Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh
These questions and answers are from the 2013 retreats at Blue Cliff Monastery, Magnolia Grove Monastery, and Deer Park Monastery. For video and audio of the 2013 teaching tour, including Dharma talks and Q&A sessions, visit www.tnhaudio.org.
Q: Why do people have to suffer?
A: Thay is breathing in and out to allow the question to go deep in him before he offers an answer. Why do people have to suffer? Because suffering and happiness are part of life.
Suffering and happiness have to be together. This is a very deep teaching of the Buddha. It’s like the left and the right. If the left is there, the right must be there also, and if there is no left, there cannot be a right.
To grow lotus flowers, you need mud. Suffering is the mud and the lotus is happiness. The mud does not smell good, but the lotus flower smells very good. If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow a beautiful lotus. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can create happiness. We need some suffering in order to create happiness, but we already have enough suffering. We don’t need to create more.
If we know the art of suffering, we will suffer much less; we will suffer only a little, and we will use our mud to grow our lotus flowers. Suffering is useful because when you look deeply at suffering, you understand, and suddenly compassion and love are born in you. So suffering is not entirely negative. It is helpful, like the mud. I hope that schools will teach the art of how to make good use of suffering to create happiness.
When you grow vegetables organically, you don’t throw the garbage away. You make it into compost to nourish flowers and vegetables. It is the same with suffering. You transform suffering into compost that grows the flower of happiness.
Q: If you had a chance to live your life again, would you choose the same path or would you like to experience a new life?
A: I believe that I am not living just one life, I am living many lives at the same time. I am living the life of a monk, but also I live the life of a tree, of a bird, of a person in society, because I am in touch. When we have a retreat like this, many friends come and share with us their suffering and their happiness. In that sharing, we live their lives. Your happiness becomes my happiness, your suffering is my suffering. And when we do walking meditation, we get in touch with trees and rivers and flowers. When we eat, we get in touch with the cosmos.
As monks, we have more time to enjoy life. If I have to take care of a family, paying rent, having a car, I have to work hard. Not much time is left for me to enjoy being with nature or other people. As a monk, I have time not only for myself, but for my community, my disciples, my friends, and I can offer them my energy, my teaching, my time. That is very satisfying because when you can help other people to suffer less and to be joyful, you are rewarded with joy and happiness. I believe that to practice as a monk is much easier than to practice as a layperson. I chose the easiest way. [Laughs.] So next life, I will continue as a monk.
Q: What is the hardest thing that you practice?
A: Not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by despair; that is the worst thing that can happen to you. When the war in Vietnam was going on, it seemed it would last forever. Young people asked, “Dear Thay, do you think that the war will end soon?”
It was very difficult to answer because if Thay said, “I don’t know,” then the seed of despair would be watered in them. So Thay had to breathe in and out a few times, and then say: “Dear friends, the Buddha said that everything is impermanent, so the war must be impermanent also. It will end someday. Let us continue to work for peace.”
During the war, we organized the School of Youth for Social Service, similar to the Peace Corps created by John F. Kennedy. We went into the war zone and helped wounded people, created refugee centers, and rebuilt villages that had been bombed. We gave people a chance to return to a normal life.
There is a village not far from the military zone separating the north and south. It was bombed and completely destroyed, so we helped rebuild it. Then it was bombed and destroyed again. Our social workers asked whether they should rebuild it. We said, “Rebuild it.” We rebuilt it four times. We kept rebuilding because if you give up, it will create a feeling of despair.
The hardest thing is not to lose hope, not to give in to despair. Through two wars, we saw French soldiers come to kill and be killed, and young Americans come to kill and be killed. Fifty thousand young Americans were killed in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands were wounded, both physically and emotionally. In a situation of utmost suffering like that, we practice in such a way that we preserve our hope and our compassion. If we don’t have a practice, we cannot survive. When the journalists asked us how we felt about young Americans coming to kill and die in Vietnam, we said that we didn’t hate them because they were victims of a policy based on the fear that the communists would take over Southeast Asia.
