Living Love: Q&A with Thich Nhat Hanh

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Thay with the bell by David Nelson
Thay with the bell by David Nelson

Plum Village, July 26, 2009

If you look around, you’ll see four pine trees that were planted by Thay twenty-eight years ago. At that time we were already thinking of using this space for a Dharma hall. This is the youngest one. [Points to tree] They have been practicing very well. Solid and healthy, they are the elder brothers of many monastics here.

We are more than one thousand attending this session of questions and answers. The children will be invited to come up first, and then the teenagers are encouraged to ask their questions, and then adults. We know that a good question can profit many people. A good question has to do with our own suffering, our happiness, our practice. We wait for the sound of the bell and enjoy breathing in and out together three times before we ask our question.

If you have a question, please come up and sit close to Thay. You will take turns to sit on that chair so everyone can see you. Sister Pine, who is sitting close to Thay, has a number of questions written down and from time to time she will read one. If you want to ask a question in Chinese or Spanish or Russian, you have to bring your own translator. So please come.

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, this question has been with me for quite some time. Why do the monks and nuns have to get up so early?

Because they like to do it. They want to wake up early because the air is pure, the sky is full of stars. Many wonderful things are very alive and it’s quiet. They like to practice breathing in and out, walking and sitting meditation at that hour. They don’t find it hard to wake up early because they go to sleep early. If you go to sleep early, it will not be difficult to wake up early. If you train yourself for a week, then you’ll be able to do like the monks and the nuns. Thank you. That question is very helpful.

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, why do we have to love without attachment?

When you are attached, you are not free. It is possible to love and to be free at the same time. You don’t want to lose your freedom by loving, and you don’t like to be loved in a way that you lose all your freedom, do you? Without freedom, one cannot be happy. There is a way to love deeply and yet to retain our freedom and to guarantee the freedom of the other person. That is why you have to learn the Buddha’s way to love. When you attach to someone, you tie up that person with a rope and they are not free. This is a very difficult question to answer and Thay has done his best. He might do better later on, but for now, that’s what he can do. Thank you.

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, why in the Dharma hall do you put a tree instead of a Buddha?

I think the Dharma hall is different from a Buddha hall, and a tree can represent the Dharma also. The Buddha can represent the Dharma, but a tree can represent the Buddha also. When we bow to the tree, we can see the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha in the tree. Many Chinese-speaking and Vietnamese-speaking people will find this a little bit strange, but in Plum Village we sometimes do things a little bit strange. Instead of putting a very big statue of Buddha, we just put a tiny Buddha, and sometimes there is no Buddha statue, just a rock or a tree, to get people acquainted with that kind of looking. When you look at a rock or a tree deeply, you can see the Buddha.

Dear Thay, I wonder, why do I fight so much with my sister?

To answer that, Thay needs to be with you and your sister and to practice looking deeply in order to find out why you still like to fight her. But right now, he can suppose that you fight because you don’t listen to each other quietly and deeply. I suggest that when your sister says something, you stay calm and listen to her and wait until she finishes before you say something. And you can propose that your sister does the same thing: “Dear Sister, when I talk, don’t interrupt me, let me finish, and then you can say what you want to say.” I think if both of you do that, the situation will improve. Please write to Thay and report the result, and Thay may have other ideas to suggest. Okay? Thank you.

How is it to live as a famous person in this world?

Who is famous? Ask famous people. Thay is not famous. I guess that famous people have a hard time. The French have some good advice: “Pour etre heureux, vivons cachés.” In order to live happily, hide yourself. Don’t expose yourself so much. Later on, when you become famous, remember the advice. Thank you!

Dear Thay, you often say everyone has a baby Buddha inside of them. How do you help the baby Buddha to grow up, to become an adult Buddha?

