. Among the things Sister Susan wrote down was, “My happiness is that I do not have any money anymore, even one cent.” That is true. Before she became a nun, she had a very big sum of money, but she did not have peace. She did not have happiness. But after becoming penniless, she got a lot of liberty, a lot of freedom, and that is the foundation of happiness. That is why she wrote down, “My happiness is that I do not have any money anymore.” That is what she really felt. 

Many people believe that practicing as a monk is the hardest, but that is not the case. It is easy to practice as a monk or a nun. You have entrusted yourself entirely to the Sangha. You don’t have to worry about anything: food, shelter, medicine, transportation. Everyone around you is practicing walking mindfully, enjoying every step, so it would be strange if you didn’t do the same. You are naturally transported by the boat of the Sangha. Even if you don’t want to, you go anyway, in the direction of peace and freedom! You have left behind your family—your father, your mother, your friends, your job—to become a monk or a nun. Your purpose is to be free because you know that true happiness is not possible without freedom. You aspire deeply to freedom, and freedom here means freedom from afflictions. 

Of course, political freedom is enjoyable, but if you are not free from your afflictions, then political freedom does not mean anything. You are a refugee and do not have that piece of paper that allows you to go anywhere you want. The deepest desire of people is to have a piece of paper called an identity card or passport. There are those of us who waited ten, twenty, thirty years, and still didn’t get that piece of paper. They believe that when they get that piece of paper they can become free, and they can go anywhere they want. But there are also those of us who have that passport, that piece of paper, but don’t feel any happiness, and many have even committed suicide. 

Political freedom is enjoyable, but if you are not free from your afflictions—namely craving, despair, jealousy—suffering is still there within you and around you. That is why the purpose of the practice is to get free, so the Kingdom of God is available to you, so true life is possible for you in the here and the now.

We have the impression, very clear sometimes, that the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha and all its marvels are very close. In fact, everything in us and around us is a miracle. Your eyes are a miracle, your heart is a miracle, your body is a miracle, the orange you are eating is a miracle, the cloud floating in the sky is a miracle. If they do not belong to the Kingdom of God, then to what do they belong? In our busy lives we sometimes have the clear impression that the Kingdom is there, available, but since we are running all the time, thinking we do not have freedom, we cannot get into it; it is not available to us. 

I always say the Kingdom of God is available to you, but you are not available to the Kingdom. That is why we learn to breathe and to walk in such a way that we become a free person. That is the meaning of all the practice. 

To practice is not to become a Dharma teacher. A Dharma teacher is nothing at all. It does not mean to become a Sangha leader. Being a Sangha leader does not mean anything at all. What is the use of being the head of a big temple if you continue to suffer deeply? The purpose of practice is to become free, and with your freedom, happiness is possible. When you have freedom and happiness, you can help so many people. You have something to share, you have something to offer to them. 

You don’t share what you have accumulated from your Buddhist studies, because even professors of Buddhist studies may suffer deeply if their Buddhist studies haven’t helped them. Buddhist studies may be helpful, but what you need is not really Buddhist studies; what you need is freedom. 

So our happiness is the accumulation of peace. What we study, the authority we get in the Sangha or in society, the fame we get, are things that people are looking for in society. Many of them get plenty of these things, but they aren’t truly happy. Many of them commit suicide. Our way should be different. Our way is the way of freedom. 

Is it possible to be free? Looking into the person of a practitioner, whether that is a Dharma brother, a Dharma sister, or your teacher, you can see how much freedom and happiness she has. You would like to have true Dharma brothers and sisters. Sitting close to them and living close to them, you profit from their happiness and freedom, because their happiness is based on their freedom and not on anything else, like fame, authority, or power. What we profit from in a Sangha is the opportunity to do what the other people are doing—namely sitting, walking, smiling, breathing. In arriving, all are having freedom. 

The Brown Jacket: An Opportunity to Practice

What is the meaning of wearing a brown jacket? It is not to say that I am an ordained member of the Order. That’s nothing. It’s like the value of a student identity card. You got into a famous university, and it has given you an identity card. But if you don’t study, what is the use of having the identity card? Having the ID is so you can make use of the library, go to classes, and have professors. It means to study. So when you get the ordination, when you receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, when you get a jacket, that is the identity card, and that allows you to profit from the Sangha, from the teaching, from the practice. 

Picnic lunch during the 21-Day Retreat, Son Ha, Plum Village, 2018, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

Picnic lunch during the 21-Day Retreat, Son Ha, Plum Village, 2018, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

There are Dharma centers, there are monasteries, there are teachers, there are Dharma brothers and sisters who practice. Our being a member of the OI helps us to profit from all these things in order to advance on our path of freedom. As we have freedom, we can begin to make people around us happy. We know that practicing without a Sangha is difficult. That is why we try our best to set up a Sangha where we live. To be an OI member is wonderful. To be a Dharma teacher is wonderful—not because we have the title of OI membership or the title of Dharma teacher, but because we have a chance to practice. 

As an OI member, you have to organize the practice. Wherever you are, it’s your duty to set up a group of people practicing; otherwise it does not mean anything to be an OI member. An OI member is expected to organize the practice in her or his area—a group of five people, six people, ten people, twenty people—and to practice reliably on a local level and sometimes on a national level. So the advantage is that having a Sangha, you have to take care of the Sangha, and the Sangha is what supports you in your practice. Thanks to the Sangha, you have to practice. The Sangha is there to support you in your practice. So building the Sangha means building yourself. If the Sangha is there, you practice with the Sangha. So a Sangha builder can benefit. She has an opportunity to practice. 

Being a Dharma teacher is also an opportunity, because as you teach, you cannot not practice! As you teach, you have to practice in order for your teaching to have content. How can you open your mouth and give a teaching if you don’t do it? Teaching is an opportunity. Even if you are not an excellent teacher yet, being a Dharma teacher helps very much, because when you open your mouth and begin to share the Dharma, you have to practice what you are sharing. Otherwise it would look strange. It’s like a monk living with other monks, all doing walking meditation; it would look strange if that monk did not practice. Being a Sangha builder, you get the opportunity to practice; being a Dharma teacher, you get the opportunity to practice. 

Every member of the Sangha can be a favorable condition to you, whether that member is good in the practice or not so good in the practice. Each inspires you to practice. So being a Sangha builder, being an OI member, being a Dharma teacher, is a very good thing, if you know what it means. 

It would be strange if we got the precepts, the transmission, and got a jacket, but we didn’t have a Sangha to practice with. It would be exactly like getting a student ID and not going to the library or to the classes. So Sangha building is what we do, and Sangha building is the practice. Sangha building means to help each element of the Sangha to practice. You are like a gardener; you take care of every member of the Sangha. There are members who are so easy to be with and to deal with, and there are members who are so difficult to be with and to deal with. And yet, as a Sangha builder, you have to help everyone. There are members of the Sangha you can enjoy deeply. They’re so pleasant to be with. There are other members of the Sangha with whom you have to be very patient. 

Please don’t believe that every monastic or layperson in Plum Village is equally easy for Thay! That’s not the case. There are monastics who are very easy to be with and to help, but there are monastics who are so difficult. As a teacher, you may have to spend more time and energy with those who are so difficult. You may want to say no to these elements, but you need to surrender. You cannot grow into a good practitioner, you cannot grow into a good Dharma teacher, if you only want the easy things. 

Before she became a nun, she had a very big sum of money, but she did not have peace. She did not have happiness. 

In a Sangha, it is normal to have difficult people. These difficult people are a good thing for you. They will test your capacity of Sangha building and practicing. One day you’ll be able to smile and you won’t suffer at all when that person says something not very nice to you. Your compassion has been born, and you are capable of embracing him or her within your compassion and your understanding. And you know that your practice has grown. You should be delighted when you see that what they say or do does not make you angry or upset anymore, because you have developed enough compassion and understanding. That is why we should not be tempted to eliminate the elements we think to be difficult in our Sangha.

Sangha building needs a lot of love and compassion. If you know how to handle difficult moments, you will grow as a Sangha builder, as a Dharma teacher. Thay is speaking to you out of his experience. He now has a lot more patience and compassion. His happiness has grown much greater because he has more patience and compassion. You should believe Thay in these respects. We suffer because our understanding and compassion aren’t large enough to embrace difficult people. But with the practice, your heart will grow, your understanding and compassion will grow, and you will not suffer any more. You have a lot of space, and you can give people space and time to transform. Thanks to the Sangha practicing, thanks to your model of practice, they will grow, they will transform. The transformation of difficult people is a greater success than for only pleasant, easy people. 

Love is not only enjoyment. We enjoy the presence of pleasant people, lovely people, but love is not just that. Love is a practice. Love is the practice of generating more understanding and compassion. That practice generates true love. Please always remember that love is not just a matter of enjoyment. Love is a practice. And it is that aspect of love that can bring you growth and happiness, the greatest happiness. 

There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. Remember! Happiness and success should be found in every moment of your daily life and not at the end of the road. The end of the road is the stopping. Life is now, in every minute, every second. Happiness, joy, peace should be every moment. Peace is every step. Happiness is every step. It’s so clear, it’s so plain, it’s so simple. 

Four Levels of Sangha Practice

[Thay writes on the board.]

Suppose I draw a circle representing my root Sangha, where I have gotten my ordination in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, where I have gotten a teacher and many Dharma brothers and sisters. I’m born from that place. The root Sangha is my spiritual birthplace, and every time I think of it I should feel joy, pure joy, and hope. That is a lovely place, that is my birthplace. I have so many brothers and sisters living there. I have many teachers living there. When I think of it I feel inspired, I feel happiness. All of us should have such a place, and we carry that place with us everywhere we go. That place is situated not just in space; it is within us. Those of us who do not carry such a place in our hearts do not have enough happiness. It’s a pleasure to go back to the root Sangha and to be there. I have my function, my role in society, but I hold my root Sangha within my heart, a source of inspiration, a source of energy for me, and around me I build a local Sangha.

I’m aware that although it is my local Sangha, it will be the root Sangha of many other people. Whether it is in Chicago, in Buffalo, in Montreal, my local Sangha will become the root Sangha for friends who come. So the root Sangha is not out there; the seed of the root Sangha in me will help make this local Sangha into a root Sangha. I am a member of the OI. I have to make it into a home for several of my friends who constitute my Sangha here. And my Sangha here reflects the image of the root Sangha there. 

In my Sangha, people know how to enjoy every step, every breath. They know how to take care of each other. They know that the purpose of the practice is to get freedom and nothing else. I build my Sangha out of love, out of my deepest desire. That is the path I undertake, the path of freedom. I devote my time, my energy to building a Sangha of brotherhood. If brotherhood is not there, happiness is not possible. The mark of an authentic Sangha is brotherhood of those who come to the Sangha because they want to have brothers and sisters in the practice of freedom. If the practice is correct, then brotherhood will grow and sustain us. Even in difficult moments, brotherhood is always there to sustain us, to help us stand firm in our practice. 

Remember! Happiness and success should be found in every moment of your daily life and not at the end of the road. The end of the road is the stopping. Life is now, in every minute, every second.

We know that nearby there is another local Sangha, with an OI member who is doing exactly what we are doing. So weekly, we practice with our local Sangha. We organize local events such as Days of Mindfulness, short retreats, Dharma discussions, tea meditation, and walking meditation. From time to time we invite other local Sanghas to join us and create a regional activity. We combine our talents and our experience with other OI members and Sangha builders to create the regional event. Everyone can contribute, and everyone can learn a lot from activities on the regional level. 

illustration by Felicia Spahr

illustration by Felicia Spahr

Then from time to time we organize activities on a national level. You might organize at a Dharma center like Deer Park or Blue Cliff to hold national activities. And finally, there will be activities on an international level, where we meet with practitioners from all over the world. Together we share our practice and learn from one another. 

So there are four levels of practice: local, regional, national, and international. Happiness should be possible on the local level, in our daily practice. 

The Living Dharma

We recognize the suffering that is going on around us and inside of us. Our practice is not to get away from our real problems, our real difficulties, our real suffering. The practice, according to the path shown by the Buddha, is to recognize suffering as it is, to call it by its true name, and to practice in such a way that we can identify the deep causes of suffering. The division in families, the violence in school and in society—all these things have to be confronted directly with our mindfulness in order for us to see deeply the nature of suffering, of how the suffering has been made. 

Ill-being, that is the First Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is the making of ill-being. This understanding of the making of ill-being should be very clear. We have to consider every cause that has led to suffering, such as alcoholism and drugs, AIDS, violence, the coming apart of families. We have to look deeply into the nature of ill-being to see their causes. We have to call these by their true names. 

Understanding the nature of suffering is the practice, the Second Noble Truth. When understanding of the Second Noble Truth is deep, then naturally the path will emerge: the Fourth Noble Truth, the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. It means the birth of well-being. So with the understanding of the nature of ill-being, the path leading to the cessation of ill-being becomes apparent. The Third Noble Truth is just the cessation of ill-being. 

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. It has been repeated and repeated that once the Second Noble Truth is understood, then the Fourth Noble Truth will reveal itself. That is the true Dharma. The true Dharma should be embodied by the practitioner, by the Sangha leader, by the OI member. You have to organize your daily life so that it will express the Fourth Noble Truth: showing the path, teaching the living Dharma with your own life. 

It is great happiness when someone in the Sangha embodies the living Dharma. Your Sangha may be five people, ten people, twenty people, fifty people. If there is one of you who embodies the path, the living Dharma, that’s wonderful. And everyone can look to him or her as a model for practice. Very soon the Sangha will carry the Dharma within herself. The Sangha will embody the Dharma. That is when the Sangha becomes the most convincing element, because it is a true Sangha, a living Sangha. The Buddha and the Dharma are contained in it, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. 

If you are a Sangha builder, be sure that in your Sangha there are those who can embody the living Dharma. They live in such a way that makes the Dharma apparent—the Dharma not only in cassette tapes, books, and Dharma talks, but the Dharma in the way you live your daily life. 

Training OI members does not mean to acquire a lot of Buddhist studies, although Buddhist studies are very helpful. But we want something more. When Sister Annabel offers training for OI members, she doesn’t just offer Dharma talks. Everyone participates in walking, in sitting, and in other practices. This method presents more than a set of theories; it presents the living Dharma. 

After having practiced for one year, a person might like to ask for ordination and become a member of the core community. But if during that period, she or he has had no chance to train, then the ordination ceremony is not possible, because the ordination ceremony is offered based on the training and not on the desire of someone to become a member of the core community alone. The desire is good, but it’s not enough; there needs to be training. If you are a member of the core community, it is your task to train people in your local Sangha so that they know the practice, know what the true Dharma is, and know how to apply the Dharma in their family life, in the workplace, in social life. The Dharma should be their way of life, the art of mindful living. 

Many of you may come together to discuss how to organize a regional event of seven to ten days, so OI members and aspirants for ordination can be trained. You might ask two or three sisters from the root Sangha to come and help you, or you might ask a lay Dharma teacher.

Of course, on the national level the root Sangha will be involved. There should be documents and materials for training. But the training should be done in concrete terms, so that transformation and healing is possible. In six-day retreats, we see a lot of people transform, like the one we had at the University of Massachusetts. Eight hundred and fifty people came for a retreat of six days. The quality of the retreat was very high, and people enjoyed it so much. Many reports of transformation came each day. Reconciliation was made among members of families, even with people who were not present, through telephone calls. If you have been in a retreat, you know that the presence of those of us who have a solid practice is very helpful to retreatants. 

In the retreat at the University of Massachusetts we had seventy monastics, many OI members, and many experienced practitioners. There were so many new people who had come to a retreat for the first time. They arrived and joined the practitioners very naturally, like a small stream of water joining a big river. The sisters and brothers who attended the retreat shared many stories of transformation. That made us very happy, because the retreat helped so many people, including many young people. 

I remember one day I invited all the children to sit on my right, around one hundred of them, from little children to teenagers. And on my left I invited all the schoolteachers to come, one hundred of them. I asked them to talk to each other about their sufferings and their expectations. It was so wonderful. 

Many people cried during the retreat because they listened to their own suffering and they learned the practical way out of suffering. They got a lot of energy because many of the good seeds inside themselves were watered. All of them wished the retreat would last longer. 

At the regional level, we get the training not only in how to help other people, but also in how to help ourselves. At the end of a retreat we should come out as a stronger practitioner, a stronger Sangha builder, a stronger and more skillful Dharma teacher. This should be organized regularly. 

Please do use your intelligence and your power of organization because Sangha building is the most noble task. The way out is Sangha. The most precious thing we can offer to our society is Sangha. Everyone has to learn to be a Sangha builder. There are many monks and nuns and laypeople who are excellent Dharma teachers. They can teach Buddhist studies very well in Vietnam and in other countries, but not many have the skill of Sangha building. 

My expectation, my desire is that every OI member will learn the art of Sangha building, because Sangha building will bring you a lot of happiness. Sangha is desperately needed in our society, a place where people can come and feel embraced and understood, and learn to see the path of emancipation. A true Sangha is what we need, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the Buddha and the living Dharma. It is the living Dharma that makes the Sangha into a true Sangha, a real refuge for us and for our society. 

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Barbara Casey.

Dharma Talk: Free from Notions

The Diamond Sutra By Thich Nhat Hanh

Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall Deer Park Monastery Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh

Right view is the foundation of the Noble Eightfold Path presented by the Buddha. Right view helps us to think correctly. It helps us to say things correctly, and to do things correctly, so we don’t create suffering and despair for ourselves and for others. When we practice mindfulness, we produce thoughts in alignment with right thinking, full of understanding and compassion. Then we only create happiness; we do not create suffering. With the practice of right speech, we say things that move us in the direction of understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. With the practice of right action, our physical action will only protect, save, help, and rescue. That is why the practice of mindfulness based on right view can help heal ourselves and help heal the world. We can start right away if we have a friend or a community of practice supporting us.

mb59-dharma1-2

We have to cultivate right view. If you listen to a Dharma talk or read a book, you’ll get some ideas about right view. But right view is something you experience directly, not through concepts and ideas. Right view is the kind of insight, the kind of under-standing, that can transcend the notion of being and non-being. It is not easy to understand.

When we speak of the birth of something, the creation of something, we are already caught in the notion of being and non-being. To be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. And to die means from the realm of being you pass into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. That’s how we think, but that is not right thinking.

So if you are caught in the notion of being and non-being, you are caught also in the notion of birth and death. When you observe reality as it is, you can touch the truth that reality is free from the notion of birth and death, being and non-being.

Can we speak about the birth of a cloud? According to our thinking, to be born means from nothing you become something. But looking deeply, you know the cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from the water in the ocean, the heat gener­ated by the sun, many things like that. So it is very clear that our cloud has not come from the realm of non-being.

The moment you see the cloud, that is a new manifestation. Before that, it was there in another form. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth. The cloud has never been born. It has not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being.

When you look up into the sky and you do not see your be­loved cloud anymore, you think your cloud has died, has passed from the realm of being into non-being, and you cry. But the fact is that your cloud has not died. It is impossible for a cloud to die. A cloud can become rain or snow or ice, but it is impossible for a cloud to become nothing. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. And the same thing is true of everything else, including ourselves, including our grandfather, our great-grandmother. They have not passed into the realm of non-being. If we look deeply, we can still see them around very close, in their new manifestations.

[Thay pours a cup of tea.] I’m pouring my cloud into the glass mindfully. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness, you can see the cloud in the tea. Your cloud has not died; it has just become the tea. The tea is the continuation of the cloud. When you drink your tea mindfully, you know that you are drinking your cloud. You already have a lot of cloud inside. This is only another cloud coming in to nourish you.

You are like a cloud. Your nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Being afraid of dying is not right thinking, because nothing can pass from being into non-being. Nothing can pass from non-being into being. If you cannot see the cloud in this tea, you have not really seen the tea. Mindfulness and concentration bring insight, which allows you to look at the tea and see the cloud.

In the Diamond Sutra, a very famous sutra in the Zen tradi­tion, we learn that there are four notions that you have to remove if you don’t want to suffer. These four notions are the crown of discrimination and fear and hate.

Tmb59-dharma1-3he Notion of Self

First is the notion of self. You separate reality into two parts. You distinguish between self and non-self. One part is yourself, the other part is the non-self. But looking into what we call a self, we see only non-self elements.

As a practitioner of mindfulness, you look deeply into this flower and you see that it is made only of non-flower elements. There’s a cloud inside also, because if there’s no cloud, there’s no rain and no flower can grow. So you don’t see the form of a cloud, but the cloud is there. And that is the practice of what we call signlessness. You don’t need a sign, a certain form of appear­ance in order to see it. There’s the sunshine inside. We know that if there is no sunshine, no flower can grow. There is the topsoil inside. Many things are inside: light, minerals, the gardener. It seems that everything in the cosmos has come together to help produce this flower. If we have enough concentration we can see that the whole cosmos is in the flower, that one is made by the all. We can say that the flower is made only of non-flower elements. If we return the cloud to the sky, return the light to the sun, the soil to the earth, there is no flower left. So it’s very clear that a flower is made only of non-flower elements.

What we call “me,” “myself,” is like that, too. We are also a flower. Each of us is a flower in the garden of humanity, and each flower is beautiful. But we have to look into ourselves and recognize the fact that we are made only of non-us elements. If we remove all the non-us elements, we cannot continue. We are made of parents, teachers, food, culture, everything. If we remove all of that, there is no us left.

When a young man looks into himself, he can see that he is made of non-self elements. If he looks into every cell of his body, he will see his father. His father is not only outside; his father is inside of him, fully present in every cell of his body. Suppose he tries to remove his father; there’s no son left. If we remove the father, remove the mother, the grandfather, the grandmother, if we remove our education, our culture, the food we eat, then there’s no us left. So the young man can see that his father is in him. He is the continuation of his father. He is his father.

It’s like the tea is a continuation of the cloud. Suppose the tea hates the cloud. The tea says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with the cloud!” That’s nonsense. And yet there are young men who are so angry at their fathers, they dare to say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that person.” Because they have not looked deeply, they do not see that they are the continuation of their father. They cannot remove their father from themselves; they are their father. So to get angry at your father is to get angry at yourself. That is the insight you get from the practice of mind­fulness and concentration. If you have that insight, you are no longer angry at your father. You know that if your father suffers, you suffer. If you are happy, your father is happy also. No more discrimination between father and son, because father is made of non-father elements and son is made of non-son elements. Everything is like that.

So the first notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of self. If you can see, in the light of interbeing, that you are in me and I am in you, you’ve got the insight. Anger and the desire to punish are no longer there. Removing the notion of self is the basic action for peace.

mb59-dharma1-4

If the Palestinians look deeply, they see that the suffering of the Israelis is their own suffering, and that their happiness is also the happiness of the Israelis. If they can recognize that they inter-are, that their happiness and suffering depend on each other’s, then they will release their anger, their fear, and their discrimination, and they can make peace easily. If the Hindus and the Muslims look deeply and see they are in each other, then there will be no conflict, no war.

So the removal of the notion of self is crucial for peace. If we can do that, we can be free from discrimination, separation, fear, hate, anger, and violence. With mindfulness and concentra­tion, you can discover the truth of no self, the truth of interbeing.

mb59-dharma1-5

The Notion of Being Human

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to re­move is the notion of man, human. Man is made only of non-man elements. Man, we know, is a very young species on earth. We are made of minerals, vegetables, and animals. Humans have human ancestors, but we also have animal ancestors, vegetable ancestors, and mineral ancestors. They are still in us. We are the continuation of our ancestors. We still carry the minerals, the vegetables, and the animals within us. If you have the insight that man is made only of non-man elements, you will protect the ecosystem. You will not destroy this planet. That is why the Diamond Sutra can be seen as the most ancient text on the teaching of deep ecology. In order to protect man, you have to protect minerals, vegetables, and animals.

The Notion of Living Beings

The third notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of living beings. When I was ordained as a novice monk at the age of sixteen, my teacher showed me how to bow to the Buddha. “My child, before you bow to the Buddha, you have to meditate.” He gave me a short verse to memorize: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to, the nature of both is empty.” That means that I am made of non-self elements. I am empty of a separate self. And you, the Buddha, you are also made of non-you elements. That means that you are in me, and I am in you. There is non-discrimination between the Buddha and a living being.

If you do not have that kind of insight, communication is impossible. You have to see the true relationship between you and Buddha. You must see that the Buddha is made only of non-Buddha elements. And you must see that you are made of non-you ele­ments. You must see that you are in the Buddha and the Buddha is in you. Before you have that understanding, you should not bow, because you think that you and the Buddha are two separate enti­ties. So there is a discrimination between Buddha, the enlightened one, and living beings; a discrimination between the creator and the creature. You have to see God in yourself, and you have to see yourself in God, in order for true communication to be possible.

Looking into a buddha, what do you see? You see a lot of afflictions, sickness, and despair that has been transformed. So a buddha is made of non-buddha elements. Before that person became a buddha, she suffered from anger, fear, hatred, and wrong perceptions. But because she knew how to practice mindfulness and she got insight, she became free. She became a buddha.

So looking into a buddha, you see non-Buddha elements. If you do not see non-Buddha elements in the Buddha, you have not seen the Buddha. Don’t imagine that the Buddha is an entity that is separate from us human beings. The safest place to look for a Buddha is in yourself.

If you know how to grow lotus flowers, you know that a lotus flower is made only of non-lotus elements. Among the non-lotus elements is the mud. The mud does not smell very good; it is not very clean. But without mud you can never grow a lotus flower. So if you look into a lotus flower, and you have not seen the mud in it, you have not seen the lotus flower. It is only with mud that you can grow a lotus flower. It is with the suffering, afflictions, fear, and anger that you can make the compost in order to nourish the flower of Buddha within ourselves.

That is why in the Lin-chi Zen tradition, when you look into the living being, you see the Buddha. When you look into the Buddha, you see the living being, because you are made of non-you elements and the Buddha is made of non-Buddha elements. If you have that insight, communication between you and the Buddha will be very deep. Otherwise, you will be worshipping an idea that is not reality.

You are the Buddha. You have Buddha nature, and if you practice mindfulness and concentration, you can transform afflictions. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove the notion of living beings.

The Notion of Life Span

The fourth notion is the notion of life span. Suppose we draw a line from left to right, representing time. And suppose we pick one point here and call it B, representing birth, and another point, we call it D, representing death. Usually we think that birth is the point where we start to exist, to be. So the segment from birth, from B on, is being. Before we are born, we did not exist. So the segment starting with D represents non-being.

When we come to D—we are very afraid of coming to this point. [laughter] It’s not pleasant to think of D. But if you can remove your notions, your wrong thinking about D, you are saved by right understanding and you are no longer afraid of D; not by a god, but by right understanding.

We believe that to be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. To die means from the realm of being you pass again into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. You are caught in the notion of birth and death; in the notion of being and non-being.

mb59-dharma1-6

Many of us believe that the cosmos has come from the realm of non-being into being. That is how we understand creation. Both believers and scientists believe that the cosmos has a beginning. Scientists speak about how the cosmos has come to be, with theo­ries like the Big Bang. It means before that, there was no cosmos; there was no universe. The Big Bang, and then later on, the Big Crunch. [laughter]

We need the practice of mindfulness and concentration to get the insight that liberates us from these notions. The notion of birth and death. The notion of being and non-being.

A well-known theologian named Paul Tillich described God as “the ground of being.” But if God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of non-being? You cannot conceive of God in terms of being and non-being. God, the ultimate, must transcend both notions. So to describe God in terms of being is to reduce God to something much less than God.

Many of us try to have life and to eliminate death. But how is life possible without death? Death is the very foundation of life. Life is the foundation of death. They always go together. Do not believe that death is something that waits for us down the road. No. Because life is here, death is also here at the same time. You cannot say that now is birth, now is life, and death is for later. That is not right thinking.

Science can help us understand this. We know that at every moment, many cells in our body die, right? And every day new cells are born. So many cells are dying in one second and we are too busy to organize funerals for them. [laughter] Birth and death happen in the here and the now, in every moment, in every mil­lisecond. Why are we afraid of death? We are experiencing death in every moment, because where there is life, there is death.

The same is true of happiness and suffering. Many of us think that happiness alone is enough; we don’t need suffering. But suf­fering is something that helps create happiness. If we look deeply into the suffering of the other person, we will come to understand the root of their suffering. Understanding suffering gives rise to compassion and love. Understanding and love are the foundation of happiness. If you do not have understanding and compassion, you are not a happy person. Compassion is born from understand­ing. If you understand your own suffering and if you understand his or her suffering, then love and compassion will be possible.

It is the mud that helps to produce the lotus. It is the suffering that helps produce the flower of happiness. Let us not discriminate against the suffering. Let us learn how to make good use of the suffering in order to create happiness. Let us learn how to make good use of the mud in order to produce lotus flowers.

If you believe that you are born at one point and you will die at another point, after which nothing remains, you are caught in the notion of life span. It is impossible for you to die. It is impos­sible for the cloud to pass into the realm of non-being. Right view transcends the notion of being and non-being, birth and death. That is why this insight can help produce right thinking, right speech, and right action. It has the power to heal and to nourish.

