On May 10, 2008, during the “Engaged Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century” retreat at the Kim Lien Hotel in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh answered questions from retreatants. Here are a few of those questions and answers.
A Beautiful Continuation
A written question: My father is retiring after fifty-five years of leading companies. He has decided that unless he can remain a very important person by having a high position or being affiliated with a prestigious institution, he is “irrelevant.” As a result he does not want to live. He has said he cares about no one and has no interests left in life. I’ve tried watering his good seeds and spending time with him. But his anger is very deep and his manas is 72 years strong [laughter]. How can I help him?
We might help him by telling him to learn to look deeply into his own person, to understand himself. We are usually caught in our notion of self. We are not aware that a self is made only of non-self elements, just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements. Sometimes we notice that we have certain talents and skills, but we should know that these talents and skills have come from our ancestors. When you know that your own talents, as well as your suffering and your happiness, have come from your ancestors, you are no longer caught in the idea that all these things belong to you.
In the Buddhist tradition when we Touch the Earth we make the gesture of opening our two hands to show that we have nothing in us. Everything has been transmitted through our ancestors. There is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be proud of. We inherit many things from our ancestors. In that light we can release everything very quickly. The insight that self is made up of nonself elements can be very liberating. Then it will be possible for us to see ourselves in our children and in our friends.
We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean our end — we always continue! We continue beautifully or not so beautifully, depending on how we handle the present moment. If in the present moment we can produce thoughts of loving kindness, forgiveness, and compassion, if we can say inspiring words, if we can perform beautiful acts of compassion, then we will have a beautiful continuation. We have sovereignty over the present moment.
If your father has access to that kind of insight he will change and he will suffer less. He will have joy in living. He will see that he is in you and that you will carry him into the future. All his talents and experiences are not lost — you will continue to have them, and you will do your best to transmit these qualities into the future through your children and grandchildren.
A Deep Grievous Longing
A lay woman asks: My husband and I have been trying to conceive a child for a long time. My sister and her husband have recently had a pregnancy loss, so we’ve both been experiencing a lot of suffering. One of my highest aspirations is to experience the miracle of having a child. Sometimes it’s very intense emotionally, the intensity of life wanting to continue itself, it causes a deep grievous longing. I work in a clinic that practices Chinese medicine to help couples with infertility. So it’s very difficult not to water those seeds of suffering. It is my most sincere intention to nourish my healing practice and my patients’ healing from the heart of my own experience. It’s from here that I ask for your guidance.
Someone said that happiness is something that you don’t recognize when it is there. You feel that, once it is gone, you have lost it. Happiness can occur in different forms. We might focus our attention on one thing and we call it the basic condition for our happiness. If we don’t have that thing then we don’t have happiness. But there are many other conditions for happiness that are present in the here and the now, and we just ignore them. We think that only the other object is a true condition for happiness, which now we don’t have.
Someone looking at you may recognize all the conditions of happiness that he does not have. That person may wonder why with plenty of conditions for happiness like that you do not enjoy your life and you are looking for something else. So the practice is first of all to say that happiness can be found in many forms.
Looking deeply into the human person we see that the human person wants to continue long into the future. We want to have children and grandchildren; we want to last a very long time. That is also the nature of animals and vegetables. Every living thing wants to be continued long into the future, not just human beings.
Someone like myself, a monk, also has the desire to last into the future, to be continued. That is very normal — every human being wants to be continued, and to be continued beautifully.
We know that there are those who have children but who are not happy with their children. They say if they had not given birth to these children they would be happier. You have to take into account all these things.
I myself do not have blood children but I have a lot of spiritual children and they make me very happy. They carry me into the future and I am very satisfied! I do not need to have a blood child.
Transmission can be done in many ways. You want to transmit the best thing you have into the future. You can transmit yourself genetically or spiritually. When you look into my disciples and friends and spiritual children you can see me.
We are not blood children of the Buddha but we feel that we are real children of the Buddha because we have inherited a lot from the Buddha. He has transmitted himself to us not genetically but spiritually. If you take into account these different modes of transmission you will see that we need not suffer because we cannot transmit ourselves genetically into the future.
But who knows?! Enjoy the conditions of happiness you actually have and one day you may enjoy that happiness also. But I think that if you enjoy this you may be completely satisfied. Every door is open. Good luck!
Sr. Tung Nghiem speaks: Dear Thay, we had a few friends who wrote to Thay after Thay spoke about depression and how nothing can survive without food. They wrote either from their own experience or the experience of a loved one or a client if they wrote as a psychotherapist. They shared their belief that there’s also a physiological aspect causing depression and some people truly need to take medication. The friends who wrote were concerned that Thay’s teaching could be misunderstood by the people who still need to have medicine and who may stop taking their medicine if they think they only need to stop consuming those things that are harmful to their mind and that’s enough. So they ask Thay to clarify.