In 1966, Thay was invited to come to America and talk to people about the war. There was a peace movement opposing the war in Vietnam, but as people demanded peace and did not get it, they got very angry. Thay told these groups, “If you have a lot of anger in you, you cannot achieve peace. You have to be peace before you can do peace. You need to know how to write a love letter to your president and your congress, to tell them that you don’t want the war. If you write a strong, angry letter, they will not read it.” Thay was able to help end the war in that way. If you understand suffering and can help compassion to be born in you, you will be free from despair and anger, and you can help the cause of peace.
Q: How have you detached from your strongest attachments in life?
A: I think meditation can help. When you look at the object of your attachment, if you see it is bringing you happiness and joy and making people around you happy and joyful, there’s no reason to remove that attachment. If you notice that the object of your attachment brings suffering to you and to the world, that kind of enlightenment will help you detach from it.
Q: I lost my only son, Jesse, on December 14th at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I struggle with that every day and I’ve had some pretty bad days. There’s no way to describe the suffering, the heartbreak. I keep thinking, what could have prevented what happened that day? It wasn’t an act of war, it wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t an illness. It happened for no reason, a horrendous act of violence and loss of lives. My question is, what could have prevented what happened that day? What changes can we all make to prevent suffering like that in the future?
A: I think that if we do not do something, that will happen again somewhere else in America and in other places. Young men or women will bring guns into school and shoot them. Your son is telling you and telling us that the person who did the killing was a victim. His parents and teachers did not instruct him how to handle the energy of violence and anger within him. When we look into a young person, we may see the possibilities of being loving and of being violent. Your son is telling us that we should do something to prevent that from happening again.
We should practice so we know how to handle the violence and anger in us. And we should transmit that practice to the younger generation. This is the purpose of these retreats: to learn how to be happy, how to handle our suffering, the violence, fear, and anger in us. Many of us are working with schoolteachers and parents to teach those skills, so they can transmit them to their students and children. I think your son is telling you to support us in this work. We have helped thousands of schoolteachers in India, America, and other countries. Governor Brown of California allowed us to experiment with this teaching in private schools in California. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to learn how to handle fear, violence, and despair in yourself, how to speak in a way that can restore communication and reconciliation. You don’t need to embrace a religion to practice this.
We suffer the same kind of suffering that you have experienced. But there is a way to suffer. With mindfulness and concentration and insight, we suffer less. The period of suffering might be shortened, and then we can develop our understanding and compassion. We can transform our suffering into something more positive and help other people, especially the younger generation.
Q: Our daughter, Casey, was nineteen when she died from leukemia. I try very hard to remember that she is with me, that she is in every cell in my body. But still I feel waves of such deep sorrow and longing. I want to be with her. Is it possible to ever be truly happy again?
A: The other day we spoke about a cloud in the sky. When the cloud transforms herself into rain, it’s hard for you to recognize your cloud in the rain. You need to have the kind of eyes, the wisdom of signlessness, to recognize your beloved in her new form. But she is there. If you know how to look deeply, she is still with you. It is impossible for her to die. She just manifests herself in new forms. But we suffer if we can only recognize her in her old appearance. If we are open, if we can see our cloud in the rain, we can stop our suffering and we can restore our joy.
Before giving birth to me, my mother miscarried my older brother. When I was young, I often asked whether the boy she miscarried was me or another boy. It could have been me saying, “I don’t want to come out yet. I want to wait.” So maybe she really did not miscarry anyone.
One winter doing walking meditation, I saw many buds on a tree. It was warm at the time, so the buds came out beautifully. I said, “This new year, we will have flowers to decorate the Buddha’s altar.” If you cut a few branches to bring into the warmth, they will blossom. But before I could cut them, there was a wave of cold and all of them died. So I said, “This new year, we will have no flowers to decorate the Buddha’s altar.” But later it became warm again and new buds appeared on the branches. The old buds that seemed to have died had not really died. Life is stronger than death. Are the new buds the same or different from the old ones?
If we are mindful, if we are concentrated, we can recognize our beloved one right here and now in her new form. We can restore our joy and happiness. She is always here, but she may not be just one, she might be in two, three, four, or five forms. If you come and live a few months with us, you will recognize her in this monastery, and you will have three, four, or five daughters instead of one.
