By Thich Nhat Hanh in March 1999
Transcription of a Dharma Talk Given by Thich Nhat Hanh on March 2, 1999 at Plum Village Monastery, Dieulivol, France
Dear Friends, it is now the beginning of March 1999, and we are in Floating Clouds Meditation Hall, New Hamlet, Plum Village. We have just completed the Transmission of the Lamp ceremony for twelve monastics. Their training has been very steady, including a three month retreat each year. Of the twelve Dharma teachers that we ordained yesterday, many of them are very young. Most of them began practicing at the age of 22 or 23 as a monk or nun, and they have spent six or seven years practicing as monastics. Last year, the Sangha appointed 17 apprentice Dharma teachers. Out of this 17, the Sangha selected ten here in Plum Village and two in America to become this year's ordained Dharma teachers.
Each year we will be able to produce new Dharma teachers. The plum trees are beginning to yield fruit. The procedure used to select Dharma teachers is that, rather than being nominated by Thay, they are now selected by the Sangha. It is the Sangha who has decided who will be a Dharma teacher this year. Every year, the Sangha will appoint new apprentice Dharma teachers, and each year we will give the Lamp Transmission to a number of new Dharma teachers. We do it by way of voting. We have applied democracy to the foundation of our Sangha. One week before the Transmission of the Lamp, no one knew who would be selected to be this year's new Dharma teachers. We prepared the ordination ceremony for the Transmission not knowing who would actually receive the Lamp and become Dharma teachers this year.
Each hamlet and each temple received instructions on how to select the Dharma teachers. I only suggested to the community how Dharma teachers should be selected using two criteria. The first is that future Dharma teachers must be people who can teach with their own life as an example and not just with words. The second criteria is that the Dharma teacher should demonstrate his or her ability to live in harmony with the Sangha and be able to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.
Everyone in the community considered these two criteria, and they were given time to meditate, to think about, and then to vote to select which apprentices met these qualifications and criteria. Thay did not have anything to do except to add up the votes and to announce the names to the community of the new Dharma teachers. All of these votes and records are in our files here. Anyone can consult them. This has been a wonderful experience, especially to see that a few Dharma teachers got a unanimous vote of the Sangha, to see that everyone thought that this person or that person is a good candidate to be a Dharma teacher. We are very happy, because of this new democratic development. We are very happy that we are now able to combine the principles of democracy and the principle of seniorship.
The training here at Plum Village and at the Green Mountain Dharma Center is very steady. It is training not just of retreats from time to time, but a training 24 hours a day for many, many years. Living together 24 hours a day, we understand and know each other very well. Therefore our judgment and our selection of Dharma teachers is based upon direct experience of each person. Living in the Sangha, we have the opportunity to try out things we have learned and to succeed or to fail. And everyone knows of and can see our success or failure.
The Transmission of the Lamp was not a big ceremony this time. We only had in attendance people who were here for our retreat. There are over 100 monastics living here and in the Green Mountain and Maple Forest Monasteries. We also have a number of laypeople who practice with us during the winter retreat.
The night of the vote and the selection of the Dharma teachers, I stayed up very late. Of course, I had my own ideas about who I thought should be the Dharma teachers and be selected this year. But I chose to practice taking refuge in the Sangha. We all have to rely on our Sangha, because we believe that the Sangha eyes are always brighter than the eyes of anyone individual, including the teacher. So I stayed up very late that night in order to count the votes. I told Sister Chan Khong that we were like being in the U.S. Congress or in the French Parliament-staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning in order to attend a meeting and make a historic vote.
You know we have three temples here, three hamlets here, and there were temples that replied very quickly and brought us their votes very quickly. But, there were also temples which took a long time to send me the results of the vote. In particular, Maple Forest Monastery took a long time. The first time, they did not understand the instructions properly. That is why they did not select according to the kind of criteria that I suggested, and we had to ask them to do it again. So it was 2:00 in the morning before I knew the names of the new Dharma teachers that had been selected. But even at that late hour, I immediately sent the names to the three temples here and the temple in Vermont at the Green Mountain Dharma Center, and I asked the abbots and abbesses to please release the results in the early morning. Of course, there were some people who were disappointed because they were not selected this year. They know that they have to begin to practice again with the Sangha in such a way that next year they will be accepted. So there will be great efforts on the part of these candidates.
