Thich Nhat Hanh: Meditation Is for Everyone
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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today is a special rebroadcast of a special conversation that I had over two decades ago with Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh, to me, is like a living Buddha. He embodies the teachings of the Buddha with every step. He’s the author of over one hundred books and numerous Sounds True learning programs, a teacher, a poet, and an activist. With Sounds True, Thich Nhat Hanh has also created a special online course called Body and Mind Are One: An Online Training Course in Mindfulness. You can visit SoundsTrue.com for more information about this course: Body and Mind Are One. When I interviewed Thich Nhat Hanh, it was when he was visiting the United States along with a group of monks and nuns from Plum Village. We met in Southern California and sat under a beautiful, large willow tree for this conversation. I had the honor of talking to him about his experience as a young monk, the engaged Buddhist movement, and the core of the Buddhist teachings: liberation through mindfulness. I hope you enjoy.
Tami Simon: Thay, I wonder if you can start by going back in your life and talking to me about why you decided to become a monk, when you were a child, how old you were. And what was that inspiration?
Thich Nhat Hanh: I was nine when I saw a picture of the Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine. I saw the Buddha sitting on the grass, like we do now, very peaceful, very solid. And I just wanted to be like him, someone like him, with some solidity and peace, because I saw around me people were not very happy, very relaxed. And it was not a decision. It was a kind of desire. And I saw that desire was in me, very clear, very strong. And it was watered by other events, like when I was twelve we climb together as a school to a mountain in the northern part of Vietnam for a picnic. I was excited because I knew that there was a hermit living in the mountain and a hermit is someone who practices in order to become like a Buddha, so I was very excited about meeting him. And when I arrived at the mountain, the hermit was not there. I was disappointed, but I discovered a well on the mountain where I drunk very refreshing water and I was a completely satisfied because of that water. And I thought it was the hermit who transformed himself into a well so that I can have private audience with him. And the fact that I drunk some of this water was very important to me, because during the time of drinking I had the idea that it must be the best water in the world. And if I think now more, I would say that the source of solidity, the source of peace and freedom, must be symbolized but that kind of water.
And although I did not meet the hermit in person, I had the impression that my desire to meet the hermit was fulfilled, and it transferred into my desire to become a monk. And at the age of 16 I was able to realize my dream to become a novice monk, and I had a very happy time being a novice. I think it is very important to be happy during the time you are a novice. If you can spend three or four years happily as a novice you will succeed in your life as a monk or as a nun. I always tell my students about this.
I was motivated in the very beginning to practice so that I have peace and joy and solidity in order to help other people. So Buddhism was already an engaged Buddhism at that time. You practice not only for yourself but you practice for people around you as well. So when I grew up as a monk I graduated from the Buddhist institute and the war has become intense. The suffering around us told us to practice in such a way that you can relieve the suffering around you, and that is why Buddhism was invited to answer the real questions of the time. And in that circumstance what we call engaged Buddhism was born. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that people need in order to suffer less and in order to be more solid, more brave in confronting the difficulties of life. And what I learned in the Buddhist sutras … I always looked deeply in order to find how the practice could help many people at the same time. And that is why as a teacher at the Buddhist institute I always offer engaged Buddhism to my students. I have trained many generations of monks and nuns.
Before I left the country to speak for the end of the war in Vietnam, and I was not allowed to go home after having done so, I began to share the teaching with friends in the west. And I continue to share the practice, the kind of practice that can help people to stop the suffering and to restore peace and solidity and lovingkindness in them. And I always tell people that they have to look deeply into the nature of your suffering in order to understand it. People should not try to run away from their suffering. In fact they have to hold the suffering, look deeply into it, because that is the only way to discover the true nature of your suffering. And when you have seen the true nature of your suffering you have a chance to see the way out of suffering. And that is why suffering is considered in Buddhism as a holy truth, because it is a truth that can heal. Looking into the suffering you see the source of suffering, the making of suffering, and as you understand the making of the suffering, you can see that the suffering can be stopped and removed. And there must be a way to remove, to transform, the suffering; that is the fourth truth, the way of our suffering. And the way out of suffering must be found within suffering itself. Therefore if you try to throw away your suffering you have no chance to see the way out.
TS: Now, you mentioned engaged Buddhism and I am wondering if you can explain that a little more.