Q: Honorable Thay, dear Sangha, I think that the influence you had on Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is undeniable; one year later, he gave an important statement against the war in Vietnam. I have a heavy heart seeing that fifty years later, the United States is on the brink of yet another military intervention, this time in Syria. If you were the president’s spiritual advisor, what would you tell him?
A: President Obama has his own Sangha, his advisors and ministers and party. He may see the wisdom in what I tell him, but he may not be able to follow it because he is not operating on his own, he has to operate as part of a group. You might believe that a person like the President of the United States has a lot of power and can do what he wants. That’s not true.
What I suggested to Dr. King is that we’ve got to have a Sangha that has a lot of understanding, compassion, and brotherhood. Then a war will not be possible because advisors, collaborators, friends, and supporters will see things in the light of understanding and compassion. I think President Obama tries to do his best. Sometimes he practices loving speech very well. We need loving speech, we need deep listening, but we also need the collective energy of a Sangha to support us. Otherwise you are under pressure to do what the collective consciousness wants. The country still has a lot of fear and anger and you operate on that collective energy.
To transform the way of thinking in the country spiritually, you begin with your group. You cultivate seeing with understanding and compassion. You change your thinking so you are capable of being together in harmony. Organizing retreats like this helps promote understanding, compassion, and harmony. This is helping the president and helping the country.
Q: I work for the United Nations, in the department of peacekeeping operations, as a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration officer. I negotiate and prepare programs for combatants after conflict so they can transition to a civilian life. I spent the last month in Mogadishu and Somalia, mostly dealing with young men who are involved in armed groups. There are also groups such as Al-Qaeda asking them to join. People sometimes perceive this as a religious war, but I think they are appealing to very poor young people’s sense of being dispossessed. They have nothing and Al-Qaeda gives them something. They give them a little money, but they also offer for them to become a part of something. Even though it is a jihadi movement, the young people feel respected and perhaps feared; it is very hard to compete with that. How might we approach these young men? How might we design programs that convince them to put down their guns and join us in peace? We have so little means, and Al-Qaeda and others have more convincing arguments.
A: Maybe we should begin by inviting some of them to come to a place where there are kind people, people who have compassion and understanding. These young people need to survive and they need some money, but one of the things we can show them is that you do not need a lot of money to live happily. Suppose they come to Plum Village and see that there is true brotherhood and sisterhood, and the feeling of being useful to society. There is the happiness that comes when you have compassion and understanding. They need to come and see for themselves. If some of them have a direct experience with this kind of living and serving, they will go back and tell the rest.
The practice of looking and listening to the suffering inside us and in the other person or group is very important. We can find ways to show them that not only we suffer, but the people we are about to punish suffer also. That is the practice of the precept regarding understanding suffering. You can recognize and understand the suffering in the world, even in the people you are told are your enemies or are representing evil. That kind of understanding of suffering will bring about compassion. Compassion helps us to suffer less. When you suffer less, you can help another person to suffer less. There must be a kind of strategy in order to really help people. Money is just a small part of it.
If you are surrounded by friends and co-workers who have the same kind of vision and understanding, you will succeed. You cannot do it alone. You have to have a Sangha behind you, supporting you, supplying you with the energy of understanding and compassion. Otherwise you will give up eventually. It is very important. If you want to do something, build a Sangha. If President Obama has a Sangha like that, he will be able to do a lot of good things. The same is true for all of us. If you want to achieve something in your life, you need a Sangha. The Buddha knew that. That is why after enlightenment, the first thing he did was to look for elements of a Sangha.
Q: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve had much suffering, observing and participating with the consumption here at the retreat. Many of the products we’ve been using and eating are not of the highest integrity, two of which are the toilet paper—no recycled content—and the food, much of which is not organic. One example of extreme concern is the bananas we’ve been eating, from a company called Chiquita, that’s known to have participated in genocide in Central America until 1988. The people who perpetrated these crimes were never brought to justice: they’re still free, they’re still wealthy. Many of the products were bought from places like Wal-Mart, which are known for human rights abuses, especially in Southeast Asian countries where their manufacturing takes place. We’re living in a time of economic warfare, with manipulation of currency and easy money flowing to these companies. I have spoken with monastics who are doing purchasing. One brother said the Sangha is limited in resources and money, and potentially limited in options to source higher quality, ethical products. This is the most common answer given around the world: “I can’t afford to eat organic food or to support local farms.” Is that an excuse? What do we do?
