Questions and Answers
© Thich Nhat Hanh
My dear friends, today is the 20th of July, 1998, and we are in the New Hamlet for our Question and Answer time. I would like to receive a question first directly from the Sangha. Do you have a question ready? Please…
You never speak of karma. Why not?
I speak of karma all the time. There is no moment when I do not speak on karma. Karma means action. The action can be in the form of a thought, or in the form of a word, or it can be in the form of a physical action. So when I speak about mindful breathing, that is good karma. Mindful breathing is good action to bring your body and mind together, so you can be there in order to touch life deeply. When I speak about the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I speak about karma, because karma is action—if you think, if you speak, according to the spirit of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, you will get good results: peace, joy and happiness will be yours. I do not use the word karma, the technical term, but I always speak of karma, and the food of karma, which is karmaphala. And also good karma and negative karma. Let us not be caught by terms, even ideas. Let us deal with our actual problems. Let us have real practice, and not indulge ourselves in too much speculation and too many ideas.
What would you say to children who have been abused by their parents? This is a question that was written and put into the bell. You all know that a child who has been sexually abused will have to suffer all of his or her life. That is why parents have to be aware of that, and try to protect their children. If we are a person who has been abused by our parents when we were small, then we have to learn the way to transform suffering in us. The person who abuses his or her child is a sick person, a person who does not know how to handle his or her body, feelings and mental formations. That person has not been helped by a teacher or friends in the Dharma, and he or she belongs to that group of people who do not know how to handle their body, and do not know how to handle their mental formations, including craving, irritation and despair. And that is why he or she is to be helped, and not to be punished. If the person who is the victim of sexual abuse realizes that, then the anger within him or her will be transformed into compassion. The parent who abused him or her was not helped by anyone, and now the person who was the victim of that abuse can turn out to be someone who can help his or her own parent. That means that understanding is the base of the practice.
If someone has done something wrong and destructive to himself, or to herself, and to another person, because he or she did not know the way, was always living in ignorance, and did not know that that kind of action would bring a lot of pain or suffering to self and to the ones he or she loves, it is clear that that kind of ignorance, that kind of wrong behavior, was stronger than himself or herself. When that happened he or she was not supported by teacher, friends, or Sangha. What happened is only a result of those circumstances: he did not have luck, or good education, and so on. If you were put in his or her situation, without any kind of help from society, from school, from education, from church, from parents, then you might be doing exactly the same thing. That is why instead of blaming we try to understand. And we should know that we might have the same kind of seed within us, because our parents may have transmitted the same kind of seed and tendency to us. If we do not practice, if we are not supported by a Sangha or by brothers and sisters in the Dharma, we are not supported and helped by a teacher, we may do the same thing to our children. We should be aware that we could create victims, in the same way that we have been victims of our parents. That is the first recommendation that I make to the children who have been abused by their parents. Try to look deeply in order to see how unfortunate your parent was, so you can forgive him or her; and when forgiveness is there, your suffering will be decreased by a significant amount.
The second thing I would recommend to the person who has been sexually abused is that she practice to transform herself into a bodhisattva; that means someone who is enlightened, who has the energy of compassion ready to help other people. There are many children to be protected. These children may be victims of sexual abuse tomorrow, and after tomorrow. So if you have suffered, and you know what it is to be a victim of sexual abuse, you would understand the suffering of other children who have been abused, and children who are going to be abused, because that will happen in the future. That is why you receive the Mindfulness Trainings, and you make the great determination to do everything in your power to protect children from sexual abuse. There are many things you can do, by means of education, by means of practice. If you are a teacher, if you are a filmmaker, if you are a journalist, if you are a writer, you can always use your talent in order to promote education aimed at helping to protect children from sexual abuse. At the time you kneel down in front of a Sangha and make the solemn determination to receive the Third Mindfulness Training, you get a lot of energy. I vow to do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse. Working with the Sangha, practicing with the Sangha, you will find ways to do that, to protect children from sexual abuse. And if you have that energy within yourself, the energy of a bodhisattva, with the great vow to help protecting the children, that great energy will be able to transform the pain and the sorrow that have been there with you for a long time.