Many of us think that happiness is made of power, fame, sex, and wealth; but many people running after these objects suffer deeply. Those of us who practice mindfulness and concentration know that every moment can be a happy moment, because a mo­ment of happiness is a moment when you are truly in the here and the now, and you notice that so many wonders are in you and around you. You can be happy right here and right now.

That is the teaching of the Buddha. It is possible to be happy and joyful in the here and the now. Every in-breath, every step can help you touch the wonders of life. Recognize that you are luckier than so many people. And if you are happy, you have an opportunity to help other people.

Edited by Barbara Casey, Sister Annabel (True Virtue), Alan Armstrong, and Natascha Bruckner

PDF of this article

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

Dharma Talk: "Relationships" — Community as Family, Parenting as a Dharma Door, and the Five Awarenesses

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Taking Refuge 

To practice Buddhism, we have to take refuge. This means that we have to base our practice on some ground that helps us be stable. It is like building a house—you have to build it on solid ground. If we look around and inside ourselves, we can find out what is stable for us, and we can take refuge in it. We should be careful not to take refuge in what is unstable.

mb3-dharma1

This morning I was touching the ground, and I felt that there is some stability in the Earth. Why don't we take refuge in the Earth? There is also some stability in the air, the sunshine, and the trees. We can count on the sun because we know it will rise tomorrow. We have to look around to see things that we can count on. In order to practice, we need to take refuge in stable things.

Our bodies have a healing power. Every time we cut our finger, our body has the capacity to heal itself. We take care of it by washing it carefully, and then we can leave the work of healing to our body. In a few hours or a day, the cut will be healed. Our bodies have that kind of healing power. We have to take refuge in our bodies.

The same is true with our consciousness. Our consciousness has a healing power, and we have to trust it. When we have some anger, distress, or despair, we don't need to panic. We can trust our consciousness to know how to heal these kinds of wounds. When we have a feeling of instability, we only need to breathe in and out consciously and recognize the feeling of instability, knowing that our consciousness is much more than that feeling. We know from our experience that there have been times in the past when we were not very solid. We know that we can take refuge in our consciousness We can let it do its work without interfering too much. After cleaning out the wound in our finger, we just let it heal. If we have a wound in our mind or heart, we just clean our wound and then we trust our consciousness to heal it.

If we have a teacher and dharma brothers and sisters who are stable, they look very much the same today as yesterday and yesterday they looked very much the same as the day before. We have to take refuge in a sangha that is stable, that we can count on. We can contribute to the quality of our sangha by our smile, and by our own stability. A sangha can be improved by our practice. We can never find a perfect sangha. An imperfect sangha is good enough. We have to do our best in order to transform ourselves into a good element of the sangha. It is not helpful to complain too much about our sangha: "This sangha is not good; this sangha is not worth my refuge," and so on. We have to accept our sangha and build it. It is like a family. And our family is also a kind of sangha. We have to accept the members of our family as they are and begin from there. We should be a good member of our family sangha in order to help others.

Taking refuge means also taking refuge in ourselves. When we take refuge in the earth, it is because the earth is stable. When we have a friend who is stable we can take refuge in him or her. We use our insight and our experience to see his or her stability. We don't just go on blind faith. Taking refuge is not blind faith. It must be based on our own experience. There are many stable things around. We should refrain from taking refuge in things that are not stable, that have made us shaky in the past. Sometimes we don't know much about something. We hope that it can be a refuge for us simply because we want it. It is not based on any direct experience or observation. We should refrain from taking refuge in things like that.

Single Parenting 

If you are a single parent and if you think that you need to be married in order to have more stability, you have to reconsider that idea. Perhaps you have more stability right now by yourself than if you were with another person. Another person coming into your life could destroy the little stability you may already have. It is most important to take refuge in yourself, and to do that with your understanding, insight, and capacity of recognizing stability in the things inside you and around you. The things inside of you are just like the things around you. If they are stable, they are worth taking refuge in. By taking refuge in this way, you become more solid. You are taking refuge more and more in yourself. By doing so, you develop yourself into a ground for the refuge of your child and your friends. We need you also. The children need you; the trees and the birds also need you. You have to make yourself into someone stable, someone we can rely on. That is the practice of Buddhism.

We abandon the idea that we cannot be ourselves unless "that someone" or "that something" is with us. We our­selves are sufficient. We are enough for ourselves. When we transform ourselves into a cozy hermitage, with a lot of air, light, and order inside, we begin to feel a great peace, joy, and happiness. And we begin to be someone that others can rely on. Your child, your dharma brothers and sisters, and your teacher can all rely on you.

So return to your hermitage and arrange things from within. You can benefit from the sunshine, the trees, the earth. You can open your windows wide for these good elements to enter, because you are one with your environ­ment. Many times unstable elements try to enter our hermit­age. Then we must close our windows and not let them in. When thunder, winds, or heat are about to intrude into our cozy, refreshing hermitage, we should be able to prevent them from entering. The practice of being a refuge to oneself is a basic practice. We do not rely on someone or something that we do not know much about, something that may be unstable. We go back to ourselves and take refuge in our own hermitage.

If you are a mother raising your child alone—without the help of a man—you must learn what to do and how to do it. You have to learn to be a father also, otherwise you cannot raise your child. If you don't learn how to be a father, you will continue to need someone else to play the role of a father for your child, and you will lose your sovereignty, you will lose your hermitage. But if you can say, "I don't need anyone else, I can learn how to be both a father and mother to my child, I can succeed by myself, with the support of my friends and my community," that is a good sign.

Every other year, I give a retreat for about sixty Viet­namese monks and nuns in northern California. One day, when we were conducting the closing of such a retreat, the Abbot of Kim Son Monastery said to me, "Thay, you are our mother." Why didn't he say, "You are our father," which is a more normal thing to say? It was because some­thing in me has the manner of being a mother. When I am with children, I can play the role of a mother as well as a father. The love of a father is different from that of a mother. A mother's love is somehow unconditional. You are the child of your mother, that is why you are loved by her. There is no other reason. A mother tries to use her body and her mind to protect that very soft, vulnerable part of herself. She has a tendency to consider her child as an extension of herself, as herself. This is good, but it may create problems in the future. She has to learn gradually that her son or daughter is a separate person.

A father's love is different. The father says, "If you are like this, then you will receive my love. If you don't do that, you don't get my love." It's a kind of deal. I have that in myself, too. I am capable of disciplining my students and I also have the capacity of loving my students as a mother. That is why the monks and the nuns call me mommy. I know it is not easy for a mother to be a father, especially when she hasn't learned how to do it. Single mothers should be aware that they can profit from the community, from the brothers and sisters in the dharma. If she does it well, her child will have uncles and aunts. If the child doesn't have a father, he can consider his uncle as a father. It is not difficult to provide your child with an uncle. If you have a good sangha and good relationships with the people in the sangha, other members of your sangha can have a nephew or niece in your child.

mb3-dharma2

The nuclear family is very small. There is not enough air to breathe. When there is trouble between the father and mother, the child has no escape. That is a weakness of our time. Having a community where people can gather as brothers and sisters in the dharma, and where children have a number of uncles and aunts is a very wonderful thing.

We have to learn to create that kind of family. Each of us needs to be loved in order to go on. We need the kind of love that does not shatter our stability. If we cling to our teacher as a father and we want that father to pay attention to us only, that is not the way we love in the practice com­munity. We have to share the love of the teacher with everyone. We have to see the other members of the commu­nity as our brothers and sisters. This is something we can learn to do. It is already a tradition in the East, and it can be learned slowly here in the West. We can take the best from both cultures.

I hope that communities of practice will take that kind of shape in the West. Without that kind of warmth and family flavor, it is difficult to practice. When you bring your children to some practice centers, your children may be regarded as an obstacle for other people to practice. But if we have a community where people regard each other like brothers and sisters, a child of that community becomes the child of everyone. If he is doing something disturbing, such as hitting another child with a stick, his mother is not the only person who is responsible. Everyone in the community shares that responsibility. Together we try to find ways to prevent the child from hitting the other children. We might try holding the child tightly, doing that as an uncle, not as a foreigner or a policeman. Of course, the parent of the child should prevent their child from throwing rocks or hitting other children, but if the parent cannot discipline her child, then he or she has to let an uncle or an aunt do it.

When you are a student of your teacher, your children are grandchildren of your teacher in a spiritual family. The children in Plum Village call me "Grandpa Teacher." I always approach them as a grandfather, not as someone outside the family. This is the way we conduct the practice in Vietnam. We do things as a family. A practice center should possess that kind of warmth, that kind of brother­hood and sisterhood that will continue to nourish us and not be a place where people come only to take care of their own problems.

In a community of practice like this, a single parent can be very self-sufficient. At the same time, he or she will see that when the community is not there, he or she is capable of playing the roles of both mother and father. When you have learned and have the capacity of loving your child as a mother and a father at the same time, you are transformed. When you see stable families coming to practice, you can look at their stability and learn from it. You can learn a lot: how a father loves a child, how a mother loves a child. There must be some coordination between father and mother. A good father would not say, "If he's spoiled it's your fault." It's not her fault; it's a collective lack of mindfulness.

The phenomenon of single parents is widespread in the West. If you practice and succeed in bringing up your child happily, then you can share the fruit of your practice with many people. Parenting is a dharma door. Single parenting is a dharma door. We need retreats, seminars, and dharma discussions on how to be parents. We cannot accept the ancient way of parenting. At the same time, we do not have a modern way of parenting. We need to elaborate on the way of being parents, drawing from our own experiences and practice. Using the greater community of practice to bring another dimension to the life of the nuclear family is important. Even though the nuclear family structure may not have much space in it, when nuclear family life is combined with the life of a practice community, a sangha, it can be very successful. You can bring your child to the practice center, very often, and both you and your child will benefit from the atmosphere there. And the practice center will benefit from your presence also.

In a good practice center, there should be a garden for the children to play in and there should be people who are skillful in helping children, people who can be good aunts and good uncles for the children. Then you will enjoy your practice, as a parent or as a single parent.

The Buddha did not specifically address the issue of single parenting. This is a new problem. But we can apply the basic teachings of the Buddha to find a way out. There are so many divorced parents: in Australia, in the West. When things become too difficult, people tend to think of divorce. Vietnamese families living in the West are also beginning to adopt this point of view. In traditional Vietnamese culture, the failure of a marriage is considered to be very bad. People don't look on divorce with much respect.

Collective consciousness helps a lot. Instead of thinking of divorce, you make an effort to preserve your marriage, to return to your spouse with more harmony, with more understanding. In the West many people have divorced three, four, five times. They keep making the same kinds of mistakes. This is an issue which Buddhist practice has to address. We should not complain about having to deal with this issue. We should take it as an opportunity to study, look, and explore, in order to provide people with a new dharma door. How can we practice and bring the practice community into the nuclear family? How can we create a balance?

The Five Awarenesses 

Ed. Note: When Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates a marriage ce­remony, he asks the couple to repeat the Five Awarenesses and then to recite them together once each month. The following is from a talk given at Plum Village in August, following Kathy Season and Damien Cameron's wedding. 

Mindfulness is the basis for happiness. Before two people marry, they should practice mindfulness together, and after becoming husband and wife, they should continue to practice the Five Awarenesses as a manifestation of their Practice of Mindfulness. Happiness is not an individual matter.

In the first awareness. we see ourselves in the context of a lineage. We see that we are one element in a continuation of our ancestors, and that we open the way for future generations. We play the role of connection. We can see the elements of the future and the past right in the present. The Buddha teaches us that the present contains the past and the future. By being in touch with the present, we shape the future and heal the past. If we take good care of our body and our consciousness, we take care of our ancestors in us, and at the same time we take good care of our children and our grandchildren.

The second awareness reminds us that our ancestors have expectations and that our children and their children have expectations also. Our happiness is their happiness; our suffering is their suffering. If we look deeply, we will know what our children and grandchildren expect of us. We may not see them in person yet, but they are already talking to us. They want us to live in a way that they won't be miser­able when they manifest. Buddhist practitioners, especially the Vietnamese, see themselves not as individuals, separated from their ancestors, but as a continuation representing all previous generations. Actions of the couple do not aim merely at satisfying the spiritual and physical needs of their individual selves, but also at realizing the hopes and expectations of their ancestors and at preparing for future genera­tions.

The third awareness tells us how joy, peace, freedom and harmony are not individual matters. We have to live in a way that allows our ancestors inside us to be liberated. Liberating them means liberating ourselves. If we do not liberate them, we. will be in bondage all our lives, and we will transmit that to our children and grandchildren. Now is the time to liberate our parents and ancestors in us. We can offer them joy, peace, freedom, and harmony, at the same time as we offer joy, peace, freedom, and harmony to ourselves, our children, and their children. This reflects the teaching of interbeing. As long as our ancestors in us are still suffering, we cannot really be happy. If we take one step mindfully, freely, happily touching the earth, we are doing it for all our ancestors and all future generations. The first three awarenesses are all aspects of one deep teaching. We have to continue to study and practice these first three awarenesses to deepen our understanding.

The fourth aware­ness is also a basic teaching of the Buddha. Where there is understanding, there is love. When we understand the suffering of some­one, we are motivated to help. This energy is called love or compas­sion. Whatever we do in this spirit will be for the happiness and liberation of the person we love. But, some­times we destroy the person we love. It is like the general who said that his fighter bombers had to destroy the city of Ben Tie in order to save it. We have to practice in a way that whatever we do for others will only make them happy. The willingness to love is not enough. When people do not understand each other, it is impossible for them to love each other.

The first year of marriage is a difficult time. There is excitement, enthusiasm, and exploration, but the two people do not yet understand each other well. They live together twenty-four hours a day, looking, listening, and being aware of many details that they have not seen before, discovering more of their partner's reality. Everyone of us has flowers and garbage inside us, not just of our making but of the making of our ancestors. If we know this in advance, we can be ready to accept everything that will manifest in the other person. When people fall in love, they construct a beautiful image of the other person, and they may feel shocked when they compare it with the reality. During the first year, many illusions about the other person will vanish. Until we give up our preconceived image, we miss the real beauty in the other person. We must be mindful to discover these flowers.

When we begin to see each other's weaknesses, we may feel discouraged. We may need to be reminded of the other's strengths. A married couple consists of two persons who have to lean on each other to help each other. We receive and nurture our partner like a tree, and we must find ways to water and protect him or her. We take care of the tree so that it flourishes. If there is some disease on the leaves, we must learn how to treat it. If the tree flowers and bears fruit, it is we who benefit. Both partners in the couple should regard themselves as the gardener, the caretaker, of the other. When we discover a weakness in the other person, we have to accept that. This is why the Buddha said, "Everyone has Buddha-nature," the capacity of smiling, understanding, and being awake.

When we marry, we form a primary sangha, a sangha of two, and we begin to learn to love. If we still have the feeling of being attached to each other, that is not real love yet. Love in the Buddhist context is loving kindness and compassion. It is the kind of love that does not have any conditions. We form a sangha of two in order to practice love—to take care of each other, to make our partner blossom like a flower, and to make happiness something real in that tiny sangha of two.

"Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity and of all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. Unless I succeed in loving you, I cannot love any­one else. So I am determined to love you. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth."

This is the real message of love. How can we take advanced steps before we succeed in the primary steps? In the first one, two, or three years, this should be our purpose—to realize peace, happiness, and joy in that small sangha. We know that the small sangha should be placed in the context of a larger sangha. We are practicing with the help of our teachers, parents, friends, and all living beings in the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds. That is our larger sangha. "I want to express my love to the larger sangha, and I do it through you. Therefore I must be able to love you, take care of you, and make you happy."

The practice of mindfulness is the practice of love itself. Looking deeply in order to understand is the basic practice. When a couple is happy, understanding and harmony are there. Then it is easy to extend that happiness, and joy to the people around us—our parents, sisters, brothers, and dharma friends.

If we blame each other and argue, we are divided. This is the fifth awareness. Everyone agrees, but when we become angry, we forget, and a force in us begins to argue and blame the other person for what happened. Only by practic­ing conscious breathing and smiling every day can we control that impulse. Conscious breathing and smiling every day help us develop the capacity to stop at that critical moment, to keep ourselves from blaming and arguing.

mb3-dharma3

Loving speech is an aspect of practice. We say only loving things. We say the truth in a loving way, with nonvi­olence. This can be done only when we are calm. When we are irritated, we may say things that are destructive. So when we feel irritated, we should refrain from saying any­thing. We can just breathe. If we need to, we can practice walking meditation in the fresh air, looking at soothing things like the trees, the clouds, the river. Once we have returned to our calmness, our serenity, we are capable again of using the language of loving kindness. If, during our expression, that feeling of irritation comes up again, we can stop and breathe. This is the practice of mindfulness.

All of us need to change for the better. When we marry, we make a promise to change ourselves and to help the other person change himself or herself so we can grow together. If we think only of changing and growing alone, eventually we will lose patience with the other person. Prac­ticing together, we change and we help the other person change. As a result, we grow together, sharing the fruit and progress of practice. It is our responsibility to take care of the other person. We are the gardener, the one who helps the tree grow. If the tree doesn't grow well, we don't blame it. We blame ourselves for not taking care of it well. Human beings are somehow like trees. If they are taken care of well, they will grow beautifully. If they are taken care of poorly, they will wither. To help a tree to grow well, we must understand its nature. How much water does it need? How much sunshine? If we understand, the tree will grow beautifully.

Every time the other person does something well, some­thing in the direction of change and growth, we should con­gratulate her or him to show our approval. This is important. We don't take things for granted. If the other person mani­fests some of her talent and capacity to love and create hap­piness, we must be aware of it and express our appreciation. This is the way to water the seeds of happiness. We should avoid saying destructive things like, "I don't know whether you can do this" or "I doubt that you can do this." Instead, we say, "This is difficult, darling, but I have faith that you can do it." This kind of talk makes the other person stronger. This is true with children, also. We have to strengthen the self-esteem of our children. We have to appreciate and congratulate every good thing they say and do in order to help our children grow. When we are married, we can love each other in a way that encourages change and growth for the better, all the time.

For those who have been married for ten or twenty years, this kind of practice is also relevant. You can continue to live in mindfulness and continue to learn from the other person. You may have the impression that you know everything about your spouse, but it is not so. Nuclear scientists have studied one speck of dust for many years, and they still do not claim to understand everything about it. The more deeply they look into an electron, the more they realize how little they know about it. If a speck of dust is like that, how can a person say that he or she knows everything about the other person? Driving the car, paying attention only to your own thoughts, you just ignore your spouse. You think, "I know everything about her. There is nothing new in her anymore." That is not correct. And if you treat her or him that way, she will die slowly. She needs your attention, your gardening, your taking care of her.

We have to learn the art of creating happiness. If during our childhood, we see our mother or father do things that create happiness in the family, we can learn. But if our father and mother did not know how to create happiness in our family, we may not know how to do it. So in our practice community, we try to learn the art of making people happy. The problem is not one of being wrong or right, but one of being more or less skillful. Living together is an art. Even with a lot of good will, you can still make the other person very unhappy. Good will is not enough. We need to know the art of making the other person happy. Art is the essence of life. Try to be artful in your speech and action. Art needs some substance, and that substance is mindful­ness. When you are mindful, you are more artful. This is something I have learned from the practice.

PDF of this article

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

Dharma Talk: The Way to Well-Being

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue At the retreat at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, Sister Annabel offered this Dharma talk on August 24, 2007. In her soft British-accented voice, Sister Annabel gave a brilliant elucidation of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Dear Sangha, today please allow me to say a little bit about the Four Noble Truths. First of all, I shall write the Four Noble Truths on the board. There’s a way of expressing this, where to each Noble Truth we add a word:

  1. Ill-being.
  2. The way to ill-being.
  3. The end of the way to ill-being.
  4. The way to end the way to ill-being.

Sister Annabel, True VirtueThat is the Indian way, in which we use the negative mode. In the Western way we use the word “well-being,” which is more positive. Many scholars have talked a lot about the Four Noble Truths, and they have certain ideas concerning the Four Noble Truths. Really, they are a practice, and we don’t need to be a scholar to understand it. We just need to be a practitioner. We don’t even have to be a Buddhist. We just practice.

This is a very basic teaching of the Buddha, because the Buddha saw how beneficial it is for us. We are very lucky that 2,600 years later we have an opportunity to take hold of that practice, just as it was used in ancient India, and to use it in our own time.

So in order to do the practice, I would suggest that we use one of the practices Thay talked about yesterday: vipashyana, looking deeply. We don’t always need to be sitting on a meditation cushion in the meditation hall in order to practice looking deeply. We can be seated at our writing desk with a pen and a piece of paper, or we can be on the bus or on the train. As long as we establish ourselves in shamatha, stopping, calming, then we can always practice vipashyana.

mb48-dharma22For your own practice, I would suggest that you take a piece of paper and fold it into three so that it has three columns. Although there are Four Noble Truths, we may not need to have a column for the third one because as Thay has been teaching us, there is no way to peace; peace is the way. There is no way to healing; healing is the way. So in the same voice we could say, there is no way to well-being; well-being is the way. The Fourth Noble Truth is the way to well-being, so the Third Noble Truth and the Fourth Noble Truth are just one exercise.

The First Noble Truth: Ill-Being

The First Noble Truth is quite essential. Without that, the other Noble Truths can’t be there. The Four Noble Truths interare; you practice one, and the other three are already there. In the Heart of the Prajnaparamita we say, “No ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path.” And that is as much to say that ill-being doesn’t have a separate self. As we practice for ourselves, we will begin to understand this. This isn’t theory. The Dharma is available for us to see directly when we put it into practice in our daily life.

Your first column is for the First Noble Truth. Some people get stuck in the first column, but if we practice we won’t be stuck there. We won’t say, “Oh, dear, everything is ill-being!” That is the scholar’s approach, but our approach is our real experience. So in this first column, write down everything that in your personal life you feel to be ill-being. It could be psychological, physical, or physiological. So you write down, maybe, “despair” — that is the overwhelming emotion that you feel sometimes. Or you write down “depression.” And you might write down physical pain that you have.

We need to look deeply because sometimes we don’t even recognize that we have ill-being. There is something that is wanting to be transformed, maybe from our ancestors, that lies deep in our consciousness. It’s calling out to be transformed, but we haven’t heard its call. There might be anger there, or depression, but we haven’t fully recognized it. It is like someone who’s drunk too much who says, “I’m not drunk.” Somebody who’s angry can say, “Oh, I’m not angry, there’s nothing to be angry about.” But looking deeply we recognize that. So we write it down.

Having written down all that, we look at it in the face. In my personal experience, this is a tremendous relief. We may be able to do this on our own or we may ask someone to help us. We may go to the doctor or the psychotherapist, and they may tell us what our ill-being is, if we haven’t seen it. But principally, it’s something that we have to see for ourselves. So even though we’re in the First Noble Truth, we already, by facing it as the truth, begin to see it as it is.

This is something the Buddha teaches us very clearly. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, in the last section on the mindfulness of the objects of mind, there is a phrase that the practitioner is aware of ill-being “just as it is.” We don’t magnify it, we don’t diminish it or pretend it’s not there. We just look at it as it is and when we do that, we accept it. That is the first step to healing.

That is what we do with our strong emotions. If there is an emotion in us that comes up frequently, that blocks our way, we acknowledge it just as it is. Loneliness: just as it is. Write it down.

The Way to Ill-Being

Now as you’ve been practicing looking deeply, you’re already on your second column. In your unconscious mind the second column has already begun to reveal itself. The second column is “the way that led to the first column.” That is what Thay was talking about yesterday: the Buddha told us that without food nothing can survive (1). No emotion, no physical thing, no psychological state can survive without its food.

The Buddha said that if you can see the source of the food that is feeding your emotion, and you can stop ingesting that particular food, whether it’s edible food or the food of sense impression, then you’re already liberated, you’re already transformed.

The “way” is the causes. What are the causes of this ill-being? What has led to this ill-being? For each point of ill-being that you wrote in the first column, in the second column you can write down the things that are causing it.

Maybe it’s what you consume through your mouth. Maybe it’s your misunderstanding of what the practice is; you haven’t understood that the practice is for joy and for healing. Maybe it’s because of what you want, your desires — you want to be famous, you want to be praised, you want to have a position, or you’re afraid of losing those things. Maybe there are difficulties that began in your childhood, and you haven’t yet managed to embrace your five-year-old child fully. These are all ways to the suffering for you to look into. And, of course, as Thay said yesterday, maybe it’s the television programs, the newspapers, the telephone conversations. You can write them down.

There are two other kinds of food. Yesterday Thay talked about edible food and the food of sense impressions. When we come to the third exercise, we can mention those other two kinds of food.

The Way to End the Way to Ill-Being

The third exercise is the way to well-being, or the way to end the way to ill-being. We’re not going to just cut the ill-being off, to banish it, but we are going to find out what its causes are. And we are going to remove the causes, because we don’t want to treat the symptoms, we want to treat the roots of our ill-being. So that is why sometimes we say, “the way to end the way to ill-being” — the way to well-being. The Buddha taught the way to well-being as the Noble Eightfold Path.

When you do the third part of the exercise you can use these teachings of the Buddha to help you. You adapt each of these eight aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path to your own sickness, your own ill-being.

Right View

Right View is the way you have of looking at reality, of looking at the world. And the Buddha taught the truth of impermanence, the truth of no-self, and the truth of nirvana. If we have right view, there must be the acknowledgment of impermanence, no-self, and nirvana. If there isn’t that, then there will be ill-being. So this may be part of the cure for some of your ill-being.

When we are at peace with the impermanence of our health, of our life, then we can do our best to profit from the days and the months that are left to us, in a way that is beneficial both for ourselves and our descendants. The same is true with the teaching on no-self, on not being a separate self. My happiness is your happiness. Of course, in my family relationships, when I see that, it will bring much more well-being to myself and to my family.

mb48-dharma23Nirvana just means not being caught in any views, being free of views. When we are caught in a view, when we must be right and we’re ready to fight and die for our view, we suffer a great deal. When we despair about the future of our planet, we can become very dogmatic and caught in our views, and this puts us at odds with other people. The only way that we can save our planet is through brotherhood and sisterhood, which means letting go of our views. But it doesn’t mean we don’t care. Seeing that the planet is impermanent doesn’t mean, we don’t care anymore, we don’t do anything. It means we do everything we can, but we do it very peacefully. When we are not caught in our views, it doesn’t mean we don’t see the danger and we don’t do everything we can to prevent that danger from happening.

Right Thinking

The second aspect is Right Thinking. To be mindful of our thinking — to know what we are thinking and where our thinking is taking us — is also important. The way we judge and blame other people leads to our ill-being as well as theirs. If we can have a compassionate, non-judgmental, non-blaming thought, that is a way to our well-being.

All kinds of thinking we have — our complexes, guilt, comparing ourselves with others — is linked to our idea of having a separate self. Our constant thinking is a mechanism to keep our idea of a separate self alive.

The third kind of food the Buddha taught is linked with thinking. It is the food of intention. The food of what I intend to do, what I decide to do, what I want to do, is sometimes called volition. This kind of food can give us a great deal of energy. To explain this kind of food, the Buddha told a story. Suppose there is a young man who’s strong and in good health and he lives in a town. Outside that town there is a large pit that is filled with redhot coals. There are no flames, they’re smokeless because it’s so hot. Every time the young man goes out of the town near that pit, he feels that it’s not safe, because if he were to fall into that pit of coals he would suffer a great deal; he could even die. So he decides to leave this town and go live in another place where there isn’t a pit of coals outside. That is the Chinese version.

The Pali version is a little bit different. There’s also a young man, he’s living in a town, there’s also the pit of coals. But he doesn’t make the decision to go and live somewhere else. There are two strong men in the town. They take hold of him and they pull him towards the pit, and he didn’t want to go there at all, but somehow he couldn’t stop them. They were much stronger than he was. He knew that if he fell into that pit he would not survive, and he would suffer a lot. Still, the two strong men dragged him in that direction. This is another rather dramatic and drastic way the Buddha had of describing our intention food. A lot of energy can pull us in a direction we don’t want to go. These intentions are not necessarily wholly in our conscious mind. We may have things deep down in us driving us in a certain direction without even knowing it. For instance, ambition, the desire for fame, the desire for money, the desire for sex. All those things can be very strong sources of food.

In our meditation, when we are making our lists, we need to look deeply. What is my deepest desire? What are the things that are pulling me along in my life? Do I want to be praised? Do I want to have a position? Do I want to be useful? These things are motivating my way of being.

When we discover what is motivating us, we may be able to stop that source of food and go in a different direction — to have time for our family, to have time to be in nature, to have time to be with our sangha, to build our sangha. Because that is where we feel most happy, to be one with our sangha. To be part of the sangha body without having an idea of a separate self. Some people might get burned out with leading a sangha sometimes, so we have to be careful of that also; when we are in sangha, we just be part of that sangha, part of the river, part of the flow.

