The Next Buddha is the Community, Not an Individual

Sister Lực Nghiêm answers the question: How can a mindful living community play a role in spiritual leadership, and how can it respond to the multiple crises of our time as an example for change?

The Parliament of the World’s Religions (PoWR) is a gathering to cultivate friendship and mutual understanding among the world’s spiritual traditions to achieve a more peaceful,

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Sister Lực Nghiêm answers the question: How can a mindful living community play a role in spiritual leadership, and how can it respond to the multiple crises of our time as an example for change?

The Parliament of the World’s Religions (PoWR) is a gathering to cultivate friendship and mutual understanding among the world’s spiritual traditions to achieve a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world. Its roots lie in the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, US, where the historic first convening of the Parliament created a global platform for interfaith dialog and engagement; many scholars pinpoint Swami Vivekananda’s talk there as a revelatory event that sparked the growth of Eastern religions in the West.

The connection between Thầy and Plum Village and the Parliament began in 1993 when Thầy, along with other spiritual leaders, contributed to a proposal that led to the publication of Towards A Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration, a powerful statement of unity in our increasingly fractured world. It reminds us that religious leaders today have a responsibility to their congregations to transform violence, oppression, discrimination, and war. “After two world wars and the end of the Cold War … the shaking to the foundations of communism and colonialism, humanity has entered a new phase of its history … humanity needs a vision of peoples living peacefully together.” In a virtual livestream in 2009, Thầy presented The Five Mindfulness Trainings as a viable, nonsectarian proposal for a global ethic at the PoWR in Melbourne, Australia. Now, when religion can be a more divisive than unifying force and young people increasingly identify as atheist or spiritual but not religious, the Plum Village tradition feels built for these times.

We were honored to be able to bring the teachings of Thầy and Plum Village to the PoWR again. Invited by the Elijah Interfaith Institute, Sister Lực Nghiêm of Plum Village, France, and Sister Trì Nghiêm of Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, US, joined a group of twenty religious leaders convening for PoWR in Chicago in August 2023. This group met every afternoon during the Parliament to share and listen to one another’s experiences and perspectives as religious and spiritual leaders. Our contributions to the Parliament included offering the practice of Beginning Anew with the Earth during the Climate Repentance Ceremony, led by Sister Trì Nghiêm, and another plenary session, Friendship Across Faiths Initiative, where Sister Lực Nghiêm spoke on the love we need to have in our hearts for dialogue to be possible, sharing examples and experiences of friendship from her peace pilgrimage to Ukraine in spring 2022.

We came together to explore what it means to each of us to be a “religious leader,” and in that context we were all asked to write a paper about one of our “religious geniuses,” a term proposed by the directors of the Institute to describe who is the religious or spiritual leader who most inspires us. These two papers [Note from editor: Sister Trì Nghiêm’s paper will be published soon] are our responses to that question.

One Buddha is not enough. We need many Buddhas.

Thích Nhất Hạnh’s speech addressing the 2009 PoWR in Melbourne, Australia

Why are we talking about a community instead of a religious leader?

Our teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, always told us that as Buddhist practitioners, our individual career is the career of the Sangha, which is the work of spreading the Dharma, the teaching of love and understanding, through our daily actions of body, speech, and mind. 

Thầy used to say, “People do not benefit from my talks alone; they benefit from the collective energy of the Sangha. This is why I only accept invitations to speak if I can bring my Sangha along with me.” 

Thầy alone wouldn’t have been able to reach out to millions of people without his community. Building community was at the heart of his work.

The same is true for the Buddha, who went to look for the five spiritual friends who had been practicing asceticism with him before. Right after Shakyamuni Buddha reached full enlightenment, he gave his first teaching, Turning the Wheel of Dhamma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), in the Deer Park near Varanasi to his former five companions. From there, more and more people joined and followed him, a development that continues today.

The power of peace and understanding through community living

Brotherhood, sisterhood, and siblinghood are the most important things in our practice and community life. The ability to live in harmony with others is paramount.

