Oversea

Thich Nhat Hanh: Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

Update: 03/08/2016
Andrea Miller’s exclusive interview with Thich Nhat Hanh.
 

Thich Nhat Hanh: Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

 

After Thich Nhat\r\nHanh’s 2011 Vancouver retreat wrapped up, two nuns ushered me into the\r\nkitchen/living room portion of a student residence at the University of British\r\nColumbia. Inside—except for the pot of orchids on the table—it was all earthy\r\nbrown: Thich Nhat Hanh, in his brown robes, sipped from a clear cup of\r\ngoldenbrown tea, while other brown-robed monastics gathered on the brown sofa\r\nand floor. Sister Chan Khong introduced me to Thay, then, smiling, said what a\r\nsurprise I’d been for them. When I’d requested this interview, via email, they\r\nhadn’t realized that “Andrea Miller” was a woman’s name, so they’d assumed I\r\nwas a man, an older one at that. In the end, I was tickled to be something of a\r\nsurprise. After all, at so many points during the interview, I was the\r\nsurprised party. On life after death, on the pleasures of sitting, on being,\r\nnot doing—Thich Nhat Hanh gave answers I wasn’t expecting. Always fresh, always\r\nwise, here is what he had to say.

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It is very painful\r\nwhen someone we love has serious difficulties, such as mental illness,\r\npost-traumatic stress disorder, or addiction. Sometimes it feels like their\r\nproblems are so big that we can’t really help them and so we may want to\r\nretreat from them and their problems. At other times, we try to help, and then\r\nget consumed by the other person’s struggles. What can we do to help in these\r\ndifficult situations without getting overwhelmed?

\r\n\r\n

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When you feel\r\noverwhelmed, you’re trying too hard. That kind of energy does not help the\r\nother person and it does not help you. You should not be too eager to help\r\nright away. There are two things: to be and to do. Don’t think too much about\r\nto do—to be is first. To be peace. To be joy. To be happiness. And then to do\r\njoy, to do happiness—on the basis of being.

\r\n\r\n

So first you have to\r\nfocus on the practice of being. Being fresh. Being peaceful. Being attentive.\r\nBeing generous. Being compassionate. This is the basic practice. It’s like if\r\nthe other person is sitting at the foot of a tree. The tree does not do\r\nanything, but the tree is fresh and alive. When you are like that tree, sending\r\nout waves of freshness, you help to calm down the suffering in the other\r\nperson.

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Your presence should\r\nbe pleasant, it should be calm, and you should be there for him or her. That is\r\na lot already. When children like to come and sit close to you, it’s not\r\nbecause you have a lot of cookies to give, but because sitting close to you is\r\nnice, it’s refreshing. So sit next to the person who is suffering and try your\r\nbest to be your best—pleasant, attentive, fresh.

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If I’m feeling a very\r\ndifficult emotion, maybe anger, or deep sadness, and I try to focus on my\r\nbreath, isn’t that a way of avoiding my emotions?

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Usually people lose\r\nthemselves in a strong emotion and become overwhelmed. That is not the way to\r\nhandle emotion, because when that happens, you are a victim of emotion. In\r\norder not to become a victim, breathe and retain your calm, and you will\r\nexperience the insight that an emotion is only an emotion, nothing more. This\r\ninsight is very important, because then you are no longer afraid. You are calm,\r\nyou are not trying to run away, and you can deal better with emotion. Your\r\nbreath is you, and you need alliance with your breath to be more of yourself,\r\nto be stronger. Then you can handle your emotion better. You do not try to\r\nforget your emotion; instead you try to be more of yourself, so that you are\r\nsolid enough to deal with it.

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It was heartwarming to\r\nsee so many children at the retreat.

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I feel comfortable\r\nwith children. I have never been cut off from the younger generation. Whether\r\nthey are monastic or lay, communication is always “on” with the younger\r\ngeneration. That is one of the elements of my happiness.

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Sometimes young\r\nmothers bring their children into the meditation hall because they don’t want to\r\nmiss the dharma talk. That’s very nourishing for everyone. The babies don’t\r\nknow what’s happening, but they feel the peaceful atmosphere. That energy of\r\npeace is rare in society—it’s very rare to have fifteen hundred people sitting\r\nand producing mindfulness and peace. If you offer children a glimpse of peace\r\nand love, even if they are very small and they don’t know language yet, that\r\ndoes not mean that they don’t feel it. Try to imagine a young mother feeding\r\nher baby during the retreat. She is listening to the dharma, she’s consuming\r\nthe dharma, and the baby is consuming both the milk and the dharma at the same\r\ntime. It’s very beautiful.