TNH: Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism, because Buddhism should be practiced where you don’t need to be a monk to practice Buddhism. You can practice as a lay person. You don’t have to go to a retreat in order to practice Buddhism. You can leave your daily life and practice in your daily life. You can practice meditation while you drive your car, when you fix your breakfast, when you take care of your baby, when you walk, when you sit, when you breathe.
There are ways to integrate the practice into your daily life. And Buddhism must be dealing with the here and the now, your existing suffering. Buddhism is not to offer you a relief in the future, after you die. One of the characteristics of Buddhism is dealing with the here and the now. In the here and the now you have problems, and Buddhism addresses directly these problems. In the here and the now there are wonders of life that are available. Buddhism helps you to get in touch with these wonders of life within you and around you, for you to be able to nourish yourself and to heal yourself, to refresh yourself, so that is the first characteristic of Buddhism. Dealing with the present moment.
The second characteristic of Buddhism is it is not a matter of time. You don’t have to practice eight years in order to begin to see the fruit of your practice. As soon as you begin to practice you can notice already a change within you, a transformation within you, like when you learn about walking meditation, mindful breathing, mindful drinking. If you apply the techniques of walking, breathing, drinking, right away you see that you live more deeply that moment of your practice. You get more joy, more peace, and you are able to recognize the positive and the negative aspects of the present moment. For the positive aspect that reveals itself in the present moment just might … You help it to grow, so you get happier. For the negative aspect of the present moment you know how to embrace it, how to accept it, to have a chance to be transformed. And that is why Buddhism is said to be not a matter of time. The moment when you embrace the practice and apply it to your daily life you can already begin to experience the peace, the joy, and the transformation.
And the third characteristic of the dharma is that anyone can come and see and try by himself or herself. You don’t need mediation of a priest or a monk or anything. And that means invite people to come to try by himself or herself. So both in Theravada tradition and in the Mahayana tradition, these are the three characteristics of the dharma. If you look into these characteristics you see that Buddhism is engaged in the very beginning, and you can practice as a monk, you can practice as a lay person, you can practice as a businessman or an artist. You can always incorporate your practice into your daily life; that is what we call engaged Buddhism.
In Vietnam during the war there was a lot of destruction and there were people who did not practice correctly. They thought that the practice must be only in the temple. But when the bombs were falling, and people were dying outside, and the war created orphans and wounded people, you could not ignore the fact. Because to meditate is to be aware of what is going on. And if you are aware of the tragedy that is going on, you aren’t really meditating. You are running from reality. That is why we were meditating in our meditation hall, and we were aware of the suffering going on. That is why we wanted to practice in such a way that we can be of help at the same time. So we brought the meditation out of the meditation hall. We tried to preserve our meditation by helping people who were wounded, the refuges, the dying people. And we learned that it is still possible why you help these people, why you resettle refuges, why you care for the wounded who are victims. You can still maintain your practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and you find out that if you don’t practice while helping people you will burn up very quickly. That is why the spiritual should be equal to the dimension of action. If you lack the spiritual dimension in your life as a social activist, you will give up after some time of service. And that we call engaged Buddhism, the kind of Buddhism you practice while you live your normal life, and you are happy to help and serve people.
And that is why, when we offer the practice to the west, we are aware there are peace activists that need to be helped in the practice. There are doctors and nurses and other helping professionals that should be helped. There are war veterans that should be helped. And that is why we offer special retreats for these people—helping professionals have a very busy life. And if they don’t practice to nourish themselves, to restore their piece and their solidity, they will lose themselves after a number of years. They will burn up. That is why it is so essential for social activists, for peace workers, for helping professionals to learn the practice. To protect themselves. To nourish themselves. Not only for themselves, but for the sake of the people they try to help, that is engaged Buddhism.
In fact, it is silly to describe Buddhism as engaged, but if it is not engaged, it is not true Buddhism.
TS: And still because I’ve never really been clear about this, the reason that you were exiled during the war. How come?
TNH: In 1966, the suffering of the war was so intense that we felt that we need someone over here—outside of Vietnam—to speak for the majority who suffer radically under the bombs. The warring parties, they did not do their job. They only claim for a total victory. They never spoke of reconciliation, ending the war. They only spoke about a total victory. Both the communist and the anti-communist. And yet, the majority of us caught in the war, we did not care for a total victory. We very much cared for an end to the killing. And a reconciliation between brothers. Because although Americans we involved in the war, the Vietnamese were killing each other as well. That is why we did not want that to happen. And you want to stop the war as soon as possible—you wanted people to sit down and negotiate to end the war. You have to speak of bloodshed, of the brotherhood, of reconciliation. But since the governments, the warring parties— they don’t want to talk like that. We had to do it by ourselves. Sometimes we had to teach a lie in order to get the message across. And many people thought that it was a kind of political action, but it was not really. It was an attempt to speak for the majority who want an end to the war, who wanted reconciliation.