The greatest talent is to know how to live in harmony with others.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

Community life as a model for peacemaking

Plum Village, France, a monastic and lay residential community, has been a living community cultivating peace, harmony, and healing (collective and individual) since its inception in 1982.1 We have witnessed that when arriving on the grounds of Plum Village (or in one of our mindfulness practice centers around the world), people instantly feel something shift in their bodies and minds.

Thanks to the collective energy of mindfulness generated over the last forty-one years through simple yet very powerful practices, Plum Village visitors benefit directly. Integrated in subtle ways, this energy of peace and gentle awareness of each moment helps us to touch and recognize what is happening in our deeper layer of consciousness. 

When as a community we commit to practicing walking meditation, following our breath, slowing down, and stopping with the sound of the bell, we develop a powerful collective energy of awareness and concentration that by itself creates a safe space for everyone. In this very present moment, we build the future.

Fully aware of what is happening in the here and now, it becomes easier to act in a way that supports goodness, beauty, compassion, peace, and reconciliation. We refrain from uttering hurtful or divisive words or from acting in a way we know will continue the cycle of violence and suffering. The way we are encouraged to speak to each other using mindful and skilful speech, to act with calm and ease, to look at reality through the lens of impermanence, nonself, and interbeing, has an immediate impact on the quality of our being and of our presence. Our state of consciousness, our awareness, is the crux of the answer to the crises of our time. We need not a state of doing or reacting, but a state of being. We must know how to calm our body and mind and learn how to be a true human being, not a human doing.

Sisters Lực Nghiêm and Trì Nghiêm at the PoWR Climate Repentance Ceremony; photo courtesy of Sister Lực Nghiêm

The flavor of Zen and resilience

Our natural tendency as human beings is to always look for happiness in the future. This tendency to either run after or run away from things pulls us out of the present moment, the only moment we have to live, a moment which deserves to be acknowledged and experienced, embraced and cared for as the recipient of limitless potentiality.

Developing the capacity to dwell in the present, moment after moment, throughout the days, months, and years, even if and especially if it is unpleasant or unbearable, gives us the strength and resilience that we all need in order to not just react to the many crises in the world today but rather to respond with the power of clarity and calm. Only when our mind is calm can we see the situation clearly and know the wisest course of action. This is the power of mindfulness: it gives us clarity to take appropriate action.

Plum Village communities around the world offer retreats all year long for many thousands of people, which means that those who live in Plum Village have a lot to do.

Our challenge is to bring the flavor of Zen into the heart of what we do. We do our best to cultivate calm, clarity, and mindful presence even while organizing and holding large retreats. The quality of our being is what will make our actions efficient and meaningful: if we lose our peace while walking from one building to another, if we lose ourselves in worries or in the doing, if we “don’t have time” to follow our breath, to slow down, and to calm our strong emotions, then what we offer won’t be of the same flavor. When, thanks to the energy of mindfulness and concentration, all the residents of the community, whether lay or monastic, manage to bring the flavor of Zen into their daily actions of body, speech, and mind, then we have a strong foundation for offering diverse retreats for activists, politicians, teachers, artists, teenagers, young adults, families, business people, mental health practitioners, and members of the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities, to name but a few. 

When the monastics go on teaching tours, we never go as a single drop of water. We go as a river. We go as a group, because what we offer people is more than just our words—we offer our presence, our practice, our brotherhood and sisterhood, and our collective energy of mindfulness. When there is pure harmony, joy, and love in the group, this is our most precious gift. We call it the “living Dharma”—in comparison to the spoken Dharma and the written Dharma.

In the coming years, as spiritual, religious communities and leaders, we will be asked by the circumstances to be like solid mountains and refreshing rivers.

Being able to slow down and touch stillness within ourselves is essential if, as spiritual leaders, we want to remain a source of inspiration and be of help.

