Freedom Is Our Practice

May 13, 2004

New Hamlet, Plum Village

photo by Paul Davis

Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is May the thirteenth in the year 2004, and we are in the Loving Kindness Temple in the New Hamlet. 

In the Buddhist teaching there is the concept of aimlessness, apranihita,

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May 13, 2004

New Hamlet, Plum Village

photo by Paul Davis

Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is May the thirteenth in the year 2004, and we are in the Loving Kindness Temple in the New Hamlet. 

In the Buddhist teaching there is the concept of aimlessness, apranihita, which I translate as “aimlessness.” Sometimes it is translated as “desirelessness,” but this can be misleading. Accord­ing to this teaching, you should not try to look for the Buddha outside yourself because you are already a buddha. You are already what you want to become. You are still searching because you still want to deny yourself, to become someone else, something else. That is why you do not feel good in your body, in your feelings. You don’t respect yourself. You don’t cherish yourself. You don’t value yourself. You think of yourself only as suffering, as ignorance. You believe that you are of no value and that is why you are searching for what you call true happiness, true being.

Imagine a wave on the surface of the ocean, searching. What is the wave searching for? In the ultimate dimension, the wave is already water so she does not have to look for water. As a wave she may be scared. She wants to look for stability, for peace, for solid ground. But the ground of the wave is water, and if she recognizes that she is water, she will lose all her fear, her lack of stability and solidity. And we know very well that the wave doesn’t have to die in order to become water. The wave is the water in the here and the now. It would be funny to imagine a wave running, searching for water; if you try to become a buddha you are doing very much the same kind of thing. 

When I was a kid, I used to distinguish between the black clouds and the white clouds. The black clouds bring rain and the white clouds do not bring rain. Now, imagine a black cloud trying to become a white cloud. The difference between a black cloud and a white cloud is the light, right? The difference between a buddha and you is also light. You don’t have to become someone else in order to become a buddha. You are a buddha right here and right now. You just need light to shine on you. If the black cloud has light she becomes a white cloud. But she does not become—she already is a white cloud.

Once you stop searching, you stop running, you are free. That is aimlessness. Not to place something in front of you and run after it: that is the meaning of apranihita. Pranihita is to put something in front of you, and apranihita is not to place anything in front of you and run after it. Once you stop that running, you have peace. It means that you can establish yourself in the here and the now, and you touch all the wonders of life that are in you and around you. The black cloud becomes the white cloud right away and there is no transformation at all. That is why we speak of non-difference between Buddha and living beings. The Buddha and living beings are not two things. They are the same. Many teachers remind us that the Buddha is us—not only in us but is us. 

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to learn how to stop. You are walking but you don’t feel the need to arrive, because every step you make helps you to arrive in the here and the now. Every step helps you to touch all the wonders of life that are available in the here and the now. If you are a beginner, you might like to walk slowly because it is easier for you to establish yourself in the here and the now. But if you are more experienced, you can walk faster, and you always find yourself in the present moment.

Perhaps you do not feel well within your body and in your feelings because you have not touched that peace, that beauty, that wonder of life that is available in yourself and around you. You feel that energy pushing you to go somewhere, to do something, so that happiness may be possible, freedom may be possible. But freedom is obtained when you stop running. You have something to do; it’s okay to do it. But why do you have to rush? You have somewhere to go; you may like to go there. But why do you have to rush?

This morning we talked about going to the vegetable garden and getting tomatoes. You need tomatoes, so it’s okay for you to go there and get the tomatoes, but why do you have to run? Can you walk to the tomatoes with all your freedom and happiness? Something to do, somewhere to go, but you don’t need to worry, to rush. There is a song in Plum Village that we sing a lot. “Hap­piness is here and now. I have dropped all my worries. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, there is no need to worry. Happiness is here and now. I have dropped my worries. Somewhere to go? Something to do? Yes. Still, we don’t need to worry.” The song is a practice song we sing a lot. But we have to do more than sing it. We have to live our song.