I accepted an invitation from Cornell University to deliver a series of talks on Buddhism and the situation in southeast Asia. And, my friends in Vietnam urged me to stay on for some time. Something like two months, three months, and speak intensively about the situation in Vietnam in order to inform the world of the things they were not able to hear. And I stayed on after Cornell; I toured America to speak to the religious, academic, and humanitarian communities. And after that, I went to Australia, Asia, Europe, to do the same, and because I was speaking about ending the war, the reconciliation, the warring parties did not want me to go home.
TS: You say, Thay, that sitting meditation is not enough. Is not sufficient to transform someone’s life. And I think that many people who practice meditation in the West, they have their sitting practice, then they go about their life. And I’m curious why you say that it’s not sufficient, and what you mean by transforming one’s life.
TNH: Sitting meditation is just one part of meditation. If you listen to the teaching of the Buddha, for instance, in the sutra on the four foundations of my fullness, you see that the practice should be carried on. Not only in a sitting position, but also in a lying position, a walking meditation, standing position. And when you do things like holding your begging ball, putting on your dress, washing your feet, meditation should go on. If you practice only sitting meditation, you might get some transformation, but not enough. In order to shed your life completely.
Because in you there is a very strong energy that is always there to push you to do things that will make you suffer. And if you don’t practice, be mindful, the whole day, then every time that kind of energy manifests itself, you will not be able to recognize it, and you will allow it to push you to say things and to do things that you create damage and destruction in your relationships and so on. There are many of us who are aware that there are things they don’t want to say. They don’t want to do. They are intelligent enough—more than enough—to know that if they say that, if they said that, if they did that, they will destroy the relationship. Their happiness. And yet, when the time comes, that energy is so strong, and finally, they did it, finally they said it, in order for them to regret later on, and that repeats itself a lot of times. And that means our habit energy is very strong. It might have been handed down to us by several generations of ancestors. So that is why in order to be able to deal with the habit energy and not to suppress it we have to be mindful all day long. Sitting, walking, standing, doing things—we have to follow our breathing, in order to keep our mindfulness alive. And if our habit energy begins to show its head, then we’ll be able to know.
We only need to breathe in, to breathe out mindfully, and say, “Hello, my old habit energy, I know you are there, I will take good care of you.” That is enough in order to keep your habit energy not exactly in control but to embrace it, and not to let it leap away. Because in you, there is the energy of habit energy, but there is something else, there is the energy of mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness is holding tenderly the habit energy and taking care of it like a big sister taking care of the younger sister, and then, you’ll be safe. And after, every time your habit energy is recognized and embraced tenderly like that, it will lose some of its strength. And the next time, when it appears, it will be a little bit weaker. And if you practice like that for a certain time, you’ll be able to reduce that energy to a minimum. And you will not feel that it is stronger than you anymore.
TS: Do you think it’s fair to say that if you live every moment in the present moment, that that is the definition of enlightenment? I mean, traditionally, there’s some idea in Buddhism that we practice so that we can eventually become liberated. So I’m curious what your definition of liberation or enlightenment is.
TNH: Our happiness depends very much on our freedom. Because if we are not free from our sorrow, our afflictions, then there will be no stability, no peace, no joy, no happiness. And the only way for us to deal with our afflictions, to free ourselves from our afflictions, is to go back to the present moment. Because the present moment is the only moment when we can take hold of these blocks of pains. We can do something in order to transform them. If you get lost in the past, how can you transform the existing pain in you? If you get lost in the future, how can you take hold of your pain and transform it? That is why you have to go back to the here and the now in order to fasten your pain, your trauma, for the sake of transforming it.