These are two recommendations that I have made to people who have been sexually abused. Many of them have reported that after having practiced a number of months, they feel that the sorrow and the suffering in them have disappeared. They live their lives normally, with joy, and they can continue on their path as a bodhisattva, helping many other people and reconciling with their parents, whether their parents are still alive or whether they have passed away. Reconciliation is possible with these two aspects of the practice.
Another question from the Sangha…
Dear Thay, modern medical science creates situation where people become old, or situations where life ceases to be dignified and people don’t feel they would like to continue their living. Nevertheless there’s a kind of idea behind medical science or medical doctors that life has to be continued at any cost…I personally have made a declaration that I would like to be able to die when there is no hope any more; or when I am faced, for example with the prospect of Alzheimer’s Disease, I think that my life should be ended. How is it possible to look at this in the framework of the First Mindfulness Training?
I have meditated on this issue, and I have found that we should act as a Sangha to find the answers we need. We cannot generalize. I think we have to consider individual problems. It is like the situation of a boat person, a young lady who was a refugee, who had been violated on the sea by a sea pirate, and when she arrived at the refugee camp, she suffered very much, physically and morally. There were women who would like to remove the remnant of these acts when they became pregnant, because they suffered very much. Their pregnancy reminded them day and night of those difficult moments, of their suffering. We always tried to help them by inquiring into their specific, individual case. There were those who were capable of practicing, of learning, of understanding, and they could be opened to enough compassion to see that the tiny living being within them also had the right to life. So with that help, with that practice, compassion could be nourished, and there would be no harm if the young lady continued to keep her child. But in other cases, it was quite impossible for us to encourage the person to follow the same course, because that person did not have sufficient capacity to understand. The suffering was so great that we had to agree that abortion could be done in that case, in order to save the life of that person.
With this question it is the same. I think that the doctors in the clinic have to act as the Sangha, in collaboration with the family and the friends of the person concerned, to examine that specific case. If you are going to make a decision, you have to make that decision on the grounds of the consensus of the whole Sangha, all the doctors concerned, and all the friends and members of the family of the concerned person. Even if the law allows us to do so, we still have to decide using the Sangha eyes, the best kind of eyes we have. Never make a decision based on your own individual insight, we have to profit from the insight of everyone in the Sangha. In Plum Village we follow that kind of principle. Every time someone asks to become a permanent resident, or someone asks to be ordained as a novice monk or nun, or a novice asks to receive the full ordination of a monk or nun, it is always the Sangha who decides whether it is time or whether the person has to wait three or four more months. If the Sangha judges that the Sangha should make some recommendations to help with the practice of that person, and if, after two or three months that person proves to be capable of the reception of the ordination, then the Sangha will make the positive decision. So we try to live as a Sangha, we try to decide as a Sangha, because we have learned that the insight of the Sangha, the Sangha eyes, are always more lucid than the view and the opinion and the decision of one person.
So my answer here is the same: you should operate as a Sangha of doctors, and you should make use of every individual insight, and you should collaborate with the members of the family of the person concerned.
This question is written in French. Yesterday in the discussion on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, questions were asked about abortion and handicapped people. Someone said that in Buddhism a handicapped person does not have the capacity to arrive at full realization. To arrive at full realization you have to have a sound body and spirit. I find it difficult to accept. You have spoken about the non-discrimination of the left hand vis-à-vis the right hand. What will happen if we classify people by levels of greater or lesser intelligence?
I think I have answered the part of the question related to abortion; now, I will address the part about handicapped people. In the time of the Buddha, in order to be ordained as a monk or a nun, you would have to be at least twenty years old, and you should be able to walk and do things in the usual way, meaning you had to have two hands and two feet. That is not because the Buddha discriminated against handicapped people, but because the life of a bhikkhu at that time required those conditions. We did not cook in the community at that time. Every morning all the monks and nuns had to go to the village or to the city to beg for food. If you could not go begging for alms, how could you live the life of a monk or a nun? We did not have the facilities that handicapped people have today. They have means to transport themselves, they can get into elevators, they can drive cars, so the situation now is completely different. So I think that today we can accept handicapped people into the Sangha of monks and nuns. I do not express that as an ideal--we have already encouraged that. In Switzerland there is a novice nun who is a handicapped person, and she learned from the tradition that she would never be a fully ordained nun. So we wrote a letter to her to tell her that we were ready to ordain her as a nun: "Please do not to have any complex, just come, because we know that you are capable of operating as a nun, because you have been helped by people here and you have all the facilities in order to function on your own. So that is what we have done, not just talking about it. Please know that there is no discrimination on the part of the Buddha. If we can function, we can live the life of a monk or nun, if we can do the things that a monk or nun does in order to practice, then we will be accepted into the Sangha.