Right Speech

The guidelines for Right Speech are given in the Fourth Mindfulness Training: learning how to listen deeply, to speak lovingly. Ask yourself, is this the key to my well-being, in my relations with my family? When I am angry, do I know how to practice the Peace Treaty, to calm myself before I say anything? (2) And also, do I know the skillful way to express my anger so that I don’t repress it? Because repressing anger is also very dangerous.

So if under the First Noble Truth you wrote down one of your sufferings as anger, then when you come to the Third Noble Truth you may like to look at Right Speech as one of the ways out of your anger, and not watering these seeds in yourself and in others. When you are angry, you may not spill out your anger over someone else, but you can look after it by your mindful breathing, your mindful walking. You can take a walk and accept it just as it is. You can embrace it. And then, somehow talk about it. Talk about it maybe first of all in writing. Write down for your loved one what happened. Read over the letter to make sure that it’s easy enough for the loved one to accept, that you’ve talked mostly about yourself, how you feel, without blaming, without judging. Put yourself in the skin of the other person as you read the letter. If you are quite sure she could accept it, send it to her. If you are not sure ask a friend who knows you both to read it and give his opinion.

If you can, come directly to your loved one and say, “This morning I was really upset. I practiced quite a bit, walking and breathing, and I know that I can’t transform this upset on my own. I wish I could, but I need your help. So please help me. Let’s find a time when we can sit down together and you can tell me all about what was happening for you when you said that, or when you did that. That will help me a lot, not to make the same kind of mistake again.”

So this is the practice of Right Speech in order to help us out of our suffering.

Right Action

After that we have Right Action. There are three actions, as we know: the action of our body, the action of our speech, and the action of our mind. Right Thinking and Right View already cover the action of our mind. Right Speech covers the action of our speech. Therefore Right Action covers the action of our body. Right bodily action is very well described in the First, Second, Third and Fifth Mindfulness Trainings.

We may like to look at Right Action in terms of our consumption. What kind of edible food do we consume? Do we consume at the right time? Do we eat at the right time? Do we eat in the right way, that is, in a peaceful atmosphere, not in a rush? What do we eat? If we eat the flesh of a chicken that was raised in a cage, we can imagine the suffering of that chicken. We know that the body and the mind are not two separate things. All the frustration and despair the chicken must have suffered being raised in a cage have gone into the flesh of the chicken, and then we eat it. If we drink the milk of a cow that has come from a factory farm, all the suffering, despair, rage of that cow have gone into the milk. This is also something that we ingest.

So we look at what we eat, how we eat, when we eat. That can already help us on the way to well-being of our body and our mind. A meal is to nourish us, not only physically. We give ourselves a chance to get spiritual nourishment as we eat.

Then the other points of Right Bodily Action are covered by the First Mindfulness Training: not harming, protecting life. The Second Mindfulness Training covers not taking what is not ours, what we don’t need. Not over-consuming, not harming the environment, which are a kind of stealing. The Third Mindfulness Training is right conduct in sexual relations. This also leads to our happiness and the happiness of our family.

Right Livelihood

Does my profession bring me happiness? Does it bring me a lot of stress? Maybe one of the things that you wrote down on the First Noble Truth was stress. So now we look at Right Livelihood and we ask ourselves, how much stress does our work give us? What is our workplace like? Is it a place where we can feel relaxed? Do we bring a flower or a green plant to put in our workplace to make it somewhere where we can relax and we can breathe? How can we make our workplace a non-stressful place? How can we do the kind of work that nourishes our compassion, so that when we come to work we can look at our co-workers with the eyes of love and we can care about them? When we say in the morning, “How are you?”, some people don’t expect an answer to that, they just carry on walking. “How are you?” and the other person says, “How are you?” Even when I went to the doctor one time he said, “How are you?” and he expected me to say, “Fine.” But the reason I went to him was because I wasn’t fine.

When we go to work, what we can do is ask, “How are you?” and we really mean it. I want to hear how you are. “Did you sleep well last night?” and so on, because I care about you. Then our workplace begins to have more compassion in it.

Right Effort

Then we have the practice of Right Effort. This is also connected with another kind of food. In order to be able to talk about the fourth kind of food — the food of consciousness — I need to draw that circle on the board.

mb48-dharma24Store consciousness stores all the seeds, every possible seed of every possible emotion in latent form. They may never manifest in your lifetime, but that doesn’t mean to say they’re not available.

If the causes and conditions were right, they would manifest in mind consciousness. Every individual, as we call our self, has access to the collective consciousness, which is also called store, unconscious mind, background consciousness.

There are four parts to Right Effort, and they all have to do with the seeds that are in the store consciousness.

  1. The seeds in store consciousness that I need for well-being and have not yet manifested. I shall make the effort, I shall practice to help them manifest.
  2. The seeds in store consciousness that are for my wellbeing and the well-being of others that have already manifested and are already manifesting. I will make the effort to keep them manifesting.
  3. The seeds in my store consciousness that are not beneficial for my well-being and that haven’t manifested yet. I will not water them and help them to manifest.
  4. The seeds of my store consciousness that are not beneficial for my well-being, that have already manifested. I will help them to transform and go back to the dormant position in the store consciousness.

There’s no idea of destroying seeds, but helping seeds to manifest or helping seeds to be dormant. What this means is strengthening seeds or allowing them to weaken.

One of the teachings of Buddhism is that the longer a seed remains in the mind consciousness — that is, manifesting in our mental formations — the stronger it becomes. And if it’s repeatedly manifesting, it will become stronger. This is very clear. If you want to learn how to sing a song, the first time you sing the song the seed of that song is very weak in your mind consciousness. You quickly forget the song. But when you’ve sung, “Breathing in, breathing out, I am blooming as a flower,” seven or eight times on different occasions, then it will be very strong. Whenever you need that song you just have to call on it and it will come up without you having to think about it.

But the same is true with our anger. If we rehearse our anger often, it will become much stronger and it will come up more easily. So the idea is not to rehearse our anger, which is harmful for ourselves and harmful for others. It doesn’t mean repressing our anger. It must be expressed, but it must be expressed in the right way, that is beneficial.

So this is the food of consciousness, the last kind of food. The Buddha gave another very drastic example.

One Hundred Stab Wounds

There is a criminal, and he’s committed a very serious crime. The king sends his soldiers out to arrest the criminal. They find him, they arrest him, and they bring him back to the king. “Your majesty, what should we do with this man?”

The king gave orders. “He should be stabbed one hundred times.”

So the next morning he was stabbed one hundred times. At noon the king asked, “What happened this morning to that criminal?”

They said, “Well, we did stab him one hundred times, but he didn’t die.”

The king said, “Then he should be stabbed another hundred times.”

So they stabbed him another hundred times. And then the king asked them, and again they said he didn’t die. The third time he said, “Stab him a hundred times.” So they stabbed him another hundred times.

The Buddha asked his monks, “Monks, do you think that man suffered?”

The monks said, “Lord Buddha, to be stabbed a hundred times, that kind of suffering is unbearable, unthinkable. But to be stabbed three hundred times successively, that is beyond belief.”

So the Buddha said, “That is the food of consciousness.”

To give an example of what is meant: The human species is a very young species, the youngest species on this planet. For the human species to be here, there must have been all the other species that went before. In our genetic makeup (according to Buddhism our genetic makeup is not just our physiology, it’s also our psychology; I don’t know if scientists agree with that, but to me it’s clear because the body and the mind are not two different things) all the animal species, the plant species, the mineral species, they’re part of us, they’re part of our genetic inheritance.

Consciousness was there – in different living beings – before the human species arose. Physically in our brain you can see that the brain stem and other parts of our brain, apart from the neocortex, also belong to the animal species. If you remember the time before you were a human being, you were a little fish swimming in the sea, and one day a big fish came up behind you with its mouth open and caught the little fish, ate it. The little fish was very afraid, and that is like a stab wound in consciousness. When you developed into a kind of land species, you were chased by the big animals. So that was another stab wound, maybe the same place as the first stab wound. It is much more painful when you’re stabbed twice in the same place.

mb48-dharma25Now you’re a human being, and those wounds, those stabbings, they’re still there. If you’re not careful with the food of consciousness, you can be stabbed in the same place again. It may not be fear of the big fish, it may be fear of terrorists; so many things we can be afraid of. Maybe when you wrote down the First Noble Truth exercise, one of the things you wrote down was fear. So now you have a chance to look at your Right Effort, the food of consciousness. How do you allow that fear in your consciousness to get stabbed again? What do you do? How can you practice Right Effort to avoid the stab wound, to avoid watering the seed of fear?

In the same way, the anger may have been there for a very long time. Now when it comes up into your mind consciousness, you know that you can take care of it with Right Effort. With the practice of mindfulness every day, you can learn how to breathe and how to take care of the seed of anger when it manifests, the seed of despair when it manifests.

Very often, not doing anything when we are overwhelmed by a strong emotion, that is the Right Effort. The Right Effort isn’t necessarily to feel you have to do something, you have to solve the problem, but just to be able to sit there, do nothing, and embrace the emotion. Above all, we need to have time for it. We don’t have time to look after our emotions. So either we repress them and send them back a little bit stronger into our consciousness until they explode, or we want to resolve them quickly, so we vent them or we rehearse them. So Right Effort means to give yourself plenty of time to look after your emotion.

When I have a strong emotion I say to it, “Dear one, you have the right to be there because you are caused and conditioned, and once the cause and condition are there, there’s no way I can stop you from being there. So you have the right to be there. And I know you’re impermanent, you won’t always be there, but I don’t know quite how long you’re going to be around. Never mind. If you want to be around three days, it’s okay. If you want to be around three hours, it’s okay. As long as you want to be around, I’m here looking after you.”

“I’m here” doesn’t really mean me, it means that other seeds in my consciousness like compassion, care, mindfulness are going to be there.

Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration

Right Mindfulness means living deeply the present moment, being aware of what is happening. That can heal so many things. Right Concentration is an extension of Right Mindfulness. It means giving our whole attention to an appropriate object of our perception in order to discover more of its reality.

Thay has said each step can heal, each breath can heal. Right Mindfulness is to be aware of the wonderful things in life. You may ask yourself, why didn’t the Buddha have Right Happiness as one of the Noble Eightfold Path? It’s really there, although it’s not expressed. Because in Right Mindfulness there is Right Happiness. When we are aware of everything that is nourishing and wonderful in life, it brings us a very deep happiness.

Finally, how can Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness help us? You might like to write down how you’re going to realize the practice of these things in your daily life when you go home. What place are you going to always walk with concentration and mindfulness, to become your walking meditation path on a daily basis? What time are you going to use for sitting meditation, to be able to concentrate? What time are you going to put aside for being with your family, for using loving speech with your family, for expressing your appreciation of your children and your spouse?

All these intentions can be written down in the third exercise. As we said, when you begin to practice the third exercise, wellbeing is already there. Because there is no way to well-being. Well-being is the way.

Sister Annabel Laity, True Virtue, was abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont; she is now in Europe helping Thich Nhat Hanh start the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

[1] For an in-depth teaching on the four kinds of nutriments, see Chapter Seven of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh (Broadway, 1999).

[2] Several versions of the Peace Treaty, including a Peace Treaty for oneself and for couples, can be found in various books by Thich Nhat Hanh including Creating True Peace (Free Press, 2004) and Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities, compiled by Jack Lawlor (Parallax Press, 2002).

PDF of this article

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

Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Heritage

By Thich Nhat Hanh We all wish to return to a place where we truly belong, where we feel happy and at peace. Most of the time we feel lost, as though we are living in exile. People all over the world feel this way, constantly searching for an abode of happiness and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh

We are not separate. We are closely connected with others. The ground from which we grow is our family and our society. Many young people today are not happy because they come from broken families or because their parents devote so much time and energy to making a living that they have little real time for them. In the past, parents raised children according to the cultural and moral sub­stance of their tradition, but today, few adults transmit the values they themselves received. As a result, children are left without guidance or support, and they grow up not knowing what to do and what not to do.

Without receiving values and without worthy role models, young peoples' feelings of loneliness are intense. They have little knowledge or confidence about who they are or what they are doing, and their parents just tell them to earn a diploma and secure a good job. Human beings cannot live on bread or rice alone. We need to be nourished by culture and tradition as well. Parents who are too busy to transmit wonderful cultural elements to their children may feed them delicious meals, send them to excellent schools, and work many hours to save money for them, but this is not the way to love children. True love for a child comes from a heritage of true happiness between the parents.

After the family, school is the most important environ­ment in a child's life. Our children spend six or seven hours a day there. A child who can be happy at school is extreme­ly fortunate. When I was in third grade, my teacher wrote on my report card, "No talent. Needs to be better motivated." This caused a big internal formation in me, and I did poorly that year. My sixth grade teacher was more supportive, and I did well that year—I even received a prize of many books. Every time I wrote a good essay, he read it to the class, and, greatly encouraged, I went on to a writing career.

Like the family, school is a product of society. When the society is healthy, the family and the school are also healthy. If teachers are unhappy and filled with internal formations, how can they look deeply into their students and understand them well? The Parent-Teacher's Association is important. Teachers need to understand the circumstances of their students' families in order to educate the students appropriately.

To be healthy, we need a good environment. One very healthy environment is a good sangha, a community of happy and peaceful individuals, people who can smile, love, and care for us, whose presence is as fresh as flowers. When we meet someone with that capacity of peace and joy, we should invite him or her to join our sangha. If she cannot stay for two or three years, we can invite her to stay for a few months or weeks, or even a few days. The quality of a community depends on the capacity of each person in it to be happy. A good sangha is crucial for our transformation.

When someone comes to a community of practice, we should learn about his or her past and family in order to offer suitable methods of practice. In retreats offered to young people, we should take the time to understand their culture, roots, and society in order to offer appropriate teachings. If not, the practice will be unrelated to their lives. By asking a few questions concerning their loneliness and their identity, we can open the doors of their hearts, and they will begin to listen and join us in the practice.

A friend or a psychotherapist can also help us very much, just by listening to us. But many psychotherapists themselves are not healthy; they are filled with suffering. How can we feel confident working with a psychotherapist who does not apply his knowledge of psychotherapy to himself? If we find a psychotherapist who has time to live and to be happy, his listening can be highly effective and we will feel great relief. Psychotherapists also need to establish peaceful, happy sanghas, groups of friends who meet regularly to drink tea, practice sitting and walking medita­tion, and bring peace and caring to one another. Clients who have recovered can be beneficial members of such groups since they have already experienced transformation and can help others do the same.

The number of individuals anyone can help is small compared with the number of people who need help. Treating individuals is important, but we also have to help our society be well. But if we are spending hours doing charitable or social work, taking care of the sick and the poor, as a way to escape our own loneliness, our work will not be effective. If we carry too many internal knots inside us, no matter how much time and energy we spend working for the well-being of others, we will still be lost.

To grow well, a tree needs roots. We need to get in touch with our roots and our true identity. If we live with a good sangha for a while, we will find our identity and true person. The words "true person" were offered by Zen Master Linchi. One day, Master Linchi said to his students, "Brothers and sisters, there is one true person who permanently comes in and out of our being. Do you know that true person?" The audience was silent for a long time before one monk stood up and asked, "Master, please teach us. Who is that true person?" Disappointed by the monk's question, Linchi said, "That true person? What the heck!" No one understood his words.

Who is that true person? Can we be in real touch with him or her? Until we do, we will continue to be lost, unable to find our true heritage. We will not need a train or a plane to come home. We will be at home wherever we are. Being with a sangha, with those who have found their true heritage, is the best way to realize this. In a sangha, even if we just relax and do nothing, one day our true person will reveal himself or herself. Communities where people can come together and be guided in the direction of returning to their true person are very important.

Many teenagers come to Plum Village feeling aban­doned and unhappy. They suffer from cultural and identity crises. They listen to Dharma talks, but these do not help. The most important thing for them is to be in contact with others their own age who are happy. These friendships help them contact their own true person. This is a basic principle of the practice. If you are a Dharma teacher leading retreats, please keep this in mind. Otherwise you only offer tempo­rary relief—you will not touch the sufferings that are rooted deeply in people and bring about real transformation.

Individual transformation always goes hand in hand with social transformation. We may receive praise when we go on a solo retreat for ten or twenty years, seeing no one and eating only fruits and vegetables. But if, during that period, we do not meet anyone who could say something to upset us, how can we be sure that our anger and delusion have been transformed? If we are criticized and confronted with difficulties and still remain calm and happy, then we know that we have arrived at understanding, love, and insight, and our transformation is real.

The moment we feel happy, society already begins to transform, and others feel some happiness. When someone in society finds his true identity, we all find our identity. This is the principle of interbeing. The moment we come in touch with our true person, we become relaxed, peaceful, and fresh, and society already begins to transform. If we are pleasant and happy, the nervous system of those we meet will be soothed. Everything settles down when we put an end to craving, anger, and delusion.

Even though our society has caused us pain, suffering, internal formations, and illness, we have to open our arms and embrace society in complete acceptance. We have to go back to our society with the intention to rebuild it and enrich life by offering the appropriate therapies for its illnesses. People may not be ready to accept our ideas, our love, but we must make the effort. When a foreign substance enters our body, white blood cell production increases, and macrophages embrace and destroy the foreign body. Even foreign bodies that can play an important role in keeping our body functioning well are rejected. If we need a liver transplant, the new liver is subject to rejection since it is foreign to our body. The new liver is neither sad nor disappointed, because it knows that it enters our body with all its love. It tries to find a way to establish a good relation­ship with the body so that one day it will be accepted.

We are the same. When we return home—to Ireland, Poland, Vietnam, or anywhere—we have to use skillful means to weaken rejecting phenomena. Even if our return is full of good will, we can be crushed. Some medicines that can cure an illness become ineffective before reaching the intestines because of the stomach's acidity. To prevent this, pills are coated with protective substances, and the pill's content is not released into the bloodstream until the pill reaches the intestines. We should use the same principle to return to society. Rejection also exists in our own con­sciousness. Our bodies and minds often refuse things that can help us. The practice of peace is basic for our well­being, but since we already have habits, rejection is a common tendency. Many people think that if they accept new ideas or insights, their identity or security will vanish. They may cling to something they think of as their identity, but that is not their true identity. It is only an artificial cover that society has painted on them.

mb09-dharma2

Look at a Vietnamese teenager growing up in America. In her are worries, despair, and problems just as there are in all young people. The cultural and social substances that she has picked up in America have built up her personality, and she thinks she is just that personality. But her Vietnamese tradition and culture are also in her, although in the form of not-yet-sprouted seeds. In this young lady, there is the substance, the personality, and countenance of a young Vietnamese girl that she has not been able to touch. She believes that what she has received from American culture is her true person. If someone suggests that she live in an environment that will help her be in touch with the Viet­namese seeds in her, she may become frightened. To her, returning to her Vietnamese roots is a threat. She is afraid she will lose her personality. Most teenagers feel the same—that if their present identity is dropped, they will not know where to stand. We should help them find their true person so that, gradually, they will be able to let go of their suffering. Concepts about success and happiness are a kind of coating that society has painted on them, and they mistake them for their identity. Vietnamese, Irish, Ameri­can, Polish, everyone should return to their true person. That is the only way we will have a chance to transform our­selves and our society, and become our true person.

All of us need to return home along that path. When we return, we may want to introduce the practice of mindful­ness to others. If we can help people see the essence of love and understanding, we might be able to help the situation. To rebuild our society, we need to bring about social balance and uncover the best traditional values. We are like a child who has crossed many mountains and rivers to find the right medicine for our mother's illness. We should tell people, "Please try this remedy. It may cure the illness of our motherland. If this medicine is not effective, let us look for another remedy together. Let us give our motherland a chance." We must go back to our society as a son, a brother, or a sister and accept everyone as our relative.

When we return home, we can live in the heart of socie­ty, but we should be careful to protect ourselves. People may reject us or try to destroy us, because they are afraid to lose what they are accustomed to. We can try to establish a sangha, a community of practice, an island standing firmly in the ocean that is not affected by social storms—a pro­tected island where trees and birds can live safely without being threatened by strong winds or high waves. A sangha is an island in which we can take refuge. Vietnamese, Irish, Americans, Poles all have to do the same. Sangha-building is a way to break through the obstacles presented by society. In order to offer a therapeutic role, a sangha should acquire a certain degree of peace and happiness itself. There need to be a number of happy individuals who have found their true person and are relaxed, smiling, accepting, loving, and helpful. Once an island like that is strong, it can open itself to more and more people for refuge. One island can then become two, three, four, or more, depending on its capacity to share the practice. Forming a sangha is not difficult if we have support of friends on the path. To take refuge, first of all, is to take refuge in the island of ourselves and then in the island of a sangha.

These islands are communities of resistance. "Resis­tance" does not mean to oppose others. It means to protect ourselves, like staying inside the house to protect ourselves from the weather. We resist being destroyed by society's pollution, noise, unhappiness, harsh words, and negative behavior. If we do not know how to take care of ourselves, we may get wounded and be unable to help others. If we join with others to build a sangha that can nourish and protect us and resist society's destructiveness, we will be able to return home. Many years ago, I suggested that peace activists in the West establish communities of resistance. A true sangha is always therapeutic. To return to our own body and mind is already to return to our roots, to our true home, to our true person. With the support of a sangha, we can do it.

In the Lotus and Diamond Sutras, there are stories of our true heritage: There was a young man from a wealthy family who led a life of pleasure, always squandering his wealth. His father loved and cared for him very much, but he could not find a way to make his son aware of his good fortune. He could see that his son would suffer and become a beggar if he did not transform, but he understood that warning or blaming the boy would not help. So he made himself a jacket and wore it for some years.

Then, one day, he said to his son, "In the future, when I die, I know you will squander your inheritance. I ask only one thing. Please do not lose this jacket. Please always keep it with you." The father had secretly sewn one very precious gem into the lining of the jacket. The young man did not like the old jacket, but he kept it because of his father's request was so easy. After the father died, the son quickly spent his entire inheritance, and soon, as his father had predicted, he became very poor. He went many days without food. The Lotus Sutra calls him "the destitute son." No­where could he make a living or find happiness. He owned only the old clothes on his back, including the jacket his father had asked him to keep.

One day, the young man was running his fingers along the outside of the jacket, and he suddenly discovered the precious gem inside the lining. For many months he had been living in hunger and despair, and as a result he now knew something of life. He understood how it was to use his precious gem to rebuild his life, and he finally received the heritage his father had left for him. For the first time in his life he was happy.

Our true heritage is a gem. It includes understanding, responsibility, and knowing the way to live happily. The Buddha uses this image in the Lotus Sutra to teach us that we are all destitute sons and daughters squandering our true heritage, which is happiness. Our heritage is right in our hand, but we waste our lives, acting as if we are the poorest person on Earth. Now is the time to rediscover the gem hidden right in our jacket.

In the Diamond Sutra, we read about sons and daughters of good families who fill the 3,000 universes with the seven precious treasures as an act of generosity, and the more they give, the richer they become. We can do that too, because we too have innumerable gems. Each minute of our life, each hour of our day is a precious gem. If we live mindfully, smiling, each moment is a wonderful treasure. Thanks to mindfulness, we can hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, and so many other wonderful sounds. We see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, and the white clouds. If we live in mindfulness, our baskets will be filled with precious gems. Every second, every minute, every hour is a diamond. We have been living like wandering destitute sons and daughters. Now, it is time for us to go back and receive our true heritage and live our days deeply and happily. Once we learn the art of living mindfully, people around us will benefit from our happiness. We will be able to offer one handful of precious gems to the person on our right, another to the person on our left, and we never run out; our precious gems will fill the 3,000 chiliocosms. Our heritage is so rich. There is no reason to feel alienated. At the moment we claim our heritage, we can offer peace and happiness to our friends, our ancestors, our children, and their children, all at the same time. 

Adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh' s lectures at Plum Village, translated from the Vietnamese by Anh Huong Nguyen.

Photos: First photo by Ingo Gunther. Second photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

PDF of this article

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

Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh  Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 "Heart of the Buddha" retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer's when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can't remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don't believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, "When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence." Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can't remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don't need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It's not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don't want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, "Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn't it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do." I told her, "If I don't grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this." Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don't buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, "Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?" Then, they will begin to ask, "When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn." At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, "Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don't know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive." Use ord­inary language. Don't make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

mb19-dharma2

When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don't look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don't need incense. You don't need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don't say, "I am practicing spirituality, and you don't know anything about it!" Try to avoid saying, "Darling, I am practicing Buddhism." Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, "Darling, how do you do it?" Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, "Who is responsible for this?"

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn't say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one's own life. But I don't want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, "What happens to the consciousness before death?" If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby's diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don't have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby's diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I'm going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on "the art of mindful living."

PDF of this article

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

Settling in at St. Michael's

By Kim Warren Over 300 people gathered at St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vermont last May for Thay's 21-day retreat on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Thay, monks, nuns, and lay Dharma teachers led us as we learned about and practiced the exercises in the sutra.

Being together at an urban college presented challenges and opportunities. Summer school and urban life around the college continued. A hurrying professor noticed us all stop with the chapel bell. He stopped and smiled, too. The dining hall staff not only adapted to, but honored silence. By our second week, the lovely woman counting us as we entered the dining hall was greeting us with joined palms. These things reminded me that, even on retreat, we inter-are with everyone.

Another nearby community presented more of a challenge. St Michael's is near a military base. Sometimes we could hear gunfire. During Dharma talks, planes roared overhead. Each Tuesday afternoon we had a beautiful formal meal; each Tuesday afternoon the fighter jets went out for exercises. What is our smiling and walking in the presence of fighter jets? Sometimes it felt small. As the retreat deepened, it felt big enough. Watering seeds of peace is what we can do.

On Saturday June 6, we went on a field trip to the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Hartland and the Mindfulness Practice Center in Woodstock. Thay led a lovely ceremony to dedicate the new Buddha's Horse Dharma Hall. Feeling the energy blossom, feeling this place become sacred, was a very powerful experience. Afterward, while Sister Chan Khong offered deep relaxation, Thay and Sister Jina offered the water of compassion to the Sangha. Sprinkling water and laying a hand on each person's head, they shared deep compassion with us.

In a Dharma talk about joy, Thay invited us to make two lists: a list of conditions for happiness that are available to us right now, including things we often take for granted, like our eyes or our heart, and a second list of things we thought were indispensable to our happiness-a job, material possessions, an idea, an ideology, anything we thought we couldn't be happy without. He asked us to look deeply at our lists.

Would the things we thought necessary truly bring happiness or were they obstacles to genuine happiness? Through the teachings, Tbay helped us touch the ultimate dimension during our time together, the water as well as the wave.

Kim Warren, True Original Garden, practices with the Eno River Buddhist Community in Durham, North Carolina.

PDF of this article

What Feeds Your Joy?

mb24-What During a family Day of Mindfulness with the Juneau, Alaska Sangha, participants drew pictures to answer the  question, "What Feeds Your Joy?" Alex Nelson, age 10, explains his drawing of transformation: "I don't know why, but when I think of dragons, I feel happy. When I have an angry thought, I think of a dragon and the anger changes to happiness."

PDF Of this article

Breathe!

by Sister Annabel Laity Before I came to Plum Village I had been practicing in India with the Tibetans, a meditation called tonglen. In this practice, when you breathe in, you take all the suffering of the world on yourself and when you breathe out, you breathe out all your joy for the sake of the world. I was ill while I was in India. When I first became sick, my teachers told me that it would be very good to meditate in order to breathe in all the suffering and breathe out all my joy. In fact, I did not have any joy to breathe out. However deeply I looked, I could not find it. Although this meditation helped me concentrate on my breathing and grow accustomed to bringing my mind back to my breath, the part about suffering and joy was not very useful. When I was well again, I met another teacher and explained my difficulty. He said, "Why do you bother to distinguish between suffering and joy? The two are the same." That put me in a little more difficult place, because I did not really understand what this meant.

When I came to Plum Village, Thay asked me, "What have you been practicing?" I said, "I've been trying to practice to see that suffering and joy are the same thing." Thay looked at me with compassion and said, "I think that you need to come back to yourself and nourish the joy in yourself. I do not think you have enough happiness to do that kind of meditation." Then every day, Thay would ask me, "Are you happy?" And I had to look deeply to see whether I was happy. I saw that if I can't say "yes," then I am not a very happy person. Although the seeds of happiness were in my consciousness, they had not been watered for a long time and therefore were not manifesting. Thay said, "Please do the kind of meditation that nourishes you, and when you are properly nourished with joy and happiness, you will be able to breathe out your joy and help other people." I had to do that kind of meditation for three or four years. I concentrated on nourishing the seeds of joy and happiness in myself. In my sitting and walking meditation, I could not breathe in all the suffering anymore, but I could breathe in the compassion of my teacher and myself for my own suffering. When I felt nourished by my teacher's compassion and my compassion for myself, I could breathe out joy.