I feel wonderful that this is the way we are now choosing our Dharma teachers, and this takes a lot of weight off of my shoulders. It is not Thay who decides, but the Sangha who decides. Thay of course has the right to veto, but I very rarely do. So, the community chooses, and they inform Thay of the names of the new novices and the names of the new Dharma teachers, and then Thay informs them of the date of ordination.
If the community of monks and nuns judges that a monk or nun is ripe, then they will decide and send the nomination to Thay. For the Dharma teachers, we will do it in the same way. Dharma teachers are selected and nominated by the Sangha.
I would like to talk about a very important practice here at Plum Village, the practice of offering guidance and in the principle of Sangha eyes. The Sangha eyes can see thoroughly. Many people think that the Sangha does not know, but the Sangha knows. It can see much better than you can. This practice comes directly from the tradition that on the last day of the winter retreat, the rainy season retreat, a monk should bow down in front of his brother and ask him, "Please with compassion shine light on me so that I can see my strength and my weakness during the past three months of this retreat." He must prostrate deeply in order to receive this guidance. Here at Plum Village, we have developed it into a practice that is not only used at the end of the winter season retreat, but also, from time to time, when any of us needs the guidance of the Sangha. We can come forward and make deep prostrations and ask for guidance. Even senior teachers, like Sister Annabel Laity, come from time to time to the Sangha and prostrate, and she asks her younger sisters to shine light on her practice. Most of the people who were there, whom she bows before, are her students.
Before anyone receives full ordination, they receive guidance so they can prepare themselves for ordination, and we have seen that in only a few days, a person can make a lot of progress and undergo considerable transformation. In the beginning many people are afraid of guidance because they do not like to see their weaknesses. But everyone, after having received their guidance, has realized that this is the voice of the Buddha telling him or her how to practice, how to advance.
In the newsletter that we recently published, we printed a few letters about guidance and the experience of those who received guidance and how they practiced in order to overcome their difficulties. In Plum Village, I think we have a laboratory to try out new methods. After we have succeeded in the methods of practice, we share it with the communities outside.
One of the things we have done is to deal with attachment. For instance, when someone in the community falls in love with someone else in the community, especially in the case of a monk or nun, in the past, if the teacher and the board of teachers realized that there was this attachment on the part of a monk or nun, then that person would be expelled. They would not be allowed to stay in the monastery any more. When I was a novice, one of my fellow monks wrote two lines of poetry and gave it to a young girl down the hill from the temple. When the faculty learned about it, he was expelled from the monastery, and he went back to his lay life. I thought this was much, much too strict. He was not given the chance to begin anew and to learn. I was only 18 years old, and I saw that as a kind of injustice.
So I have been thinking about it for many years, and at Plum Village we have found many methods to help people who have gotten themselves into situations of attachment. Because we think that falling in love is an accident, you should help this person who had this accident and not kill him. It is like when a friend is struck with malaria, you have to help the person to kill the bacteria in the blood and not to kill the person.
We have been successful in dealing with this in some circumstances, and we are confident that later on we can share the method with other communities. Without the support of the Sangha, you cannot solve these problems. If I did not have a loving Sangha, I would have been expelled also. You may have read my book Cultivating the Mind of Love. In it, I tell the story of when I was a young monk, and I fell in love with a nun. It is surprising that now the mainland Chinese have chosen to translate this very book. I will be very famous in China!
Here in Plum Village, we have three temples: the temple we are sitting in is called "Adornment with Loving Kindness." Each of the three temples has its autonomy. Each temple has an abbot or abbess. The office of an abbot is like being an accountant-handling accounting and bookkeeping-and each temple is free to make projects or building more dormitories, Buddha Halls, etc., and if they are short of funds and need help they can get the help from the other temples.
But, there are things that concern the whole Sangha, that need the whole Sangha to decide, and there are other things that can be resolved just in one's own temple. Like the temple of Thay Nguyen Hai; we call it the Dharma Cloud Temple or the Upper Hamlet. They select their own head of community, they select their own treasurer, they select their own registrar, they do everything. They can decide about all these activities within the temple. But when it comes to a major decision-one that has to do with and effects the other temples-the Upper Hamlet Abbot, of course, will consult with the other abbots and abbesses.