I remember one time reading a sutra with a story of the Buddha coming to visit a monk who was very sick, suffering from dysentery. The Buddha came to that small monastery for a visit, and all the monks were out on the begging round. He met only one monk, who was very sick, and the Buddha saw that he was not well taken care of, and he asked why not. The monk said, "My Lord, it’s not because my brothers do not take care of me; but because they have taken care of me for a long time, I am very reluctant to let them continue like that." Then the Buddha asked his attendant to go and fetch water and a towel, and he himself cleaned the room for the monk, he himself changed the monk into clean clothes. When the other monks came home, the Buddha said, "When you have become a monk, the Sangha is your family. If we monks don’t take care of each other, who will take care of us? So please, from now on, remember that anyone taking care of his brother monk or sister nun is taking care of me, of the Buddha, myself." That was recorded in the sutra. So I think that we live in a time when handicapped people can enjoy the practice as monks and nuns, and the Sangha can organize so that in our community handicapped people can have the opportunity to practice like everyone else.
One question, please.
I still have some confusion regarding the passage in the First Mindfulness Training...My question is whether it is justified, when one is being attacked, to be violent in self defense on an individual level or on a collective level, when a country is attacked by another country, don’t they have the right to defend themselves, and sometimes that would take the form of violence, and even killing.
Violence can be seen in several forms. Sometimes it does not look violent in its external appearance, but inside it’s very violent. We call it institutional violence. So many of us are victims of that kind of institutional violence. Society is organized in such a way that many people don’t have the right and the opportunity to become free of poverty and oppression, and so on. So although people don’t use guns and bombs, violence is still there, because the organization of the society denies many people the right to be emancipated from oppression, inequality and discrimination. That is why the first thing I would like to draw your attention to is that violence is sometimes hidden, and we should practice looking deeply to see the true face of violence.
The second thing I would like to draw your attention to is that there cannot be perfect non-violence. The issue is to try to do the least violence possible, and that is our practice. Suppose we say that we don’t want to kill animals—that is why we became a vegetarian. And every time we eat lettuce or we boil a vegetable we feel better, and we might have the impression that we don’t kill any living beings. But in fact every time we boil water, many tiny living beings die. We don’t know that our vegetable dish is not entirely vegetarian (laughter). But it is very obvious that eating vegetables causes much less pain than eating meat. The way we raise chickens, cattle, we treat animals, is very violent. So that even when we drink a glass of milk, we know that it is not perfectly non-violent. The way they treat the cows, the way they take the calf from his mother, the way they kill the calf…do you know that in this country and in many other countries, the calf has the right to live only one hundred days. The calf doesn’t have the right to run or move, they leave him in one place, and one hundred days later they kill him for food. So even if we drink some milk, we still feel some pain within us. That is why many of us prefer soy milk to cow’s milk.
Even if you are not in the military, you can be violent. Usually we think of the military as violent, and that we civilians are less violent. But in fact we have supported the military in many ways. And some of us who are not in the military may be more violent than generals and other military commanders. We are used to seeing the military as violent, and the non-military as non-violent, but that is not true. Even if you are a general, if you are in charge of a military operation, you can also practice some non-violence. You can conduct your military operation in such a way that few civilians will be killed. It is possible to put the element of compassion in the hearts of the military people. You can win that victory, but there are many ways to win that victory. If you have compassion within yourself, you will be able to spare the lives of many people, whether they belong to the civilian population or to the military population. That is why I think that those of us who work for non-violence have to keep our friendship alive and open with the army, and we can help the army to be less violent and to have a more human view of the situation. The people in the army have the capacity to wake up, to understand and to love, just as we do. Let us not deprive them of the opportunity to water the seeds of compassion, understanding and loving kindness in them. Be a friend to the military, and then you have the opportunity to bring the teaching and the practice of compassion even to the military circles.