The baby Buddha has the capacity to understand, and to love, and to be peaceful. That capacity will grow together with the Buddha. You can help the baby Buddha in yourself grow by learning to understand and to love. The practices of learning to listen deeply and speaking with loving kindness are ways that can help grow the capacity to love and to understand, and that will help the baby Buddha in us grow quickly. Happiness will be the result of that kind of practice. Look deeply to see whether the baby Buddha in you is growing every day. It’s very important. You have to help him or her to grow. If you notice that you are becoming more understanding and more loving every day, you know that the baby Buddha in you is growing. Ask him, ask her: “My dear little Buddha, are you growing every day?” And he will tell you. She will tell you. Okay? Thank you.

When you hear the small bell, the very young ones, stand up and bow to the Sangha, and go outside and continue your practice.

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, last week I practiced two days of noble silence and during that time I was able to recognize my habit energy of always wanting to react and to judge people and situations around me. I was able to recognize it and to calm it down. But yesterday when I started talking again, very quickly I got lost again. How can I continue practicing this recognition and calming while engaging in conversations?

When you practice noble silence, you have to recognize and take care of the mental discourse in you. When you are confronted with a situation, although you don’t say anything, there is always a reaction inside. There is a tendency to say something, and that something may be hurtful and you don’t want to say it, so just observe it without acting. Don’t try to fight or judge. Later you might like to write it down on a piece of paper titled, “This is what I wanted to say but I did not say it.”

Next time you are confronted with another situation and you would like to respond but you don’t, you recognize it and again you write it down. At the end of the day you will review your writings, and you will see it was good that you did not say these things. It’s much wiser not to say them. If we practice for a number of days, we have the capacity to refrain from responding right away and can see in advance the outcome of such a response.

I think two days is not enough. Some of us practice one or two weeks of silence, or even three months. After that we are able to change our way of responding to situations. We learn how to respond with a smile, a way of looking. Be aware that even if you don’t respond with words, people see your reaction by looking at your face. The practice of mindful breathing and becoming aware of your bodily expression is a deep practice.

There is an oppressive silence that makes a situation worse, while noble silence can heal and transform and nourish. Without some understanding and compassion, the silence we create will not be noble. When you practice noble silence, not only are your words silent, your thinking is also silent. You need to stop your thinking, your mental discourse.

Instead of thinking, you try to be: you try to be with your breath, your steps, the trees, the flowers, the blue sky, the sunshine. You just want to be with them. This can be very healing. You choose what to be. You choose to be your in-breath and out-breath. If your in-breath and out-breath are harmonious and peaceful, then you will feel nourished.

You choose to be the sound of the wind in the pine trees, and you listen to the rain. These sounds can be very joyful. Instead of thinking, you are deeply in touch with the wonderful sounds, the wonderful sights. There are so many refreshing and healing elements in you and around you. When you hear the sound of the bell or the song of the bird, if you listen deeply with enjoyment, there is peace, there is joy, there is life and nourishment and healing. At that time your silence is truly noble silence.

Later on, when you encounter a sound or sight that is not pleasant, you will develop the capacity to respond with compassion, without anger. And that kind of response is also noble silence. Facing some kind of provocation, you are able to keep your noble silence alive. And your way of listening to him or to her, your way of smiling to him or to her, proves that you are protected by your noble silence even in a situation of provocation. This is a wonderful practice.

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, sometimes Thay tells the story about not liking durian fruit, and one time durian fruit was in the meditation hall and Thay was not able to concentrate. So he took the bell and put it over the durian fruit. In my city there are a lot of durian fruits––for example, pollution or the sound of the cars. This is a durian fruit for me and I cannot concentrate, but I cannot put a bell over it.

That happened when Thay was a young monk. I think today if there were a durian fruit on the altar, Thay would do it differently. He can allow the durian fruit to be there for he has grown up in his practice. You don’t have to follow the example of Thay when he was a young monk. The example was offered to convey the idea that when you love someone, you should understand him or her and not impose your ideas on that person. You want him to be happy. You want him to eat some durian, but he doesn’t like durian. So if you force him to eat the durian, he will suffer. That is the intention of the story.