In the teaching of the Buddha the biological and the mental inter-are. They manifest based on one another. Our emotions and feelings are very connected to the chemicals in our bodies. Our emotions and feelings can produce chemicals that are toxic or that inhibit the production of certain chemicals like neurotransmitters, and create an imbalance in your body. The mental can create the biological and the biological can have an effect on the mental. We don’t reduce the importance of one side.
All of us have the seed of depression, all of us. All of us have the seed of mental illness. We have received these genes from our parents and our ancestors, and we know from science that genes don’t turn on by themselves. They are turned on by our way of thinking, our feelings, our perceptions, and our environment. It is the environment that helps turn on the negative and positive genes. The genes are equivalent to the bijas, the seeds that we talk about in the teachings of the Buddha.
Neuroscientists ask the questions: Is it true that the brain produces the mind? How could the activities of neurons bring about the subjective mind? But the brain and the mind inter-are. This is because that is; this is not because that is not. It’s not that the body produces the mind or the mind produces the body, but mind and body are two aspects of the same thing. The mind always relies on the body to manifest. It’s like a coin — there is the head and the tail. Without the tail the head cannot exist and vice versa.
The seed of depression that now manifests may have been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors. There may have been generations when that seed did not manifest. But now, because of the new environment, that seed has a chance to manifest. That is why we have to take into account the element of environment.
The environment is an object of consumption because elements of the environment touch and turn on the genes in us. That is why the teaching of the Buddha on food is very important. We consume not only edible food but also what we see, hear, feel, and touch; sensory impression is the second kind of food. The third kind of food is intention, our volition, the deep desire in us. The fourth kind of nutriment is consciousness; we consume consciousness. If we live with a number of people around us, we consume their collective way of thinking and perceiving. For instance we may see something as not beautiful but because everybody around us sees it as beautiful, slowly we also come to see it as beautiful. We are influenced by the collective thinking around us and that is also consumption. Our depression has to do with all these sources of nutriments.
Medication can help but don’t rely on medication alone. You have to change your way of life and your environment, and one day you’ll be able to stop taking medication. If you don’t change your way of life and you continue to use the medication, at a later time it will not work because your body gets used to it.
Scientists know full well that it is our environment and our attention that turn on the seeds in us. There is a practice called yoniso manaskara, appropriate attention, where we focus our attention only on things that turn on the good seeds in us. For example, when we hear the sound of the bell, if we are a practitioner we naturally stop thinking and go back to our breathing and enjoy the present moment. The sound of the bell helps with appropriate attention, to turn on the good seeds.
We should create an environment where the good seeds and genes in us have many chances to turn on. If you are in a bad environment you know that even if you are taking medication it will not be a long-term solution. So go on and take the medication that you need but you should do something more. Change your way of life. Look at the source of nutriments you are using to feed yourself. Look at your environment to see if it is turning on the negative things in you. And if possible, just change your environment — even if you need to live in a smaller house, drive a smaller car, have a meager salary. If you can move to a better environment do not hesitate to do so because your health depends on it.
Why Are We Here?
A lay woman asks: What is the purpose of life?
That is philosophy! [laughter]
No, but there must be a reason! Why are we here?
This is a chance to discover the mystery of life. Very exciting! [laughter] You have something to discover, something very deep, something very wonderful. That practice of looking deeply can satisfy your curiosity, and that is one reason to be alive — to discover yourself, to discover the cosmos. This is a joy.
You might like to focus your question on “how” and not be caught always in the “why”. Life is a wonder! We are here to experience the wonder of life. If you have enough mindfulness and concentration, you can have a breakthrough and get deep into the reality of the wonder.
Life is a wonderful manifestation. Not only is the rose wonderful, not only are the clouds and the sky wonderful, but the mud and the suffering are also wonderful. So enjoy touching life; discover the mystery of life. And don’t spend your time asking metaphysical questions! [laughter]
Defusing the Bombs in the Heart
A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, before I came to Vietnam I had the privilege to spend several weeks in Laos where I was able to meet with many people who had been affected by the war. As I stood in fields that still had a lot of unexploded ammunition, sometimes forty or fifty bombs in a small field, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and anger. Speaking to people who continue to be affected, whether it’s friends or family who are killed by the unexploded ammunition, or a poor farmer who had his arm and his leg blown off at a young age, plunging his family into further poverty, I felt very sad. This young farmer said to me that this experience was his luck. I find it hard to accept that such experiences can be luck! Is this karma? And is this a time when we can be righteously angry? What is the mindful way to deal with these intense emotions?
Many social workers we trained in the School of Youth for Social Service died because of bombs, guns, and assassination. Some lost one foot, one arm. A young lady got more than 300 shards of metal in her body, from a type of bomb called anti-personnel bomb dropped by the American bombers. The doctors helped to extract many pieces of metal but there are still hundreds of them in her body. When she was in Japan for treatment she could not use an electric blanket because of these pieces of metal in her body. And they are my own students, my disciples.