Who is that person that still continues to go around? Do you see him? Do you see her? Recognize him? Recognize her? She does not feel good in her skin, in her feelings. That’s why she feels the need to move. Is it not true that in the past that person has already gone around a lot but she has arrived nowhere? And now she still wants to continue to go around and around, because there is in her that energy pushing her to go around with the hope that she will get something she needs. In the past she has gone around a lot and she has gotten nothing. In the last twenty years she has gone around and she has gotten nothing. And now, in the next twenty years, if she goes around she will get nothing. And that is why the Buddha offers us the teaching of apranihita, aimlessness. 


Many of us in the school of Pure Land Buddhism believe that the place we want to go is the Pure Land of the Buddha in the direction of the West. And there are teachers who urge us to dislike the here and now in order to invest ourselves 100% into the Pure Land. They urge us to hate this place—the here and the now—so that we can invest 100% of ourselves into the Pure Land of the future. Also, in other traditions, it is said that the Kingdom of Heaven is where you should go. You have to invest to get to the Kingdom. 

Meanwhile, the Buddha said it is possible to live happily in the here and the now. And if you read the scriptures with attention, with mindfulness, you can see that teaching a lot. It’s like in the Sutra Given to the White Clad People, which means the laypeople. The Buddha used the expression, “living happily in the here and now,” five times. That day Anathapindika brought hundreds of business­men to the Jeta Grove. And after having talked to the venerable Shariputra, they went to the Buddha, and the Buddha gave them a talk called Upasada Sutra, translated as the Sutra Given to the White Clad People. In that sutra, the Buddha talked about living happily in the present moment. 

I’m afraid that if we urge people to hate this place and to invest 100% of themselves into the Pure Land of the future, we go against the teaching of the Buddha, because the teaching of the Buddha is apranihita. Master Lin Chi said the same thing. He said, “You say that you want to get away from the three worlds. You stupid people; if you get out of the three worlds, where will you go?” 

A few decades ago, when the astronauts of Apollo went into outer space and looked back at the planet Earth, they saw a very beautiful planet. They took a picture and sent it back to us, and it was the first time we had seen our planet from a distance. In our solar system, we have not found a place like planet Earth. Everywhere else, the environment is hostile to human life. Only on planet Earth is life possible. Earth is the bastion of life. It is really a paradise. 

Where else do you want to go? You want to leave Earth behind to go where? The Kingdom of God? The Pure Land of the Buddha? If you have a chance to go up there on the moon for a week, when you get back to Earth you’ll find that Earth is the best place, the only place you want to be. Just looking at the grass and listening to the creek, you can be very happy. All these wonders of life are available in the here and the now and yet you have no capacity to enjoy them. So you keep looking for something else. 

Nowadays there are teachers who advocate for the practice of dwelling in the Pure Land, in the here and now. The Pure Land right here. The Pure Land right now. And that is also our teach­ing, our practice. The Pure Land here, right here. If we are able to establish ourselves in the here and the now, we can touch all the wonders of life that are available. You can touch with your eyes. You can touch with your ears, your nose, your tongue, your body, and your mind. You are looking for happiness. Happiness is in the here and the now. But you are not capable of touching it, and that is why you still go around and search.


What are you searching for? You are searching for love. You are searching for freedom. You are looking for understanding. And you think that these three things will bring you happiness. You are not searching for objects of your desire or your craving, namely fame, wealth, power, sex, and so on. Because looking around, you see that there are plenty of people who have a lot of fame, a lot of wealth, a lot of power, and a lot of sex, but they suffer so much. And you are sure that you are not looking for them. You want to look for something else, like love, freedom, and understanding.

But where do you look for love? Do you expect someone to love you, to bring you love? Are you sure that person has the capacity of loving? Are you sure that even if he or she has the capacity of loving, that you can receive that love? It’s like the sunshine: the sunshine is love, and the air you breathe is also love. Love might be there, always available, but are you capable of getting in touch with it? You expect someone to love you and to give you love, but are you capable of receiving love? I don’t think that you can receive love unless you know how to love. You might complain that no one loves you, but ask yourself whether you love someone. Do you truly love him or her? Or do you just pursue him as an object of your desire, of your fame, of your wealth, of your power, of your craving?