When we get lost in the forest, if we want to go home, we may rely on the North Star as a sign to help us know what direction we should take. Suppose we want to go north: we look at the North Star in order to go north. But we do not have an intention to arrive at the North Star (laughter). We don’t have to arrive there, we need just to go north. The same thing is true with violence and non-violence. We don’t have to be perfect in the practice of the First Mindfulness Training; in fact, no one can be perfect in the practice of the First Mindfulness Training. Lord Buddha had to eat vegetables just like us, so we know that his dish was not completely vegetarian. And every time he walked and moved, he may have crushed insects under his feet. As a human being you have to walk, you have to eat, you have to drink, and that is why you cannot be perfectly non-violent. But the important thing is that you try to be as non-violent as possible, and you cultivate compassion, so that each day you become more and more compassionate, each day you become more and more non-violent, and that is an art. In order to know how to be more compassionate each day, how to apply better and better the First Mindfulness Training each day, we have to come together as a Sangha and recite the Mindfulness Trainings and share ideas, in order to understand more deeply the Trainings and to find out better ways to put the Mindfulness Trainings into practice in our daily lives. Therefore, please remember the North Star: we don’t have to be perfect, and sometimes we have to use means that are not completely non-violent; but you are in a position to understand the suffering of the people, you have the energy of compassion in you, you can intervene so that people around you and yourself become less and less violent every day. That would make the Buddha happy already.
Dear Thay, I would like to hear you talk a bit about the idea of the Holy Spirit.
Many years ago when I visited Italy, I met a Catholic priest who organized a public talk for me. We had time to talk with each other, and I asked him this question: "My friend, what is the Holy Spirit to you?" And he said that the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, sent by God to us. I thought that expression is beautiful, and as a Buddhist practitioner I can accept it very easily. The Holy Spirit is the kind of energy that helps you to be compassionate, to be healed of your ill being. I think Catholics and Protestants would agree about that: the Holy Spirit is the agent of healing, of transformation, of joy, of being there. In Buddhist circles, we say very much the same thing to describe mindfulness. To us, mindfulness is the energy that can help us to be there, in the here and the now. Mindfulness helps us to be alive, and since we are there, we are capable of touching life deeply, of understanding, of accepting, of loving. If we continue to develop that energy of understanding and loving, then we will get the healing and transformation that we need. That is why the Holy Spirit is exactly what we call the energy of mindfulness. I can say that a Buddha or a bodhisattva is someone who is made of the energy of mindfulness. Each of us has a seed of mindfulness within ourselves. If we practice walking, sitting, smiling, breathing, eating, doing things every day with mindfulness, we help that seed of mindfulness in us to grow, and it will generate that energy of mindfulness that helps us to be alive, fully present in the here and the now, helping us to understand, to accept, forgive, and to love, to be healed. That is why it is correct to say that the energy of mindfulness is the energy of a Buddha, of a bodhisattva. We have that energy in ourselves, and if we know how to practice, we can generate that energy from within. To me, the expressions "Holy Spirit" and "Mindfulness" both point to the same thing—something that is very concrete, that is available us in the here and the now, and not just an idea, a notion.
One question from this side please.
Could you say some sentences about what you mean by "Engaged Buddhism?"
Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism (laughter), because if it is not engaged, it could not be called Buddhism. Your awakening will have an impact on you, yourself, as well as on other people around you. I think there was some misunderstanding about Buddhism as something that would withdraw from social life, from daily life, and that is why people invented the term "Engaged Buddhism" to restore the true meaning of Buddhism. Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism we can see in our daily life, and not only in monasteries, in the meditation hall, and so on.
Especially when you find yourself in a situation of war or social injustice, there is a real need to bring Buddhism into social life, as in Vietnam during the war. It was very clear that you should make Buddhism engaged, so that compassion and understanding become something belonging to daily life, and not just the teaching in Buddhist institutes and so on. When your village is bombed and destroyed, and when the children and adults in your village become refugees, can you continue to practice sitting meditation in your meditation hall? It may be that your temple has not been bombed, and your meditation hall is still intact, but if you hear the cries of children and adults in your village, who are wounded and who are left without houses and the means of survival, how can you continue to sit there in the early morning and in the evening and at noontime? That is why you have to find ways to bring your practice into daily life. You have to go out there to help the wounded children and adults. You can do everything to relieve their suffering, yet you know very well that if you abandon your practice of sitting, of walking, of mindfulness, you will not be able to continue for a long time. That is why, while trying to help with victims of the war, you find ways to continue with your practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful speaking. Otherwise, you lose yourself as a practitioner. That is why Engaged Buddhism is not just social work, or relief work. People who do social work or relief work can lose themselves in despair, in anger, in disappointment. If you are a real engaged Buddhist, then you know how to preserve yourself as a practitioner while doing things to help the people in the outside world. That is why I think that truly Engaged Buddhism means to promote mindfulness practice, in every domain of our social life.
