By Thich Nhat Hanh in June 2007
Here is the first Dharma talk that Thich Nhat Hanh gave on his recent tour of Vietnam, at Phap Van Temple in Ho Chi Minh City on February 22, 2007. This excerpt presents the last part of the talk, including questions from the audience and Thay’s answers. Later in this issue we offer a story of that day along with photos from the journey. To hear this talk in full, go to www.dpcast.org and look for “Mindfulness and Healing in Vietnam.”
While we’re sitting still, sitting peacefully, there are three elements that we need to harmonize. The first is the body, the second is the mind, the third is the breath — mind, body, and breath.
Sometimes our body’s there but the mind has run off somewhere else. It runs off to the future, to the past. It is caught in worries, sadness, anger, jealousy, fear. There is no peace, no stillness. If we want to sit still we have to bring the mind back to the body.
How can we bring the mind back to the body? The Buddha taught in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing that we need to know how to use the breath. When we breathe in, we bring the mind back to the breath. I am breathing in, and I am aware that I am breathing in. Instead of paying attention to things that happened in the past, things that might happen in the future, we bring the mind back so that it can pay attention to the breath.
This sutra has been available in Vietnam since the third century. Zen master Tang Hoi was the forefather of Vietnamese Zen and this is one of the most basic sutras in meditation practice. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out. This is the first exercise of the sixteen exercises in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing, which I have translated from Pali to Vietnamese and from Chinese to Vietnamese; it has been published in many languages.
The day I discovered the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing I was so happy! It is a wonderful sutra for our practice of meditation. If we practice wholeheartedly, in a few weeks we can bring peace and happiness back to our bodies and to our minds.
The Practices of the Buddha
In Plum Village we have a gatha, a short poem that we memorize. It has only a few words.
Present moment, wonderful moment!
The first one, “in, out,” means breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out.
The second one is “deep, slow.” Breathing in, I see that my inbreath has become deeper. Breathing out, I see that my out-breath has become slower. In the beginning our breath is very short, but if we continue to follow our breathing for a while, naturally our in-breath becomes slower, deeper, and our out-breath also becomes slower, more relaxed.
This is our practice. Just as when we want to play the guitar, we have to practice every day, or if we want to learn to play tennis, we have to practice to be a good tennis player, we also have to practice our breathing. After one hour of practice we already feel better. Then slowly we’ll be able to sit still like the Buddha, and be worthy to be his disciples.
Perhaps for a long time we have been going to the temple only to do offerings. But that’s not enough. We have to learn the teachings of the Buddha, the practices that the Buddha wanted to transmit to us.
Breathing for Our Mothers and Fathers
We practice not to be happy in the future; we practice to be happy right in the present moment. When we’re sitting, we should have happiness as we are sitting. When we are walking, we should have happiness as we are walking. We sit with our breath so that the body can be calm and the mind can be calm; that is called sitting meditation. When we know how to walk, to take steps in lightness and gentleness, that’s called walking meditation.
In practice centers that practice in the Plum Village tradition, we walk peacefully as if we were walking in the Buddha Land. We do not talk as we are walking. If we need to say something, we stop to say it, and then we continue walking. If you visit Plum Village or Deer Park or Green Mountain or Prajna or Tu Hieu, you will see that the monks and the nuns in these centers do not talk when they walk. They pay attention to each of their steps, and the steps always follow the breath.
When you come to live with the monks and the nuns, even for just twenty-four hours, you can learn how to walk and sit like the monks and nuns. Peace and happiness radiate as we are sitting, as we are walking. When we practice correctly, there’s peace and happiness today; we don’t have to wait until tomorrow. Lay practitioners who attend our retreats learn to breathe, to sit, and how to pay attention to their steps right in the first hour of orientation.
While we are here in Vietnam we will also offer these teachings during the monastic retreats and retreats for lay friends. So everybody will learn about sitting meditation, walking meditation, breathing meditation.
“In, out, deep, slow. Calm, ease, smile, release.” That’s the fourth exercise: “Smile, release.”
Breathing in, I feel calm, I feel such a sense of well-being. Breathing out, I feel light. This is what we call the element of ease — one of the seven factors of enlightenment. When we practice through the third exercise we feel calm and ease. When we breathe like that it’s not just for us, but we are continuing the career of the Buddha. We are breathing for our fathers, our mothers in us. When we practice like that it’s so joyful.
I often write these statements so that the young monks and nuns can send home a calligraphy as gifts to their parents. “I am taking each step in freedom for you, Father.” “I am breathing gently, peacefully for you, Mother.” When we practice like that we practice for our whole family, for our own ancestral lines, and for our whole country, not just for ourselves alone.