As far as pollution and noises, this is another issue and it should be dealt with differently. It has to do with the Fifth Mindfulness Training. You consume and at the same time you can protect the environment and give the Earth a chance to survive.

Science has provided us with knowledge that helps us understand the situation of our environment. We have technology that can help us save the planet, but we also have technology to try to satisfy our desires. Because we do not have a right view of the situation, we don’t use the technology that will save the planet. We already have enough technology to save ourselves and to save the Earth, but instead, we just try to satisfy our cravings. So we need to Wake Up and to make good use of the knowledge science has provided. Please reflect on this. The Five Mindfulness Trainings, especially the fifth training, is the way out. By practicing mindful consumption we can end this course of destruction on the planet. Thank you.

Dear Thay, dear community, how can I consume in the right way without being frustrated? It is so easy in Plum Village, but when I am at home and tired, I don’t succeed in consuming in the right way.

In Plum Village, you are supported by many friends who practice mindful consumption. Back home you are tempted to do differently. So there must be a way to bring the Sangha home. Bring the Sangha home in your heart. When you arrive home, try to set up a Sangha to meet every week to practice sitting, walking, having a meal, and reminding each other of the practice. That may help. Thank you.

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I have a personal question concerning meat consumption. When I am invited to my grandparents’ house, even if I tell them I am vegetarian, I feel they don’t understand my choice and my way of living. I don’t want to impose my way of thinking on others if they can’t understand me. How do I respect them in spite of their eating meat? Also how do I respect myself, because I know that when I eat meat, I suffer a lot because of interbeing, interdependence. I want to satisfy my family but also satisfy myself, but it’s difficult. Thank you.

I think we have to begin with allowing people to do what they like first. We can follow a vegetarian diet, we are happy with it, but we can do it without judgment. We are not too eager to have other people follow us right away. It takes time to convince them. If we are happy in ourselves, if we have enough tolerance, we become pleasant. Our presence will be appreciated by other members of the family. You don’t criticize, you don’t want to impose your ideas on them, you allow them to be themselves, and that is a big step. And then when people like you, they listen to you and it’s much easier to influence them in a nice way. One of the ways is to offer them something delicious that is vegetarian. Then they discover, “Ah, it’s very nice eating such a thing.” You don’t say it’s meat or non-meat, it’s just a delicious dish, and they will begin to appreciate vegetarian food.

So maybe you should not talk too much about eating. You should do other things and invite people to come and experience the joy of the practice. Eating vegetarian is just one tiny part of the practice, and they will begin to appreciate the nonviolent way of eating. I think if we succeed or not depends on our way. We should be gentle, we should be tolerant, we should be fresh, and we set an example. We don’t look down on them because they are eating meat. No. There are those of us who are vegetarian but who do not know that we are vegetarian. We don’t remember that we are vegetarian. And we don’t suffer at all.

We know that if we reduce the eating of meat by fifty percent, if we can reduce the drinking of alcohol by fifty percent, we can save the planet and deal with the question of hunger in the world. Three years ago, Thay wrote a letter to his friends proposing that they reduce their eating of meat by fifty percent. Those who can eat vegetarian one hundred percent can continue, but other people can continue to eat meat but reduce their consumption by fifty percent. Thay used the recommendation made by a commission of the United Nations as the basis for this suggestion. From this suggestion, many people have become full vegetarians, and many people have adopted the practice of reducing meat eating by fifty percent. Instead of using the teaching of the Buddha, you might use information provided by the United Nations; that is another approach. Thank you.

I find emotions to be fluid, and when I am in the present moment, I notice a lot of joy and also suffering in myself and other people. Sometimes there is a very intense reaction that overwhelms the present moment and then I lose it very intensely. I find, as a younger person, there is a lot of impulse and a lot of reaction and it’s very strong and everything is intense. I find that sometimes if someone is having a difficulty I respond very strongly. How can I stay present and not lose myself?

If you are truly present you are not losing yourself. This is a strong practice––to be really there, to be fully present. Then you will not lose yourself.