A: It’s not exactly lack of money but lack of understanding and love. When we organize a retreat like this, something very positive happens. No one eats meat or drinks alcohol for six days in a row. No one tries to insult or say angry words to another person. Everyone is trying to restore peace in their body and their feelings. That is very good. If we do this, we have more peace, we have more loving kindness. Then it’s easier to change other things, like buying toilet paper that is less polluting.
I have seen ecologists who are very angry. There’s a lot of pollution in them—anger, impatience, hate, and violence. They cannot serve the cause of the environment with those kinds of energies. The activist should change himself first; he should have a lot of understanding and compassion in his way of thinking and speaking. Then instead of criticizing and demanding, he can begin to help.
We have to recognize that we are making a lot of progress on the path. We have been refraining from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products for many years. In the monastic community, no one has a bank account, no one has a private car, no one has a private home. Everyone is sharing; this is very positive. We have to recognize these positive things. The most difficult thing is to live happily as a Sangha. If you have that, everything positive will happen. Use your time and energy to build a happy Sangha with brotherhood and sisterhood.
Q: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I am here with my daughter and my grandbaby. I am a new grandmother and my heart has gotten bigger and filled with so much love, and I feel a sacred responsibility to my grandchildren. I try to breathe and enjoy the beauty and the joy of these babies, and of this life, and of this world. I am also an activist and recently read your book, Love Letter to the Earth. The research on what is predicted for life on this planet is very painful, partly because I feel quite alone. I do take action and there are some positive changes happening, but I don’t feel like there are a lot of places where I can talk about this. I don’t want to be angry. I want to talk from my heart with others about how to make positive changes. How we can do that in the Sangha? It seems there is some attitude that talking about these things is too political or too social, and I feel alone in my suffering around this. Thank you.
A: Sangha building is very important work. Sangha means “harmonious community” and the main task of the Sangha is not to organize events; it is to build brotherhood and sisterhood. Through deep listening and loving speech, we should be able to communicate with each other easily, and as we share our ideas we can come to collective insight. Sitting in the Sangha you feel nourished, you feel stronger; that is real Sangha building. With a Sangha like that, everything is possible, because you don’t lose your hope.
In Sangha building we need a lot of patience, and patience is a mark of love. In Plum Village we spend a lot of time and energy building Sangha. We sit together, eat together, drink together, walk together, and share our ills and sorrow. We know that if we do not have enough harmony and happiness in our Sangha, it will not mean anything to get a lot of people to participate. Even a Buddha cannot do much without a Sangha. The Buddha was a perfect Sangha builder and spent a lot of time building his Sangha. It is not easy to build a Sangha, as the Buddha knew. But with compassion and patience, he was able to build a beautiful Sangha.
When the Buddha and King Prasenajit were both eighty, and were both traveling through the country, one day they happened to meet in the north. King Prasenajit praised the Buddha, saying, “Dear Teacher, every time I see the Sangha, I appreciate you more. I bow to you because you have such a beautiful Sangha. Once I went to a place with two carpenters who were your disciples. That night we slept in the same room and they turned their head to the direction they believed you were and they turned their feet toward me. They revered you more than they revered their king, so I know you are loved dearly by members of your Sangha.”
The Sangha is a jewel, and with a Sangha you can accomplish much in the world. With a happy Sangha, many people can come and take refuge and profit from the collective energy of peace and happiness and compassion and mindfulness.
With a Sangha like that, you can nourish your grandchildren. That is the safest place for your children. If our children are raised in such an environment, they will become instruments of peace. We have to believe that our children have Buddha nature; we need to focus our efforts on watering the seeds of love, compassion, and talent in them. We should offer our best to them, not worrying about the future. Invest all your energy into the present and nourish your children and grandchildren with the energy of hope, compassion, and insight.