I know that there are many unexploded land mines and bombs in Vietnam and in Laos, that continue to kill people. We need to get the attention of people in the world and ask them to help remove these engines of death. There are dedicated professionals who are helping. What is essential is to learn how to do it with compassion because that amount of violence is part of our legacy, our heritage. We should make the strong aspiration not to repeat that kind of action from now on.
But the bombs are not only embedded in the land, they are in the hearts of many people today. If you look around you see that many people, even young people, are ready to die and are ready to punish others.
How to defuse the bomb in the heart of man is very important work also, how to remove the hate in the hearts of so many people. So far the war on terrorism has not diminished the number of terrorists. In fact it has increased the number of terrorists, and each of them has a bomb inside his or her heart. Terrorists want to die for a cause, they want to punish others. That is why cultivating compassion and helping these people to remove their hatred and anger is also very important work. That is also to defuse the bombs.
You can see that the situation in the Middle East is very difficult. Not only are there bombs that explode on the land but there are bombs in the hearts of very many people. Compassion is the only answer.
As we help to defuse the bombs, whether in the land or in the heart, we should keep our compassion alive. I admire those of us who continue to help removing those death engines from the soil, but I also urge my friends to practice in order to defuse the bombs in the hearts of many people around us. We pray to the Buddha, to Jesus Christ and all our spiritual ancestors to support us in this compassionate action. We should think of our children and their children, and we should clean the Earth and our hearts, so that our children will have a better place to live.
Thank you for reflecting on this.
An Inoculation of Suffering
A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha: Yesterday you taught us that we should never give the negative seeds a chance. I agree with just 90% of that. [laughter] Ten percent of that is this question: there are young people who grow up in a very loving and supportive environment but when they go to big cities or other countries to study or to work, they will face some really negative pressure and the challenge is so big that they cannot deal with it. My suggestion is that we should vaccinate their mind and we should give them a bit of challenge when they are still young, so that their immune system is ready. What do you think of this? [laughter]
Thay says sometimes that each of us needs a certain dose of suffering. Remember? Suffering can instruct us a lot and help us cultivate compassion and understanding. So the art is to give each person an appropriate dose of suffering. [laughter] With too much suffering people will be overwhelmed and their heart will be transformed into stone. That is why parents and teachers have to handle this with care and intelligence.
In fact we cannot grow without experiencing suffering. When we say we should not give the negative seeds a chance we are referring to the teaching of Right Diligence. This means first of all that when positive seeds are present we should keep them alive as long as possible. One example of a positive seed is compassion. We should keep the seed of compassion alive in our hearts and our minds. One way to keep this seed alive is to be aware of the suffering. The practice of Right Diligence secondly means that we do not give negative seeds like hatred and anger a chance to increase by watering them everyday. If you are experienced in the practice of mindfulness you can complete the practice of Right Diligence by the practice of embracing strong emotions.
From time to time there is a mental formation that refuses to be replaced, like a CD that plays over and over. Even if you have a strong intention to replace it, it is too strong. If you are a skillful practitioner you will not try to change the CD. You will say, “You want to stay? It’s okay!” [laughter] You accept the CD; you accept the feeling, you embrace it tenderly and look deeply into it. That is also the teaching of the Buddha, to recognize the painful emotion, not to fight it but to recognize and embrace it in order to get relief. Look deeply into its nature in order to find all the roots of that feeling or emotion, because understanding is the way of liberation. Mindfulness and concentration lead to insight that is liberating.
Suffering exists in the context of family and school. There should be collaboration between parents and teachers, between parents and children, between teachers and students, to teach them how to handle their suffering. This is very clear in the tradition of Asia. When you come to learn from a teacher, what you have to learn first is how to behave – how to behave with others and with the teacher. You learn ethics first. And then after that you learn to write, to read, to study literature, history, mathematics, and so on. It is possible for us to do that in the context of family and school.
Making a living is important but that is not everything. Parents should show their children that although they are busy making a living for the whole family, they also devote enough time to make sure that harmony and happiness exist in the family. You can bring home a lot of money but that is not enough. You have to be there for your partner, your spouse, your children.
Their happiness depends on your way of being around them. The same must be true with school teachers. Not only do they need to transmit technical knowledge so that students will get a job later on, but we have to transform school into a family, into a Sangha. We should devote enough time to just being together. If there is deep communication between school teachers and children, the atmosphere of school will be pleasant. This helps the learning process to happen easily. So we have to offer retreats to parents and school teachers so they can take better care of their families and their students.
And that is part of Engaged Buddhism.
Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from Barbara Casey and Sr. Annabel, Chan Duc.
To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at firstname.lastname@example.org.