“When I sit in my room, enjoying tea, am I being productive or not? Vô sự – business-less is needed business for our times. My brothers cannot see me in my room, but when I come out, they know what I have produced. I am fresh, I am smiling. And that is very valuable. Our product is insight, joy, and peace. So we have to reorient our ‘business’.”
When I was a student, studying architecture in Los Angeles, I suffered because the city was full of concrete and hard edges, and there was so much empty space that could have been used to grow plants. My friends and I were very idealistic and optimistic. We wanted to bring more green into the city of Los Angeles and build skyscrapers with vegetation growing out of them, like big flower pots.
But architecture is quite a tough industry to be in. It is a very self-centered profession. Architects are often very proud of their individual accomplishments. It is very hard to survive with a social mission and I can see friends struggle. I think they lack community. If you want to fulfill such an aspiration, and at the same time have a family, you need a community to support you. You need uncles and aunties and lots of distant relatives. In fact, you need an entire village!
Communities have many advantages. Because of the lockdown many couples might be stuck together 24 hours a day. I do not think we were designed to spend our every waking hour with the same person. We need to take breaks from each other and also interact with other people. Here in Plum Village, if I have a problem with one of my brothers, I have 50 other brothers that I can spend time with. And after a few days, our energy can change and I may look at him differently and come to terms with him.
I know it is not easy to form a community, but just going to Sangha is already very helpful. It definitely helped me while I was still living in LA. I spent four years with my local Sangha before becoming a monk, and I went to sitting meditation every day before work. Friday evenings I would go to Sangha instead of going out partying and spending money. They purposely organized it on a Friday evening for this reason.
Today I would like to share with you two teachings that helped me, coming from an environment that was individualistic and competitive. Two things helped me transform to a cooperative mindset in a very conscious way. The teaching of ‘no business’ and ‘no position’.
When I had just become a novice, we did not have so many rooms in the monastery. During the summer retreat, all the monks had to vacate their rooms and go live in tents, so our lay friends could stay inside instead. We would camp around Thay’s hut. We would use bricks to build our own platforms. Everyone would be on the lookout for bricks. If you found one, you better took it before it was too late.
I remember I was setting up my tent and I was having a hard time putting the stakes in the ground. When I put them on one side, they came out on the other. One of my brothers saw me struggle and came over to help me. And I remember very well I unintentionally shoved him away with my elbow. I insisted I could do it on my own. Right after that happened though, I hit my finger with the hammer. I will never forget this moment, fingers bleeding.
That was a real bell of mindfulness to me. I realized this was my old architect pride coming up. I did not want to accept help, because I would feel embarrassed admitting I could not do it on my own. By that time I had been living in Plum Village for about a year, and I already was aware of the difficulties I had with other people. But at that moment it really hit me. I realized my pride and how it related to my education. I saw my habit energies and became more careful with other subtle and hidden habits.
The business of no business
The teaching I want to share with you comes from Master Linji. It is the teaching of ‘no business’ (vô sự in Vietnamese), or as Thay translates it, being ‘business-less’. This is a very important teaching for Wake Up Ambassadors like you. We all want to do good: building sangha or being a good bell master, facilitator or organizer. This is the ‘business’ of the Buddha so to say (phật sự in Vietnamese), or – as Thay would say – the ‘enterprise’ of the Buddha.
But we have to be careful when doing this, because the habit of being busy is very strong in our society. Outside of the monastery people praise and reward your achievements with pay raises or by putting your picture on the wall as engineer of the month and so on. We do not realize how harmful this is – to see our success as our own separate achievement – and so we want more. In the monastery however, it is the opposite. We train to come in touch with ourselves and our connection with others.
Vô sự also means ‘to stop’. Businessless is stopping. Our culture is so busy; we have no time to look at ourselves and what is really happening. The current pandemic is very challenging for people, because we have to stop our business. There is no distraction. We are forced to look at ourselves. You cannot even go outside at one point. It is like an itch that cannot be scratched. It is overwhelming. Many people have shared with me recently that they had difficulties because they felt so unproductive. It is our habit to produce things and to want recognition for them.