Looking at our mind, embracing the Now

We need to understand and see the roots of what causes suffering in order to stop creating more. With the collective support of a community of people who share the ethics expressed in The Five Mindfulness Trainings and The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and live a daily life based on the Buddha’s teachings on the Six Harmonies (sharing living space and daily resources, sharing ethics and values, harmonizing views and sharing insights, making decisions by consensus, and engaging in ways to resolve conflicts), we build a community where every situation is an opportunity to meet others and ourselves so that we can begin to recognize all of the minds various strategies for dealing with reality.

Over thousands of years of evolution, we humans have developed our capacity to get what we want, to get what we think we need, and to get what we think will bring us happiness. At the same time, we have usually done our best to avoid unpleasant feelings and emotions, running away from fear, despair, sadness, and anger. When we interact with the people we live with, we can see ourselves more clearly. Our patterns of reactivity and survival behaviors, for example, start to emerge, and we begin to see what had previously been hidden to us.

Only by understanding our mind can we seriously start to talk about contributing to a change in the world. 

There is no boss 

Just like other “corporations,” the monastics of Plum Village need to have many meetings to prepare retreats and to make all kinds of decisions relating to community life. Our meetings are a laboratory where we explore our own hearts and minds! Only one person shares at a time, and everyone else listens without interrupting. We invite a bell to sound to help us come back to ourselves and breathe together if strong emotions come up. We take the time to ask everyone to give input, because we know that the most powerful kind of action is based on the collective insight and wisdom of the group. The eyes of the community see far more clearly than any one individual’s eyes, no matter how good that person’s ideas are. Collective action is not action for boosting our ego, taking part in the battle of competitiveness and one-upmanship, or having more fame, power and success. In Buddhism, we consider such dynamics to be aspects of the three main roots of suffering: illusion/ignorance, hatred/violence, greed/desire.

Living every day with a group of people from different generations, backgrounds, countries, and cultures, we often encounter challenges and difficulties, but at the same time we encounter beauty and hope. No one tries to impose their views on others or pushes for a certain decision to be made, even if they are an elder in the community. There is no boss who is making the decisions for the community. It is always a decision based on the consensus of the council of fully ordained monks and nuns. The decision-making body is the community itself.

Compassionate leadership is an art2: the art of being present for each other, listening to each other, and trying to understand each other. We try to understand the other person’s hopes and joys as well as their fears and suffering. It is often only when we have enough understanding among the members of the community that a decision can be made harmoniously; often, almost everyone has to let go of their original ideas and viewpoints to let the decision be shaped by the collective consciousness. Then great action is possible, because everyone feels part of it—included, full of energy and enthusiasm.

This is why Thầy always suggested to politicians, CEOs, and business leaders that they come together within their teams or corporations to practice the art of togetherness: mindful breathing, walking meditation, eating meditation, and “just listening” to each other, “just being present” for each other. We need to bring calm, sanity, and ethics into our corporate world and political parliaments to support decisions that make sense in the face of the many complex problems of our times. If we want peace, we need to be peace.

The joy of taking refuge 

Taking refuge in the Sangha, a community of practitioners, is not just an idea: it is part of our spiritual journey of letting go. Our modern civilized societies have valorized individualism and individual greatness, which has led us to the disaster of seeing others as potential rivals or enemies. As a consequence, we find it difficult to respect others, to embrace otherness and differences. The frequency and intensity of the resulting violence, whether it is in the streets, in seemingly endless civil wars, or in the exploitation of animals, humans, and the Earth, is a symptom of how much we have lost contact with the reality that we are one, all interconnected in the wonderful web of life.

We typically hold wrong perceptions and have fixed ideas, usually based on the erroneous belief of a separate self-entity, of being a Human Being superior to and not connected with the other realms of life. The capacity to let go of our wrong perceptions and fixed ideas, offers us a supra-mondain type of joy. The joy of letting go is like being delivered from a burden on our shoulders that we needed so much strength to carry. Suddenly, letting it go, this weight has lifted. In an instant, we feel lighter and free. What a blessing!