You complain that no one loves you and yet you are not ca­pable of loving yourself, of loving someone else. Are you capable of taking care of yourself, of your body, of your feelings? Because that is true love. If you don’t know how to take care of yourself, to love yourself, how can you expect to take care of someone else and love him or her? And even if someone has a lot of compassion and love and understanding, you may not be able to receive that love, to accept that love. You don’t have the capacity of recognizing the love in this person because you don’t know what love is, you don’t have love within yourself.  You do not know what true love is, so you mix up things, you think that the object of your craving is love.

You complain that no one understands you. “In the whole world no one understands me.” But have you asked the question, “Do I understand someone? Do I understand myself?” Of course you don’t understand yourself because if you do understand your­self, you are already a buddha. Understanding self is the founda­tion for understanding others. You don’t know what is going on in your body. You don’t know what is going on in your feelings, perceptions, and mental formations. You don’t know how to handle this stuff. You have allowed it to be a mess. You have not under­stood yourself, and failing to understand yourself, how can you understand someone else? Because to love means to understand. To love yourself, you have to understand yourself. To love him or her, you have to understand him or her.

And you feel that you don’t have freedom, but freedom from what? Freedom to do what you want to do? You aren’t allowed to do this and do that. You have to suppress your desire. You are not free to express your desire and to go in the direction of your desire. You want freedom. But freedom is first of all freedom from your anger, from your sorrow, from your confusion, from your attachment. Because all these things bring ill being, all these things bring suffering. 

Freedom is our practice, because every minute the practice can help bring freedom to us—freedom from forgetfulness. We forget that life is a wonder. To be alive, to be present on this planet—full of life, full of wonders—is happiness. Knowing that the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha is available in the here and now. Sometimes our intellect recognizes that the wonders of life, the kingdom, is here and now and yet we cannot get in touch with them because of our anger, our depression, our uncertainty, our despair. And that is what freedom is: first of all, freedom from our afflictions. We practice right mindfulness in order to come home to the here and the now, so that we can touch the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, the wonders of life. Andre Gide said that God is happiness and God is available twenty-four hours a day. And if God is available twenty-four hours a day, the Kingdom of God also is available twenty-four hours a day. The practice is to get in touch. And the practice of mindfulness is a very concrete way to go home to the here and the now in order to get in touch. 

photo by Paul Davis

If the afflictions in you are a little too strong and mindful­ness is not strong enough to help you to be firm in the here and the now, you need a Sangha—you need a practice center where you can be supported by other members of the Sangha to do that. Together, we can make an effort to go home to the here and the now to realize it is wonderful to be present. Each moment of our daily life can be a wonder. Each morning we are given one day, twenty-four hours to live. Waking up in the morning, we should be able to receive that gift with all our heart. Waking up this morn­ing, I smile. I know that twenty-four brand new hours are given to me as a gift. And I vow to live each minute deeply, touching the wonders of life and learning how to look at people with the eyes of compassion. One day is a big gift, a new opportunity. We are given one day this morning, and maybe if we are lucky, tomorrow we will be given another day. We have to learn how to enjoy each day deeply, and that is our practice. Because if you are not well in your body, there is no way you can help another person to be well in his or her body. 

We are together in a Sangha, in a community, to remind each other. When you see your brother, the sight of your brother should remind you that you are fortunate to be alive, to live in a Sangha, to be practicing together in order to touch the wonders of life in the here and the now. We should not waste our life. We have wasted a lot of our life—days after days. We practiced running. We were not able to touch life deeply—to touch the wonders of life deeply for our transformation, our nourishment, our healing, our happiness. And when we practice like that, we bring love—we water the seed of love within ourselves. We know how to take care of ourselves. We know how to smile, how to have compassion for ourselves, and how to have compassion for the other person. There are seeds of happiness to water every day, and there are seeds of suffering, affliction, to be transformed every day. And it is wonderful to be together, doing the same thing together.