I practiced mouth yoga diligently. Mouth yoga is the practice of the half smile. I made myself smile every half hour, whether there was anything to smile about or not. It was a revelation to me. Everything I thought was so important no longer seemed important at all. I lived in the practice center, and every day the practice center penetrated me imperceptibly, just as when you walk in the mist and imperceptibly your clothes become wet. Our habit energies of sadness and despair are strong and they do not vanish overnight. They gradually cease to manifest with so much strength, and they give more space to the seeds of joy.

One morning I sat on my bed to drink a cup of hot water. That is sitting meditation, because while you are sitting, you are mindful and concentrated. Outside you could still see the stars, but it was beginning to grow light. Unintentionally I began to experience my ignorance. I felt as if I were walking through veils of mist. As I passed through one veil, I encountered another. However I knew that the sun was there too, although I could not see it. Wisdom and ignorance were present together. I knew that awakening can happen at any moment, in any place. You only have to practice and awakening is there. Habit energies can be overcome now by the practice of being truly there in the present moment. At that moment I was awakened about my ignorance. I knew and felt my ignorance and wrong perceptions deeply. So awakening was not the absence of ignorance, but awareness of the nature of ignorance.


 

 

The sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness includes some exercises on mindfulness of the body. One exercise that helps us feel less lonely and cut off is the meditation on the four elements. In the Chinese version, there are six elements; in the Pali, there are four. Those elements are earth, water, fire, and air. (The Chinese version adds space and consciousness.) The Buddha says that all these elements are in your body; they are the basic constituents of your body. And you should meditate first to see those different elements supporting your body. Then, you meditate to see those four elements working to support life everywhere, not just your body. Gradually, you see the oneness of your own life and the life of everything around you, so that you are not afraid to die. You know that those elements which support this little body support all others' bodies and somehow, there isn't such a thing as death because the elements continue to support life anyway. This is a very beautiful meditation.

You begin by saying, "Breathing in, I see the earth element in me." Certain things in you are more solid than liquid—your bones, nails, tendons, excrement, flesh. Here you can see the earth element.

If you touch with your mindfulness everything in your body that is quite firm, then you are touching the earth element in you. And then, breathing out, "I smile to the earth element in me." Next, "Breathing in, I see the water element in me." And everything liquid in your body is the water element in you—your urine, your blood, your saliva, your perspiration. There is a lot of water in every part of your body. You are seventy percent water. And then, you see the water element outside of you—the rain, the sea—and you feel the oneness of all life.

You may decide, "Today I will just do the meditation on the earth element." And throughout the day, you are aware of the earth element in you and the earth element all around you. You base your concentration on the earth element for the whole day. Another day, you can meditate on the water element. When you're walking, you feel the water in your body and the water around you. Focusing on the air element, you see that the air in your body and the air outside are one. Of course the air is another thing which loves us and which is so essential for our lives. When we get caught up in worrying about unnecessary things, we can always look up and see that the air is there allowing us to breathe, and we know that there is nothing to worry about. Especially if we're in a beautiful place where the air is good, we can feel supported by the air outside of us as we feel it coming into our lungs.


If I were to write out of my experience the recipe for nourishing happiness, I should write:

To nourish happiness, smile often; walk and breathe in mindfulness many times every day in order to touch the present moment deeply; have a kind teacher and spiritual friends living with you or near you so that you can visit them often; read or listen to beautiful and meaningful teachings which you can put into practice straight away; and have the beauty of nature, its sights and sounds, penetrate you daily.

On October 4, 1999 Sister Annabel, True Virtue, was installed as Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Taking the Hand of Suffering

By Thich Nhat Hanh Some days the sky is completely clear, without a single cloud. When we look up, we see the blue sky – very peaceful, very powerful. The blue sky is always there for us. When it rains and storms, clouds cover the sky, but we are confident the blue sky is still there. And we are at peace, because we know that blue sky and fine weather will return after the rain.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes our mind is very clear like a blue sky. We have so much happiness. We practice walking meditation with our brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and feel so happy. Our hearts are at peace and open, with a lot of space and freedom like the blue sky. We feel light and free, and we smile. We are kind to everyone. We make ourselves happy and we make others happy. If we practice mindfulness on days like that, our happiness will increase, and so will the happiness of those around us. We know how to benefit from the times when our mind is as clear as the vault of the blue sky without any clouds. That is a very important practice.

But there are also times when our mind is not clear. It is not at peace, it is not free. We have worries, afflictions, and sadness in us, like the sky has clouds. We cannot see the blue sky of our minds anymore. We see only clouds in all directions.

Sometimes we are not angry or in despair, but our heart is full of clouds. This is a very common state of mind—the absence of happiness. Just a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of sadness, and we don't know whether it is real anxiety or real sadness. We know that it's not happiness, but we are not sure that it's suffering. We're bored. Everything is too ordinary; nothing is clear or bright. As the poet said, "Today the flowers rise high, and I am sad. I don't know why." When a day passes with that kind of sadness and boredom, it's a terrible waste. We want to get beyond that sadness and boredom, and touch the blue sky.

In the sutra, the Buddha taught us the way of changing the peg. When we have a mental formation that we don't like very much, we can change it with another mental formation, like a carpenter changing a peg that holds two planks of wood together. The carpenter hammers a new peg into the place where the rotten peg is; the rotten peg goes out. That is changing the peg. When we are bored, we can change the peg by bringing another kind of mind along, a mind that is fresher, happier. Boredom has arisen because this freshness has not yet manifested. Now, what can we do for this freshness to take the place of our sadness and boredom? An elder brother or sister can help us, or a younger brother or sister can help us. They can rescue us from our sadness. That person is as fresh and joyful as a morning bird. That person comes and takes our hand, and leads us out of our sadness, our darkness. Thanks to the presence of the Sangha, thanks to a fellow practitioner, we are able to get out of this darkness. Or maybe we can do it on our own. We have the sutras, poems, practices, and short stories that can help us develop positive mental formations. In this way, we "change the peg."

There is another aspect of the practice. Instead of changing the peg, we allow the feeling to stay, because our desire to change the peg immediately sometimes has a negative side to it. When we have some kind of sadness or anxiety, no happiness, we should embrace our sadness, our anxiety. Don't be in a hurry to get rid of it. We should ask, "My mental formation, are you suffering or not? Are you my enemy, my little mental formation?" Don't treat it like an enemy. Don't be in a hurry to find a way to oppress it. Embrace it and allow it to stay. "Dear mental formation, I know you are there. Now stay with me a little bit. Are you really suffering?"

Our mind is like the sky. Sometimes the sky just has blueness, sometimes it has clouds. Why do we have to be so anxious? The Earth has different climates and weather, and our mind does too. The sky is changeable and people are also changeable. There is morning rain, thunder, sunshine. There are times when the sky is cloudy, times when it is dull, times when it is blue and clear. Some people have boredom or sadness from time to time. It's quite normal. We say to our boredom or our sadness, "I know you are there." It's okay. And we have to be happy, although the feeling is sadness. We accept that this is real. This sadness is real, this anxiety is real. It couldn't be anything else. So our new attitude is to embrace it, to be its friend. And then, it becomes very easy to bear. It's just anxiety or sadness, and it's not so difficult to bear.

Don't think that happiness is the absence of all suffering. If we understand it like that, we have not understood happiness. We don't have to oppress or push all our suffering out of us in order to have happiness. We can have happiness if our suffering is still within us. It's like gardening. If we are good gardeners, if we garden organically, we know our garden will have flowers, and it will have garbage. If there are flowers, there is garbage. A good gardener will never burn the garbage or dump it somewhere else. They keep the garbage in order to make com­post. The garbage, the compost makes the flowers and fruits of the garden grow better. If we want to have the vegetables and the fruit, we must have the garbage.

As practitioners, we know that our minds are gardens. In our minds, there are positive, pleasant mental formations, and there are negative, unpleasant mental formations. To be good gardeners, we need to have a heart of great understanding. We have to accept both the flowers and the garbage in our garden. When we see garbage, we are not angry or sad, because we know the garbage can always be transformed into flowers.

We may want to push away unpleasant mental formations, to transform them as quickly as possible. But I suggest that when the sky of your mind is cloudy, you practice to give rise to a kind of caring. Return to that mental formation, make its acquain­tance. "Mental formation, are you my suffering? Are you my enemy? I know you are my friend. You have been my friend in the past, you are my friend in the present, and you will be my friend in the future. So we should learn how to live together with peace and joy, and with a non-dualistic attitude." It is not possible to have flowers without compost, without garbage. It is not possible to have happiness without sadness. Because of our suffering, we really know how to maintain our happiness. Some days, our cloudiness lasts a long time, and then, when the sun comes out, we see how wonderful it is. To accept the rainy days is very important.

When it rains, we are not afflicted, we are not suffering. We accept the rain. We cannot go outside. We close the door to keep warm. We have our lunch and our tea inside. Our mind is the same. When our mind is clear, we do different things than we do when our mind is cloudy. We should not be afraid. If our mind is dull, we know how to practice. If it is clear, we know how to practice. We do not oppose any kind of mind. When we sit down with our dull mental formation with all our caring and love, we will begin to understand it, and we will say, "Cloudy mental formation, I really need you. Because of you, I have the capacity to see my beautiful mental formations. And I don't want to oppress you. You are not my enemy. I know you are necessary for the manifesta­tion and growth of positive mental formations." When we know how to take hold of our cloudy mental formations and do walking meditation with them, then quite naturally, the situation becomes easier to bear. We no longer have a desire to push it away. We just want to take its hand and look deeply at it. Then the situation will become more bearable and we can accept a day that is rainy and windy very easily. That is my practice.

This practice is based on the non-dualistic way of looking at things. I asked a very young sister, "Is your mind sometimes cloudy like the sky today?" She replied, "Yes." She is still very young, but she still has cloudy days in her mind. I asked, "What do you do when you have those cloudy days in your mind? Tell me." She said she was not worried, because although she was still very young, she had the experience of those moments in the past, and they always give way to clear moments later. So they do not disturb her. She did not have to push them away, and she was not anxious about her cloudy mind. She also has the seeds of happiness. And her elder brothers and sisters have seeds of happiness and they can water her seeds. When seeds of happiness manifest, the cloudiness disappears.

A famous nun in the eleventh century wrote a gatha. She said, "Birth, sickness, old age, and death are just everyday things. Why do we always pray to be liberated from them? If we spend our whole time trying to get away from birth, sickness, old age, and death, we will just be more caught in them." If we can take the hand of birth, sickness, old age, and death, it's no problem. But if we want to run away, we want to push away, we will be caught even more, because in that attitude is struggling. That is the dualistic view, and we get caught.

Our method is not to have that dualistic attitude in our practice, but to find a way to look at our mental formation with the eyes of non-dualism, with love, as a friend. We must know how to invite that suffering to sit down with us, and ask, "My dear suffering, what is your nature? Are you my enemy?" We will take the hand of our suffering and do walking meditation, sitting meditation. And we know that the suffering will help us see and experience peace and joy, liberation and happiness. We have to be grateful to our suffering, because without suffering, we cannot grow up and have the capacity to accept the great joy of liberation. Therefore, the attitude of running away from, destroying, or oppressing our suffering is not an intelligent attitude.

One day in waking meditation, I embraced my state of mind, and I asked, "Are you really suffer­ing?" It wasn't really suffering. It was just kind of a normal thing, like a cloud in the sky. After the rain, there will be sunshine, and after the sunshine, there will be rain. And I could see there was no need to get rid of this mental formation. "I accept you as you are. I can be happy with you." And therefore, it didn't make me suffer anymore. I could live with it very naturally, as something wonderful. "Your presence is natural. I accept you as you are." I invite you to practice this way, and you will see it is a wonderful practice.

mb27-dharma2b

I would like to offer you an exercise. It may take weeks to do; it may take days. It's up to you. It's not the kind of homework you do with a pencil and a sheet of paper. You will have to do it with a lot of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and mindful breathing. You may like to ask for help from another brother or sister, so you can do the work in a deeper way. The focus of the exercise is a period of time you considered hard for you. This difficult time belongs to the past, but you are grounded in the present moment. You bring the past into the present moment, and consider that moment as the object of your inquiry, the object of your meditation. Practice looking deeply into it. This lesson is not the work of the intellect. The intellect can play a certain role in this exercise, but you need your heart. You need your mindfulness, concentration, and insight—body and mind united—in order to practice looking deeply and to recognize every aspect of the crisis.

First, look at the event in space and time, and describe it. When did it start? How long did it last? Where did it happen? How did it happen? What triggered that difficult period? Look at the elements within you that helped trigger that difficult moment, and the elements without—around you—that helped trigger it. Did it come out of the blue? What ground served as its base for manifestation? Look deeply to recognize the roots of that affliction, of that difficult period of time. Some elements are close, and you can easily recognize them. Some elements are far away, rooted in the past, maybe in the time of your parents or ancestors.

You can always ask another person to help you to identify the elements that came together and brought you to that difficult period of time. When you feel you have finished, you may tell yourself that there must be more. If you practice looking more deeply, you can identify other elements as the roots of the affliction. And you can always rely on the Sangha eyes, on your brothers and sisters in the Dharma to help you to see more clearly. How did you feel? How did you behave in terms of thought, words, action? How did you react? You acted and reacted. You need a lot of concentration. Remember how you behaved in terms of thinking, speech, and action. And again, you can ask your friend who was there, "Dear friend, how did I look at that period of time?" You have to bow to him, "Please, please, help." And he will help you see yourself. Your eyes alone may not be enough. You need the Sangha eyes to see the situation better. In Plum Village, we know that any exercise could be initiated by ourselves, but the work of looking deeply, of having deeper insight, deeper understanding, can be supported by our brothers and sisters in the Dharma. When you do this exercise, please go to the brothers and sisters who were with you during the difficult time, and ask them to help you look and reveal all aspects of the crisis, both inside and outside.

mb27-dharma3

You were suffering. How did you feel in your heart, in your body? Did you apply the teaching you have received in order to calm down, to get relief? Or did you just allow the suffering to overwhelm you? Did you ask for help from your brothers, from your sisters, from your teacher? Or did you just allow yourself to be seized by your suffering, and become a victim of your suffering? You have to be honest with yourself.

What if, in the difficult moment, you tried walking meditation or sitting meditation, but it didn't help at all? Why didn't it help? Did you ask for help? Did you tell your big brother that you tried hard with the walking, the sitting, but did not feel relief? Did you lose your faith in the practice? Because in difficult moments, you would rely on your practice to get better, and if you did not succeed, you may tell yourself that the practice is not effective, and you lose some trust in the practice. You have to look at all these things with courage.

Did you blame the other person, the person who you believe triggered Hell for you? Or did you blame the situation? You lost your confidence in the Dharma; you lost your confidence in the Sangha. Your faith in the Dharma and the Sangha became very weak, and you lost the confidence in your practice, because you did not get quick relief after some time trying. It did not happen. Did you blame the other person? Did you blame the situation? Did you blame the Sangha?

And in your suffering, did you have the tendency to punish the other person, or punish the Sangha? Did you have the idea of punishing, even if you did not do anything to punish? If you believe that the other person made you suffer, it's natural that you want to make him or her suffer a little bit, so you can get relief. You may believe that punishing him or her, or the Sangha will give you a little relief. That's a natural tendency of humans.

Did you have the idea of shutting off from everyone? You no longer wanted to have communication with other people. Did you have the idea of boycotting the Sangha as a form of punishment? "I don't want to talk to them anymore. I hate everyone. They are not really my brothers or sisters. They didn't know how to be compassionate and understanding." Did you want to punish by shutting yourself off from the Sangha? "I don't want to see them. I don't want to talk to them. I don't want to listen to them. I have suffered so much." Did you have the idea of running away? Just quitting? Running away is a form of punishment. "Because the Sangha is not nice to me, I run away. I don't appreci­ate you." If not the Sangha, but your partner or your family, your society or your church, it's the same.

In your suffering, you might have felt that you are completely, absolutely alone. Cut off. No one in the Sangha was able to understand you. No sharing of suffering was possible. Did you intend to look for someone who can share your anger, your suffering, your fear? Because the tendency is that when you get angry with someone, you have the tendency to blame that someone for having made you suffer, and you want someone else to support your view that that person is bad, that he or she always makes us suffer. So, did you seek for an ally? Did you find someone who supported you that way, who agreed with you that the other person is impossible, the other person is always making other people suffer? Did you get relief when you found someone like that? Or were you lucky to find someone who did not support your view, but helped you practice looking more deeply, in order to understand the problem more deeply?

Did anyone sit close to you and say, "Dear friend, I know that you suffer. I am here for you. I support you in the practice." And did anyone tell you that the best way to handle the situation is with compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are the instruments of the bodhisattva. If you apply your compassion and your understanding to the situation, you will get relief very quickly. Anything you do will come from understanding or compassion. The act of blaming isn't motivated by understanding and compassion. The act of punishing isn't motivated by understanding and compassion. Shutting off from others, running away, all these things do not seem to be motivated by understanding and compassion.

What will you do if you are plunged into that situation again? Would you do the same things? Or would you behave differently? Have you learned anything from that time when you suffered so much? How did you come out of it? Did you do anything to get out, or did it just die out slowly, the difficult moment, that difficult period? Did something happen or did someone intervene so that the period of Hell ended? How did it stop—abruptly or slowly? You have to remember, because everything is imperma­nent, even your suffering.

Did anyone remind you during that period of time that the suffering is going to end? It will not last forever. Did anyone remind you of that? Suffering, like any other thing, is impermanent. And we know that suffering will end some day. You have to remember that. Because during the time of suffering, we may think that it will last forever and you will not be able to survive the suffering. It's like a strong emotion, a storm. The storm always stays for some time, and any storm will stop after some time. Your suffering is the same. Did anyone remind you of that?

Every time you suffer, you have to remember that suffering is impermanent. Suffering will not be there forever. Seeing this, you get relief already. "I wish that it would not stay too long. I know it will die, but I wish it would die quickly." But wishing is not the only thing you can do. You can do something in order to speed up the ending of the suffering. How did you get out of your difficult moment? Did it end by itself? Did someone help you? Did something happen to rescue you? Or did you get out of it because you had already hit the bottom? And when you hit the bottom, you begin to emerge again.

This is a very important exercise. We have to do it totally, as deeply as possible, because we can learn a lot. Through the practice of looking deeply, transformation will take place. After you finish the exercise, you know that the next time you suffer will be different. You know how to go through it in a much lighter way, smiling. And you are no longer afraid. Difficult moments may come, but you know how to handle them.

Bodhisattvas are not afraid, because they know how to deal with the storms, the difficulties. They know how to handle these difficulties. Bodhisattvas are not people who don't have difficulties. Bodhisattvas are those who know how to handle the difficult times. You are a student of the bodhisattvas, or you want to become a bodhisattva yourself. Therefore, you have to learn to hear with your eye, to look with your ear, to listen with your tongue, to speak with your body, to take care, because bodhisattvas are always using their eyes, their ears, their tongues, their bodies, and their minds to get through the difficult moments.

When you have understanding and compassion, you only think in a way that can bring you space and relief. You will only say things that can bring more harmony and relief, and you will only do things that can bring about relief and reconciliation. And the most important thing to do is to generate more understanding and compassion. If you know how to apply them in the three levels of action—thinking, speaking, and acting—then the relief can come very quickly. Reconciliation can take place very quickly.

In the future, you are likely to be plunged into a period of time like that again. If you are not prepared, you will suffer just like the last time. So look deeply at this difficult time, and prepare so that when an event like that happens again, you'll be more ready to handle it. And you have a brother or a sister who will be able to step in and help you go in the direction of understanding and compassion. When you begin to think and act and speak in terms of compassion, peace begins to settle in you and relief comes very quickly. These are the experiences of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And those of us who have practiced know that in these moments, understanding and compassion should be generated by you and by the people who practice with you. The energy of under­standing and compassion can bring relief right away. It can shorten the period of crisis, so you begin to experience joy again.

When you were in school writing a thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation, you spent one year or even two years to write on this project. But what you get is only a diploma. This exercise is very important. If you do it totally and deeply, you get liberation, you get happiness. So invest yourself into the practice. Out of our success and our insight, we can help many people around us. This is not a dissertation to be submitted to a teacher; this is a real practice. This is a gift you make to yourself, to society, and to the world. Whether you can help people, society, living beings in the future depends on the success you get in this kind of practice. So invest yourself entirely into the exercise, and if you want to share it with Thay, please don't hesitate to do so. If you want to share it with another brother or sister, please do so. This is not for a degree or a diploma, this is for your libera­tion. your happiness, and the liberation and happiness of many, many people.

Photos by Nicholaes Roosevelt.

PDF of this article

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

Dropping My Worries

By Leah Matsui The plans for my trip to America were jampacked: a seven-day mindfulness retreat with Amie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald, three days with my beloved aunt in Florida, and a meeting with my mother—the first in 24 years. I anticipated Florida as a high point—Aunt Helene and me drinking iced tea under the palm trees and reminiscing about my darling stepmother who died last January. It was a great scenario of peace, reconciliation, and comfort, especially for me. A perfect plan for happiness.

Imagine my shock when the day before my departure, I received news that Aunt Helene's only daughter had just had surgery for a malignant brain tumor! A second surgery would take place the day I planned to arrive in Palm Beach. My plans flew out the window.

Ironically, a few weeks before I had spoken about wanting to become a "big river" as the Buddha taught, with the capacity to absorb and transform suffering with ease. But in this moment, with plans dashed, I was a tiny stream inundated by a storm of emotions. As I sat in front of the Buddha in our living room, my mind whirled. "Should I go straight to Florida? Cancel the trip? Who can help us? Can my cousin survive? Can my aunt survive? Can I survive this suffering?" One decision was made for me—no part of the bargain air ticket from Japan could be changed. My aunt said, "Come anyway, Leah." But there was a chance she would be out of the state, consulting with specialists when I arrived.

Out of the confusion, I realized that the three Jewels —Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—are on-call 24 hours a day, but that it was up to me to make the call. First, I would be at a retreat. After the retreat, I could contact our teacher the Buddha, or Dharma brothers and sisters if things became turbulent. So I felt ready to go and meet whatever circumstances arose. The only meditator in my family, I planned to go as a "good Buddhist." Maybe I could be a "Compassion Distribution Center" in the midst of crisis. Maybe my practice could help others.

Many things worked favorably for my cousin, and when I landed in Palm Beach, my aunt was waiting. Luckily, as soon as we hugged at the airport, my preconceived notion that I was on a "mission of mercy" disappeared. I was able to hug my aunt in the present moment. I was able to be myself and she felt just like herself in my arms.

Aunt Helene and I have been talking about feelings since I was three and she was sixteen. Now, forty years later, we were together in Florida, talking and listening from the heart. Anchored in the present by conscious breathing, I was able to relax my grip on how things "should" be. I felt joy and gratitude for my aunt's smile, the melon pink sunset, and the fact that my cousin had survived this day. Before bed that night, Aunt Helene and I practiced hugging meditation.

Early the next morning, I sat in meditation. Then, walking into the Florida dawn, I met a wild jackrabbit. My aunt prepared "American Bagels" for breakfast—a real treat. I gave her a Japanese Shiatsu hand massage. Later, my cousin called. She was out of intensive care and very upset. She was losing big clumps of hair. We talked, and for me, it was one of the deepest interactions I've ever had with her. She asked for a hat. "Please," she said, "so I won't be embarrassed in the hospital."

That afternoon, my aunt and I went hat shopping. It was tough for me as we started out. I have always admired my cousin's beautiful hair. On this shopping trip, only the present moment could offer peace. "When you live a long time, there are a lot of ups and downs," my aunt told me. We found the perfect hat in a surf shop, and then enjoyed some delicious iced tea.

Nothing that day went according to my "plans" for happiness, but for me it was the best day and the worst day at the same time. There was no need to be the Buddhist of the family or to hand out any prepackaged compassion. My aunt and I took turns, each sometimes embodying terror or equanimity. We were both in touch with plenty of genuine peace during the storm.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the conditions for happiness are right before us. He often stresses that "happiness is being fully alive in the present moment." I have always been moved by the possibilities this teaching offers. But until recently, it has just been an idea. We each study and practice the Dharma at our own pace. On this trip, it was my turn to really practice dwelling deeply in the present and letting go of worries and plans.

Looking back now, I see that expectations gave in to reality, and with that came fear and confusion. The surf was up, the waves were rough, but the anchor of the present held me firm and stable. On the retreat, Arnie Kotler had quoted Dogen-zenji: "Every day is a good day." And so it was for me. Thanks to the Buddha's teaching, I was able to open up to the present, and enjoy the gift of three wonderful days in Florida.

As of June 2000, Cousin Alicia is back home, a joyful wife and mother of two. Officially cancerfree, to me, she is more beautiful than ever. May all beings be protected and safe.

Leah Matsui, True Light of Awakening, practices with the Sazanami Sangha in Kumamoto, Japan.

PDF of this article

Here Is the Pure Land. The Pure Land Is Here.

By  Sister Annabel One day,  Queen Vaidehi asked the Buddha , "Is the place with no suffering very far away?" The Buddha replied, "No, it is not far away." And then the Buddha taught the queen how to touch the land of Great Happiness in her own heart and in her own mind.

We talk about "the Pure Land." In Sanskrit, the word is "Sukhavati. " Sukha means happiness; vati means having: "The Place Which Has Happiness." In the Chinese tradition, it is translated as the Pure Land, perhaps because of the nature of the writings about that place. These writings put us in touch with things we call pure. The Prajnaparamita writings were probably composed round about the same time as the Pure Land writing, and they say "No defiled, no immaculate." And yet we talk about the Pure Land in Buddhism.

In the Pure Land, there are many kinds of wonderful birds. Let us think about a bird. The bird's song sounds very pure, very beautiful. But we know the bird has to eat, and the food that the bird eats has waste matter, which we would consider impure. The sutra doesn't tell us whether birds in the Pure Land eat or not. But if they do, there must be bird droppings in the Pure Land, which means that the Pure Land wouldn't be quite so pure. Perhaps that is why the people who composed the Heart of the Prajnaparamita say, "No defiled" and "No immaculate." We know that if there isn't defiled, there can't be immaculate.

To understand the teachings of the Pure Land, we need to understand about Buddhist psychology. We need to understand that the store consciousness contains all the seeds-seeds of purity and impurity, seeds of happiness and suffering. We need to learn skillful ways of touching the seeds of happiness and purity in us, particularly when we feel overwhelmed by impurity and suffering. The Buddha and other spiritual ancestral teachers have helped us find ways to touch the seeds of purity.

The Buddha gave teachings about places where there was a lot of happiness. He sometimes pointed to a city like Kushinagara, the city where the Buddha later passed away, and said that in former times, this place was a place of great happiness. He would describe how the people lived there in a lot of happiness. Probably some ancestral teacher put together the Sukhavati Sutras based on some of the things the Buddha had said about lands of great happiness.

The Sukhavati Sutras and the Avatamsaka Sutra may seem very strange when we read for the first time. We read descriptions of trees that have jewels for their leaves, flowers, and fruit, and descriptions of water with eight virtuous qualities- clarity, sweetness, purity, coolness, limpidity, etc. These descriptions are not for us to consider intellectually. We do not read the Pure Land Sutras or the Avatamsaka Sutra with an intellectual mind. But when we read them, the descriptions touch the seeds of purity in us. For instance, we do not see leaves of jewels on the  trees here. In autumn, the leaves here fall to the earth, decompose, and become one with the Earth again, whereas, a jewel doesn't decompose. But actually, if we look deeply into it, a jewel comes from decomposed material, because the mineral realms are also made up of the plant realms. When we walk among the trees in the autumn on this planet Earth, we see the beautiful red and yellow colors like jewels shining in the sunlight. But sometimes, we don't bring our mind to the presence of the trees, because we are lost in our worries or regrets. When we have been reading the Pure Land Sutras on a regular basis, then something in the depth of our consciousness knows that a tree is very precious, as precious as the most precious jewels. So whenever we meet a tree in mindfulness, we remember that it is precious, and we can be there with it in the present moment. And when we are really there in the present moment, we are already in the Pure Land.

There are different levels of belief in the Pure Land, and the highest level of Pure Land teaching is that your mind is the Pure Land, the Pure Land is available in your mind. The ancestral teachers put  together the Pure Land Sutras with a kind of wisdom that helps us be in touch, and helps us to have the deep aspiration to be in a Pure Land and also, to help to build a Pure Land.

In Plum Village, we often have to write assignments for Thay. One year, Thay gave us the assignment to write about the Pure Land that we wanted to be part of. He told us to give a very clear description. What kind of trees would be there? What kind of activities would there be? Everybody wrote about a slightly different Pure Land, so we know that there are hundreds of thousands of Pure Lands. In each of our minds, there is the Pure Land, and we can go about establishing the Pure Land. You may like to write about this also. It's a very enjoyable assignment.