This is one of the causes of the situation our planet is in right now in terms of climate, and also in terms of happiness, depression and injustice – our inability to stop and look at ourselves, our relent desire to produce and distract ourselves. A small percentage of people is consuming a large part of our natural resources, trying to fill an inner sense of lack and discontent. But now we have an opportunity to stop and look. Instead of being productive, we can take care of and understand ourselves. This is very productive spiritually. It can help us be happier, more fulfilled and peaceful. Having one less disgruntled person on the planet is really useful and helpful.
When I sit in my room, enjoying tea, am I being productive or not? Vô sự – business-less is needed business for our times. My brothers cannot see me in my room, but when I come out, they know what I have produced. I am fresh, I am smiling. And that is very valuable. Our product is insight, joy, and peace. So we have to reorient our ‘business’. When things go back to normal, let us not go back to the ‘big normal’, the productive normal, but to a lighter normal with less harmful impact on ourselves and on the planet, one where we can tend to the ‘soft’ business, the ‘heart business’ and take care of ourselves and each other as part of the Buddha’s business of no busy-ness.
Being business-less is a real training. That is why we have lazy day in Plum Village. Lazy day was very difficult for me when I first came to Plum Village. The word ‘lazy’ made me feel guilty. We once actually asked Thay to change the name to ‘rest day’ after hearing so many friends share their dis-ease with the term. But Thay insisted that we never change it, because we knew we had an aversion to the word ‘lazy’ and that it had touched a chord in the collective culture of being busy and guilt.
I remember doing ‘hammock training’. I just had to lay in the hammock and not do anything, not even drink tea or meditate. I was not supposed to nap, or even think about resting. This was really difficult for me. I wanted to read a book. I wanted to cut my nails. I felt I always needed to be doing something to be productive. Even in my meditation I was trying to achieve things. I could not lay in a hammock, just to lay in a hammock. Hammock meditation proved to be the perfect remedy for me. It is not very Zen. It is very lazy (laughs). What I really enjoyed about the hammock was the swinging. It made me feel like a child. Children love to go on the swing. But we have lost this ‘swing mind’, which enjoys just to swing, without any goal.
Vô sự also means ‘to be free’. To be free means to be in the present moment. You do not think about the future and are not burdened by the past. This does not mean we cannot think about the past or future. We can look ahead and plan. And we can look at our past and learn from it and be nourished by it. There is a time for thinking. But the best time for that is when your mind is clear, when you are peaceful and taking care of yourself. We have to be well established in the present moment for this. Breathing exercises are a very important training for this. When strong emotions come up, we have to make a strong habit of coming back to our breath and holding these sensations.
Being free it is not a declaration against something. It means being fully present. Usually we think of freedom as a reaction against someone or something. We want to be free from it. In this case however, we want to be free from searching and wanting in the future, and being burdened by the past.
How to stop getting hooked
Vô sự, also means to be free from grasping. It is important to be aware of this when building Sangha. Wanting to succeed will make you lose your peace. In the monastery we train a lot in this. I will give an example from my own experience. Any time we discuss the architecture or planning of Plum Village, I tend to jump in with a lot of great ideas. This is grasping. So there is a little game I play with my brother. When he sees me wanting to jump in, he puts his finger in his mouth like a hook. If he catches me before I share, then I have to keep my mouth shut for the entire meeting. This is a real training. Normally, outside of the monastery, when you have a good idea, you want to be heard. But inside here, it does not really matter. What matters is that you train yourself not to grasp. That is freedom!