There is only an intervention by me or by the greater Sangha of monks and nuns only when things are not going in the right direction of practice. Otherwise, each of the temples has its own autonomy, and its own independence. The schedule of the Winter Retreat is very much the same in each Hamlet, because we need to have it so in order for the three temples to join together in activities that necessitate the presence of everyone. Therefore, these decisions are made collectively. As you know, twice a week there is a Dharma talk from Thay, and everyone from every temple has to arrange it so that everyone can be present at the same time. Even the cook has the opportunity to sit in the Dharma talk, and this is possible because we work together. Here at Plum Village we do not have a special cook because everyone has the opportunity to practice mindful cooking. We always arrange our cooking in such a way that everyone has an opportunity to participate in all the activities of the Sangha.
Transfer to UBC
I would like to tell you about a night recently I had at the Hermitage. I received a fax from our lawyer, he was working on my estate plan and the tax-exemption documents for our organization in the United States. He sent me a transfer document to sign that would transfer my copyrights to the UBC, the Unified Buddhist Church. In it, he was talking about my death. He was talking in the same way that the Sutra says that death comes without warning. So, he suggested that it was better for me to sign this right away, because legally, under French law, one of my nephews or one of my nieces or some other relative could come in and claim the copyrights to my books. Instead of my copyrights being owned by the Unified Buddhist Church, which is my intention, my relatives could claim the copyrights, and that would be a pity. I would not want one of my nieces or my nephews to come in and make such a claim.
So, at 11 :00 p.m., I stayed up and signed the document and faxed it back to my attorney. It's funny that the Dharma comes to me from lawyers, that lawyers can teach us about impermanence. Although the document was not perfect, and we have made some later revisions, the document could have been used in case that very night I passed away.
A Bell of Mindfulness
As you know, I am, in principle, a lazy monk. If you do not force me to look deeply into matters, I may not do it because there are many other things I would like to do. The day after I signed my Will, I received another document from my attorney to sign. This, as you know, was a contract that he proposed between Thay and Parallax Press so that Parallax would pay royalties to UBC for my books. I signed this document upon the urging of my estate attorney.
The following day, I received a letter from CML/Parallax Press's attorney, Mr. Bunnin, making a counterproposal to my attorney's contract. Reading the letter from Mr. Bunnin and reviewing the contract that I had signed, I could not sleep. Mr. Bunnin's letter was to me a bell of mindfulness. I could not believe the tone of Mr. Bunnin' s letter and that things could turn out this way-that I had to ask an attorney to help me, that Arnie and Therese of CML had to ask an attorney to help them; that I had to negotiate with Parallax Press and CML and Arnie, my student, and that Arnie would have to sign a contract with me.
I thought, This is so stupid. How had I allowed things to go this far. What if the younger generation looked back upon my time here and thought, What kind of teacher was Thay? He signs contracts with his disciples; he has a lawyer on his side; and his disciple has a lawyer on his side.
I could not accept this. So that night, I did not sleep. I said to myself, I must practice looking deeply into this matter. In the morning I knew what I was going to do. I realized that I was not going to sign any contract with Arnie because he and I are teacher and student; we are one. From my point of view, it is fine for me, in the name of the UBC, to sign a contract with an outside publishing house, such as Riverhead Press, Broadway Books, etc., but I knew that I could not sign a contract with Arnie or with Parallax Press.
I asked Sister Chan Khong to please withdraw the proposal that my lawyer had written up and that I had actually signed. I felt shameful to have signed that document. I realized this was the wrong thing to do. My practice is the practice of inclusiveness. When the left hand gets hurt, the right hand comes and takes care of the wound. The left hand does not say, "I am helping you, you are the person that is getting help from me. You have to be kind to me." No, there is no negotiation between the two hands.
If I sign a contract with my student, with my own Press and my own Community of Mindful Living, this is not in the spirit of Buddhism. We have to look in such a way to see that Arnie is Thay and Thay is Arnie and that whatever Thay does, Arnie does, and whatever Arnie does, Thay does. That is what today we beg you to understand and to help us to work with. We should do this in such a way that we can reflect a spirit of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination, so there is only continuation. This is our tradition.