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Later on, when the\r\nchildren encounter the cruelty in the world, they will remember that there was\r\na time when they had the opportunity to encounter the energy of peace. When a\r\nsangha, a Buddhist community, comes together and practices, it can always\r\nproduce that kind of peaceful energy, and young people can experience it and\r\nstart planting the seeds for the future. Engaged Buddhism tries to bring this\r\npeaceful energy into many different situations. In schools, in hospitals, in\r\ntown halls, in congress, the practice of mindful breathing is possible.

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Is living in the\r\npresent moment at odds with enjoying the media? Can we be mindful and still\r\nenjoy the internet and TV and movies and books?

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There are good books\r\nand movies that you can enjoy. That’s okay—it’s good to enjoy them. But\r\nsometimes the quality of the film or book is not good at all, yet you don’t\r\nturn it off because if you do, you will have to go back and experience the\r\nsuffering inside you. That is the practice of many people in our society. Many\r\npeople cannot be with themselves. They have pain, sorrow, or worries inside,\r\nand they read or watch or listen to cover this up, to run away from themselves.

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Consuming media like\r\nthat is just running away and it doesn’t have a lasting effect. You can forget\r\nyour suffering for some time, but eventually you have to go back to yourself.\r\nThe Buddha recommended that we should not try to run away from ourselves, but\r\nlearn to take good care of ourselves and transform our suffering.

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What would you say to\r\nsomeone who finds sitting meditation painful and difficult and they struggle to\r\ndo it?

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Don’t do it anymore.

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Really?

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Yes, yes. If you don’t\r\nfind it pleasant to sit, don’t sit. You have to learn the correct spirit of\r\nsitting. If you make a lot of effort when you sit, you become tense and that\r\ncreates pain all over your body. Sitting should be pleasant. When you turn on\r\nthe television in your living room, you can sit for hours without suffering.\r\nYet when you sit for meditation, you suffer. Why? Because you struggle. You\r\nwant to succeed in your meditation, and so you fight. When you are watching\r\ntelevision you don’t fight. You have to learn how to sit without fighting. If\r\nyou know how to sit like that, sitting is very pleasant.

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When Nelson Mandela\r\nvisited France once, a journalist asked him what he liked to do the most. He\r\nsaid that because he was so busy, what he liked to do the most was just to sit\r\nand do nothing. Because to sit and to do nothing is a pleasure—you restore\r\nyourself. That’s why the Buddha described it as like sitting on a lotus flower.\r\nWhen you’re sitting, you feel light, you feel fresh, you feel free. And if you\r\ndon’t feel that when you sit, then sitting has become a kind of hard labor.

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Sometimes if you don’t\r\nhave enough sleep or you have a cold or something, maybe sitting is not as\r\npleasant as you’d wish. But if you are feeling normal, experiencing the\r\npleasure of sitting is always possible. The problem isn’t to sit or not to sit,\r\nbut how to sit. How to sit so that you can make the most of it — otherwise\r\nyou’re wasting your time.

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You put a lot more\r\nemphasis on enjoyment—on enjoying breathing, sitting, walking, enjoying life\r\naltogether—than many other Buddhist teachers do.

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In the teachings of\r\nthe Buddha, ease and joy are elements of enlightenment. In life, there’s a lot\r\nof suffering. Why do you have to suffer more practicing Buddhism? You practice\r\nBuddhism in order to suffer less, right? The Buddha is a happy person. When the\r\nBuddha sits, he sits happily, and when he walks, he walks happily. Why do I\r\nwant to do it differently from the Buddha? Maybe people are afraid that others\r\nmight say, “You are not very serious in your practice. You smile, you laugh,\r\nyou are having a good time. To practice seriously you have to be very grim,\r\nvery serious.” Maybe the people who want to get more donations put it like\r\nthat—to leave the impression they practice more seriously than other people.\r\nTake the practice of sitting all night. You aren’t allowed to rest and you\r\nthink that is intensive practice, but you suffer all night and drink coffee in\r\norder to stay awake. That’s nonsense. It’s the quality of the sitting that can\r\nhelp you transform, not sitting a lot and suffering while you do. Sitting and\r\nwalking meditation are for enjoying, and also for looking deeply and developing\r\ninsight. That insight can liberate us from fear, anger, and despair.

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I really enjoyed the\r\noutdoor walking meditation we did on this retreat.