If you spend enough time here, you will start to see the impermanence of your ideas. A good idea only exists in one particular moment. A few months later you will have another idea. Things change. One good way to train this here in Upper Hamlet is to be the gardener. If you become gardener, you will have many ideas about the garden. You become very protective and you see every plant as your personal property. When somebody else trims a tree you get upset and want to find out who did it. But one year later, when you are no longer the gardener, you will be free from all this. You will wonder how you could have been so caught up. It does not really matter how the garden is tended to. Everybody has their own way and they are all good. You are happy with however it is done and you feel free.
Another really good training is being the shopper. Everybody in the monastery has an opinion about what kind of food we should buy. Similarly car manager and work coordinator are also very good trainings. The training is not about trying to be successful, but about trying not to grasp. If you train in this way, you will be more happy and peaceful in your work. I do not mean to say we should not work or plan. What I mean is that we should let go of our ideas and our identification with them.
Vô sự, ‘businesslessness’, is about not losing yourself in something. If you are working hard in Plum Village, and the rest of the community never sees you, you are not doing a good job. You need to show up and be part of the community. We can tell when someone is lost in their project, just like we know when we are lost in our own project. Even if you are doing good work, and you are getting a lot of praise, do not lose yourself in it. Without bodhicitta, the mind of insight, you will be deluding yourself. You will start to get disconnected. If anyone else has an idea, you will block it. It is good to have aspirations, but do not get caught up in them.
So these are some of the difficulties I went through here while trying to ‘de-onionize’ myself. I had to peel of all these layers. I thought they smelled good, but they actually made people cry. It is a slow process and I am sure I have many more layers, which are still causing a lot of suffering.
You can read more about Linji in Thay’s book Zen Battles. These teachings are a great medicine for our generation, which is full of high achievers. In the introduction Thay calls Linji’s teaching a laxative. Usually when you read a book, you want to learn something new. But Linji’s teaching will not give you anything, instead, it will remove everything. Linji was born to remove Buddhism from people’s heads. Back in his day many monks were studying Buddhism but were very disconnected from the practice and the world around them.
Related to vô sự, Master Linji has another teaching: vô vi, meaning ‘no position’ or ‘no identity’. Do not build yourself up or create a position for yourself. Do not get ahead of yourself because you are a Wake Up Ambassador or an OI member. Of course, everybody is unique, but do not try to hard, because then it becomes a burden. Once you become free, you will naturally be who you are. Thay has a calligraphy: “Be beautiful, be yourself.” When we are free and we do not identify with anything, we become naturally beautiful. It is not a kind of beauty that you build up or accumulate. It comes when you let go.
So Buddhism is the practice of letting go. It is not about going somewhere or achieving more. It is the opposite of the training we get in society. Buddhism teaches us that just sitting in silence can be more powerful. I think The Beatles must have read Linji when they wrote that song Nowhere Man.
Nowhere man please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
So be careful with the ideas you have about yourself. Someone who has no position is free from notions about themself. When you get more involved in Sangha building, people will start putting labels on you. They might think for instance that you are great with technology. And that label will stick to you, and everyone will come to you with their internet issues. That can become a source of suffering, because. You feel you have a certain position and you have to act accordingly.
This runs pretty much contrary to society. In society you have an ID, you have diplomas and certificates, you are a member of certain groups, etc. You have to be careful to not become those things. You are more than those conventional designations. They can isolate us. They make us lock ourselves in little boxes and keep us from touching true beauty and true happiness. Vô vi means no more boxes.
This is the teaching of Linji. He actually used quite harsh words and even called his monks bad names. He would say things like “you brown bag of you know what sitting there with your bald head, you are the Buddha!” Some texts depict him as very mean, but Thay presents him in a more compassionate way.
If Linji were to be alive today, he would be telling us to stop building our virtual self, and to stop paying attention to those likes and clicks. He would tell us to get off line, because we are more than our screen. It does not matter how many people like your website. Why do you to post all those pictures of yourself? We are trying so hard to look good. My sister-in-law has this app that automatically filters all the little impurities out of someone’s face. She took a picture of me and I felt I looked like toy. We can hardly take care of ourselves, because we have our virtual selves to take care off (laughs).