We have to bring mindfulness practice into schools, so that teachers and students know how to preserve their peace, their joy, and their togetherness. In schools and universities, teachers and students may suffer a lot. This is a fact. That is why we have proposed to many schools and universities to set up a Mindfulness Practice Center on the campus, and many universities have contacted us concerning how to set up a Mindfulness Practice Center on their campus. A Mindfulness Practice Center is a place where we practice mindfulness as non-sectarian, non-religious practice. It is perfectly possible to offer mindfulness as a non-sectarian, non-religious practice. We have set up Mindfulness Practice Centers that have proved to be successful. No matter to what spiritual tradition you belong, you can come to the Mindfulness Practice Center to practice with the people there. You can practice as a Jew, as a Catholic, as a Protestant, and so on. You don’t have to uproot yourself to embrace the practice of mindfulness.
In hospitals, the mindfulness practice can be shared with doctors and patients and nurses, because if they know how to enjoy the art of mindful living they will preserve themselves, and they can help more and more people, and they will not burn out after some time. So people in the helping professions, social workers and others, can always profit from mindfulness practice, so that they can retain their solidity, their joy, their freedom, in order to be able to help many people.
We have tried to bring mindfulness practice into prisons, and we have received reports that in prison people practice very well. It seems that they don’t have alternatives. If they practice mindfulness there, they can survive, they can enjoy life even in prison, and they can become bodhisattvas helping other inmates. There have been books written by prisoners who have practiced mindfulness, and our friends in Great Britain, in America, have sent into the prisons books written by myself and other teachers, and magazines, that have helped a lot. That is why for me Engaged Buddhism is first of all the sharing of mindfulness practice in all works of life, and not just opening a soup kitchen, or a bakery. I would like to repeat that relief work or social work without mindfulness practice cannot be described as Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism means activities of daily life, combined with the practice of mindfulness.
(Thay reads the question.) Dear Thay, I feel very well and safe here in Plum Village, but there were times in my life when I experienced discrimination, so there is one question which really interests me. What does Buddhism say about homosexuality?
Discrimination is something that many of us know, and there were times when we wanted to cry out for justice. You might be tempted by violent means in order for injustice to be removed. There are very many of us who are seeking non-violent means in order to remove injustice and discrimination imposed on us. Sometimes those discriminating against us act in the name of God, of the truth. We may belong to the third world, or we may belong to a particular race, we may be people of color, we may be gay or lesbian, and we have been discriminated against for thousands of years. So how to work on it, how to liberate ourselves from the suffering of being a victim of discrimination and oppression? In Christianity it is said that God created everything, including man, and there is a distinction made between the creator and the creature. The creature is something created by God. When I look at a rose, a tulip, or a chrysanthemum, I know, I see, I think, that this flower is a creation of God. Because I have been practicing as a Buddhist, I know that between the creator and the created there must be some kind of link, otherwise creation would not be possible. So the chrysanthemum can say that God is a flower, and I agree, because there must be the element "flower" in God so that the flower could become a reality. So the flower has the right to say that God is a flower.
The white person has the right to say that God is white, and the black person also has the right to say that God is black. In fact, if you go to Africa, you’ll see that the Virgin Mary is black. If you don’t make the statue of the Virgin Mary black, it does not inspire people. Because to us the black people, "black is beautiful," so a black person has the right to say that God is black, and in fact I also believe that God is black, but God is not only black, God is also white, God is also a flower. So when a lesbian thinks of her relationship with God, if she practices deeply, she can find out that God is also a lesbian. Otherwise how could you be there? God is a lesbian, that is what I think, and God is gay also. God is no less. God is a lesbian, but also a gay, a black a white, a chrysanthemum. It is because you don’t understand that, that you discriminate.