When we think about our own Pure Land, we have to come back to Queen Vaidehi's question. "Lord Buddha, is there a place where there is no suffering?" Out of compassion, the Buddha said,  "Yes, there is." Queen Vaidehi's heartfelt aspiration to be in that place of no suffering came about because she  had suffered so much. If she hadn't suffered, the idea of a place where  there is no suffering would never have occurred to her. So suffering and no-suffering go together, in the same way defiled and immaculate go together. They are not absolute realities; they are only relative realities. And sometimes the Buddha has to teach the relative truth in order to be compassionate, to help, and to encourage. And that is why the Buddha said there is a place where there is no suffering.

But we know that Queen Vaidehi would also want to help those who are suffering. In the Pure Land, we have many bodhisattvas. The great joy of being in the Pure Land is that we are near many bodhisattvas. And if a bodhisattva wants to help those who are suffering, there must be people who are suffering. Therefore, in the Pure Land, there are people who are suffering for us to help. When we wrote about our Pure Land in Plum Village, many of us wrote about how the bodhisattvas helped others. One person even had a hospital in the Pure Land.

mb28-Here

When you come to a Dharma talk, you feel very happy. Maybe you feel you are most happy when you are sitting and listening to the Dharma, because the Dharma is deep and lovely. It is beautiful in the beginning, it is beautiful in the middle, and beautiful at the end. In the Sukhavati Sutra, they say that in the Pure Land, you are always hearing teaching of the Dharma. But you don't just hear the Buddha Amitabha- the Buddha Of Limitless Light, the Buddha who founded the Pure Land. You don't just hear him giving teachings. You hear the birds giving teachings, you hear the trees giving teachings. Every time the wind rustles in the trees, that is a teaching of the Dharma; and every time the birds sing, that is a teaching of the Dharma. And when the people hear the wind rustling in the tree, they stop and remember the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the other teachings of the Buddha.

There is a song written by Thay in Vietnamese, and then translated into English and put to music: "Here Is the Pure Land." I practice this song when I do jogging meditation. If I sing it in Vietnamese, then every syllable is one footstep. And I can also sing it in English and jog at the same time. It's very wonderful to be jogging in the Pure Land.

The first words of the song are "Here is the Pure Land." And the second sentence is "The Pure Land is here." This is in the  tradition of the ancestral teachers. "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." We say things twice like that because our  consciousness receives the first word of a sentence as the most important word. So if we just said, "Form is emptiness," our mind concentrates more on the word "form" than it does on "emptiness." So we then say "Emptiness is form," so our mind is equally concentrated on form and emptiness. In the same way, if we say "Here is the Pure Land," our mind is more concentrated on the word "here." And if we say "The Pure Land is here," our mind is more concentrated on "the Pure Land." So the words of the song allow us to be concentrated on both.

Watering the seeds of purity in our store consciousness helps establish a good balance between purity and impurity. We have the tendency sometimes to look on everything as being impure and we need to put the balance right. We practice watering the seeds of happiness for the same reason. We have the tendency to look on the planet Earth as a place of suffering, and we need to put the balance right by seeing the happiness also.

When the Buddha taught Queen Vaidehi, she asked him "If the Pure Land is not very far away, if it's right here, how do I practice to be there?" The Buddha gave her a guided meditation in which she could touch the Pure Land. It's a little bit like the guided meditation "Breathing in, I am a flower; Breathing out, I feel fresh." He taught her to be in touch with the lotus flower in her own consciousness, the lotus flower blooming. He taught her to be in touch with the lake of the most clear, sweet water in her consciousness. In that way, she could begin by touching the seeds of happiness in her own consciousness. Then, when she was outside, walking in nature, she would also touch that world and feel happy.

Each of us has the capacity to build Pure Land a little bit in their own home, or by building a practice center, or by joining a practice center, or in their local Sangha. The local Sangha where we only meet each other once a week, or perhaps a bit more, is also a place where we can build Pure Land together. We can decide what kind of environment we can make. How can we arrange the sitting meditation hall in order to water the seeds of Right Attention in everyone who comes into the meditation hall?

The idea of attention in Buddhist psychology is quite important. It's called manaskara in Sanskrit, and is one of the 51 mental formations. It's one of the  first five mental formations, which we call "the universal mental formations." Universal means that they are always occurring, they're always there. We are always giving our attention to something. We know that we can give our attention in an appropriate way, or we can give our attention to what is inappropriate. So we have Appropriate Attention and Inappropriate Attention.

When we go into the town or turn on the television, we need to be very careful what we give our attention to. You may see newspapers with words and images on them, and even though you don't stop to read them, if you give your attention to them, they can sometimes water the seeds in your consciousness that are not altogether wholesome. All kinds of information can flow into our consciousness through our eyes and our ears. We don't have to intentionally  receive that information; it may still flow in. This is the meaning of universal mental formation (sarvatiaga); it is happening all the time.

So, we should make our environment a place where everything surrounding us helps nurture the best, the most refreshing things in us, things that can make us and other people happy. We can all do a little bit of this work-in our garden, in our home, in our school, in the place where we work. This is part of making a Pure Land.

Sister Annabel Laity is the Abbess of Maple Forest Monastery and Green Mountain Dharma Center in Hartland-Four Corners, Vermont. This article is excerpted from a Dharma talk she gave in San DiegoCalifornia in September 2000.

mb28-Here2

PDF of this article

 

 

 

 

Dharma Talk: Cultivating Compassion, Responding to Violence

A Dharma talk offered by Thich Nhat Hanh Berkeley Community Theatre, Berkeley, California September 13, 2001

Thich Nhat Hanh and 80 monks and nuns began the public talk with a ceremony to send the energy of peace and compassion to all those who were suffering from the events of September — those who had passed away and those who were presently struggling to survive; the families and, friends and the whole world that was deeply affected by the violent actions in New York City, Washington, D.C. and rural Pennsylvania on that day.

The ceremony began with an in­cense offering. Usually the incense is offered facing a Buddha altar but in this moment Thich Nhat Hanh chose to face the audience, showing that all of humanity can be an altar worthy of respect. Holding the stick of incense in two hands, Thich Nhat Hanh offered these opening words:

Let us please offer humanity the best flowers and fruits of our practice: lucidity, solidity, brotherhood, understanding and compassion. Breathing, I am aware that most of us have not been able to overcome the shock. We are aware that there is a tremen­dous amount of suffering going on, a tremendous amount of fear, anger, and hatred. But we know deep in our heart that anger and hatred cannot be responded to with anger and hatred. Respond­ing to hatred with hatred will only cause hatred to multiply a thousandfold. Only with compassion can we deal with hatred and anger.

In this very moment we invoke all of our spiritual teachers, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, to be with us helping us to embrace the suffering of America as a nation, as a country, to embrace the world as a nation, as a country, and to embrace humanity as a family. May we become lucid and calm so that we know exactly what to do and what not to do to make the situation worse. We know that there are those of us who are trying to rescue and to support and we are grateful to them.

There are those who are crying, who are suffering terribly in this very moment. Let us be there for all of them and embrace them tenderly with all our compassion, with our understanding, with our awareness. We know that there are many of us who are trying to see to it that violence will not happen again. We know that responding to hatred and violence with compassion seems to be the only path for all of us.

Let us bring our attention to our in breath and our out breath. Those of you who find it comfortable to join your palms, please do so as we offer this incense to all our spiritual teachers and we ask them to support us in this very difficult moment.

Opening the Door for Communication 

My dear friends, this summer in Plum Village where we live and practice, there were about 1,800 people who came and practiced with us during the Summer Opening and among them were a few dozen Palestinians and Israelis. We sponsored these lovely people, hoping they would have an occasion to practice walking mediation together, to share a meal together, to listen to the Dharma and to sit down and listen to each other. They were young people ranging from twenty-five to forty years old. They spent two weeks with us. They participated in all activities with us, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma talks, everything. At the end they came up and gave a report to the whole community. It was a very lovely report. Only two weeks of practice had helped them to transform very deeply. We looked up and we saw a community of brothers and sisters. "Dear community, dear Thay, when we first came to Plum Village we couldn't believe it. Plum Village is some­thing that does not look real to us because it is too peaceful."

In Plum Village, our friends did not feel the kind of anger, tension and fear that they feel constantly in the Middle East. People look at each other with kind eyes, they speak to each other lovingly. There is peace, there is communication and there is brotherhood and sisterhood. That did not seem real to them. One member of the delegation wrote to me and said, "Thay, we spent two weeks in paradise." Another person wrote to me before leav­ing Plum Village and said, "Thay, this is the first time that I believe peace is possible in the Middle East." We did not do much. We just embraced our friends who had come from the Middle East as brothers and sisters. They learned to walk mindfully with us, to breathe in and out mindfully with us, to try to stop and to be there in the present moment to get in touch with what is pleasant, nour­ishing, and healing around them and within themselves. The practice is very simple. Supported by a practicing Sangha it was possible for them to succeed and to feel that peace and happiness could be touched within each of themselves.

The basic practice is to do everything mindfully, whether you breathe or walk or brush your teeth or use the toilet or chop the vegetables. We try to do everything mindfully, to establish ourselves in the here and the now in order to touch life deeply. That is the basic daily practice. On that ground our friends learned to practice listening deeply to the other people. We offered our support because many of us are capable of listening with com­passion. We sat with them and we practiced listening with com­passion in our heart. People had the chance to speak about their fear, their anger, their hatred and despair. They felt for the first time that they were listened to, they were being understood and that could relieve a lot of suffering within them.

Those who spoke were trained to speak in such a way that could be understandable and accepted by the other side. We have the right and the duty to tell everything within our heart. With the practice of mindful breathing we try to say it in a calm way, not condemning anyone, not judging anyone. Just telling the other side all the suffering that has happened to us, to our children, to our societies, all our fear and our despair. We learn to listen deeply, opening our heart with the intention to help the other people to express themselves. We know that listening like that is very healing. Two weeks of practice of deep listening and using loving speech brought a lot of joy, not only to the group but to all of us in Plum Village. Before going back to the Middle East, our friends promised us that they will continue the practice. On the local level, they will organize weekly meetings where they can walk, sit together and breathe together, sharing a meal and listen to each other. And every month they will have a national event to do the same. We promise that we will offer our support.

We know that the practice of compassionate listening and the practice of loving speech can bring us a lot of relief from our suffering. We can open the door of our heart and restore commu­nication. This is a very important practice. We suffer and we do violence to each other just because we cannot understand each other's suffering. We believe that we are the only people who suffer. We think that the other side does not suffer. We believe that they only enjoy our suffering. That is why the basic practice of peace is the practice of restoring communication. For that we should use deep listening, compassionate listening and kind and loving speech. It would be very beneficial to set up an environ­ment like the one in Plum Village so that this kind of loving speech and deep listening could be possible.

Negotiations for Peace 

When you come to a negotiation table you want peace, you have hope for peace. But if you do not master the art of compas­sionate listening and loving speech it is very difficult for you to get concrete results. In us there is an obstruction of hatred, fear and pain which prevents us from communicating, understanding one another and making peace.

I beg the nations and the governments who would like to bring peace to the Middle East to pay attention to this fact. We need them to organize so that peace negotiations will be fruitful. They should know that creating a setting where the practice of restoring communication can be done is a very important factor for success. They may have to spend one month or two just for people to listen to each other. We are not in a hurry to reach a conclusion or an agreement about what to do for peace to be possible. One month or two months is nothing. With the practice of deep listening and kind and loving speech it can dissolve a lot of bitterness, a lot of fear and prejudice in the hearts of the people. Then when people are capable of communicating with each other, peace will be much easier.

I remember a number of years ago when I went to India and had the opportunity to meet with the chairperson of the Indian parliament, Mr. Narayan. We discussed the practice of compas­sionate listening and kind speech in the congress. He was very attentive to what I had to say. I said, "Mr. President, maybe it is good to begin every session with the practice of mindful breath­ing. Then a few lines could be read to bring awareness into everyone's mind, such as: 'Dear colleagues, the people who have elected us expect that we will communicate with each other deeply using kind and respectful speech and deep listening in order to share our insight. This will enable the congress to make the best decisions for the benefit of the nation and the people.' It may take less than one minute to read such a text. And something like the bell of mindfulness could be used. Everytime the debate is too hot, if people are insulting each other and condemning each other, then the chairperson may invite the bell of mindfulness inviting everyone to breathe in and out — breathing in calming, breathing out smiling — until the atmosphere of the congress becomes calm. Then the one who is speaking is invited to continue his or her speech."

Mr. Narayan was very attentive to what I said. He invited me to come back and address the Indian parliament on that issue. Ten days later I was leading a retreat of mindfulness in Madras and someone brought me a newspaper. There was an article an­nouncing that the President had set up a committee on communi­cation for the parliament, to develop the practice of deep listening and loving speech in the congress. In that committee different parties were represented and also the Prime Minister was included. Mr. Narayan is no longer the chair of the parliament because he has become the president of India.

I think we may like to write our senators and representatives so that in the U.S. Congress they may try to practice deep listen­ing and loving speech. I would like to vote for those who have the capacity to listen and to use loving speech. I would suggest that in the Senate and in the House of Representatives there should be a committee on deep listening and loving speech. Not only should they listen to their own colleagues in the Congress but also they should listen to the suffering of people in their own country and to the suffering of people a little bit everywhere in the world. It is not easy to listen with compassion. The quality of deep listening is the fruit of practice. If we don't train ourselves it is very difficult to listen to the other person or people. We know there are many couples who can not listen to each other. There are fathers who are incapable of communicating with their sons and daughters. There are mothers who are not able to talk to their children, even if they want to very much. They deeply wish that they could communicate with their daughter and their son or their partner but they can not do so. They may be determined to use loving speech and compassionate listening. But without training they may give up after just a few minutes of listening or trying to tell what is in their hearts. The blocks of pain and anger may be so big and important in their hearts that as they continue to listen, what they hear touches and waters the seeds of anger, of violence and of despair in them. They are no longer capable of listening anymore, even if they have a lot of willingness to do so.

For the person who is determined to speak with loving kind­ness, we know that goodwill is there. But as she or he continues to speak, the block of suffering, of despair, of irritation and of anger are touched in them. That is why very soon their speech will be full of judgment, blaming and irritation, and the other per­son cannot bear to listen. If we do not train in the art of compas­sionate listening and loving speech we cannot do it. But if we have a great determination, then five days may be enough to restore communication between the other person and ourselves. In the case of our Palestinian friends and our Israeli friends, two weeks was enough for them to understand and to accept each other as brothers and sisters. Two weeks was enough for them to have hope.

The Secret of Listening

The secret of success is that when you listen to the other person you have only one purpose. Your only purpose is to offer him or her an opportunity to empty his or her heart. If you are able to keep that awareness and compassion alive in you, then you can sit for one hour and listen even if what the other person says contains a lot of wrong perceptions, condemnations and bitter­ness. You can continue to listen because you are already pro­tected by the nectar of compassion in your heart. If you do not practice mindful breathing in order to keep that compassion alive you lose your capacity of listening. Irritation and anger will come up and the other person will see it and he or she will not be able to continue. We have the awareness that listening like this has only one purpose: allowing the other person a chance to empty his or her heart. If we are capable of keeping that awareness alive dur­ing the time of listening then we are safe, because compassion will always be there if that awareness is still there.

We do not try to correct the wrong perceptions of the other person while listening. We just say, "I am sorry you have suf­fered so much." Later on, maybe in a few days or weeks, we will find an appropriate occasion to offer some information to help the other person or people correct their perceptions. But we do not try to correct all of their misperceptions at one time. Truth heals, but it should be released in small doses over time, like a medicine. If you force the other person to drink all the medicine at one time, he will die.

I am sure that all of us here know that hatred, anger and violence can only be neutralized and healed with one substance. That is compassion. The antidote of violence and hatred is com­passion. There is no other medicine. Unfortunately, compassion is not available in supermarkets. You have to generate the nectar of compassion in your heart. The teaching of the Buddha gives us very concrete means in order to generate the energy of com­passion. If understanding is there, compassion will be born, and understanding is the fruit of looking deeply. Do we have the time to stop and look deeply into our situation, into the situation of the other person, into the situation of the other group of people? If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, by our uncertainty, by our craving, how can we have the time to stop and to look deeply into the situation? How can we look into our own situation, the situation of our beloved one, the situation of our family, of our community, of our nation and of the other nations? Looking deeply we find out that not only do we suffer, but also the other person suffers deeply. Not only our group suffers but the other group also suffers deeply. If that kind of awareness is born we will know that punishing is not the answer.

Our Basic Practice

All violence is injustice. We should not inflict that injustice on us and on the other person, on the other group of people. The one who wants to punish is inhabited by violence. The one who enjoys the suffering of the other person is inhabited by the energy of violence. We know that violence cannot be ended with violence. It is the Buddha who said that responding to hatred with hatred can only increase hatred by a thousandfold. Only by responding to hatred with compassion can we disintegrate hatred. What should we do in order for the energy of compassion to be born? That is our practice every day. How to be nourished by the nectar of compassion and the nectar of understanding? That is our basic practice.

During the war in Vietnam we suffered terribly. And yet our practice allowed us to see that our world is still beautiful with all the wonders of life available. There were moments when we wished there would be a cease-fire for twenty-four hours. if we were given twenty-four hours of peace we would be able to breathe in and out and smile to the flowers and the blue sky. And even the flowers have the courage to bloom. Twenty-four hours of peace — that is what we wanted, badly, during the time of war.

When I came to the West in 1966 to call for a cessation to the war I was not allowed by my government to go home. Suddenly I was cut off from alI my friends, my disciples, my Sangha in Vietnam. I dreamed of going home almost every night. I would wake up in the middle of the dream and realize that I was in exile. During that time I was practicing mindfulness. I practiced to be in touch with what was there in Europe and in America. I learned to be with children and adults. I learned to contemplate the trees and the singing of the birds. Everything seemed different from what we knew in Vietnam. And yet the wonders of life were avail­able there. To me the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha is always available even if suffering is still there. It is possible for us to touch the Kingdom of God in our daily life and to get nourishment and healing so that we will have enough strength and hope to repair the damage caused by violence and war. If we do not receive nourishment we will be the victims of despair. That was my awareness.

During the war in Vietnam the young people came to me many times and asked. "Thay, do you think there will be an end to the war?" I could not answer them right away. I practiced mindful breathing in and out. After a long time I looked at them and said, "My dear friends, the Buddha said everything is impermanent, including war."

Touching Suffering 

Let us practice peace and bring hope to the nation and to the world. To me the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. The Pure Land is not a place where there is no suffer­ing. I myself would not like to go to a place where there is no suffering. Because I know without suffering we will have no chance to learn how to understand and to be compassionate. It is by being in touch with suffering that we can cultivate our under­standing and our compassion. If suffering is not there, under­standing and compassion will not be there either and it will not he the Pure Land of the Buddha. It could not be the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. My definition of the Kingdom of God is the place where there is understanding and compassion. The Pure Land of the Buddha is the place where there is understanding and com­passion. We know that to cultivate understanding and compas­sion we need to be in touch with suffering.

In Plum Village we have three hamlets. In each hamlet there is a lotus pond. Every summer when you come you will see beauti­ful lotus flowers. We know that in order for the lotus to grow you need mud. You cannot plant a lotus on marble. You have to plant it on mud. Looking into the beautiful and fragrant lotus flower, you see the mud. Mud and lotus, they inter-are. Without one the other cannot be, that is the teaching of the Buddha. This is be­cause that is. Suffering is needed for understanding and compas­sion to be born. It's like garbage and flowers. Looking into a flower, you see that a flower is made only of non-flower elements: sunshine, rain, the earth, the minerals and also the compost. You can see that the element garbage is one of the non-flower ele­ments that have helped the flower to manifest herself. If you are a good practitioner, looking into the flower you can see the gar­bage in it right in the here and the now, just as you can see the sunshine and the rain in it. If you remove the sunshine from the flower, there will be no flower. If you remove the rain from the flower, the flower cannot be there. If you remove the garbage from the flower, then the flower cannot be there. Look at the beautiful lotus flower. If you remove the mud from it, it cannot be there for you. This is because that is.

Our practice is to accept suffering and to learn to transform suffering hack into hope, into compassion. We work exactly like an organic gardener. They know that it is possible to transform garbage back into flowers. Let us learn to look at our suffering, the suffering of our world, as a kind of compost. From that mud we can create beautiful, fragrant lotuses — understanding and compassion. Together we can cultivate the flower of understand­ing and compassion together. I am sure that everyone has had the feeling that the Kingdom of God is somewhere very close. The Pure Land of the Buddha is also close. All the wonders of life are there.

Nourishing Peace and Joy 

This morning I picked up a branch of flowers on the path of walking meditation and I gave it to a monk who was on my left. I told him. "This belongs to the Pure Land of the. Buddha. Only the Pure Land of the Buddha has such a beautiful branch of flowers. Only the Kingdom of God has such a miracle as this branch of flowers." The blue skies, the beautiful vegetation, the lovely face of your child, the song of the birds, all of these things belong to the Pure Land of the Buddha. If we are free enough we can step into the Kingdom of God and enjoy walking in it. It is my practice to enjoy walking in the Kingdom of God every day, to enjoy walking in the Pure Land of the Buddha every day. Even if I am aware that suf­fering is there; anger and hatred are there, it is still possible for me to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. I can tell you that there is no day when I do not enjoy walking in the Kingdom of God.

Every step should bring me peace and joy. I need it in order to continue my work, my work to build up more brotherhood, more understanding, and more com­passion. Without that kind of nourishment, how can you continue? Going back to the present moment, become fully alive. Don't run anymore. Go back to the here and the now and get in touch with the wonders of life that are available for our nourishment and healing. This is the basic prac­tice of peace. If we can do that we have enough strength and joy to help repair the damage caused by the war, by violence and hatred, by misunderstanding. And we will know exactly how to live our daily life in order not to contribute to the kind of action leading to more discrimination and more war, to more violence. Living in such a way that we can embody peace, that we can be peace in every moment of our daily life. It is possible for everyone to generate the energy of peace in every step. Peace is every step. If you know that the Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, why do you have to run anymore?

In the Gospel there is a parable of a person who discovered a treasure in a field. After that he got rid of everything in order to buy this field. When you are able to touch the Kingdom of God, to get in touch with the wonders of life that are available in the here and the now, you can very easily release everything else. You do not want to run anymore. We have been running after the objects of our desire: fame, profit, and power. We think they are essential to our happiness. But we know that our running has brought us a lot of suffering. We have not had the chance to live, to love and take care of our loved ones because we cannot stop running. We run even when we sleep. That is why the Buddha advises us to stop. According to the teaching, it is possible to be happy right in the here and the now. Going back to the here and the now with your mindful breathing and mindful walking, you will recognize many conditions of happiness that are already avail­able. You can be happy right here and now.

You know that the future is a notion. The future is made only with one substance, that is the present. If you are taking good care of the present moment, why do you have to worry about the future? By taking care of the present you are doing everything you can to assure a good future. Is there anything else to do? We should live our present moment in such a way that peace and joy may be possible in the here and the now — that love and under­standing may be possible. That is all that we can do for the fu­ture.

When we are capable of tasting true happiness and peace. it is very easy to trans­form the anger in us. We don't have to fight anymore. Our an­ger begins to dissolve in us because we are able to bring into our body and into our con­sciousness elements of peace and joy every day. Mindfulness helps us not to bring into our body and into our consciousness elements of war and violence. That is the basic practice in order to transform the anger, the fear and the violence within us.

Mindful Consumption

The Buddha spoke about the path of emancipation in terms of consumption. Perhaps you have heard of a discourse called The Discourse on the Son's Flesh. In that discourse the Buddha described four kinds of nutriments. If we know the nature of our food, if we are aware of what we are consuming every day, then we can transform the suffering that is inside of us and around us. I would like to tell you a little bit about this discourse. I wish to translate it and offer concrete exercises of practice.

The first kind of nutriment the Buddha spoke about is edible food. He advised us to eat mindfully so that compassion can be maintained in our heart. He knew that compassion is the only kind of energy that helps us to relate to other living beings, in­cluding human beings. Whatever we eat or drink, whatever we ingest in terms of edible food should not contain the toxins that will destroy our body. He used the example of a young couple who wanted to flee their country and to live in another country. The young couple brought their little boy with them and a quan­tity of food with them. But halfway through the desert they ran out of food. They knew that they were going to die. After much debate they decided to kill the little boy and to eat his flesh. The title of the sutra is, The Son's Flesh. They killed the little boy and they ate one piece of that flesh and they preserved the rest on their shoulders for the sun to dry. Every time they ate a piece of flesh of their son they asked the question, "Where is our beloved son now? Where are you, our beloved son?" They beat their chests and they pulled their hair. They suffered tremendously. But finally they were able to cross the desert and enter the other country.

The Buddha turned to his monks and asked, "Dear friends, do you think the couple enjoyed eating the flesh of their son?" And the monks said, "No, how could anyone enjoy eating the flesh of their own son?" The Buddha said, if we do not consume mindfully we are eating the flesh of our own son or daughter.

This body has been transmitted to us by our parents. If we bring into it poisons and toxins we destroy this body and we are eating the flesh of our mother, our father and our ancestors. If we destroy our body by unmindful eating and consuming we eat the flesh of our son and daughter and their children also. UNESCO reported that 40,000 children die every day because they do not have enough to eat. And many of us overeat in the West. We are eating the flesh of these children. We have been using a lot of wheat and oats in order to fabricate meat. The way we raise animals for food is very violent. We destroy Mother Earth. Eat­ing can be very violent.

Report on U.S. Resources

I have a report on how we use our land and water and for­ests in the United States of America for food.

Land: Of all agricultural land in the U.S., 87% is used to raise animals for food. That is 45% of the total land mass in the US.

Water: More than half of all the water consumed in the U.S. for all purposes is used to raise animals for food. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat. That is 25 versus 2,500 gal­lons of water. A totally vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat eating diet requires 4,000 gallons of water per day.

Pollution: Raising animals for food causes more water pollu­tion in the U.S. than any other industry. Animals raised for food produce 130 times the excrement of the entire human population, 87,000 pounds per second. Much of the waste from factory farms and slaughterhouses flows into streams and rivers, contaminat­ing water sources.

Deforestation: Each vegetarian saves an acre of trees every year. More than 260 million acres of the U.S. forests have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat. An acre of trees disappears every eight seconds. The tropical rain forests are being destroyed to create grazing land for cattle. Fifty-five square feet of rain forest may be cleared to produce just one quarter pound burger.

Resources: In the U.S. animals raised for food are fed more than 80% of the corn that we grow and more than 95% of the oats. The world's cattle alone consume a quantity of food equivalent to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, more than the entire human population on earth.

Mindfulness helps us to be aware of what is going on. Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent. We are eating our mother, our father, and our children. We are eating the Earth. That is why the Buddha proposed that we look back into our situation of consumption. We should learn to eat together in such a way that compassion can remain in our hearts. Otherwise we will suffer and we will make ourselves and all species around us suffer deeply. A Dharma discussion should be organized so that the whole society can sit down together and discuss how we produce and consume food. The way out is mindful consump­tion.

The Second Nutriment

The second kind of food that the Buddha spoke about is sensory impressions. We eat with our eyes, our ears, nose, tongue, body and mind: our six sense organs. A television program is food. A conversation is food; music is food; radio is food. When you drive through the city, even if you don't want to consume you consume anyway. What you see, what you hear is the food. Magazines are food. And these items of consumption might be highly toxic. An article in a magazine or a television program can contain a lot of violence, a lot of anger, a lot of despair. We continue to consume these poisons every day and we allow our children to consume these toxins every day. We are bringing into our consciousness a lot of poisons every day. The seeds of violence, of despair, of craving and hatred in us have been nour­ished by what we consume and have become so important. The country is getting angrier and angrier every day.

When a child finishes elementary school she has watched about 100,000 acts of violence on television, and she has seen 8,000 murders on television. That is too much. That is the sec­ond kind of food that we consume. We consume thoughts of despair. We consume ideas of craving, of hatred, of despair ev­ery day. The Buddha advises us to be mindful, to refuse the items that can bring craving, despair, hatred and violence into our con­sciousness. He used the image of a cow with skin disease. The skin disease is so serious that the cow does not seem to have any skin anymore. When you bring the cow close to a tree all the tiny living beings will come out and suck the blood on the body of the cow. When you bring the cow close to an ancient wall, all the tiny animals living inside the wall will come out and suck the blood of the cow. The cow has no means for self-protection. If we are not equipped with the practice of mindful consumption we will be like a cow without skin and the toxins of violence, despair and craving will continue to penetrate into us. That is why it is very important to wake up and to reject the kind of production and consumption that is destroying us, destroying our nation, and our young people. Every one of us has to practice. As parents, as schoolteachers, as film makers, as journalists we have to practice looking deeply into our situation and see if we are creating violence every day and if we are offering that not only to the people in our country, but also to people around the world.

The Third Nutriment

The third nutriment that the Buddha spoke of is volition. Volition is what you want to do the most, your deepest desire. Every one of us has a deepest desire. We have to identify it, we have to call it by its true name. The Buddha had a desire; he wanted to transform all his suffering. He wanted to get enlightened in order to be able to help other people. He did not believe that by being a politician he could help many people, that is why he chose the way of a monk. There are those of us who believe that happi­ness is only possible when we get a lot of money, a lot of fame, a lot of power, and a lot of sex. That kind of desire belongs to the third category of food spoken of by the Buddha.