Master Linji was in fact translating the Buddhist teaching of non-self. I think he is still very relevant today. We are so busy. We always want to achieve success. Nowadays the coolest thing is to begin a start-up, sell it and become a millionaire. Any time one of our brothers or sisters comes back from the San Francisco Bay Area, they come back with new endeavors and ideas for projects.
Back to normal?
And now we are all experiencing this pandemic. It involves a lot of suffering. Many people are losing loved ones. The politicians are trying to figure out how to bring things back to normal. But I think it is a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on how we want to organize society. We have become more and more disconnected and have less leisure and time for each other. When I was a kid in the US, I could ride my bike as far as I could. My niece and nephew today cannot do that. As soon as they disappear from sight, their parents will come and look for them.
We have become more technologically advanced, but have lost touch with the human as well as the environmental aspect. What we are going through today is showing us that we cannot mess with the natural world without having to face the consequences. So I hope and pray that people are really waking up. We have become too dominant in the world. Our impact is too big.
As Sangha builders, we become part of the movement that Thay started. There might not be a war immediately in front of us, but there is a revolution happening nonetheless. It is a revolution for your freedom and your happiness. We might not be rebuilding villages destroyed by bombs, as Thay did back in the day, but we need to build a village that has real happiness and real freedom. We need to deepen our connection. This is what the Wake Up movement is about for me. We might not all be able to live in community, but we need to make space for this. So please visit our practice centers and join a Sangha.
Take these chains from your heart
Many young people are coming to Plum Village to live here, for instance on our Happy Farm. It is not easy to make such a commitment. It is quite scary. You need to let go of your idea of security. You do not know what will happen when you leave. Where are you going to live? What about your savings, your pension plan, your health insurance, etc. ? These fears keep people from doing what is in their heart. Yet society has put this security net around us, holding us back. But what is the purpose of life if it is not to follow your heart? Be weary of the conventions of society. They might keep you from realizing your aspiration to serve people and transform society.
When you can connect with your heart’s desire to make the world a better place, you will thrive. You will be more happy and energetic. Look at me. I am a monk. If I quit, I am done for. I do not have insurance, I have no health care or retirement plan. But I totally trust that wherever I go, if I serve people, the universe will provide for me. So on the one hand, you have to understand and transform yourself. On the other hand, you have to remove all society’s conventions and positions. Remove all the ‘businesses’, the labels you and those around you have about you. And once you avoid these traps, you tune into a higher wavelength.
Community is the key
So I hope this is not too challenging for you and you got something out of my talk. I have shared with you from my heart and from my own experience growing up wanting to achieve. I learned how to achieve things internally. And now my ‘business’ is to help other people do the same. I do not think it is our purpose to keep the economy going. In America they always say: “It’s the economy, stupid!” But the economy is not a good thing. Do not go back to normal. Go back to being beautiful and being yourself. Together we can be free.
And the key to achieve this is community. You cannot do it on your own. If I could bring all of you here, I would convince you to stay here and let go or your bank accounts. I am just not sure what your parents would think (laughs). It is so hard to build community in an urban environment. Yet my dream is to create them there also, not just in the Pure Land in Plum Village, but also in the middle of conrete and asphalt. And I am looking at you, Wake Up ambassadors for this. I hope we can create spaces in the middle of the city where you do not need to buy anything, but you can just be yourself. I call them Wake Up Hubs.
So please keep the Wake Up energy alive. It was nice connecting with you. I hope I did not offend anyone. Talking to Wake Up somehow makes me feel more relaxed and joking (laughs). I feel very close to all of you, because you have this energy of transforming the world. Thank you for joining and good luck.
Transcribed by Diane F. Wyzga and edited by Gijs (Jazz) Van den Broeck.