When you discriminate against the black or the white, or the flower, or the lesbian, you discriminate against God, which is the basic goodness in you. You create suffering all around you, and you create suffering within yourself, and it is delusion, ignorance, that is the basis of your action, your attitude of discrimination. If the people who are victims of discrimination practice looking deeply, they will say that I share the same wonderful relationship with God, I have no complex. Those who discriminate against me, do so because of their ignorance. "God, please forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing." If you reach that kind of insight, you will no longer get angry at that person who discriminates against you, and you might have compassion toward him or her. You will say: "He does not know what he is doing. He is creating a lot of suffering around him and within him. I will try to help him." So your heart opens like a flower and suffering is no longer there, you have no complex at all, and you turn to be a bodhisattva in helping the people who have been discriminating against you. That is the way I see it, out of my practice of looking deeply, so one day I made the statement that God is a lesbian, and this is my insight.
Another question, please.
You said once that when one has the chance to ask a question of a teacher, one ought to ask something that can help one in one’s practice. I hope this is one of those questions. You speak a great deal about looking deeply. Can you elaborate on the difference between merely thinking about a problem and looking deeply at that same problem?
Looking deeply is the term we use to translate the word Vipashyana. That is the heart of meditation. When you are really there, body and mind united, you are calm, you are concentrated, you are in a position of looking deeply, and the act of looking deeply helps you to discover the nature of what is there. When you have touched it, you have seen it, you get insight, awakening, enlightenment.
Looking deeply is made of several elements. The first ingredient is mindfulness. Mindfulness is to be really there, body and mind united. Without that, looking deeply would not be possible. When you are completely there, fully alive and fully present, you are capable of calming what is in you, your body, your emotions, your feelings; you are concentrated. Concentration is a very important ingredient of looking deeply. Without concentration you cannot look deeply. First you have to stop, and then, after having stopped, you practice concentration, and now you are in a position of going deeply into it. The element of thinking may be helpful. Thinking is spoken of in terms of vitaka and vichara. vitaka means initial thought, the first thought you have of it, and vichara means more elaborated inquiry about it.
The Buddha devised principles and methods and guidances to help us to be successful in the practice of looking deeply. For instance, he said that you need to be guided by the insight of impermanence. If in the act of looking deeply you can discover the nature of impermanence, then you have a great chance to go deeper. But if you do not pay attention to the aspect of impermanence, you may miss the whole thing, you cannot go deep into the nature of what is there. And then the other element is the element of emptiness. Emptiness is a guide. If you practice looking deeply with awareness of emptiness in you, then you can discover the nature of interbeing, of what is there.
Emptiness means the absence of a separate existence, such as when you look at this flower, you can touch first of all the nature of impermanence--you don’t just talk about impermanence--you actually experience the nature of impermanence at first hand. And then you can go deeper, because the insight of impermanence helps you to see the nature of interbeing. It’s always changing, and what is in front of you is made of several elements. The flower has the sunshine in it. Sunshine is a component of flower. You do not call sunshine "flower," but you discover that without sunshine a flower cannot be. So you discover that a flower cannot be by itself alone, it has to inter-be with non-flower elements, like sunshine, like clouds, like rain, like minerals, like earth, like the gardener. There is a multitude of elements that we call non-flower elements. And the flower is possible only with the coming together of these non-flower elements. That is why the flower is described as empty of a separate entity. So the insight of interbeing helps you to get deeper into the reality of the flower. Emptiness is the lack of a separate entity. When you continue to focus your attention, your concentration, and your deep looking on it, you might discover that this flower contains the whole universe. You might discover that the extremely tiny contains the extremely large, and you may be liberated from the idea of big and small. You may get free from the idea of "this" and "that", you may get free from the idea of "I" and "you," because I contain you, and you contain me, and we contain the whole universe. You may get rid of the idea of birth and death, just by looking into the heart of a flower.
The Buddha said that thinking, initial thinking or elaborated thinking, is only a part of the work. Sometimes we don’t need the thinking any more. Sometimes we penetrate with other elements of the practice. When you can touch a flower deeply with the insight of impermanence, of no self, of interbeing, then that insight can liberate you from fear and from sorrow. The Buddha said that all fear and sorrow and suffering are born from your wrong perceptions about reality. "Looking deeply" is not just a term, an expression, because the Buddha has indicated very clearly all the steps that you need to take in order to succeed in the act of looking deeply.