The Healing Power of Total Relaxation
We accumulate so much stress! This can bring a lot of illnesses if we do not know how to practice total relaxation. That is why the Buddha taught us: breathing in, I relax my whole body; breathing out, I smile to my whole body.
In Plum Village we have the Dharma practice called “total relaxation.” We can do total relaxation as we are sitting or as we are lying down. I ask you to learn this practice. If you practice total relaxation each day for about twenty minutes, you can avoid a lot of illnesses. If you hold in too much tension and stress in your body or your mind, it can generate illnesses in the future, such as high blood pressure, cardiac diseases, or stroke.
If we can practice as a family each day, with a time allotted so that the parents, the children, can lie down and practice, that is a very civilized family. In Plum Village we have produced CDs that can help people to practice total relaxation, available in English, French, Vietnamese, and German. At first when we don’t know how to lead total relaxation, we can listen to the CD and the whole family can practice. After a while we can take turns leading total relaxation for our family.
In the West there are hospitals that apply these breathing exercises to save patients when there are no other ways to help them. In an article in the Plum Village magazine, Brother Phap Lieu [a former physician] wrote about a doctor who learned about the sutra and the practices of Plum Village and then applied what he learned to help his patients.
Peace and Freedom in Each Step
There are people in the West who are from the Christian tradition yet they know how to take advantage of Buddhist wisdom to help themselves. We call ourselves a Buddhist country, but many of us only know how to worship and make offerings. We do not yet know how to apply the very effective teachings transmitted to us by the Buddha through the sutras such as The Four Establishments of Mindfulness or Mindfulness of Breathing.
We have this temple — Phap Van (Dharma Cloud) — as well as Prajna, Tu Hieu, An Quang, and other temples. We can go to these temples to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha. We learn about breathing meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, total relaxation meditation, so that we can apply them into our daily lives.
At the retreat for businesspeople in Ho Chi Minh City, they will also learn breathing meditation, sitting meditation, and walking meditation. We have organized a retreat like that for congressmen and –women in the United States. Presently in Washington D.C. there are congress people who know how to do walking meditation, how to coordinate their breath and their steps. A congressman wrote a letter to me, and he said, “Dear Thay, from my room to the voting chamber I always do walking meditation. I come back to my breath and my steps on my way to this place. My relationship with the voting process and with my co-workers has improved so much because I know how to apply walking meditation practice.”
We have also organized retreats to teach these practices to police officers in the United States. Imagine all these big police officers who now take steps in peace, in gentleness. Do you know that in the United States there are more police officers who commit suicide than are shot by criminals? They witness so much suffering and they cause so much suffering to themselves and to their families; they feel they had no way out. That’s why a retreat like ours benefited them so much and they suffer much less.
In prisons there are those who know how to organize sitting meditation. Last month an American prisoner wrote to me, “Dear Thay, even though I am in prison, I’m very happy, and I see that sometimes being in prison is good for me. This is an advantageous condition for me to do a lot of sitting and walking meditation. If I were outside right now, maybe I would never have learned this practice. I am not a monastic, but I see that I am living in prison and I live according to the mindful manners and precepts in the book Stepping Into Freedom. Stepping Into Freedom is a revision of the book written for the monastics; it contains the essential practices for the novices.
Over the centuries when people have been in deep despair and have come in touch with the wonderful teachings of the Buddha, they have been able to transform their lives. We are children of the Buddha — for many generations. Buddhism has been in our country for over two thousand years. If we have not learned these basic practices of meditation, it is a shame.
That is why I very much hope that those of you who are present today are determined to learn these basic practices. We have to be able to sit still. We have to know how to breathe in such a way that we feel comfortable, peaceful, and we need to know how to walk so that there is peace and freedom in each step. We’re not doing this for ourselves only, but for our fathers, for our mothers, for our children, and for our country.
In the Anapanasati Sutra on mindfulness of breathing, the Buddha taught us to use the mindfulness of our breathing to heal our body and our mind. When there is relaxation in the body, our body has the capacity to heal itself and medication becomes secondary. When stress is so great, we can take a lot of medication, but it’s very difficult to heal. So while we’re taking medication, the most important thing is to relax the body. When the nurse is about to give us an injection we tense our body because we are afraid there’ll be pain. When we tense up the muscles like that, if she gives an injection it will be very painful. So she says, “Now take a deep breath!” And when we’re breathing out and we’re thinking of the out-breath, then she sticks the needle into our arm.