As Thầy says, we need to heal from our illusion of separateness. We need to transform our past wrongdoings—both individual and collective—by returning to our common Mother, the Earth, to understand from within, through our bodily sensations, that we are all interconnected, and that my happiness is not separate from yours. By doing this, we slowly and gently transform our individual and collective pain and struggles into agency and action. This is the most magical manifestation of a transformative global healing on Earth.

Going beyond “You and I”

When we take refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha—we are not taking refuge in doctrines or scriptures or a guru, but in a way of life, a way of living together as one body. We stop seeing ourselves as a separate cell in the body with special needs and demands. We clearly experience that Being rather than Doing is the most important contribution we can make to benefit the community. We go beyond the idea of “same and different,” beyond the dualistic thinking of “You and I.” We free our mind from thinking, comparing, judging, or criticizing. 

This experience of togetherness supports each of us widening the elusive borders of our “unique-separate-self-ego-Me” that has brought about much of the suffering of our modern, industrialized countries: competition, insatiable desires, despair, loneliness, burn-out, and unworthiness, all of which have led to the ongoing exploitation and destruction of our relationship with the Earth and others. The joy, love, and hope that comes from feeling truly alive and from living the reality of togetherness is like a flame in our hearts that brightens our days and the days of the people we live and work with. We become the light.

Where is the solution?

It needs to start with us, the human species! The problem and the solution aren’t outside us, they both lie within. Thầy raises awareness of this truth with the mantra “The way out is in.

We often think that the causes of our anger, jealousy, fear, etc. are coming from outside, from external conditions. But looking deeply into our mind and emotions, we see it is all coming from within.

We all have the seeds of love, compassion, forgiveness, peace, courage, and wisdom stored deep in our consciousness; they are just waiting for the right conditions to manifest. Sometimes we just need to move away and step back from our routine, environment, or comfort zone to touch these seeds and learn how to practice “selective watering” in our daily life. This is exactly what we do in a mindful living community: water our good seeds so they can grow strong, and refrain from watering the unwholesome seeds in our consciousness. Our conversations, what we read, and what we watch on the news can either water seeds of hope and joy or seeds of hate, anger, violence, and despair.

When we are attentive to what is happening in our mind, body, and emotions, we can recognize the path that leads to suffering and the path that leads to happiness, and we can then practice “appropriate attention” to take care of our mental and physical health.

We have the choice and agency to say “no more” and to choose to nourish beautiful seeds and qualities of the heart and of the mind.

We need to have many more communities like Plum Village around the world, communities where we can cultivate inclusivity, love, joy, and peace. They don’t need to be “Buddhist” communities, they just need to apply kindness and wisdom to every aspect of daily life. Coming with an open mind, with curiosity towards ourselves, towards others, towards Mother Earth, and towards all creatures requires the capacity to let go of our intellectual knowledge, to let go of the notions and concepts we may have stored inside that are shaping our perception of reality.

If we want a world of beauty, of kindness, and of togetherness for the next generation, we all need to cultivate these seeds in us today. Kindness, compassion, understanding, beauty, love, care, and simplicity should be the criteria for political decisions in support of a healthy planet and all the beings on it.

Collective and individual consciousness

The community of mindful living is a soil for understanding, transformation, and healing, both on a personal level and on a larger scale. When everyone takes refuge in oneself and in the collective at the same time, our powers of discernment and action are strengthened.

When we understand the delusion of our mind and stop trying to avoid unpleasant feelings while desperately searching for happiness outside of ourselves, we lay out the foundations for resilience and peace both within us and in the world.

It isn’t always easy, but with the energy of mindfulness and concentration supported by each community member looking deeply into themselves to gain more understanding and bringing their ancestral and spiritual heritage to the group, we are building a magical communion, a reunion, a coming-together-as-one human family: one loving family.

The love generated through joys and tears, love rooted in the deep source of life, makes us touch life as a miracle—we treasure and respect it as the most precious gift we have. This reverence for life should be the ground on which national and international political decisions are made. The ability of religious and spiritual communities to be part of this decision-making depends on an individual and collective shift in consciousness so that we can come together, talk together, and listen to each other; in this way, we can build the world we want to see.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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