The Buddha offered this image to illustrate his teaching: There is a young man who loves to be alive, he doesn't want to die. And yet two very strong men are dragging him to a place where there is a pit of burning charcoal and want to throw him into the glowing embers so he will die.

He resisted but he had to die because the two men were too strong. The Buddha said, "Your deepest desire will bring you either to a place where there is happiness or to hell." That is why it is very important to look into the nature of your deepest desire, namely volition. The Buddha said that craving will lead you to a lot of suffering, whether there is craving for wealth, sex, power, or fame. But if you have a healthy desire; like the desire to protect life, to protect the environment or to help people to live a simple life with time to take care of yourself, to love and to take care of your beloved ones, that is the kind of desire that will bring you to happiness. But if you are pushed by the craving for fame, for wealth, for power, you will have to suffer a lot. And that desire will drag you into hell, into the pit of glowing embers, and you will have to die.

There are people everywhere in the world that consider ven­geance as their deepest desire. They become terrorists. When we have hatred and vengeance as our deepest desire, we will suffer terribly also, like the young person who has been dragged by the two strong men to be thrown into the pit of glowing em­bers. Our deepest desire should be to love, to help and not to revenge, not to punish, not to kill. And I am confident that New Yorkers have that wisdom. Hatred can never answer hatred; all violence is injustice. Responding to violence with violence can only bring more violence and injustice, more suffering, not only to other people but suffering to ourselves. This is wisdom that is in every one of us. We need to breathe deeply, to get calm in order to touch the seed of wisdom. I know that if the seed of wisdom and of compassion of the American people could be watered regu­larly during one week or so, it will bring a lot of relief, it will reduce the anger and the hatred. And America will be able to perform an act of forgiveness that will bring about a great relief to America and to the world. That is why my suggestion is the practice of being calm, being concentrated, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already in us, and learning the art of mindful consumption. This is a true revolution, the only kind of revolution that can help us get out from this difficult situation where violence and hatred prevail.

Looking Deeply

Our Senate, our Congress has to practice looking deeply. They should help us to make the laws to prohibit the production of items full of anger, full of craving and violence. We should be determined to talk to our children, to make a commitment in our family and in our community to practice mindful consumption. These are the real practices of peace. It is possible for us to practice so that we can get the nourishment and healing in our daily life. It is possible for us to practice embracing the pain, the sorrow, and the violence in us in order to transform.

The basic practice is to be aware of what is going on. By going back to the present moment and taking the time to look deeply and to understand the roots of our suffering, the path of emancipation will be revealed to us. The Buddha said, what has come to be does have a source. When we are able to look deeply into what has come to be and to recognize its source of nutriment you are already on the path of emancipation. What has come to us may be our depression, our despair and our anger. We have been nourished by the kinds of food that are available in our market. We want to consume them. It is not without reason that our depression is there. We have invited it in by our way of unmindful consumption. Looking deeply into our ill-being, the ill-being of our society and identifying the source in terms of con­sumption — that is what the Buddha recommended. Looking deeply into our ill being and identifying the source of nutriment that has brought it into you — that is already the beginning of healing and transformation.

We have to practice looking deeply as a nation if we want to get out of this difficult situation. And our practice will help the other nations to practice. I am sure that America is very capable of punishment. You can send us a bomb; we know you are very capable of doing so. But America is great when America knows how to act with lucidity and compassion. I urge that in these days when we have not been able to overcome the tremendous shock yet, we should not do anything, we should not say anything. We should go home to ourselves and practice mindful breathing and mindful walking to allow ourselves to calm down and to allow lucidity to come, so we can understand the real roots of our suf­fering and the suffering of the world. Only with that understand­ing can compassion arise. America can be a great nation if she knows how to act with compassion instead of punishment. We offer peace. We offer the relief for transformation and healing.

Building a Spiritual Alliance between Vietnam and the United States

The trade agreement between the United States and Vietnam has been approved by the Congress. It is my deep wish that the American people and the Vietnamese people can be spiritual al­lies. We can practice compassion together. Vietnam and other countries need development, but we also badly need spiritual growth. That we can do together. We have been able to offer mindfulness retreats for war veterans. We have been able to visit prisons in America and to offer the practice and bring hope to the people in prisons. We have offered retreats for peace activists, psychotherapists, and people who work for the environment. We are trying to be your allies in spiritual growth. We know that without a spiritual dimension we cannot really improve the situa­tion of the world. We come together, like tonight, as a family in order to look deeply into our own situation and the situation of the world. There are things we can do. Practicing peace is pos­sible with every step, with every breath. It is possible that we practice together and bring hope and compassion into our daily lives and into the lives of our family, our community, our nation and the world.

Concrete Steps That America can take to Uproot Terrorism

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The proposal in brief:

Following are concrete steps that could be taken by the U.S.A. to uproot terrorism and to ensure the peace and safety of the American people and of people in nations around the world that are in relationship to America. The foundation of the whole pro­cess is communication, listening to the difficulties and experi­ences of those involved and using that understanding to inform our actions.

The first step of the process is to listen to and understand the difficulties of American people. A national Council of Sages could be created. The national Council of Sages would be com­posed of people who have experience in the practice of reconcili­ation and peace making and who are in touch with the suffering and the real situations of people in America. This national Coun­cil of Sages would function as a support for the American govern­ment and the Congress by offering advice and insight as to how to reduce the suffering of people within America.

Secondly, an international Council of Sages would be formed to create a forum for listening to the difficulties and the real situ­ations of groups and nations who are believed to be the base for terrorist activity towards the U.S.A. The understanding gained from listening and looking deeply into the situation would be the foundation for implementing concrete strategies to uproot the causes for terrorism and to begin to take actions to heal the wounds of violence and hatred that have been inflicted on the parties involved.

1. The Practice of Listening

A Council of Wise People (sages) could be formed to prac­tice listening deeply, without judgement or condemnation to the suffering of people in America. Representatives of people in America who feel they are victims of discrimination, injustice and exclusion should be invited to express themselves before the Council of Sages. People who experience exclusion may include poor people, minorities, immigrants, homeless people, Jews, Mus­lims, the elderly, people with HIV/AIDS and so on.

The Council of Sages should be made up of non-political people who have lived closely with and understand the suffering of the above mentioned people. This practice of deep listening (or compassionate listening) should be conducted in an atmo­sphere of calm and non-fear. It could last from five to eight months or longer. These sessions could be televised so that the Ameri­can people could participate in the practice. The practice will be a success if the concerned people are able to describe their fears, their anger, their hatred, their despair and their hope.

The question could be asked, "What concrete steps can the American Congress and government take to reduce the suffering of the people living in the U.S.A.?" Representatives of diverse groups in America could answer this question with details in the presence of the Council of Sages. After which the Council of Sages could make a presentation to the American government and Congress offering insight into the current situation and con­crete recommendations based on what they have heard from the representatives and their collective wisdom.

Result of the practice: Even before the government and Con­gress begins to do anything to reduce the suffering, a relief will already be obtained, because the people who suffer, for the first time, will feel that they are being listened to and are being under­stood. This practice can already inspire respect on the interna­tional level, because other nations will see that America is ca­pable of listening to the suffering of her own people.

We can learn from the experience of other countries such as South Africa where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to heal the wounds of apartheid. The Commission was headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu and received the support of both blacks and whites as a legitimate forum for understanding and reconciliation to occur. Televised sessions were organized where members of the different racial groups were able to listen to and to be heard by each other, bringing the tangible result that blacks and whites could begin to find a way to coexist peacefully and respectfully together in South Africa. This is a concrete example of the powerful effect that direct and compassionate com­munication can have on a national and international level.

2. The Practice of Non-violent Communication

In interpersonal relationships we know that open and caring communication is essential for a healthy relationship. On the national and international level honest and non-violent communi­cation is also essential for healthy and supportive relationships to exist between members of a society and between nations.

Following is an example of how the government of the U.S.A. might address the people and countries who are believed to be the base of terrorism:

"You must have suffered terribly, you must have hated us terribly to have done such a thing to us (the September 11, 2001 attack). You must have thought that we were your enemy, that we have tried to discriminate against you and to destroy you as a religion, as a people or as a race. You may believe that we do not recognize your values, that we represent a way of life that op­poses your values. Therefore you may have tried to destroy us in the name of what you believe in. It may be that you have many wrong perceptions about us.

"We believe that we do not have any intention to destroy you or to discriminate against you. But, there may be some things that we have said or done that have given you the impression that we want to discriminate against you or to destroy you. We may have taken actions that have brought harm to you. Please tell us about your suffering and your despair. We want to listen to you and to understand your experience and your perceptions. So that we can recognize and understand what we have done or said that has created misunderstanding and suffering in you.

"We ourselves do not want to live in fear or to suffer and we do not want your people to live in fear or to suffer either. We want you to live in peace, in safety and in dignity because we know that only when you have peace, safety and dignity can we also enjoy peace, safety and dignity. Let us create together an occa­sion for mutual listening and understanding which can be the foundation for real reconciliation and peace."

3. The Practice of Looking Deeply

Looking deeply means to use the information and insights gained from listening to the suffering of others to develop a more extensive and in depth understanding of our situation.

A safe and peaceful setting should be arranged for represen­tatives of conflicting groups and nations to practice looking deeply. An international Council of Sages facilitated by spiritual leaders could create such a setting and help conduct the sessions of deep listening and deep looking. Plenty of time should be given to this practice. It may take half a year or more. Sessions of deep looking should be televised so that people in many parts of the world can participate and gain a deeper understanding of the experience and real situations of the participants.

This practice should be conducted as a non-political activity. Therefore, it should be supervised by humanist, humanitarian and spiritual leaders who are known to be free from discrimination and partisanship.

Countries representing the six continents (Africa, North America, South America, Asia, Australia and Pacifica, and Eu­rope) should be invited to sponsor and support this practice.

4. Political, Social and Spiritual Solutions to Conflicts

Negotiations for peace, reconciliation and mutual coopera­tion between conflicting peoples and nations should be made based on the insights gained from this process, namely deep lis­tening and mutual understanding in order to maintain the peace and safety of all nations. People from various sectors of society in the involved countries should be able to participate in each step of the process by expressing their insights and their support for a peaceful resolution.

Military and political leaders could also participate in these processes by listening to the representatives of various peoples from the nations that are in conflict. But priority would be given to listen to those voices that are not represented already in the decision making processes of the involved nations, for example, citizens who are not military or political leaders. These might include schoolteachers, spiritual leaders, doctors, parents, union workers, business people, artists, writers, children, social work­ers, experienced mediators, psychologists, nurses and so on.

By taking these steps America will show great courage and spiritual strength. If America is capable of such acts of listening and understanding she will be making a great contribution to the peace and safety of the whole world. America will be acting in the spirit and with the support of her forefathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln who made great efforts to pro­mote democracy, mutual respect and understanding among peoples of different backgrounds and beliefs, for the peace and security of everyone.

 

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

A Biography of Thay Giac Thanh

In Loving Memory of Thay Giac Thanh June 9, 1947 - October 15, 2001

mb30-InLoving1

That you are a real gentleman is known by everyone The work of a true practitioner has been accomplished When you stupa has just been raised on the hillside The sound of children's laughter will already be heard

mb30-InLoving2

A Biography of Thay Giac Thanh

Offered by his Dharma brother Thay Phuoc Tinh from Vietnam at Deer Park Monastery on October 19, 2001, the day of Thay Giac Thanh's cremation. Thay Phuoc Tinh and Thay Giac Thanh ordained as novice monks together in Vietnam. Translated from Vietnamese by Chan Hao and Chan Tue Nang. (Some minor changes and additions have been made lor the English. version.)

Venerable Tam Tong, Chan Giac Thanh, Tram Nhien, birth name Le Van Hieu, was born on June 9, 1947 in the quiet and remote hamlet of Tra Loc, in Soc Son village, Tli Ton district, Rach Gia province. His father was Le Van Dat and his mother was Nguyen Thi Nho. He was the third child in the family of four sons and two daughters.

Like many other children in the countryside of Vietnam growing up in the great suffering of their country caused by wars and poverty, Thay Giac Thanh had to learn at an early age to follow his older brothers and sisters to gather food and catch fish. From this, his elegant face became golden-tanned by the tropical sunlight. In spite of his hardships, the seed of compassion had been present within him, perhaps for many lifetimes. At the early age of seven or eight, he shed tears when thinking of our small human life in the vastness of infinite existence.

Thay's stay in this little village ended when his parents moved to Rach Gia city. While in the city, he began learning to write his first alphabet. During this time there were some relatively peaceful periods without bombings and fighting, as a result of the Geneva peace accords.

As time passed, the little boy with the golden-tanned face from the remote hamlet of Tra Loc became one of the best students of Nguyen Trung Truc School, very intelligent and especially very brave. Perhaps he had inherited his bravery from patriot Nguyen Trung Truc. Thay Giac Thanh once expressed his love for his country in his first poem, "Crying for My Country." My dear country Loving you, I shed my tears in long and tranquil nights. Country! What crime have you committed That the devils have ill-treated you Without compassion, sympathy, or human kindness? They sold you to the Devil King. Loving you, I would buy you back with my flesh and blood, With my heart and mind and and with my whole body. This body can become ash and dust Yet I vow to clear the path for peace. ( 1967)

There is a saying, "Man should have a determination to penetrate the deep skies." If one does not want to be a speck of dust blown away by the whirlwind destroying one's own country, then one should not participate in the destruction. Better, one should be a lone traveler on the path of no-birth and no-death. Thay Giac Thanh turned his life towards cultivating his ideal of great compassion and liberation through inner discovery. In 1967, he became a novice monk at Temple Thanh Hoa, Tan My village, Cho Moi district, Long Xuyen province. His Dharma name, Giac Thanh (Awakening Sound), was given to him by his teacher, Venerable Pho Hue. Before becoming a monk he had lain awake crying for the suffering of his motherland. Now in the monastery he also lay awake feeling an emptiness in his heart and longing to find the path that would lead him to realize his true nature. Oh! He felt the path to realize the way is so far. He overcame worldly obstacles, left his hometown, learnt the ways of practice, attended retreats, and received the precepts and still he experienced the feeling of emptiness in his heart. He stayed in Temple Giac Nguyen (in Saigon) in 1968, and then in Temple Xa Loi in 1969. He was fully ordained in Temple Giac Vien in the autumn of 1970. In 1971, he attended the University of Van Hanh to further his studies in Buddhism. He also participated in talks on the Diamond Sutra given by Venerable Hue Hung from Temple Hue Quang, and in talks on Buddhist psychology given by Venerable Tri Tinh. He never stopped searching; wherever there was a talk by a well known teacher, he would be there. He said to his friends nowhere is there a program of practice which is as helpful as that which is followed at the monastery of Master Thanh Tu. And then he received further inspiration on his path when he came across the first book of rules and regulations for the True Emptiness Monastery, a book of guidelines for the monastic life at this particular practice center.

In the spring of 1974, he decided to leave the dusty city and to lay down his student pen. He returned to True Emptiness Monastery, entering his second four-year program. The days passed, listening to sutras in the morning, meditating in the afternoon, drinking tea, looking at dewdrops hanging from the leafy roof, and watching rays of sunlight shining and merging with the firelight in the hearth. The love from his brothers and receiving the Dharma milk of his old teacher on the peak of Tao Phung Mountain opened his heart and lit up the path for this young monk to come home. Thay Giac Thanh was a very good meditator and one of the most beloved elder brothers at True Emptiness Monastery. Almost everybody who had a chance to know him had beautiful memories of him. He offered love, tenderness and support to his newly ordained brothers and sisters. With his deep understanding and compassion, he created great harmony in the Sangha. For instance, in mid-1974, one of the brothers had to leave the monastery to become the abbot of Thuong Chieu Monastery. With some tea and some words of farewell, he was able to strengthen the brotherhood, and he artistically presented the cultural beauty of the art of drinking tea. The fragrance of that cup of tea seems to be very present still.

Once again Vietnam's history turned to a new page. After the spring of 1975, when the communists took over the whole country, the peaceful years at True Emptiness Monastery faded into the past. Everybody now had to work hard in the fields under the hot, burning sun. While working, Thay Giac Thanh sometimes stopped and asked the question, "One's awakening is not yet realized. Why should one waste one's precious life just to gain some food? My dear younger brothers and sisters, we should give ourselves time for reflection." Whenever there was an opportunity, he would contemplate with his little tea set, beside the bamboo grove in the front yard. Often at dawn and dusk, seeing the floating fog, he also felt a human love floating and fading away. He wrote: As a human in this life, I exist! I know how to enjoy tea alone. Thirty years are like a dream gone by. Day and night, the little teapot is my only friend. (1976)

In the winter of 1977, he left Thuong Chieu Monastery and build An Khong hut in My Luong village. This hut was made with bamboo leaves. Next to the hut was his small meditation space. The setting expressed the meditative taste of a Zen master with a simple and noble life, but it also expressed the artistry of a poet. After four years, he left An Khong hut as described in the last paragraph of the poem "Mong Vang Hoa": I am a dusty world traveler In the infinity of time. My mind seemed to get lost in the isolated island. One morning, the island woke up. Birds shouting, I hastily continued on my path. The dusty life seems to be washed off In the immense ocean of waves and water. (1978)

In July of 1981, he escaped out of Vietnam by boat to Indonesia. Like many other  dangerous escapes of the Vietnamese, he was not able to avoid pirates. Seeing the cruel raping of women and grabbing of jewelry, angrily he said, "Do you have a heart? How could you be so cruel to your fellow humans?" The pirates were very angry and threw him into the ocean. Fortunately, the head pirate, in a flash of sympathy, tossed him a rope and pulled him up onto the boat. So the game of birth and death was once postponed.

Thay Giac Thanh was in Song La refugee camp in Indonesia from July 1981 to early 1982. He was sponsored by Venerable Thich Man Giac to come to Los Angeles. He spent his first refugee allowance of $300 to buy an expensive, antique tea set and some tea, and offered the first cup of tea to Venerable Thich Man Giac and said, "Dear Venerable, I am a wanderer. Loving me, you sponsored me to come here. I haven't done anything to show my gratitude. With my first allowance I bought this tea and I offer this to express my gratitude to you for your great care and deep love." What was the cost of a cup of tea? A small expense, but this action expressed the gratefulness of a young wandering man. The Venerable offered a cooling shade and a loving harbor for the wandering man. During Thay Giac Thanh's brief stay at Phat Giao Viet Nam Temple in Los Angeles, the Venerable, like a tender and caring mother, offered the loving energy which healed the wounds in the wanderer's heart. At the end of Spring 1982, Thay Tri Tue (one of the Venerable's students) visited the teacher. The Venerable told Thay Giac Thanh, "Thay Tri Tue from Nam Tuyen Temple (in Virginia) is very busy and there is nobody helping him right now. Could you please help him? You two brothers, live and practice together and keep each other company." Thay Giac Thanh lived happily with Thay Tri Tue in Virginia from 1982 to 1989. During that time, he also lived and practiced in Japanese, Korean, and Burmese practice centers. The appeal of a traveler's life faded, however, as his journey of coming home was still burning deep within him. Continuously he searched, knocking at different great teacher's doors, for the final breakthrough to penetrate directly into infinite space.

mb30-ABiography1

In one of the North American retreats led by Thich Nhat Hanh, seeing him practice with intense and strained effort, Thay Nhat Hanh said to him, "Thay Giac Thanh, you do not need to strive so much. Just be joyful and relaxed. Practice so that you can enjoy what is here in the present moment." These teaching words of Thay Nhat Hanh were like a few drops of water causing a full cup to overflow, like lightning penetrating deep layers of clouds and illuminating the immense sky. Since then, he stopped the search through strained effort. In the summer retreat of 1990 at Plum Village, the retreatants had a chance to practice with a Vietnamese monk, Thay Giac Thanh, with his beautiful smile  that expressed inner peace. In 1990, he began residing at Plum Village and there he lived happily with his teacher, Thay Nhat Hanhthe old oak tree, and he himself became an oak tree protecting his younger brothers and sisters, young oak trees. He also led Days of  Mindfulness at the Cactus Meditation Center located near Paris, France. And he was called by a very poetic name, Thay Cactus. He was given this name because he looked after the Cactus Meditation Center, but it was an appropriate name for hjs permeating but gentle radiance and upright manner. In the summer of 1992, he received the Lamp Transmjssion to become a Dharma Teacher and a gatha from Thay Nhat Hanh. The gatha is: The awakened nature is the true nature. Pure sound is the manifestation of the Wonderful Sound. The full moon's light illuminates Ty Lo Ocean. The musical waves are still strong and sonorous.

And this is Thay Giac Thanh's insight gatha offered to his teacher and the Sangha at his Lamp Transmission: Formless Samadhi The limpid water on one side. Yellow water on the other side. All will return to sky, cloud, Ocean and river There is sunlight during daytime And moonlight at night, Shining my way.

Plum Village was a promised land for Thay Giac Thanh. In the past, the promised land had been a dream formed from his faith. Now the promised land was a cradle in which all of humankind's happiness could flourish, and was a field in which the seeds of compassion and understanding could be sown. Plum Village created a vast space in his heart so that the flower of wisdom could bloom. And with solid steps he fully entered life. He wrote a poem to express his respect and admiration for his teacher: Just a thunder look Can press down many great walls. I bow my head to receive And vow to keep (the teachings) life after life. (1991)

Perhaps the time he lived in Floating Clouds hut in Plum Village was one of the most beautiful times in his life. Thay Nhat Hanh offered him this small wooden hut on the forest edge, beside his own. All year round, one could hear the birds singing and see many different flowers blooming arollnd his hut. He liked the name Floating Clouds. He walked freely and solidly, and his smiles and words carried a profound peace to people around him.

In 1992, he was first invited to New York City to lead Days of Mindfulness. His presence helped strengthen the bonds with the New York Sanghas and a very special friendship blossomed between him and the Sangha members. In the autumn of 1995, he was invited again to New York and to other East Coast cities to lead various retreats. One thing is for sure, wherever he went -- France, America, Australia, Canada, Vermont, Deer Park -- from the beginning of his teaching to his last breath, all of us could receive his tender, fresh and peaceful energy.  And he was respected and deeply loved by all of us.

mb30-ABiography2

In 1995 he contracted tuberculosis and his diabetes worsened. With his mindful breathing he embraced his illnesses, which he had lived with since 1992 or earlier. He embraced and took care of his illnesses like a mother loving her child, never complaining no matter how demanding the child was. Many of our ancestors also faced challenging obstacles but took them as opportunities to realize full enlightenment. Simjlarly, even with these serious illnesses, Thay Giac Thanh could live peacefully and happily, and this was clearly expressed in his poems, such as: Dharma Seal Stepping out the land of reality, Fresh beautiful flowers bloom everywhere. Only one deep mindfulness shines through And the three realms have been surpassed ... (1997)

Light of Winter Facing white snow, Suddenly, One-self fading away The whole universe Turning info a great lamp. (1998)

mb30-ABiography3

In 1997 Thay Giac Thanh became Head of Practice at the Maple Forest Monastery at the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, the first American off-spring from Plum Village, and offered a stable and joyful presence for the young brothers and sisters and lay practitioners practicing there. A few years later in early 2000, some of the Plum Village Sangha members began looking for property to start a West Coast monastery.  Acquiring the land for Deer Park Monastery, and then becomjng the abbot of the Monastery, Thay Giac Thanh knew that this place would be the last one of his life. Therefore, he used all of his remaining strength to build this place in showing his gratitude to his most respected teacher. Since last year, his illnesses became seriously life-threatening, and finally, like the cycles of birth and death of all phenomena, he returned his impermanent body to Mother Earth. Thay Giac Thanh arrived in Deer Park Monastery in the summer of 2000 and left us in the autumn of 2001. His stay at Deer Park was very short compared to an average human life span, and nothing compared to the age of stars and moons, but his accomplishment is great and that has entered into the hearts of all of us. A kind, gentle and loving voice, a joyful smile untiI the end of his life, a deep and clear wisdom and great compassion, and peaceful steps, all revealed his profound understanding of no-coming, no-going. And that is the greatest gift he has offered to his brothers and sisters and to the Sanghas all over the world. As the Arahats said upon entering Nirvana, "The most important task has been completed."

He is truly a Dhanna Teacher of many Western and Vietnamese practitioners. Although he passed away, he has transformed to be one with us. His words are like essential keys to open the door to one's wisdom, happiness and compassion, especially his last Dharma talks in the Full Moon Meditation Hall. How deep his words are! He is the most loved elder brother. Each of us remembers him in our own way. He is a brother, protective, sometimes strict. He is a mother, loving and caring for us. He is a friend, opening his heart to us. He loved his brothers and sisters wholeheartedly. He is a meadow, full of exotic, simple and beautiful flowers and grass, in which each one of us can play freely. Being with him, we see ourselves disappearing and merging with him, like a river merging into the ocean. And we all think it is very difficult to find another elder brother like him. Here are a few lines from a poem written for his younger brothers and sisters: Please do not scold or condemn my younger brothers and sisters. Because I am afraid that the gray color of sadness and heartache Will encase their innocence and clarity. (1991)

Thay Giac Thanh was also a student with deep gratitude; he always did his best to help his teachers in spreading the teaching, even when he was very sick.

mb30-ABiography4

In his first return to Vietnrun, in 1992, his old friends were very surprised by his simplicity, and they could not believe that he had experienced great suffering, disappointments, many ups and downs, profound transformations, and attained great wisdom and understandding of the Dharma from inspiring teachers. Wearing the brown Tiep Hien jacket and carrying his monk shoulder bag, he traveled humbly without formal welcoming or farewells. With his gentle smiles, he overcame all the political obstacles he encountered while in Vietnam and therefore was able to successfully offer the Dharma and charity to many people there. Although he had a busy schedule, he still spent time with his relatives and old friends, monastics and non-monastics. He treated them with love from his whole heart. When they saw him again, they were deeply moved to tears. Before coming back to the United States, he searched for and bought a special tea set as a gift for his closest friend. Not many of his old friends were able to be with him in the hospital or attend his funeral, but the deep caring and love from those who were present revealed how much love he has given us. In his second return to Vietnam, in 1999, he told his friends, "I came back to visit all of you for the last time. I don't think that I will be able to make another trip." His words seemed like a joke, and nobody could believe what he said would be true. In this trip, one of his childhood friends helped him to fulfill his long-standing wish in helping his family.

He lived humbly, freely and with dignity. So beautifully he came and left. His life is like a pristine cactus flower blooming at night. He left a collection of over fifty poems, not yet published. These poems have been kept by his close friends. His early poems are full of romantic and poetic imagery, but his subsequent poems convey his profound wisdom and vast spaciousness of his heart. Close to death, he seemed to dwell more in the other realm, but when Thay Nhat Hanh spoke to him from Beijing the day before he died, he smiled and his face lit up, and he opened his eyes to receive his teacher's words. Thay Nhat Hanh read the poem he had just written in honor of Thay Giac Thanh (printed on page 22). Later he added these two lines: One maple leaf has fallen down And yet you continue to climb the hill of the twenty-first century with us. Thousands of daffodils are beginning to bloom and the earth continues to be with the sky singing the song of no-birth and no-death.

Our ancestors said that once the most important task in life has been completed, one needs no longer return to this world. However, Great Beings come and go freely to continue the bodhisattva's work. Dear Thay Giac Thanh, we vow to be your companion on this path of love and liberation, life after life.

PDF of this article

Practicing as a Dharma Teacher

Some Suggestions for Order of Interbeing Members By Sister Annabel 

Many, many people want to learn about the practice of mindfulness which Thich Nhat Hanh teaches and writes about. They want to practice it and bring it into their lives. Therefore they want authentic Dharma teachers who can be their good friends guiding them on the path and showing them ways to practice. How are we to find and train these teachers? What qualifications should they have? When someone asked Thay what qualifications someone should have to be a Dharma teacher, he replied that a Dharma teacher should be a happy person.

In the monastic tradition, it is only five years after receiving the full ordination that someone can be regarded as a Dharma teacher. Of course if we are really to succeed in transmitting the Dharma doors we have to have that kind of happiness which is based in solidity and freedom. Our solidity comes from total immersion in the practice, twenty-four hours a day. The practice is not something which can be switched on and off. It is not possible to succeed if we only practice when a formal retreat is organized for outsiders and on the days when there is no retreat we fall into forgetfulness, running after things which cannot bring us real happiness and allowing our body and mind to consume toxins. We have to practice very day, three hundred and sixty days per annum. It is suggested that when we have received the Fourteen Mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing, we practice sixty days of mindfulness every year, but teaching the Dharma is something we do by practicing mindfulness everyday. We teach by the way we walk, we eat and we conduct ourself from moment to moment.