We cannot say to Thay Nguyen Hai, the abbot of Upper Hamlet, we will sign a contract with you. He is the abbot, he has the right of an abbot, and he has daily work, but I do not have to sign anything with him. The Sangha does not have to sign anything with him, because the Vinaya is there, the precepts are there, the teaching is there, and there is no need of signing any contract.
As far as Thay Nguyen Hai is concerned, he practices well as a monk, as an abbot, and he does not violate any precepts. If he does not sleep with any of his female disciples, if he does not break any of the precepts, then no one can evict him from the position of the abbot. I believe we would never allow him to be evicted by anyone if he practices well as a monk and as an abbot and all other monks are helping him to do that and protecting him. So there is no need to fear anything in terms of expulsion.
The same thing is true with Sister Jina. She is not afraid of losing her abbesship. She is abbess of the Dharma Nectar Temple in the Lower Hamlet. She is actually hoping that someone can replace her so that she can travel more. She knows the Vinaya, the Mindfulness Trainings, and the daily practice is formed and created for a nun like her. We do not feel that we have to sign any agreements with Sister Jina.
The same is true with Sister Trung Chinh here, the abbess of "Adornment with Loving Kindness" and also with Sister Annabel. You have met Sister Annabel Laity in the Green Mountain Dharma Center. She is a scholar. She knows Sanskrit and Pali, and she is a scholar on Buddhism. She has been director of practice and a teacher in Plum Village for many years. She was ordained on the holy Gridakuta Mountain at the same time as Sister Chan Khong.
Between Thay and Sister Chan Duc there is something that you cannot describe; it is a perfect trust. I do not think that Sister Chan Duc has to protect herself, has to sign any agreements or contracts with me, and I think that this is thanks to the Dharma, to the Vinaya.
We are together here as a river and not as a drop of water. As a drop of water, we cannot go far, we cannot arrive at the ocean. But, as a river, we will always arrive. So, our practice is to be a river and not a drop of water.
Here every monk, every nun, every layperson does the same and everyone contributes to the collective work to help our entire community. I cherish the presence of everyone here, even a very young novice. A novice, even if she is a novice only for three days, can already make many people happy by the way she walks, the way she sits, the way she smiles, the way she takes care of her sisters. I do not underestimate the value or contribution of even the newest person who comes to our Sangha. Our happiness comes from this, and not from any particular achievement or of such and such work.
I think that if we follow that same kind of practice and behavior, then we will be able to prevent misunderstanding and the kind of suffering that is completely useless. Then we will be able to take at least 90 percent of the burden of worrying from our shoulders.
Unification and Inclusiveness
Who is the UBC? The UBC is all of us. The UBC is not monastics alone, because the UBC is also for the Order of Interbeing and laypeople. The UBC is for the entire Fourfold Sangha. The UBC is for every one of us.
That is why I propose that every organization, every institution that we and our friends have set up, that we all come together and adopt the same kind of attitude and procedure as are used in Maple Forest, Lotus Bud Village, Maple Village, Green Mountain Dharma Center, and the three hamlets and temples of Plum Village. That we come together as one organization, but within that organization, each one of us can keep our autonomy, just as we do here in Plum Village. We can go on as we have before, but now we can join together and gain the support of everyone in the Sangha.
Suppose this circle represents UBC (Figure 1). Before we set up the UBC in America last year, we had already set up the UBC here in France in 1969, during the war in Vietnam. Then we set up Sweet Potatoes in 1975 and then Plum Village in 1982 in France. Then, we added the Dharma Cloud Temple and the Dharma Nectar Temple in 1988 and the Adornment with Loving Kindness Temple in 1995. And now, in 1998, we have added the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.
Each endeavor has its own authority and autonomy, but each is linked intricately to the UBC. Within the Unified Buddhist Church, we have a monastery for monks and a monastery for nuns. I drew these monastic institutions inside to show that they are monasteries only for monastics. I would like to see the Community of Mindful Living become one of the institutions that is part of ourselves, and that Parallax Press also becomes one of these institutions within the UBC.