When irritation comes up, you have to be there to take care of your irritation. We have to practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, in order to be present. Breathing in, I know irritation is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my irritation. In that moment you are there for your suffering, for your irritation. And you are much safer. You don’t react in a way that will create suffering in you and in the other person. The energy that can take care of these negative elements is the energy of mindfulness and concentration. When you learn how to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration in order to be present and strong, you will not lose yourself by reacting negatively.

The intention to do it is there but we need to train ourselves. That is why the basic practice in Plum Village is that when you walk, you invest one hundred percent of yourself into the walking. You become aware of every step. It’s you who are walking, it’s not the habit energy that is pulling you. You have sovereignty, you are the king who decides. You walk because it is your intention to walk and with every step you have freedom. You take each step on purpose and each step brings you in touch with the wonders of life that are available in the here and the now. While walking like that you have to invest one hundred percent of your body and your mind into every step. That is why while walking, you do not think. If you think, the thinking will take the walking away. You do not talk. The talking will take the walking away. When you walk like that, mindfulness and concentration are in you. You walk like a Buddha, you are fully yourself, you don’t lose yourself.

And you can do that while you do other things like washing the dishes or brushing your teeth. You are fully there. You brush your teeth in such a way that during the two or three minutes of tooth brushing you have freedom and joy. You don’t try to finish quickly in order to do other things. During that two or three minutes of tooth brushing, mindfulness and concentration are there and you enjoy the time of tooth brushing.

When you go to the toilet, you also enjoy being there. It is possible to enjoy urinating and defecating, and it is possible to be mindful and concentrated in these moments. Every moment of your life is precious so to practice being there is to be always mindful and concentrated. In that way you will not lose yourself, and your response to what is happening will be in line with the Dharma; you will be responding with understanding and compassion. With the support of a Sangha this training will be easier, and your quality of life will increase and your happiness will increase also. We have to learn the habit of living mindfully with concentration. When we learn the habit of responding with compassion and understanding, we set an example for the people around us.

Living in the big city of Paris, there’s so much violence, hatred, drugs, and despair. What kind of tools can you offer to a young person like myself, living in a city? How can I continue your social work that you did in Vietnam? Young people have a lot of hatred towards themselves and towards their parents. How can I help them transform that into joy and happiness?

The answer is to set up a Sangha in Paris. When you go back to Paris, look around and identify the elements that can become part of the Sangha––maybe a few friends who think like you, who have the same kind of aspiration and desire. Organize the practice; that is called Sangha building.

That is the first thing the Buddha did after enlightenment. He wanted to help people and he knew that without a Sangha it would not be possible. So he looked for his friends and set up the first group of practitioners at the Deer Park. And we should do the same in Paris or London or New York or Marseilles. We should create an island of peace, an island of brotherhood. We come together and with the practice of calming, relaxing, looking deeply with compassion, we begin to heal ourselves, to bring some joy, some brotherhood and sisterhood to our group. As we begin to have some peace, some happiness, some joy, we can invite a few people to come join us. That is the only way.

And when the Sangha has grown into a community that can carry within itself the spirit of the Buddha and the Dharma, then it will become a refuge for young people. The Sangha is a refuge, an island of peace. The Sangha is a community of resistance against violence, hate, and despair. When people have a place like that to go, they will be very happy and with the practice they will transform themselves and they will continue the work of the Buddha. In Plum Village, every time we organize a retreat, whether it is in London or New York or Jakarta, on the last day of the retreat we discuss Sangha building to continue the practice we have begun during the retreat. To continue the work of the Buddha, Sangha building is what you should do. Good luck.

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, before practicing, I suffered a lot from the complex of inferiority. It has become much better, but there are still feelings of low self-esteem hidden somewhere in my consciousness. How can I free myself from the complex of low self-esteem and how can I balance feelings of self-esteem with the complex of superiority?