(Thay reads a question.) I hear you say that the present moment is a wonderful moment. What if the present moment is just despair...a desert of emptiness and loneliness, meaninglessness, sickness, a feeling of loss and despair? Most of the time when I stop I find myself there.
When the Buddha gave his first Dharma talk, he spoke about ill being, dukkha. Of course the feeling of loneliness, meaninglessness, sickness, despair, all belong to dukkha, ill being. The Buddha talked about it first of all. That was the first topic of his Dharma talk. According to the spirit of that Dharma talk, you should not try to run away from your ill being, try to escape, because if you do, you have no chance to get out of it. If you know how to embrace your pain and look deeply into it, and if you really care to look deeply, you will find out how it has come to be: the roots of your ill-being. And only with that kind of insight will you be able to get out of the situation. Therefore the attitude of running away from your suffering is not a wise attitude. In fact the first truth, namely, ill being, suffering, has been described as a holy truth, because the first Dharma talk given by the Buddha was about the Four Holy Truths. First of all, ill being. The second truth is the cause, the roots of ill being. The third truth is the possibility of overcoming ill being and restoring well being, and the fourth is the way out of ill being and arriving at well being. Not only are the two last truths described as holy, but also the first one and the second one. Why do we call pain and suffering a holy truth? It is because, thanks to it, we can find the way to overcome suffering and ill being.
If we know how to handle our suffering, then we can learn a lot from it and we can discover the way out. But if we don’t know how to handle it, we will be overwhelmed by it, crushed by it, and the only thing we will want is to get away from it. But how to get away? That is why even suffering is described as holy, wonderful. "Wonderful" does not mean pleasant alone. "Wonderful" means that there is a depth that we have to discover, and that looking into this, we can discover that also. The fact is that happiness is not possible without suffering. Those of us who have not experienced any kind of suffering would not be capable of identifying happiness, this is my experience. If you have never been hungry in your life, you do not know exactly the joy of having something to eat. If you have not suffered as a homeless person, you would not be able to identify the joy of someone who has a house to live in. That is why happiness cannot be identified without the background of suffering. That is why when someone says, "Come with me—I will show you a place where there is only happiness," please don’t believe him or her. Without the background and the remembrance of suffering, of pain, you cannot enjoy the happiness you are having now. That is why not only happiness is wonderful, but your non-happiness is also wonderful.
Suppose you have a depression and you want to get away from it. How can you get away from it? You have to embrace it and look deeply into it and identify the causes that have brought it to you. Then you can learn from your depression, and then you can enjoy the non-depression, the well being that you can afford to have. If you know how to cut the source of nutriment that has brought on your depression, then you are on your way to emancipation, and you begin to enjoy your non-depression. It is like your toothache. I hope that in this moment you don’t have a toothache, yet you don’t enjoy your non-toothache until you have a toothache. Suffering from your toothache you get enlightened: you say: "It’s wonderful not to have a toothache." So, how to enjoy your non-toothache? Just remember the time when you had a toothache. Suffering plays a very important role in helping you to be happy. That is why even what you call suffering, loneliness, meaninglessness, sadness, fear and despair can be wonderful, because it is thanks to them that you have an opportunity to discover what freedom, stability, friendship, interbeing and love are.
So let us not run away from our garbage; we should learn the art of making compost. Using that compost we will grow a lot of flowers. Don’t think that without compost you can have flowers. That is an illusion. You can have flowers only with compost. That is the insight of interbeing—look into the flower and you will see the compost. If you remove the compost that became the flower, the flower will disappear also. What you are looking for, freedom, joy, and stability, you know that suffering plays a very important role in it. So be aware that we cannot just run away from our problems. In fact, we have to go back to our problems. The practice of calming, of concentrating, of embracing, of looking deeply into the nature of our pain, is absolutely necessary for us to get the transformation, the healing that we need so much.
What is the role of sitting meditation in practice? Can a person practice effectively by practicing walking meditation and mindfulness in daily life, or with sitting meditation is there a special quality? And can you separate that tradition from the non-sectarian practice of mindfulness?