It is my hope to transform The Mindfulness Bell into a magazine, and we may ask Leslie Rawls to continue to be editor. We can then add the support of all of us so that we can make this into a real magazine. We can send articles for it; we can invest a lot of energy in this new magazine because it can play a very important role in North America; it can help many people. In Europe, we have lntersein magazine which serves the German-speaking world. It is a beautiful magazine and lci & Maintenant, a French-language magazine, very professionally designed by a good artist in Belgium who is also a member of the Order of Interbeing. With the help of every temple, we can make The Mindfulness Bell into a real magazine, and we can ask Leslie to continue to be editor. But, we also could create an advisory board to help her, to get more news, more articles, more input. That is something that is very easy to do.
The role of Parallax Press, as in the past, remains very important. We want Parallax Press to continue and to grow. In my mind, although Arnie may have to take care of the new Great Island Center, we would wish that he also continue to be the director of Parallax Press. As the director of Parallax Press within UBC, he will be able to sign contracts not only with the United States and the English-speaking world, but also with Germany, France, Italy, everywhere, because now he will be signing in the name of the Unified Buddhist Church.
Together with other friends and advisors in the Sangha who will collaborate with him, he will publish books by Parallax Press, and he also can work together with these friends to determine which books should be published by mainstream publishing houses, such as Riverhead, Ballentine, Doubleday, and Dell and which should be published by Parallax. In this task, Arnie will be supported financially, spiritually, and technically by laypeople and monastics.
I would like to repeat what I said at the beginning, that here we try to combine the principle of seniorship and democracy. I would like to see this principle implemented at all levels of the Sangha. Because in the lay Sangha, there are many people who are very experienced in practice and in Sangha building, they should be given special status in decision-making. Because there are people who just come to practice, and they know very little about Sangha building and about the Dharma, they will not be given the same vote as a very senior member of the Sangha.
In the spirit of seniorship, each level of our Sangha will have its own boards of advisors. We will have democracy, but we would like to respect seniorship. If we can incorporate the spirit of democracy that would be a plus to the Sangha. I would like to see the same kind of practice realized in the circle of the lay Sangha as is practiced by the monastic Sangha. In the monastic community, every monk or nun is supposed to attend the Rainy Season Retreat which lasts three months. Here in Plum Village, we make the Winter Retreat the equivalent to the Rainy Season Retreat. Without participating for three months in this retreat, we would not be able to count the particular monk's or nun's year in assessing seniority.
In the tradition, it is written like this: five Rainy Season Retreats allow you to be a teacher; your position is equivalent to the position of a teacher; you have the right to share the Dharma after five Rainy Season Retreats. After the tenth Rainy Season Retreat, your position will be equivalent to Upadhyaya. This term refers to someone who can transmit the precepts. It was written in the Vinaya like that. But, you cannot count any year alone. A year without a three month retreat is an empty year. If you are a monk, you should be able to tell us how many Rainy Season Retreats you have done and so what your position might be. Even if you are ordained before another monk, you cannot sit on the right because we count in terms of retreats. We do not count in terms of years.
I think that the same type of practice could be applied to laypeople. You may have someone who has been ordained as an Order of Interbeing member for ten years, but during those ten years she does not recite her precepts and she does not attend any of the mindfulness retreats, and so those ten years are considered as empty. She cannot count those years in terms of seniority. That principle is already there in the tradition. You only need to apply it to your daily life. In the time of the Buddha, decision-making was only done by fully ordained monks and nuns, by the procedure called Sanghakarma.
In Plum Village, the novices and those who have been accepted into the family of monastics but are not fully ordained are consulted for every decision. We allow them to speak out and to share their insight. Then the fully ordained monastics will meet in private to make the decision. Last month, when we decided who would be nominated to receive the Dharma Lamp Transmission, we allowed the novices to vote, but after the voting, only the fully ordained monastics met in private to review and qualify the votes, because they have the ultimate right to make such decisions.
Because monastics and laypeople have to be together in order to serve the Dharma, that is why it is called the Fourfold Sangha. Although the UBC has two monasteries here, which contain only monks and nuns, we still need laypeople as friends, advisors, and practitioners. So the Fourfold Sangha is present everywhere. If we organize our entire community like this, Thay, the UBC, does not have to sign anything with Thay Nguyen Hai, and with Sister Jina and with Sister Trung Chinh, or with Arnie. We are all together as one river.