While we’re driving, while we are cooking, while we are sweeping the floor of the house, while we are using the computer, we can also practice total relaxation. Do not think that the monks and the nuns do not work a lot. They also work a lot, but they while we’re driving, while we are cooking, while we are sweeping the floor of the house, while we are using the computer, we can also practice total relaxation. Do not think that the monks and the nuns do not work a lot. They also work a lot, but they practice to work in a spirit of relaxation. That is why they're able to maintain their freshness, their smile, their happiness. We can do the same as the monastics.
The Secret of Zen
After we bring our mind back to take care of the body, we can bring our mind back to take care of the mind. In our mind there’s suffering, fear, worry, irritation, anger. Often we want to suppress these feelings but each day the tension and stress grow greater and greater. Eventually they cause us illnesses of the body and mind. The Buddha teaches us to bring the mind back to the body to take care of the body and to bring the mind back to take care of the mind.
Among the sixteen exercises of breathing, there is one exercise that aims to relax negative mental formations, such as anger and worry. Breathing in, I am aware that there’s irritation in me. Breathing out, I smile to my irritation. Breathing in, I am aware that there are worries in me. Breathing out, I take care of my worries. Our irritation or worries are like our baby. We use our breathing to generate the energy of mindfulness in order to embrace our worries and our fear.
Right mindfulness means we know what’s going on. For example, I am breathing in, and I know that I am breathing in. That is right mindfulness of the breath. When we take a step and we know that we are taking the step, that is right mindfulness of the step. When we drink a cup of coconut juice, in that moment we have mindfulness of drinking. We bring the mind back to the body so that it’s present as we are sitting, standing, lying down, putting on our robe, taking off our robe, brushing our teeth. Our mind is always present. That is the secret of Zen.
When the body and mind are relaxed, we have the capacity to listen to the other person and to speak gentle words. Then we can re-establish communication between us. The other person may be our spouse, our partner, our daughter or our son, our friend, or our parents. That practice is deep listening and loving speech. If there is no peace in the body and the mind, we cannot practice loving speech and deep listening. When we are able to practice deep listening and loving speech, we can help the other person to suffer less. Joy can be re-established in the family.
I’d like to inform you that Western practitioners, after just five days of practice, can reconcile with their families, with their parents. If they practice, they invest a hundred percent into their practice because they want to succeed and not practice just for form.
Children of the Buddha
We organize retreats for Westerners to practice with Vietnamese. In these retreats the Vietnamese see the Western practitioners practicing diligently and correctly.
We have been children of the Buddha for two thousand years. We cannot do worse than Westerners. We can do just as well or even better. We have to have deep faith in the teachings and practices of the Buddha. Buddhism is not a devotional religion, it is a treasure of great wisdom.
It’s just like a jackfruit. The devotional part is only the shell outside. When you cut it open and go deeply into it there are parts that are very sweet, very fragrant and soft. Many of us have been practicing just on the outside of the jackfruit, but when we go into it we can enjoy it very deeply. We need to learn — not in order to accumulate Buddhist knowledge, but so that we can apply it in our daily lives.
First of all, we learn to practice in such a way that we can sit still and relax our body and mind. We learn so that we can listen deeply and speak lovingly. Perhaps in only one or two weeks we can change our whole lives. We can bring happiness into our family. Many people have been able to do it. If we want to we can also do that.
This is the first dharma talk. I don’t want to speak very long, so I will leave a little time so that you can ask questions.
Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment
Woman from audience: First of all I would like to wish Thay and the monks and nuns good health so that you can continue to transmit the teachings to us and to future generations. When we practice we can come back to the present moment and dwell happily and peacefully in the present moment, and in order to do that we have to bring together the three factors of body, mind, and breath. But what if one of these three factors, for example, my foot, has a problem and I cannot keep it still. So then would my practice yield peace or ease?
Thay:Very good! [audience applause] First of all, do not wait until you have pain in your foot, then say, “I cannot practice!” Practice when you don’t have pain in your foot. When there’s pain in the leg, first of all we take care, we try to find treatment for the leg and at the same time we find a way to sit so that there’s comfort. There are people who have problems. Instead of using one cushion, they use two cushions. Instead of sitting in a lotus position they sit in a half-lotus, or they sit on a stool or in a chair. People may sit in a chair but they can still bring their mind back to their body.
As for the breath, for example, it may be very difficult when we have asthma. So we should practice when we are not having an asthma attack, and then when we have an asthma attack we can still practice with that.