So, my fullness is to go back to the here and the now and take care of the real thing—life. Because life is available only in the here and the now. And if you are able to establish yourself in the here and the now, body and mind united, you’ll be able to take care of the sorrow, the pain—you are able to look deeply into the nature—you are able to understand the nature of your suffering and your pain. And out of that understanding, and inside, you can liberate yourself from these blocks of pain and sorrow. And you realize freedom. That is emancipation. Freedom from your own afflictions. And that freedom is essential to your real peace and happiness. The present moment—in the beginning you might think that the present moment is not the past, is not the future—but as you continue to look deeply into the present moment, you see that the present moment contains the past, and contains the future. And touching the present moment, you’re touching the past, you’re touching the future. And you can even heal the past. And create the future, while you dwell firmly in the present moment. The Buddha said that your appointment with life is in the present moment. And therefore, everything you practice, whether it is mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful doing things, you just go back to the present moment to be truly alive. And to be able to take care of what is there. Because life is available only in that present moment.
So if you understand the expression present moment, in that way, you wouldn’t say that well, why do I have to refrain from thinking about past or thinking about future? Do I have the right to make plans for the future? Yes, you do. But you can establish yourself firmly in the present moment while planning for the future. Because that is the only effective way of planning for the future. If you lose yourself in the fear, in the worry, you cannot plan for your future. That is why to worry about your future, to be afraid of your future is not planning for your future. Planning for your future is to be there in the present moment with all your lucidity. That is why touching the present moment is at the same time touching the past and touching the future. It does not mean losing yourself in the past or in the future.
TS: One of the things that has always impressed me the most about your teaching is that it seems to me that you have examined very deeply the social problems of our world. And what I’m curious about, is if you look underneath all of the manifestations, all of the suffering in our world, whether it’s starvation, child abuse, ecological disaster—we know the long list of problems—underneath that, do you see the root cause? What do you see?
TNH: There is the collective consciousness and the individual consciousness. Our individual consciousness is made of our collective consciousness, and our collective consciousness is made of our individual consciousness. We reflect everything. And everything reflects us. And the process begins with yourself. Awareness, enlightenment, mindfulness within yourself. And you offer, first of all, a light, from within. That light, once lit up, will show you two things. What is wrong in you, what is not wrong in you. What is not wrong, you try to maintain and develop. What is wrong you try to transform. And while practicing that you realize that you have the capacity of saying what is wrong around you, and what is not wrong around you, so you see that you are connected to your society. And what you are doing for yourself, you are doing it for your society also. When you refrain from using drugs and intoxicants, you do not do it only to protect yourself; you do it for your children, for your friends, for society at the same time. Because if you don’t do it, how can you expect other people to do it for you? Therefore, you practice for all of us, and your practice has already had an impact on me, and on other people. You have already begun to change the world.
By lighting up the lamp of mindfulness in you and recognizing what is positive in you to renourish, and negative in you to be transformed, you have begun your social action from yourself. And when I see you doing like that, I receive your light. I know that in order to be worthy of you, I have to do the same. I have to light up the candle in me, I have to recognize the positive and the negative in me, I have to take care of both aspects. And you form a sort of single of two people. And when a third person comes in, and they get struck by our light, our awareness, our practice, and they join our single, we have three persons, and from that base, we advance, and we create the collective awareness, the collective environment, and if you happen to be a movie maker, I happen to be a writer, then it was our development, in order to kind of create that kind of collective awareness that is enlightenment. People have to be enlightened on their own situation. And that is why enlightenment is so crucial for our survival, for our happiness.
In our society, we have witnessed to several forms of enlightenment. Maybe we don’t call them enlightenment, but they are real enlightenments. Like in North America, you are aware already, that smoking is hazardous to your health. And you make an inscription on every package of cigarettes. Be aware: smoking might be dangerous. And that is a form of enlightenment. And ten years ago, we did not dream of having non-smoking flights to Europe, to Asia, but now, we have non-smoking flights to Europe and to Asia. And that is enlightenment. We awake to the real situation, and we make our enlightenment grow. Because there were companies who did not want to make a non-smoking flight. But because people were awakening, so they appreciate a non-smoking flight—that is why these companies they have to create a non-smoking flight also.
And suppose you are more aware on what you are eating. You don’t want a lot of fat, of cholesterol—because you want to consume less cholesterol, you want to protect your body—and the degree of enlightenment is important, that is why manufacturers of food they have to comply with your wish, and they have to join in the work of enlightenment. And if you are a scientist, a teacher, a writer, an artist, you can always bring your talent into helping our enlightenment to grow, and that is the hope for our world. Meditation is not the business of monks and nuns alone. Meditation is the business of every one of us. Whether we are politician or economists, or teacher, we have to get enlightened. We have to wake up to the situation that our world if we don’t want the destruction of our world. If we want the world to survive. And then we have to speed up that kind of awakening. Of enlightenment—otherwise, it would be too late. That is why no one can be indifferent about enlightenment, or awakening. The quicker we wake up, the better the chance we have for our children and their children.