A monastery can be organized in such a way as to make practicing twenty-four hours a day possible. There are always brothers and sisters close by us to remind us when we forget. There is the daily schedule, the fine manners and the clock, the bell, the telephone. After five years of training like this we can have the solidity to teach the Dharma. Once we receive the transmission we obviously must continue the training day in and day out for as long as we live. Once we cease to train we cease to teach because we teach with our body and our person more than we teach with our words. It looks strange if our daily life is not in accord with our words. Our friends and our students only expect two things of us: our solidity and our freedom. Those are the only things that we want to transmit and the only things which are worth transmitting.

mb30-Practicing

For a lay Dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing it is the same; the training is lifelong and takes place twenty-four hours a day. It is best if a lay Dharma teacher can live year-round in a lay or monastic practice center which is organized as a real mindfulness community or Sangha body where people do not live separate lives as private individuals. Failing this, we have our root center to return to for as many months of the year as we are able. When we are ordained as a member of the Order of Interbeing, there is the root center from which we are ordained. It is like our family home and we are always refreshed and happy when we can return there. You may consider Plum Village to be your root practice center or Deer Park Monastery or Green Mountain Dharma Center. We always need that root to return to and inspire us with renewal in our practice. When we become a Dharma teacher or we establish a local Sangha, our local Sangha also becomes a root for the people who are introduced to the practice there. It would be a pity if we could not return to our root practice center of ordination in order to keep the link between our local Sangha and our root practice center alive. Lay Dharma teachers are encouraged to come back to Plum Village, Green Mountain Dharma Center and Deer Park whenever they can and scholarships will be available for such periods of practice and retreat. Those who have been nominated as Dharma teachers in training also have the same access to their root practice center.

For lay centers of practice there is already the Interzein Center in Germany and the Clear View Practice Center in Santa Barbara, U.S.A. A lay village as part of Plum Village in France is also under serious consideration. These centers are also roots for many people and their founders also have their roots to return to.

Please refer to the guest master or guest mistress of your root  center for details of how it is possible to stay there for extended periods of time.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is the abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

PDF of this article

 

Being the Practice

By Sister Annabel (Sister True Virtue) From a talk given in the New Hamlet, Plum Village.

Dear Mahasangha good afternoon. Today is the 9th of December in the year 2001. It seems that the object of mind and the subject are not separate. I could think that I am the subject and Plum Village is the object of my mind. But the way I talk about Plum Village and the way I see Plum Village is not really separate from my mind. It is not separate from the collective mind, the mind of others, either. Plum Village is a collective creation.

"Oh, What it is to be happy"

I have always liked to sing. When I arrived in India in 1979 to practice with some Tibetan nuns I immediately found that I was able to sing in a way that I hadn't been able to sing before. Whenever I had an emotion I would sing about it. The Tibetan nuns liked singing very much. Whenever we had a chance to be a little bit lazy and walk in the forest, which wasn't very often, they would always sing. And they would ask me to sing for them in English. I wasn't quite sure what to sing that would be in harmony with the Dharma. So I had to make up my songs as I went along. Whenever I had even a tiny realization in the practice I would make up a song about it. One song was called, "Oh, what it is to be happy." At that time I didn't know what it was like to feel really happy inside.

One day I was coming back to the monastery carrying some wooden planks on my shoulder because we were building the monastery in the forest. I saw one of the monks sitting on the side of the mountain. The monks live on one side of the river and the nuns live on the other side. We were up in the mountain and down below us in the valley were rice fields. The rice fields looked very beautiful divided by dikes. In the distance there were more mountains with clouds. You could hear the children laughing in the valley and you could smell the scent of pine trees. You could hear the boy who looks after the cows playing his flute. Everything was perfect, a Pure Land. But somehow in my heart I was not happy. When I saw the monk sitting there, he looked as if he were completely free, completely happy. Although I didn't know in myself what happiness was, I thought I could experience it through him. So I wrote that song, "Oh, what it is to be happy." I stayed in India for eighteen months. During that time I appreciated so much the beauty of the place where I was staying. But I never felt as in really got a hold of a practice that would help me to transform.

I wanted very much to be a nun. When I was seven years old I wanted to be a Catholic nun. When I was twenty-one I asked an abbot of a monastery in Normandy if I could be accepted as a Benedictine nun. He said no. When I went to India to be with the Tibetan nuns I still had the dream to become a nun. They also said no. Because I couldn't become a nun I thought I might not be in the right place, the place where I could really devote myself to the practice and really transform myself. I felt I had so much to transform to really be able to feel the happiness that I witnessed in the monk sitting on the hillside. One day I was feeling very lonely. There had been a drought so I hadn't had a bath for three months. That sounds like a long time. My skin was very black with dirt and I knew that I didn't smell very nice and I felt very hungry because we never had enough to eat. In the morning we had a little bit oftea if we were lucky and if we were luckier we had a little bit of barley flour to put in the tea, but not always. At lunch we had one or two chapattis, a kind of Indian bread. And in the evening we had a little bit of rice soup. As we became poorer and poorer the rice soup became more and more watery. When I would wake up in the morning my stomach was always grumbling. It was also cold because we were quite high up in the mountains. I was shivering and hungry. But because of the beauty of the place and because deep down I wanted to practice so much, I stayed for a year and a half.

One day a monk came along from the main monastery and he had a radio. In the place where we lived we didn't have any electricity or running water. I don't know how he managed to have a radio but he did and he could pick up the BBC world news. He understood English, which was very rare. He said to me, "You know in England now there are thousands of women who are sitting around the missile bases to stop atomic weapons from being transported out." There were many American missile bases at that time in England. He said, "This is a wonderful thing to do." When I heard that I thought maybe that is what I would do.

Finding My True Teacher

So I left India and I went back to England and joined the women. They would sit there day and night to block missiles from leaving the base. We would put ourselves in front of the gate so that the missiles couldn't come out. This is also part of my deep aspiration: I want there to be peace in the world. I don't want there to be any war. So I thought this was a way to express my deep aspiration for peace. But in fact it is not enough to sit at the gate of a missile base. You need to sit at the gate of your own mind in order to be able to be aware of mental formations in your own mind and to transform them. That is a very important part of peace work. Some people were not peaceful in themselves. I asked everyone at the missile bases, "Does anyone know about Buddhist practice, does anyone do meditation? Do you know anybody who is in the peace movement and also is a Buddhist?" Everyone said, no, they didn't know anyone. Then one day someone said, "Oh yes, I know someone. He is a Buddhist teacher from Vietnam," and they said Thay's name. Then I remembered that when I was in India, when I was so sure that I wanted to be a nun in the Tibetan tradition, one of the Tibetan teachers said to me, "No, your teacher will come from the far East, not from Tibet." Other nuns said to me, "You have to meet your real teacher in the country of your birth."

I heard about Thay and I wanted to find out more about him. I wanted to read what he had written and I wanted to be with people who knew him. I did my best to find a community. There was a Buddhist Peace Fellowship community in Kent so I joined them. We used to produce the Buddhist Peace Fellowship magazin e. We would go on peace  demonstrations and join discussions on peace. Whenever we went on demonstrations for peace we always tried to practice walking meditation because we were in touch with Thay through his writings. But it was not enough to be in touch with Thay through his writings. I wanted to be in touch with Thay's person also. One day one member in the community in Kent asked, "Why don 't we invite Thay to come to England and give some teaching?" So lmet Thay in England and Thay comes from the Far East. I had all the right conditions to meet my true teacher.

mb31-Beign1

When [ first saw Sister True Emptiness in the airport I fe lt that she belonged to my blood family. I don't know why but that is how I fe lt. When they had to go home on the last day I was a little bit sad because I didn't know when I would see Thay and Sister True Emptiness again. I was in the car with Thay and I had to get out of the car to go home and Thay was being driven on to somewhere else. As I stepped out of th e car, Thay also stepped out and asked if I would like to come to Plum Village for the summer opening that year. When I heard that, all my sadness went away. That summer, in 1986, I went to Plum Village.

Another Pure Land

It was very hot that summer. The first thing Thay said to me was, "Here is India, India is here." That made me immediately feel at home because the first time I had experienced the Pure Land was in India . Here was another Pure Land for me to experience. The Upper Hamlet was so simple and so beautiful. The Transformation Hall was not yet there. The Still Water Hall wasn't there. Everyone was busy preparing for the summer opening. I immediately felt the atmosphere of complete relaxation. I immediately felt that I was at home. Later on that day someone took me down to the Lower Hamlet. I felt even more at home. It is very strange, from the time that I left the place where I was born I had never felt at home like that. When I looked at the stones the buildings were made of and when I looked out over the hills, I felt like that. Actually I was still a very unhappy person, but I was very happy to find my home, my Pure Land. Thay says you don't need to have transformed all of your afflictions to dwell in the Pure Land. I don't know what good fortune I had to be able to be there.

We enjoyed the summer opening. I spent two weeks in the Upper Hamlet with Thay and two weeks in the Lower Hamlet with Sister True Emptiness. In those days, Sister True Emptiness was the practice leader in the Lower Hamlet and Thay looked after the Upper Hamlet. We weren 't very well organized. We did everything at the last minute. Sister True Emptiness would have an idea to do something and five minutes later we would do it. It was nothing like the summer opening now. The summer opening was very beautiful because it was a kind of haven for Vietnamese refugees. When they arrived in Europe from the refugee camps, many Vietnamese people found themse lves in a situation completely unlike what they had known in Vietnaill. They found themselves living in a place where they could not speak their own language, eating strange food , probably doing menial work whereas they may have had a high degree of education in Vietnam, and so on. Plum Village is a place where there is Vietnamese language, Vietnamese food and other Vietnamese people.

Sister True Emptiness said it is very important to speak Vietnamese. The refugees have to speak a language that isn't the ir own a ll day long and they really need to reconnect with their roots. That is one of the reasons I really wanted to speak Vietnamese. I was lucky because everybody spoke Vietnamese so it wasn't difficult to learn. In those days the summer opening was quite Vietnamese. Now it is a bit more European and North American.

My real Vietnamese teacher was Sister Chan Vi . She was ordained at the same time that Sister True Emptiness and I were ordained in India. She came to Plum Village from the Philippines' refugee camp. In the winter of I 986, Thay and Sister True Emptiness had gone to visit the different refugee camps and share the practice. They had met Sister Chan Vi at that time and asked her to come to Plum Village. When she arrived she felt it was strange to be in a foreign country and especially to stay with someone who was English and only spoke a few words of Vietnamese. At first it was a I ittle bit difficult.

Sister Chan Vi was the first member of my Sangha that I lived with twenty-four hours a day. When I lived in India I had learned about living with people of a different culture. I knew that there were things that might seem quite natural to me that for someone from another culture might seem offensive. When we live with people from other cultures we need to practice mindfulness and be aware of our actions of body and speech because we can easily offend someone without meaning to.

mb31-Being2

I remember in India we lived in a little hut. I was a lay person at the time. The hut was on stilts and under the hut they kept the rice and other things. From time to time a nun would have to go under the hut to bring something out. When I was sitting in the hut it was my duty to leave the hut and stand outside for the nun to be able to go underneath because it would be disrespectful to sit on top of the nun going under the hut. That is not something I learned in England. At first r was very offended if in the pouring rain, in the middle of the monsoon I was told I had to leave the hut so they could go underneath and fetch something. But I learnt that this is part of politeness, a way of not offending people and keeping people happy, so after awhile I managed to do it without feeling any resistance in my heart. With Sister Chan Vi I also tried my best to learn about what is considered correct in the Vietnamese culture.

We both liked garden ing. When Sister Chan Vi had been in Vietnam she had spent time in a temple on the mountain and she had looked after the garden there. In our little garden we grew quite a few Vietnamese vegetables. Actually our garden was under plastic because they wouldn't have grown outside. Whenever you went into that garden you could smell the fragrant herbs, just like if you go into the greenhouse here, today.

Every morning we would rise early and go straight out into the garden because there were many slugs and they would eat everything up if you were not careful. We would pick up the sl ugs and take them out into the forest. We pulled up any weeds. After we had looked after the garden a little bit we would go to the mediation hall and practice sitting meditation together. If it was summer time we would go into the Red Candle Hall. In the winter it was too cold, we didn't have any heat, so we would go to the little room next to the Red Candle Hall. When it rained, the rain would come in because the roof tiles were loose; they weren't attached to each other with cement or anything else. When a supersonic plane went overhead and broke the sound barrier, all the tiles would move. When the tiles moved, they left a gap. So whenever it rained, we had to put out all the buckets to catch the rain coming in. In the winter it used to snow more than it does now. The snow would blow in through the tiles. One time we went up into the attic and there was snow quite high, maybe ten centimeters or so. We had to shovel all the snow in the attic, put it into buckets and carry it down. Fortunately someone very kind saw that we wanted to practice and offered to gi ve a donation to fix the roof so that snow and rain wouldn't come in anymore. That was the first time we had a big donation. Before that we were really quite poor.

In the winter we heated the rooms with some wood stoves. But in order to have the wood we had to go out and saw it in the morning. We had a saw with handles on two ends. Sister Chan Vi held one end and I held the other and together we sawed the wood. She said that she used to do the same in Vietnam. She used to go into the forest, saw the wood and sell it to help supprt her family.

I was very happy when Sister Chan Vi came. To be able to live together with just one other person in the Sangha twenty-four hours a day is already wonderful. When you have a sister who also wants to practice with you, you receive a lot of energy in the practice. The energy to practice was not doubled, but it increased ten or a hundred times. She supported me very much. She had often wanted to be a nun when she was in Vietnam, and she really liked the practice. She wanted to practice sitting meditation, reciting the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and chanting the sutras, and she chanted very well. She taught me how to chant the sutras. Sister Chan Vi was also a very good cook and she showed me how to cook Vietnamese food.

Sister True Emptiness also supported me and Thay was always patient. I don't think I was an easy younger sister to have. I think I have transformed quite a bit since then, but I haven't transformed everything since you can still see some of the weaknesses I had then. Sister True E mptiness was very patient with me and very open. She never showed any kind of discrimination at all. No one in the Sangha seemed to have any kind of strong racial discrimination, but sometimes we find it a bit easier to be with people of our own culture. But Sister True Emptiness is just as easy with people of different cultures as she is with people of her own culture.

mb31-Being3

Thay very kindly allowed me to organize more retreats in England to which Thay agreed to come and teach. The Sangha in England began to grow. I used to meet people whom I had known before I had come to Plum Village and they would say, "Two years ago, you were so arrogant and now you have changed a lot." That I have been able to transform gives me and others so much confidence in Thay's way of practice.

Ordination in India

As well as going to England, Thay said that we would go to India. When Thay says we wil l do something, we a lways do it. In the world often when people say something, they might never do it. Thay had been thinking about going to India for a whil e and it was arranged and we were able to go. I was very happy because India had always been my spiritual home and I couldn't think of anything better than to go there with Thay. I didn't know that Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chan Vi had asked to be ordained as nuns in India. When I found out I thought, 'Why can't I become a nun, too?' I had already tried twice. And in fact I had even asked Thay one time if I could become a nun when I first came to Plum Village and Thay said, "No, you have to do like Sister True Emptiness and become a lay member of the Order of Interbeing." I was very sad when I thought that maybe I couldn 't become a nun with Sister True Emptiness and Sister Chan Vi . I thought, my goodness if we come back to Plum Village and they are both nuns and I am not, I don't know if I could bear it. But Thay said that is not a good reason for becoming a nun. I think the main reason Thay agreed to my becoming a nun was my bodhicitta. I th ink it was there somehow. Maybe an additional cause was Sister Chan Khong who intervened on my behalf.

mb31-Being4

We went to India. We went to Bodhgaya. We went to Uruvela and we had tea mediation and tangerines with all the children in Uruvela, the village where the Buddha had gone after enlightenment. We waded across t he Neranjera river. What I remember the most was the beauty of doing walking meditation in the places where the Buddha had walked.

One day early in the morning before it was light, we rose and went to the Vulture Peak. The police went with us because there are bandits there. It was the middle of November so it was not too hot and not too cold. We spent the whole day there. Out of great compassion, Thay ordained us as nuns, especially out of great compassion for me who popped in at the last moment. Sister Chan Khong gave me one ao trang (robe) of hers. When I was ordained I was very happy because I felt very light. I thought that I had cut off everything that had bound me, the past and all the fetters, and they were all gone. The next morning when I woke up and put my hand on my shaved head I fe lt very light and very happy. One morning I woke up, put my hand on my head and then I saw a mother rat with six baby rats run past the foot of my bed. They all had their tails in their mouths. In those times we stayed in very simple accommodations. When I lived in India before, the rats would come at night and eat my hair but now they didn't have any hair to eat.

When I came back to Plum Village I realized that I hadn't cut off all my afflictions and fetters at all. I still got angry, I still got sad, I still had a tremendous amount to transform . But I don't think I can ever be shaken in my aspiration, in my determination to realize as fully as I can in this lifetime my own transformation and helping others to transform. I was thirty-eight, nearly thirty-nine when I ordained. It was a little bit late. I already had built up many worldly habit energies. Maybe my transformation is not as fast as other people's. It is slow, but it is there. When I received the Dharma lamp from Thay in 1990, Thay gave me a gatha which said, "The work of transformation is what reveals the sign of truth." I think this means that all my life I have to keep transforming and  I have to keep transforming and I have to keep transforming and clearly.

Every summer opening people come and I am always  there. The first summer opening missed was my thirteenth summer when I went to Vennont and didn't come back that year. Apart from that summer, I have been to fifteen summer openings. In many summer open in gs someone  comes up to me and says, "You are much better than last year."

Green Mountain Dharma Center, Vermont

In 1997 I went to Vermont. Vermont is extremely beautiful. The snow and the mountains in the winter, the gold and red of the autumn trees, the tremendous shock of green in spring - a very deep, bright green which comes after four or five months of white - the mists of the summer and the clouds in the mountains. The place we live is very beautiful with lakes and a teahouse built in a Japanese style. It was quite different than when I came to Plum Village.

mb31-Being5

When I went to the United States, everything was already very comfortable. We didn't have any work to do. In Plum Village to renovate the buildings, we had to lift out the cow manure from the barns in order to transform them into living quarters. It made very good compost for the garden. But in Velmont evelything was ready to live in. We had a beautiful house with carpet and hot running water and evelything was in place. We were seven sisters and two brothers at the beginning. We lived in a little house and the two brothers lived in another little house. Because they were so few they used to come and join us every day for sitting and chanting. When I arrived, everything was covered in snow. It was so silent. You don't even hear the birds because it is too cold for the birds to come out. Every morning the sun rises over the snow and it turns pin k and there is a pink glow about everything. It is extremely beautiful.

I began to know the North American people. We think because we know the same language, we have everything in common and we wlderstand each other immediately. But in fact there is quite a difference between the North American people and the European people. It took me about three years to feel at home in North America. Before that, I expected North American people to be like Europeans and they aren't. The suffering in North America is tremendous. Although materially we have far more than we need, the psychological suffering is huge. I think this was one of the difficult things for me to accept when I was first there. For instance, sometimes we would hear news that the son of someone close to the Sangha had committed suicide or someone else had killed his mother, terrible stories like that, especially among the yo ung people. There were many people we had to comfort because of tragedies in their families that arose from psychological suffering. In some ways I think that psychological suffering is worse than material suffering. But luckily the Dharma doors that Thay has taught can bring relief. It is my deepest asp iration to go back to the United States to understand better the situation there and to devote my life to helping in any way I can.

Often in the United States the newspapers contact us. We are also asked to give talks on international affairs. I have been asked to give talks on the situation in the Middle East. I have been asked to a write an article on Afghanistan and things like that. So part of being in a practice center in North America is that you really have to be in touch with what is going on.

mb31-Being6

In Vermont, usually once a week we have visits from school children. Religion is not officially taught in the schools, but many schools have teachers who are interested in Buddhism. They organize courses on Buddhism and the students do a field trip to the Green Mountain Dharma Center to learn how a Buddhist community lives . When the children come we don't teach them theory. We do our best to have them share about their difficulties. Fortunately we've had some young monks and nuns whom the young people from high schools and universities can easily feel close to. The young monks and nuns understand their situation because many of them have been brought up in the United States. Green Mountain Dharma Center is not very big. It may never flourish like Plum Village does. It may always be a little off-shoot of Plum Village. Plum Village is the root, the place for us to come back to, to be strengthened by our spirihlal roots so we can go off again to Green Mountain Dharma Center and offer something better. But we need to have that off-shoot out there because it is like an antenna that is in touch with what is happening and the antenna can let Plum Village know what the needs are over there.

Plum Village in the Future

If I think about Plum Village in the future, I see many westem monks and nuns. I know that the practice has to be developed. A tree always has to grow otherwise it is not a tree anymore. In the futu re there will be many new Dharma doors, new mindfulness practices, adapted to Europe and the United States where arts and music will be integrated into the practice.

Thank you very much.

PDF of this article

Offering the Mind of Love

Contributing to the Social Work in Vietnam An Interview with Sister Hy Nghiem by Sister Steadiness

mb31-Offering1

How did you get involved in the social work in Vietnam?

Sister Hy Nghiem: Even before I was ordained, I really liked to help poor people. Growing up, I learned how to sew. Many people came to me to ask me to sew things for them, and I earned some money that way. I would use that money to give to poor people. One day, my mother wanted to go visit my father in the re-education camp, and she asked me, "My child, do you have some money that I can use to prepare some food for your father?" I said, "Mother, I do not have any money." She did not understand, because she saw that many people came to me, and I sewed clothes for them and earned money. She saw that I didn't go to parties, I didn't have many friends, and I just spent my time going to the temple. She trusted me. I was a good child. However, she could not figure out what I did with the money I earned from sewing clothes. Later, she discovered what I did with my money, and she understood, but she did not talk with me about it directly.

One day, I overheard my mother sharing with one of her friends in the neighborhood about this story. She said she asked me for money, and when I didn't give it to her, she felt sad. Then one day she saw that I used all my money to give to poor people, to donate to the temple, or to buy books for the novices in the temple. She felt very happy, because as a child she did not have the opportunity to do that. She worked hard to take care of her children, and to take care of my father, who was forced to live in the re-education camp. Now she has a child who can practice generosity, and she felt that I did it for her. When I heard my mother's sharing, I also felt happy. I continued on with my offerings to others. When my father was released, our family life became much easier.

Sometimes I had many people come to ask me to sew, and I earned a lot of money. When I left Vietnam, I gave all my extra money to my friends in the Buddhist youth club and asked them to give it to the poor people they met. When I came to America, I bought a commercial sewing machine. I sewed at night, or after I came home from school, or before I went to work in the morning. I sewed for a t-shirt company. When I sewed one line, I earned ten cents. That was equal to 1,000 Vietnamese dong. When I received the money, I sent it all to Vietnam. One day, I read the newsletter from Plum Village and learned that they had programs for poor people in Vietnam. I did not know how to send money to these programs, so I put a dollar bill in an envelope, covered it very carefully, and sent it to the sisters in Plum Village, asking them to send it to Vietnam. I received a thank you letter from Sister Giai Nghiem from Plum Village. I copied that letter, gave it to my friends at school and at work, and asked them to sponsor the poor children in Vietnam. I also sent money directly to Vietnam.

Once I was ordained as a nun, I had the opportunity to contribute to the social work projects in Vietnam. A number of us brothers and sisters worked together. We had a lot of happiness during those times. We would sit together and write letters to the children in Vietnam. We shared the practice of mindfulness with the children. The elder brothers and sisters shared with us, who were new in the practice, how to do the work.One time, Thay asked the whole Sangha to share about our happiness in daily life. Many of my points related to helping with the charity work in Vietnam.

Most young people spend all their money on entertainment and movies and clothes. What made you want to help people?

Sister Hy Nghiem: Now that I have had the opportunity to practice the Buddha's teaching and learned how to look deeply into myself, I think that the seed of helping others came from my ancestors. My mother had a store in the market. Every day she supported handicapped people and homeless children . When she saw them, she would buy food to give to them. When she saw homeless people on the street, she would give them a little money. Even ifs he didn't have any money, she gave them her love, her energy and her sweetness. After I had been ordained as a nun for ten months, my mother shared the  following story with me.

One day, she saw a homeless man in the market who had a serious illness and a handicap from the Vietnamese-American war. Before 1975, the government would support him. After 1975, the government changed, and he no longer received any support. He moved around on a cart, because he didn't have any legs. When it rained the market became very muddy, and moving around close to the ground got him very dirty; the smell was not good. My mother asked one lady in the market to help her boil water. After she closed her shop, she came and bathed that man. The man was a little bit shy. She said to him, "Uncle, don't worry. I bathe you as if I am your elder sister or your mother. Please just feel natural."

She shared that story with me, and I was so moved. That was the first time that I knew about it. As a child I didn't know anything about how my mother helped that man. Hearing that story watered the seed of loving-kindness in me. Before that I just wanted to help the people, but I didn't know why I did that. Hearing that story, I could see more clearly that I received the seed of wanting to help others from my ancestors, with my mother being my closest ancestor.

Did you also receive inspiration from your father?

Sisler Hy Nghiem: When my mother was pregnant with me, my father began studying Buddhism. He received the five mindfulness trainings, and he learned about basic Buddhist teachings. My parents named me Minh Tam, which means "brightness of the mind." People usually think it is my Dharma name, given to me by my spiritual teacher, but that is the name my parents gave me.

mb31-Offering2

My father worked for the South Vietnamese government. In 1975, when the communists took over, he was put in the re-education camp. At one point, he felt that he would die soon. He thought, "If I am to die, I wish to die peacefully." He was in a semi-conscious state, and he invoked the name of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. When he woke up, be found himself in a puddle of water; the guards would pour water on the prisoners to wake them up. After that he was never beaten again. He did not know why the beatings stopped abruptly, but he felt that it was due to his sincere prayers. When he came home from prison he told the whole family that story, and it made a deep impression on me.

My father continues to inspire me a lot. He and my mother practice sitting meditation every day. When I go home, we sit and talk together about the Buddhist teachings. Recently, two of my monastic brothers went to Texas, where my parents live, and they visited my father and mother. They said, "Your father is wonderful! " They enjoyed drinking tea and sharing together about the practice. When my Dharma brothers told me about their time together with my parents, I felt happy and grateful to my parents because I know that by their own practice they are always supporting me in my daily practice as well.

What is your relationship with Sister Chan Khong regarding the social work in Vietnam? And what do we do in Vietnam?

Sister Chan Khong began the social work in Vietnam. When she came to Europe and America, she continued the work and got many people to help her. When she began to have many young brothers and sisters in Plum Village, she wanted to transmit the work to us. She encouraged us to continue the work. The monetary support, sent from Plum Village to Vietnam, have helped many places, in South Vietnam, in Central Vietnam and in North Vietnam. We mostly offer help to the remote villages that are hard to reach, such as in the mountains, and to the places that do not have electricity or schools. The parents go to work in the fields or the towns, and they leave their children at home. Those children can have accidents or run away without the supervision of adults. We help sponsor daycare schools for those children. The teacher helps them to wash their faces and hands and gives them soy milk and lunch. They take a nap, and learn how to be aware of their breathing and how to speak skillfully and kindly.

We do not offer help to people in the cities, because many visitors to Vietnam have easy access to the cities. Thus, the needy people in the cities already receive support from many sources. However, people who come to Vietnam to offer assistance do not have the opportunity to go to far away places. As a result, poor places in the countryside remain poor. We also support handicapped people and isolated people who do not have any relatives to care for them. We also sponsor students who come from very poor families, so that they may pursue a higher education. We feel that by helping one person, the quality of his or her life can improve a lot, and the quality of life of the whole family will also improve. When we sponsor the students, we encourage them to practice to be good people. We do not teach them Buddhist teachings specifically, because we also support students who are from a Christian background and others. We just share with them the essential elements of compassion and generosity. We encourage them to help people who are in difficulty. We show them how to deal with anger, by calming oneself and being aware of one's breathing.

We have many social workers in many places in Vietnam. These people work out of compassion and love, but we offer to pay them so they can also support their own families. We pay the very experienced social workers who take care of many areas $50 a month; for those who help, such as the daycare teachers, we pay $25 a month.

Every time I write a letter to Vietnam or to the sponsors, I show it to Sister Chan Khong before I send it. I ask, "Is this letter gentle enough, skillful enough, polite enough?" It is very important to be humble in doing this work. If you are not humble, your idea of yourself goes higher and higher. The people in Vietnam receive your money, but they also receive your practice, your loving-kindness and your understanding. It is not just money that we send there. This is how Thay has taught Sister Chan Khong to regard the social work in Vietnam. Now she transmits that to all her younger brothers and sisters. If we act like a boss towards the people whom we send the money to, it will create a complex in them and in us. That is how I have been trained.