In the teaching of the Buddha, low self-esteem causes suffering and sickness. But high self-esteem also causes suffering and sickness. You think that you are too important, that you are superior to others; that creates suffering. And even if you think that you are equal, that is also a kind of sickness because the complex of equality is also wrong thinking. “I am not inferior to him, I am his equal.” There is still comparison between the two selves. Comparing and feeling separate is why there is a feeling of superiority or inferiority or equality.

So the practice of Buddhism is to look deeply to see that the other person is in you; you are in him. You are not a separate self, you inter-are. You are him and he is you. That is the only way to abolish the three kinds of complexes: superiority, inferiority, and equality.

My two hands have different names: right hand, left hand. But neither of them has a complex of being superior; that is why they have no problem. My right hand does not say, “It’s me who has written all Thay’s poems, not you. It’s me who invites the bell, not you. You don’t seem to be doing anything. You just enjoy your lazy days.”

No, my right hand does not have such ideas, such judgment. That is why it’s so happy. It never makes the left hand unhappy because the right hand knows that she and the left hand belong to the same body. They are two, but they are together. The suffering of this hand is also the suffering of the other hand. The happiness of this hand is also the happiness of the other hand. That is the insight of interbeing. There is no separate self and that is why the teaching of non-self is so basic in Buddhism. And with the insight of non-self we can radically remove complexes.

Looking into ourselves, we see that the whole cosmos is here: stars, moon, galaxies, all are in here. And the Kingdom of God is in here; the Pure Land of the Buddha is in here. Buddha nature is inherent, so no feeling of inferiority is possible. You contain the Kingdom of God, as does each of us. That is the insight that can liberate us. People who don’t have this insight can have wrong judgment, wrong evaluation. So you should not take into account their judgment and what they think of you. If you know who you are, if you know that you contain the multitude, that you have the Kingdom in you, there is no reason to suffer from the complex of inferiority.

Dear Thay, why do we human beings have egos? In nature, a spider is not hypocritical; a horse or a sunset doesn’t have these kinds of attitudes about themselves. So why do human beings have to have egos and how can we release our egos and be more like nature?

I think not only humans but animals and plants also try their best to survive. Sometimes they fight and kill each other. So there is suffering in the realm of animals and plants, and there is anger, there is fear in animals and also to some extent in plants. I guess there is also some fear and despair in minerals, to some degree. We all share the same situation.

What is wonderful about human beings is that we can practice mindfulness, we can realize our presence and our responsibility. In that way, we become the elders of the community of living beings, and we know we have to live and act in a way that will secure the survival not only of humans but of the whole planet.

There are human beings who have done very well. They have transcended the notion of self and realized the interbeing nature of everything. They can see the suffering of other living beings as their own suffering. They have great wisdom. We call them sages; we call them buddhas, bodhisattvas. In this community there are buddhas and bodhisattvas with that kind of awareness and realization. We are growing up in our mindfulness, concentration, and insight because we follow the sages, the buddhas, and bodhisattvas on the path of understanding. It is thanks to the insight of interconnectedness, the insight of interbeing, that we can release our ego, our ignorance, and behave in a way that helps us and others to suffer less, to heal ourselves, and to help heal the planet.

The tiger, the lion, those who kill other animals in order to live, they are not the most cruel living beings. Man is the most cruel living being on the planet. But fortunately, the most understanding and compassionate human beings are also born, so man is also the most loving and compassionate being in the world. When we are cruel, we are very cruel; when we are compassionate, we are very compassionate. Thanks to the practice of looking deeply, we can transform the garbage into the flowers.

And that is the path of the Buddha, the path we have taken up in order to improve the quality of human beings. Even if man has created a lot of suffering for himself, herself, and other living beings, there is still hope because we have Buddha nature, we have the nature of understanding and love. It is a joy to come together and acknowledge that capacity in us and to do the work of transformation and healing so that we can produce more understanding and compassion for our sake and for the sake of other living beings. Merci.

Reprinted with permission from the Mindfulness Bell, Summer 2015.

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