In the first Mindfulness Practice Center that we set up in Woodstock, Vermont…Ann, can you come and tell us about the Mindfulness Practice Center in Woodstock, how you practice there? She is my savior.
Anne: Hi. We have a practice center in the US, in Woodstock, Vermont, and when we opened it this last February one of the first things that we offered was sitting meditation. Many of the people who visited our center didn’t know anything about Thay, and they didn’t know anything about Buddhism, and they’d never meditated in their lives. But they were attracted by the idea of mindfulness, and by the idea of relieving stress, and by the idea of making new friends, and that’s why many of them came. We found that sitting meditation in our center was a nice way to bring people together in community, and it also seemed to have some transforming power over the way people felt when they walked in the door, and the way they felt as they prepared to leave. Even for people who thought meditating was very difficult, I think they quickly gained a lot of faith in sitting meditation, and we all gained a lot of joy in trying our best to transmit that practice, even though we ourselves were not all experts at it. Since then, we’ve also offered walking meditation and deep relaxation sessions, and Sister Chan Khong has trained some of our volunteers to teach the Five Touchings of the Earth. We’ve found that not only the people coming to participate in these activities feel good, but those who are learning to facilitate them are feeling a great sense of being able to offer gifts to new friends, and there’s a lot of joy in the giving as well as the practice. For our center it’s become an important time together, and more powerful…we do have people who’ve tried practicing sitting meditation alone in their own homes, including one man who’s been doing it for fifteen or more years alone, and he makes the twenty minute drive every day to do it at the center, because he finds it so much more gratifying when he can do it with friends. Is that the answer (laughter)?
Thay: Something more.
Anne: I guess, since Thay has recommended that I say something more, one thing I can say is that it might be nice for other people to think about starting a Mindfulness Practice Center in their own communities. If you find Plum Village an uplifting community to be in, you can create a mini-Plum Village in your town, and whenever you’re feeling low, or you’re forgetting to be mindful, or you find yourself caught in stress and busyness, if you walk into a safety zone that you’ve created with your friends, where mindfulness is always practiced, you get very quickly right back to what you remember it feeling like at Plum Village. So that’s what we do for each other in Woodstock. Sometimes you see someone walk in very quickly, and you know they’ve been driving fast and they’ve been thinking about too much, and all they have to do is look at the smiles of their friends who’ve been there all day, quietly and calmly working together, or cleaning, or practicing meditation, and it’s a very sweet and concrete reminder to go back to your breath. All of us can have some humor and some real affection for each other when we see the traps we lay for ourselves, and then be secure in knowing that our friends are always there for us. I think it’s important. I had heard Thay talk about how important it is to practice with your Sangha, and I didn’t really understand it until I started doing it, and then I realized how true that really is.
Thay: Her name is Anne Johnston and I have asked her to write a book with the title, "The story of the first Mindfulness Practice Center". She is one among those who initiated the Mindfulness Practice Center in Woodstock, and they have learned a lot during the period of time in the period of time since the center was first set up. I think we can learn a lot from their experiences. There are other Mindfulness Practice Centers already set up in other parts of America. You do not need to be a Dharma teacher in order to start one. Just start it. If you need further training, come to Plum Village. We are ready to help you with short term training, middle term training and long term training; it’s up to you to select. Also in America we have the Green Mountain Dharma Center where Sister Annabel is the abbess. She with her friends, including many Dharma teachers, are training people to take care of Mindfulness Practice Centers and mindfulness practice groups. It is our intention to make Mindfulness Practice Centers in Europe and in North America and elsewhere as a gift for the beginning of the Twenty-first Century. So please, each of you think of your Mindfulness Practice Center in your town, and we are there in order to support you. I have asked Sister Chan Duc (Annabel) to work on a brochure with the title "Do It Yourself: How to Start a Mindfulness Practice Center." (laughter)
There are other questions that I hope to address tomorrow morning in the Dharma talk, like the question on how to practice, to be in the moment, when you feel that death is approaching, and so on.
(End of Dharma talk)
These dharma talk transcriptions are of teachings given by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village or in various retreats around the world. The teachings traverse all areas of concern to practitioners, from dealing with difficult emotions, to realizing the interbeing nature of ourselves and all things, and many more.
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