Sister Chan Khong has a big heart. I am like a little piece of sand. I know my practice and my capacity is very small compared to hers. I take care of some projects, and when I receive news that there's some difficulty with the project, I ask Sister Chan Khong how to handle the situation. Sister Chan Khong has so much energy. Her daily life is not her own. Her life is for all the people in the world. One day, I asked her, "Sister, why do you have so much energy? I see you do many things. You help the Sangha and the people in Vietnam and people in many places. I want to learn from you." She said, "It is so easy. When you are able to help people relieve their suffering and to recognize their happiness, their happiness is your happiness. My happiness is their happiness. If you do anything to help people to relieve their afflictions, their anger and pain, and you see their daily lives are lightened, you also receive their energy of happiness." I have learned this from her. I vowed to practice like her.

How do you stay in touch with the people in Vietnam and also with the people who contribute to the work?

Sister Hy Nghiem: The Plum Village monks and nuns stay in contact with the social workers in Vietnam over the phone, through letters and with occasional visits. Every year, lay Dharma teachers connected to Plum Village also go to Vietnam and visit the projects. The social workers send us detailed reports of how the money is spent, and when they want to start a new project they also send a detailed proposal. We look at the whole situation and decide whether or not we can support the project. The money we receive comes from many friends, so we are very careful with how it is used. The teachers wrote us letters on how they teach the children. The teachers share how they respond, using the practice of mindfulness, when children are angry or unskillful in their classrooms. We do not say that the social work programs we contribute to are the work of Buddhists. We do it only in the name of wanting to help and support others. When the students and the elderly or handicapped people receive the money, they send thank you letters to us also. They share about the day they come to the temple, eat together, have activities together, and receive their scholarships. They share about their feelings.

We also have difficulties. There may be a gap in communication with the government in Vietnam. The brothers and sisters in Vietnam may also have difficulties with each other, because they come from many different backgrounds. The social workers share their difficulties with us. Sometimes, their practice is not solid, they get angry and they do not know how to resolve their difficulties. We encourage them to sit together, listen to each other, and practice beginning anew. They listen to each other, and when they are able to understand each other, they can continue with the work. This is known as Engaged Buddhism, what Thay and sister Chan Khong have established in Vietnam. We practice Buddhism without calling it Buddhism.

When I send thank you letters to the people who sponsor the projects in Vietnam, I am aware of the compassion in that person as I write his or her name. I put my whole heart into writing the thank you letter. I try to touch the person's bodhicitta, the mind of love, like that of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who responds to the suffering in the world. I do not meet with the sponsors in person, but I connect with them like that. We have many friends who give large amounts of money, and we also have many friends who give a small amount every month, such as five or ten dollars. When I open a letter, regardless of the amount, I practice equanimity. Sometimes we receive a check for ten or twenty dollars, and looking at the address, I see that the person lives in an apartment. I feel very happy. I look deeply, and I see that these people are not rich, but they want to help other people and they share the money that they have. When they go shopping or when they go to a restaurant, they are conscious of saving some of their money to share with others. I notice this, and I feel very warm in my heart.

Sister Hy Nghiem. True Adornment with Happiness. was ordained in 1996 and received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

To contribute to the Social Work in Vietnam please contact the Committee for Touching and Helping. 

Europe: Plum Village, 13 Martineau 33580 Dieulivol, France

USA: Green Mt Dharma Center, Box 182, Hartland-4-Corners, VT 05049, USA

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Brotherhood = Reunification

mb34-dharma2 Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to address the audience of a monthly Peace Forum on March 19th, 2003 held for leaders and representatives of various religious communities in South Korea on the topic of “Spiritual Reflections on War and Peace.” The following introduction was given:

Since the winter of 2002, the North Korean nuclear issue has created conflict between the North and the U.S. Since the terrorist attack that occurred in the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, many countries have tightened up their security policies. During this crisis, the people of North Korea continue to suffer from famine. Threats between the U.S. and the North have not resulted in any progress towards a workable solution. The economic blockade and nuclear tension continue. Neither North Korea nor the U.S. is ready to make any concessions. Koreans are concerned about the possibility of military conflict on the peninsula. Meanwhile, there is also a potential war in Iraq. The Peace Forum of January 28th made a national declaration that went along with the international wave of appeal for peace. People desire a world without war. The Peace Forum with Thich Nhat Hanh will address these complex issues. Based on his personal memories of the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh will share his beliefs and practice to lead Korea on the path of peace.

We are invited to enjoy our breathing. Our breath is a bridge that connects our body and our mind. When we go back to our breathing, our mind goes back to our body and we become fully alive, fully present. Breathing in, I feel I am alive. Breathing out, I smile to life.

Dear friends, peace is something that we can cultivate in our daily lives. It is possible to cultivate peace in every moment of our daily lives, while we walk, while we talk, while we sit. I know that peace is made of two elements. The first is understanding and the second is compassion. Cultivating peace means cultivating understanding and cultivating compassion. Every time we go back to ourselves we have the opportunity to do the work of cultivating peace. Every time I breathe in or I make a step I have an opportunity to go back to myself and become fully present in the here and the now.

mb34-dharma1

When you drink water, mindfulness helps you to see that the glass of water that you hold in your hand is real. In that moment of mindful drinking, you have no other thought, you are present just for the act of drinking. Mindfulness is the kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is happening in the present moment. What is happening in the present moment is that I am breathing in or I am making a step or I am drinking water. The energy of mindfulness brings the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration you have the opportunity to understand reality deeply.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is not a place where there is no suffering. I would not like to live in a place where there is no suffering. I know very well that without suffering there is no way for us to cultivate understanding and compassion. It is by getting in deeply touch with suffering, it is by understanding suffering that compassion arises in our hearts.

Understanding is the Basic Work for Peace 

The Buddha advised us not to run away from suffering. Instead we have to confront suffering and look into the heart of suffering. Understanding the nature and cause of suffering is our practice. Suffering is the first Noble Truth; understanding is the second Noble Truth. Without understanding of suffering, the fourth Noble Truth, the path leading to the cessation of suffering, would not be possible.

Suppose we talk about terrorism as suffering. Looking into the nature of terrorism we see fear, we see anger, we see wrong perceptions. If you want to wage a war against terrorism you have to identify the causes of terrorism, namely fear, anger, and wrong perceptions. With fear, anger, and wrong perceptions in you, you become an instrument of terrorism, of war. Your action is motivated by that fear, that anger, and that wrong perception but you think you are acting in the name of truth, the name of justice, and the name of God.

The people who destroyed the twin towers in New York City on September 11th believed they were acting in the name of justice, in the name of God. The people who have gone to drop bombs in Afghanistan, who are going to drop bombs in Baghdad think they are acting in the name of justice, of civilization, of God. But the fact is that we cannot remove fear with fear, we cannot remove anger with anger, and we cannot remove violence with violence.

Imagine you are a citizen of Baghdad and you feel that your country is surrounded by troops and guns ready to attack your country at any moment. Sleeping in Baghdad for just one night with that kind of fear and despair is very damaging to our physical and mental health. Imagine our children who have to live in that situation of fear and despair for several months. In the last few months the people of Iraq have lived in such a situation of anguish, of fear, and of anger. Although the United States of America has not dropped any bombs, the damage can already be seen. It is the U.S. army that is terrorizing the people of Iraq.

If the population of America understood that the people in Iraq are living in anger, in despair, and fear they would not support their government starting a war there. I have many friends who are U.S. citizens who are enlightened, who know that waging a war against Iraq is a wrong thing, but they belong to a minority. They are doing their best to wake up their fellow citizens and they need our help. It is not by shouting against the American government that we can help the cause of peace. It is by doing whatever we can to help the American people to understand what is really going on – that is the basic work for peace.

Reducing Fear 

We know very well that the cause of terrorism is fear and wrong perception. I don’t think that the bombs and the guns can identify the cause of terrorism. I don’t think that the military forces can remove wrong perceptions; in fact they can strengthen wrong perceptions. The only way to remove wrong perceptions is to establish a dialogue. The two instruments that you need to use to restore communication are deep listening and loving speech.

mb34-dharma3

The government and the people of the U.S. can say, “Dear people, we don’t know why you have done such a thing to us. You must have suffered a lot, you must have hated us a lot in order to have done such a thing to us. Have we done something wrong? Please tell us of your suffering, of your anger, of your despair so that we understand and we will be more skillful in the future. If you tell us about your suffering, your difficulties, maybe we shall be able to do something to help. Now it is our deep desire to listen to you, to understand your suffering, your difficulties. We want to understand why you have done this to us.” The government of the United States of America has not used the peaceful methods of deep listening and loving speech. Every time there is a problem, right away they think of using armed forces to solve the problem.

Our political leaders have been trained in political science but not in making peace, inner peace and outer peace. We have to support them to bring a spiritual dimension to our political life. The United States of America may ask this question: Why, when the people of North Korea do not have enough to eat, do they spend money to make nuclear weapons? If we ask this question with all our heart we will find the answer. The answer may be something like this: We are hungry but we have to spend a lot of money and time to make weapons because we are afraid that you will attack us someday. If the Republic of Korea makes it very clear that they are not going to attack North Korea, that declaration will transform fear into brotherhood. I think that the path of peace can be seen clearly if we make some effort to look deeply into the situation. We have to make efforts to help people realize that North and South Korea are brothers, sons of the same mother.

The government and the people of South Korea might like to use an instrument of peace called loving speech. “Dear people in the North, we know that we are brothers and we do not want to see you suffer. As your brother in the South we will make the commitment not to attack the North. It is based on the realization that you are our brother and it would not be correct for a brother to attack a brother. If anyone makes an attempt to attack you, as your brother we will try to protect you.” The people and the government of South Korea can make such a pledge and that will reduce the amount of fear in North Korea. The Government and the people of South Korea can do better; they can convince the United States of America to make the same kind of commitment. I am sure that after the commitment is made, the people of North Korea will not spend more money on armaments but will use that money to better the lives of the people in the North.

mb34-dharma4

A Proposal for Peace and Reunification 

I propose that the Buddhist communities, the Christian communities, and other spiritual communities in South Korea come together and make this proposal to the government and the parliament. You may want to buy a portable telephone and send it to the president of North Korea as a gift. The people of South Korea can request, “Mr. President, please use this phone to talk to our president in the South for ten minutes. We have also sent our president in the South a portable telephone and we have urged him to talk to you for ten minutes every day.” If communication is restored then fear will diminish and the hope for peace will grow. This is an example of skillful means to promote the cause for peace. This is an act of watering the seed of brotherhood that is in everyone, North and South. If we follow this practice of peace then peace will be possible in just a few weeks. This proposal is something that we can do. Religious communities in the South can come together and offer the presidents of North and South Korea one portable telephone and urge their presidents to talk to each other every day about peace, about the hope for reunification.

Dear friends I would like to leave time for some questions and discussion.

Questions and Answers 

Q: I am Sister Kim Sunan and I am a Catholic sister. About ten years ago I learned walking meditation from you when you came to Korea. Since then I have been practicing and I have taught some of my students; Christian, non-Christian, and Buddhist and they really appreciate it.

This evening you said that you don’t want to live in a place where there is no suffering because suffering is one way we can learn compassion. I agree and I try to accept suffering and to find meaning in it. In Christianity we have the mystery of the cross, but I have never thought about not wanting to live where there is no suffering. I agree but at the same time I wonder about those people who are not able to bear their suffering, and are deeply hurt by it. What would you suggest for them?

Thay: This is a very good question. First of all, suffering and happiness go together. Without suffering there is no happiness; without happiness there is no suffering. They inter-are. If you don’t know the suffering of separation it is impossible for you to realize the joy of reunification. If you don’t know what hunger feels like, you don’t know the joy of having something to eat. It is against the background of suffering that we can recognize the existence of happiness.

Happiness is made of nonhappiness elements. Suffering is made of non-suffering elements. It is like a flower – a flower is made only of non-flower elements. Nonflower elements are the sunshine, the clouds, the seed, and so on. A flower is made only of non-flower elements; it does not have a separate self. I always remind my students that Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhist elements. If you return the non-Buddhist elements to their source there is no longer such a thing as Buddhism. That is what we call the non-self of Buddhism.

If there is no garbage there cannot be flowers, because garbage is used to make compost which will bring the flowers to us. If you can look deeply, then when you look into a flower you can see the garbage that has helped to make the flower possible. If you look into a heap of garbage you can see cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes because you know that it is possible to transform garbage into vegetables.

There is garbage in us, namely violence, jealousy, and anger. But if we are good gardeners we will not be afraid of this garbage because we know how to transform the garbage in us into flowers, the flowers of understanding and compassion. The practice of spirituality is not one of running away from suffering. It is the practice of learning how to transform suffering into well-being. A good practitioner knows the exact amount of suffering that she or he needs. If we allow suffering to overwhelm us we will die; that is why we need the exact amount of suffering that will help us to understand and to love. If the amount of suffering is huge in our society, it is because not many of us know how to transform the garbage back into flowers.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding and compassion. And it is thanks to the amount of understanding and compassion that we have that we can transform suffering into well-being. I think that a healthy spiritual tradition dispenses the teaching and the practice that can help us to transform suffering with the instruments of understanding and compassion.

Restoring Communication, Restoring Harmony

Q: Thay, I would like to make a very honest, heart-felt confession to you. When I listened to your Dharma talk, I felt deep shame, guilt, and humiliation as a Korean religious person. Our president called Mr. Bush and said, Korea supports American policy on Iraq and we will send soldiers in case you start war against Iraq. The U.S. government told us, if Korea does not support the U.S., we will pull our soldiers from the Korean peninsula. I feel a deep shame because people all around the world protest against war in Iraq, but my government supports it. I feel guilty when I think about the Iraqi people and what is happening to them. I also feel humiliation because when the U.S. says they will pull out of Korea, this is a hidden threat.

mb34-dharma5

In South Korea we have fifty years of suffering due to the division of our country. We have had this contract of military support with America because they helped us during the Korean War and we are very afraid of future war and violence. After fifty years of meditation and practice you have attained liberation and enlightenment. But we don’t have long years to practice. Within fifteen to twenty days we have to make a decision in our congress whether we will send our soldiers to Iraq and I don’t know whether we Korean people have enough courage to oppose sending soldiers to Iraq if it results in the American soldiers leaving Korea. Please advise us Korean people who have only fifteen days to make a decision. Teach us what to do.

mb34-dharma6

Thay: Enlightenment is not a matter of time. You cannot talk about enlightenment in terms of months or years because enlightenment can come in an instant. We call that sudden enlightenment. Enlightenment to me is a deep understanding of our true situation. There is division, discrimination, and suffering in our countries. That is true everywhere. Even in the United States of America there are many people who feel they are victims of discrimination and injustice. Separation, hatred, and anger are present within the population of America. This is because there is a lack of understanding and compassion, based on the lack of communication. Even in a tradition like Buddhism there is separation, there is misunderstanding, there is anger. The same is true in the Christian religion. There may be separation, anger, and hatred between members of the same family. That is why restoring communication is the most urgent practice for peace.

If there are feelings of shame, of unhappiness, that means there is not true communication within ourselves. We don’t understand ourselves; there is no harmony between the elements of our body and our mind. Restoring harmony within our body is very important for a good practitioner. Restoring harmony in the realm of our feelings and emotions is a very important practice. Without communication, there is no harmony and no well-being. In this state, you cannot do anything to help your family or society. If we know how to bring peace within ourselves, then we know how to bring peace to our family. Once we have restored harmony and communication within ourselves, we will be able to help society. That is why it is very important that different factions of our community should try to communicate with each other. If there is harmony within the people of the South then communication to people of the North will be much easier. If there is harmony and mutual understanding between people of the North and the South, no country in the world can be a threat. Thank you for the question.

Can There Be Peace Without War? 

Q: You have mentioned that there is no happiness without suffering. When I change these words we might consider that there is no peace without war. Does this mean that we cannot avoid war; we should just accept it as unavoidable karma? Should we just keep silent and breathe in and out mindfully? What would you do when there is war?

Thay: This is an excellent question. War is not just the bombs falling on us. Every time you have a thought that is full of anger and misunderstanding – that is war. War can be manifested through our way of thinking, our way of speaking, and our way of acting. We may be living in war, not knowing that we are fighting with ourselves and the people around us. With the war in yourself and the war that you inflict on other people, there is suffering within you and there is suffering around you. Maybe in your daily life there are a few moments of ceasefire. But most are moments of war.

Suppose there is a couple who quarrels all the time except when they are very tired; these moments of not quarreling are not exactly peace, they are a ceasefire. Then suppose a friend comes to visit and asks, “Why are you living in war twenty-four hours a day? Why don’t you try living in peace?” And the couple says, “We don’t know. Tell us, what is peace? What can we do in order to have peace?” And the friend tells the couple how to practice in order to bring back harmony into their bodies and into their emotions and feelings and they begin to have a taste of peace. Supported by the friend, the couple’s peace grows every day until one day they say, “It is wonderful, we know what peace is now.” But if there had been no experience of living at war, then how could they experience peace?

Thanks to the mud, the lotus flower is able to grow. The feeling of well-being and peace is possible only when you have experienced the feeling of war. As someone who has lived many decades in the midst of war, I know what war is. And elements of suffering in war have helped me to arrive at the state of being in peace today. If I did not know some practice of peace I would have died in the war of suffering.

We know that we are co-responsible for the situation of our society. By the way we live our daily life we contribute to peace or to war. It is mindfulness that can tell me that I am going in the direction of war and it is the energy of mindfulness that can help me to make a turn and to go in the direction of peace. That is why I have translated mindfulness and concentration as the Holy Spirit; it can transform your life.

The Light of Compassion 

Q: Today you told us to imagine we are living in Baghdad and to understand the hearts of the people there. Yesterday I read that Mr. Bush wants to start the war in Iraq, and I couldn’t sleep. I went up into the mountains and I walked all night. I did not have fear; I did not have anger; I did not have misunderstanding. I was frustrated and sad. I have a strong feeling that I want to send a word of consolation and encouragement to the people in Baghdad, but I cannot find any words. I want to hear your consolation and encouragement to us and to the people in Baghdad. I also want to hear what is your action of consolation and encouragement to us and to people in Baghdad?

mb34-dharma7

Thay: It is very important to maintain compassion in your heart and not to allow anger and frustration to take over. On that foundation you will find things to do to help the cause of peace. You can write a love letter to your congressman and to your president, urging them to help with the cause of peace. You can contact a friend and urge him or her to do the same. Allow the light and the compassion in your heart to go out to many people around you. In the Bible it says, “If you have the light, display it in a place where many people can see it.” That light is the light of understanding and compassion. Live your daily life in such a way that understanding and compassion can be shared with as many people around you as possible. Cultivating peace is not a matter of days; it should be cultivated generation after generation. Your children and your grandchildren will be your continuation as practitioners of peace. The question is not how much you can do; the question is whether you are doing your best. If you are doing your best then you are in the Pure Land of the Buddha, in the Kingdom of God. You don’t have to worry anymore.

PDF of this article

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

Watering Seeds: An Exercise for Children

Terry  Masters This is an exercise I have done with the children I teach. Please adapt it to work in your situation. The teacher’s comments are in bold, the children’s responses are in italics.

Here is what each child will need to do this experiment: 2 clear wide mouth jars or plastic cups or cut the top off a clear plastic water bottle 2 paper towels Soil 8 lima or pinto beans 1 permanent marker (for everyone to use)

We’re going to plant some bean seeds.

Note: Demonstrate and help the children as you give them the following directions: Wrap the inside of one of your cups with a paper towel. Carefully put soil inside the cup, behind the paper towel. Fill it about 3/4 full. Place 4 beans between the paper towel and the side of the cup. Make a lot of space between the beans. Like us, beans like freedom! Please do the same with the other cup.

Note: We use clear cups and paper towels so that children can watch as the beans grow roots and stems.

Let’s name your bean seeds. One cup will be the home for your Happiness Beans; you will name your beans after ways that make you truly happy. For example, does it make you happy when others smile at you? Does it make you happy when you smile at others? If so, you might like to name one of your beans “Smile”! Other names for your Happiness Beans might be mindfulness, generosity, freedom, safety, love, hope, sharing. What makes you truly happy? Playing with my dog, being with my friends, sharing, irises.

With the permanent marker write the names of your beans on your cup.

Your other cup will be the home for your Unhappiness Beans; you will name yourbeans afterways that do not make you happy. For example, does it make you unhappy when you or someone you know is angry? If anger makes you unhappy, you might like to name one of your beans, “Anger.” Other names for the Unhappiness Beans might be stinginess, fear, sadness, impatience, hurrying, jealousy. What makes you unhappy? Fights, war, stealing, not sharing.

With our permanent marker write the names of your beans on your cup.

Discussion: These beans are seeds. If the causes and conditions are right, they will grow into bean plants. What causes and conditions do you think need to happen to make the bean seeds grow into bean plants? Soil, air, light, and water. You have Happiness and Unhappiness bean seeds. Which bean seeds do you want to grow? Only the Happiness seeds. How can you help the Happiness bean seeds grow? Give them what they need: soil, air, water, and light. How can you keep the Unhappiness bean seeds from growing? Do not give them soil, air, water, and/or light.

Help the children water their Happiness Beans. They should not water the Unhappiness Beans.

We people have things like seeds inside us, just like your bean cups. We all have the seeds of smiling, mindfulness, generosity, freedom, safety, love, playing, and sharing (and lots of other happy seeds!) inside of us. Note: Be sure to include the ways to be happy which children offered earlier.

We all also have the seeds of anger, stinginess, fear, impatience, hurrying, fighting, stealing, not sharing, and jealousy (and lots of other unhappy seeds!) inside of us. Note: Be sure to include the “unhappy seeds “ which children offered earlier.

When the causes and conditions are right, our seeds grow, too. Just like with our bean seeds, if we give our happy seeds soil, air, light, and water, they will grow. Of course, if we give the unhappy seeds in us the things they need, they will grow, too!

Just like with our bean seeds, we are the ones who get to decide which seeds will grow and which will not grow inside us.

mb34-Watering1

What does it mean to give the seeds inside us air? Freedom, space, time.

What does it mean to give the seeds inside us light? To notice our seeds; to shine the light on them.

mb34-Watering2

What are some ways we can water (and not water) the seeds inside ourselves? With some guidance, these are some ways our children thought of to water/not water the seeds of happiness and unhappiness in ourselves: Practice:“One way to water the seed of smiling is to smile a lot.” Awareness: “I water the seed of generosity when I notice that I am being generous.” Don’t concentrate: “One way to not water the seed of anger is to notice it but to not keep concentrating on it.” Check my perceptions: “I can ask, ‘Am I sure?’ when I start to get jealous of a friend. Am I sure what my friend has is what I want?” Act nice: “One way to water the seed of love is to tell our friends that we love them.” Say a Gatha: “One way to water the seed of appreciation, is to say the Five Contemplations gatha.” Breathe in and out: “One way to not water the seed of fear is to pay attention to our breathing.” Don’t watch mean TV or videos or listen to mean songs on the radio: “One way to not water the seed of meanness is to watch only shows that are friendly and kind.” Understand: “When I start to get irritated at my dad or mom, I can try to understand why they did the thing that made me irritated.” Take Three Steps: “One way to not water the seed of sadness is to take Three Steps.

  1. Enjoy things that make me happy. 2. Notice when I am sad.
  2. Later, when I am not sad anymore, think about what had made me sad and try to understand it and change it.

Invite the children to take their happiness and unhappiness seeds home to care for.

Two sources for grown-ups: Transformation at the Base and The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, both by Thich Nhat Hanh, available from Parallax Press.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue.

PDF of this article

My Father's Smile

By Susan Hadler Note: Second Body is a practice that is sometimes used to pair Sangha friends who intentionally support one another’s mindfulness practice. In our Sangha, second body pairs usually meet once a week for about four months.

An early morning breeze blows through my cotton jacket as I walk to the metro to meet with my Second Body. I wrap my arms around myself to keep warm, but the chill has more to do with yesterday’s trouble than with the spring wind.

Yesterday, eager to begin transcribing tapes of Dharma teacher Anh-Huong’s talks for the book she is writing, I bought a tape recorder and some blank tapes. I put one blank tape into one side of the machine and Anh-Huong’s recorded talk into the other side and pushed the button. When the recording machine stopped, I played back the copy. There was no sound. Nothing but the silent whir of an empty tape. Then I played the original tape. It was gone. The sound of the bell and then Anh-Huong’s serene voice, gone! I had erased the whole talk. There was nothing on either tape. I had lost the entire Dharma talk.

I wanted to turn the clock back and have another chance. This time I would not hurry. I would stop and take three breaths before sliding the tapes into the machine. But that moment had passed and there I was with two empty tapes.

I was thinking about that tape on my way to meet my Second Body. We’d been meeting at the coffee house every Wednesday morning at eight a.m. Trust in my Second Body deepened over the three months we’d been meeting. I remember worrying that I wouldn’t be able to understand him or respond in a way that helped. But then I noticed that when I listened without thinking about how I could help, my Second Body found his way. What “helped” seemed to be that I was sitting there, listening. Alert and present. We were practicing mindfulness together, recognizing and embracing what appeared, watering wholesome seeds and I was learning mindfulness from him, with him. Sometimes I told him what I’d heard. Sometimes I asked a question. He would continue until he came to a deeper understanding. Then he would stop and smile and I would speak.

mb35-My1

I began slowly, guardedly. I have one or two little things, I would say. My Second Body listened to me and in his listening I found the space to listen to myself as I spoke. I noticed my awareness growing more consistent and more focused daily knowing that I would talk with my Second Body soon.

Over the months we met, the war on Iraq was heating up and eventually broke out. I read in the newspapers about Iraqi people who were killed and soldiers who died. I felt sad for everyone who lost someone they loved and for all of us. The war opened wounds from an earlier war when my father, a twenty-five year old soldier, was killed in WWII. I was three months old.

As I listened to my Second Body integrate his practice with his daily life, I learned to talk about my experiences of loss from the perspective of the practice. I became aware of the strength of my sorrow and that I had unconsciously watered seeds of sorrow my whole life. And then I noticed a shift. As I focused more on the practice with the help of my Second Body, I became aware of experiences of happiness and of peace. I noticed times of happiness and peace even in the midst of the sadness of war!

April 12th is the anniversary of my father’s death. This year I wanted to be with a Sangha on that day, so I drove to Annapolis for the Day of Mindfulness. During the morning meditation, Anh-Huong suggested that we invite our beloved to sit with us. I invited my father. Until I began to search for information about my father a few years ago, I knew only that he was an only child and the date and place of his death. It was too painful for my family to talk about. So I welcomed the chance to sit there with my father and then I invited my grandparents, my father’s parents.

When I heard the bell of mindfulness signal the end of meditation, I opened my eyes and saw Anh-Huong, her husband Thu, and their nine year old son Bao Thich sitting so peacefully, so happily. For the first time I knew in my heart that my father had been happy. Tears ran down my face as I realized that he had been a happy little boy like Bao Thich, picking up leaves to give his mother, eating ice cream, and swimming in the lake. I was able to see that tragedy had overshadowed happiness. The practice was helping me find and water seeds of happiness and seeds of peace. Seeds of sorrow no longer grew so tall and thick. I could feel sunlight inside.

mb35-My2

Now I am on my way to tell my Second Body about the lost tape. We order our tea and hot chocolate and settle into chairs. I tell my Second Body about losing Anh-Huong’s talk, how upset I am. Maybe I should leave the project even though I love it. Maybe I should leave the Sangha if I am so destructive. My Second Body takes a drink of hot chocolate, puts his cup on the table and looks at me. When he speaks, he says, “You need help holding this. You should call Anh-Huong.”

Tears flood my eyes. My Second Body is more concerned about me than what I’ve done. I need help? I’m the one who lost the tape. But I do need help. I feel so grateful for his recognition of my pain. Later I realize that needing another to see where I am blind is the face of interbeing manifest in Second Body practice.

I notice an old fear rising when I think about calling AnhHuong, fear of upsetting her, fear of silence, fear of blame and rejection when I already feel terrible. But I trust my Second Body. When I get back to my office I call Anh-Huong and leave a message.

After dinner the phone rings. I breathe in and out, in and out, in and out and answer the call. It’s AnhHuong. After a minute of silence, I tell her that I erased one of her Dharma talks by mistake. I am so sorry. Anh-Huong speaks, “The tape isn’t lost. It’s still in us. It’s still here.” I listen to her words, so full of acceptance and understanding. I tell her, “As I listen to your Dharma talks, I know how meaningful they are. I feel sad to have lost any part of them, sad that others won’t have the chance to hear or read the one I lost.” AnhHuong says, “It’s all right. It’s part of us.” I continue, “I love typing the talks; listening closely to them is such a joy.” She responds, “So you like it, good.” I feel her concern and notice her delight in my enjoyment of typing the talks. I am filled with gratitude for my Second Body, for Anh-Huong’s understanding and compassion, for the Sangha and the practice, which is more vast than my mistake.

I hang up the phone smiling, aware of many levels of being in that moment. It’s still in us. It’s part of us. It’s empty and it’s here. He’s still in us. He’s part of us. He’s gone and he’s here. No coming, no going.

With help this clenched heart opens. Sorrow flies up to a branch and sings.

Susan Hadler lives in Washington, D.C. where she practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community. She is a psychologist and she enjoys writing.

PDF of this article