When you are a prisoner and you are locked behind bars, you wait for the day when you will be liberated. And you believe that life is possible, happiness is possible only when you are free, only on the day they let you out of prison; so from now until that day, there is no life, no chance for you to be happy. If you sit there and wait for that day, you sacrifice your life in prison. And the worst part is that you allow anger and resentment and despair to settle in. It is not good for your health. 

When I went to the correctional institute in the state of Vir­ginia, I told the prisoners that while you are in prison, you can be free, you can practice freedom. This is what I said: “Before I entered this prison, I saw some roses blooming. And when I got into the prison compound, I also saw some roses blooming. And the roses inside are as beautiful as the roses outside. The air inside is also like the air outside. So don’t allow the idea of being in prison to be an obstacle. You can practice mindful breathing and enjoy the fresh air in here. And you can practice mindful walking in order to enjoy the roses here because they are as beautiful as outside.” I told the inmates of the prison these kinds of things. “You don’t have to wait. Life is available in the here and the now. Because there are those out there, although they are out there, they are in prison. They are in the prison of their anger, of their despair, of their hate. And they suffer more. And that is why you can be free here. Don’t wait.”

If we believe that happiness cannot be in the present mo­ment—in the here and the now—and if we continue to just run around, we are a kind of prisoner. We live our life as prisoners. We are locked into the idea that happiness cannot be possible here and now, that happiness may only be possible in the future. That is why you sacrifice the present and you go in circles. This is a poem I wrote that can be found in the book, Please Call Me by My True Names:

Hello the one who is going in circles

What are you doing that for?

I could not be without going

That is why I have to go.

And not knowing where to go

I go in circles.

It is possible for us to go and find ourselves and find our beloved one. We and our beloved one are available in the here and the now. Ask the question: Do you love someone, do you love yourself? The teaching has been given for you to take care of yourself, body and mind—to love yourself so that you are capable of loving someone else. And that someone else is very close to you. If you do not have the capacity to love, you will not have the capacity to receive love. You can’t receive love from the rose, from the fresh air, from the trees, from the rivers, from your teacher, from your brother, from your sister. You feel cut off. You feel completely alone. You think that love doesn’t exist. Love does exist. It exists in you in the form of a seed. If you know how to water that seed, it will manifest in you. To take care of oneself is to take care of our ancestors, of our children, of our community. When you smile, you smile not only for yourself but for your ancestors, for the world. It is very important to smile. It is very important to take a step in peace, in stability. And we are given the teaching on how to do that.

Freedom is freedom from fear, from anger, from forgetful­ness. And our practice is the practice of freedom. Our practice is the practice of awakening. So that we realize the fact that life is a wonder, that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, that it is possible to touch the love deep in us, to take good care of us in order to take care of the other person or persons.

That tree in the front yard, that flower in the back yard, they are practicing love. Because by being beautiful they offer love, by being fresh they offer love. And to be fresh, to be loving is pos­sible with the practice. We can regenerate the energy of freshness and love, and we can help touch the seed of freshness and love in the other person. And together we can be a beautiful, happy com­munity. We can offer freshness and love for the people who come to us. Each day will be a chance for the practice.

Twenty-four brand new hours given to us every morning is a very precious gift. The day when you lie down and die, you cannot bargain in order to have another day. No matter how rich you are, you cannot bargain to have another day, a single day. Now today is available and, if you are lucky, tomorrow will be available. So please be aware that life is something so precious, and if we know how to treasure life, we make love and understanding possible for us and for many others, because suffering is there, it can be overwhelming. There are many who suffer a lot but who do not know how to handle their suffering. We have been given methods of practice in order to handle our suffering and to water the seed of happiness in us. We are in an environment that is very rare, very precious. Our planet Earth is really a Buddha Land, is really a Kingdom, is really a Pure Land. And we should live our days in such a way that tomorrow, when we are on the point of leaving this body, we will not regret. We can say, I am lucky because I had the opportunity to receive the teaching and I have put the teaching into practice, for me and for the generations to come, because I know I will continue through future generations.

Transcribed by Bruce Nichols. Edited by Barbara Casey.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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