TS: Often it seems that even with all of our best efforts the world is still going down the tubes. And I wonder if that ever depresses you, or if you feel that it’s kind of a useless effort in a way because people have been trying for so long and the world is not really improving in many ways.
TNH: Despair is the word. And we should do everything to prevent despair from overwhelming us. During the war, there were very difficult moments. It looks, it sounds like the war is going … forever! Wouldn’t have a chance to stop it. So, I was, in the midst of the war. And several times the young people come to me, and they ask, Thich, do you think that the war will have a chance to end? Tomorrow, or after tomorrow? It was very hard for me. Because I did not see any chance for the war to stop very quickly. And yet, I have to give an answer. I have to breathe in and breathe out. Very deeply. And sometimes, very long, before I say something. I said, my dear students, my dear friends. The Buddha said that everything is impermanent. It cannot last forever, any war. Any war has, in the past, has been ended, so this war, also, this war has to follow the law of impermanence. Let us do whatever we can do in order to speed up its end and not to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by despair.
I think the same way, I would like to follow today. We have to pay attention to what is not going wrong, and we have to do whatever we can do today in order to help change the world in order to not let ourselves be caught in that kind of worry and despair. If there are trees that are dying in your garden, you must be aware, so that you can do something to save these trees. But at the same time, you have to pay attention to the trees that are not dying. They are still robust. They are still vigorous. And you should not allow yourself to be caught in despair when your garden still has many beautiful trees. So embrace the beautiful trees. Enjoy them, so that you can get nourished, and not to let the sight of a few trees dying to overwhelm you and to make you hopeless. That is my advice to my students.
We have to ask ourselves whether today, this morning, we can do something. And this afternoon, we can do something. And not just sit there and ask the question whether we have a future or not. Whether we have a future or not depends on our way of being this morning, on our way of being this afternoon, on whether we can do little things in the morning, and little things in the afternoon.
TS: During this recent visit to America, you have uttered a very controversial statement that has shocked some of the members of the audience. You’ve been talking about God as an all-inclusive idea. And first of all, I’m curious when you use the word God, what you mean by it. But you have said a couple of times in public that God is a lesbian. And this has sent some reactions through the audience. And I wanted to ask you what you mean by that, and why you think that’s an important thing to say.
TNH: God is beyond religion. Religions can get into conflict with each other, but God is the ultimate reality that is beyond religion. To me, God is the ground of our being. It is like the water. It’s the substance of all the waves. We suffer because we are caught in the forms. In the perceptions of what we are. If we are able to penetrate deep into our true nature, namely God, we suffer much less—and you will stop suffering. There are a lot of wrong perceptions and discriminations that we have created by ourselves and we make ourselves suffer, and make people around us suffer. And the key for liberation is to overcome these perceptions, this kind of discriminations, and one of the best ways is to touch our own foundation of being, namely God.
In Buddhism, we would call it Nirvana. We would say, if you look artificially, you see that things are born, and die, things are different from each other and things exist outside of each other. But if you are able to practice deep looking, you find that things contain each other. Those things are free from birth and death, from all ideas and discriminations. And you get the kind of insight, a wisdom called the non-discriminative wisdom. And you don’t discriminate anymore, you are no longer afraid anymore. And that is why if a rose touched herself deeply, a rose would touch her true being, God, and a rose will find that God is a rose.
If a rabbit is able to touch herself deeply, her ground of being deeply, and the rabbit will lose all her fear and her depression—and all her complexes, because she realizes that God is a rabbit. The blue sky, if she touches herself very deeply, she would know, and say that God is the blue sky. The mountain also—if the mountains become itself and touches it deeply, the mountain realize that God is a mountain. So, the African will realize that God is an African. And a child would be able to see that God is a child. A woman would know that God is a woman. It’s known that God is a woman. And it’s in that context that I said God is a lesbian. I know he must be a lesbian in order for you to have a chance to liberate yourself, to get to the highest understanding, because you and him, you are one.
TS: You’ve been listening to a special broadcast of Insights at the Edge with Thich Nhat Hanh. If you’re interested in taking the online course, Body and Mind Are One, please visit SoundsTrue.com. In this course, you’ll receive over seven hours of teachings along with guided audio meditations. Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcasts. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.