Do not use the excuse that I have this particular difficulty with my body or my mind or my breath. There are people who are victims of vehicle accidents, who were artists and now they cannot draw with their hands, so they use their feet to draw — beautiful paintings. So if we have a little pain in our feet or we have difficulties with our breath, we can still practice. We don’t use that excuse to be too lax in the practice.
Invoking the Buddha’s Name
Man from audience: When we use the breath to invoke the name of Amitaba Buddha, breathing in, we say “Namo” [“praise”]; breathing out we say, “Amitaba Buddha.” “Namo, Amitaba Buddha.” This is the Buddha of the Pure Land, and so when you teach us, “Breathing in, I feel calm, breathing out, I feel ease,” I can say it’s somewhat equivalent to my practice. Slowly it brings me to this concentration of the breath at a higher level. When there’s concentration on the breath and on invocation of the Buddha, it can help heal us. So I would like to share that with you, and I would like to express my gratitude of your teaching today.
Thay: Very good. We can combine the practice of invoking the name of Amitaba Buddha with the practice of breathing meditation. But tonight we talk about the sutra Anapanasati, Mindfulness of Breathing, which was taught by the Buddha himself. We can use this original sutra in all different Buddhist traditions, whether Pure Land or Zen or other traditions. We did not say that this is the only method of practice, because there are many other practices. We just brought up a few exercises that the Buddha suggested to us. It does not mean that we do not affirm or recognize other practices.
Whatever Dharma practices bring us to relaxation, freedom, and peace of body, they are all best practices. We don’t want to waste time saying that this practice is better than other practices.
Some people feel comfortable with certain practices; other people may not feel that they succeed in a practice, so they try another practice. Whatever practice we do, we want to reach the fruits of that practice — freshness, happiness, calmness. There is peace and happiness right away, and we don’t have to wait until three, four months later or three, four years later to taste that fruit. It’s the same way in the practice of invoking the name of the Buddha. We invoke the name of the Buddha in such a way that there is peace and happiness right in the moment while invoking the name. If we feel fear or anxiety, it is not in the spirit of the teachings of the Buddha. So that’s what it means, dwelling peacefully and happily in the present moment.
Being in Touch with the Departed
Man in audience: In a magazine they said that today Thay would give a Dharma talk about being with my loved one, and how to practice to bring peace to myself. When you gave the Dharma talk tonight, you said that when you are able to be in touch with your breath, you have peace and happiness. Do you mean that when we have peace and happiness, we can be in touch with our loved ones who are dead?
Thay: We will go slowly, step by step. There are many different topics. We will have the three ceremonies to pray for the people who passed away during the Vietnam war, and we can pose the question: “My loved ones have died in the war. How can I bring them peace? How can I help them to be liberated?” These topics need a lot of time to understand because they are very deep.
Just like any scientific field, Buddhism needs to take steps. When we cannot take the first step and the second step, it’s very difficult for us to take further steps. That is why we should not hurry too much or be pulled away by the theoretical realm. We need to grasp the basic practices first.
When we have enough peace in the body and the mind, we have the capacity to listen. Then we can take care of more difficult situations. In us there are certain preconceptions that we have accumulated from the past. When we listen to something new, we have a tendency to fight against it. Maybe there’s this structure inside us when we first listen to a teaching. That is why the Buddha taught us how to break through these views, whatever we learned yesterday. If we cannot let go of what we studied in the past, we cannot go on to the next step. If you don’t let go of the fifth step, you cannot take the sixth step. If you want to go to the seventh step, you have to let go of the sixth step.
In this past century many scientists have found that Buddhism is very inspiring. Einstein said that Buddhism is the only religion that can go in tandem with science. That is the spirit of breaking through knowledge, through views that we have accumulated from the past.
‘To Sit in the Wind of Spring’
We should end the dharma talk now. We will see each other tomorrow. This morning our delegation had a chance to visit An Quang Temple. We offered to the abbot of An Quang a calligraphy that said, “To sit in the wind of the spring.”
I explained to the abbot that in the old teaching, when the brothers and sisters sit together in this love on the path, when the teacher and the students sit together and exchange their experiences in the practice and teach each other and support each other, there is this happiness as if we were sitting in the spring. We benefit from the wind of the spring that is like a nourishing breeze. So that’s why this morning I wrote the calligraphy, “To sit in the wind of the spring.”
I have a feeling that tonight as the teacher and students sit here together, we also sit in the wind of the spring. We have the good fortune to meet each other to exchange our knowledge and experiences. This is a great happiness that I would like all of us to be aware of.
Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem; transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.