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Usually in the\r\nBuddhist tradition, you sit, and then you stand up and do slow walking in the\r\nmeditation hall, and then you sit again. We don’t do that here. Instead, we do\r\noutdoor walking. That practice is helpful because you can apply it in your\r\ndaily life. You walk normally—not too slowly—so you don’t look like you’re\r\npracticing and people see you as normal. And then when you go home, when you’re\r\ngoing from the parking lot to your office, you can enjoy walking.

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The basic practice is\r\nhow to enjoy—how to enjoy walking and sitting and eating and showering. It’s\r\npossible to enjoy every one, but our society is organized in such a way that we\r\ndon’t have time to enjoy. We have to do everything too quickly.

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What do you think\r\nmakes someone a Buddhist?

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A person may not be\r\ncalled a Buddhist, but he can be more Buddhist than a person who is. Buddhism\r\nis made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you have these things,\r\nyou are a Buddhist. If you don’t, you aren’t a Buddhist. When you look at a person\r\nand you see that she is mindful, she is compassionate, she is understanding,\r\nand she has insight, then you know that she is a Buddhist. But even if she’s a\r\nnun and she does not have these energies and qualities, she has only the\r\nappearance of a Buddhist, not the content of a Buddhist.

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Can a ceremony make\r\nsomeone a Buddhist?

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No, it’s not by\r\nceremony that you become a Buddhist. It is by committing to practice. Buddhists\r\nget caught in a lot of rituals and ceremonies, but the Buddha does not like\r\nthat. In the sutras, specifically in the teaching given by the Buddha right\r\nafter his enlightenment, he said that we should be free from rituals. You do\r\nnot get enlightenment or liberation just because you perform rituals, but\r\npeople have made Buddhism heavily ritualistic. We are not nice to the Buddha.

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Do you have to believe\r\nin reincarnation to be a Buddhist?

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Reincarnation means\r\nthere is a soul that goes out of your body and enters another body. That is a\r\nvery popular, very wrong notion of continuation in Buddhism. If you think that\r\nthere is a soul, a self, that inhabits a body, and that goes out when the body\r\ndisintegrates and takes another form, that is not Buddhism.

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When you look into a\r\nperson, you see five skandhas, or elements: form, feelings, perceptions, mental\r\nformations, and consciousness. There is no soul, no self, outside of these\r\nfive, so when the five elements go to dissolution, the karma, the actions, that\r\nyou have performed in your lifetime is your continuation. What you have done\r\nand thought is still there as energy. You don’t need a soul, or a self, in\r\norder to continue.

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It’s like a cloud.\r\nEven when the cloud is not there, it continues always as snow or rain. The\r\ncloud does not need to have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning\r\nand no end. You don’t need to wait until the total dissolution of this body to\r\ncontinue—you continue in every moment. Suppose I transmit my energy to hundreds\r\nof people; then they continue me. If you look at them and you see me, well, you\r\nhave seen me. If you think that I am only this [points to himself], then you\r\nhave not seen me. But when you see me in my speech and my actions, you see that\r\nthey continue me. When you look at my disciples, my students, my books, and my\r\nfriends, you see my continuation. I will never die. There is a dissolution of\r\nthis body, but that does not mean my death. I continue, always.

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That is true of all of\r\nus. You are more than just this body because the five skandhas are always\r\nproducing energy. That is called karma or action. But there is no actor—you\r\ndon’t need an actor. Action is good enough. This can be understood in terms of\r\nquantum physics. Mass and energy, and force and matter—they are not two\r\nseparate things. They are the same.

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What can we do about\r\nthe high level of materialism in our culture?

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You can set up an environment where people live simply and\r\nhappily, and invite others to come and observe. That is the only thing that\r\nwill convince them to abandon their materialistic idea of happiness. They think\r\nthat only when you have a lot to consume can you be happy, but many are very\r\nrich without being happy at all. And there are those who consume much less, but\r\nwho are happier.

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We need to demonstrate that living simply with a practice of\r\nthe dharma can be very fulfilling, because until people see it and experience\r\nit, they cannot be convinced. In Plum Village, we laugh all day long, yet not\r\none of us has a private bank account. Not one of us has a private car or a\r\nprivate telephone. We only eat vegetarian food. But we don’t suffer because we\r\ndon’t eat eggs or meat. In fact, we are happier because we know that we are not\r\neating living beings and we are protecting the planet. That brings a lot of\r\njoy. We are fortunate to be able to live like that, to eat like that.

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There is a belief that unless you have a lot of money,\r\nunless you hold a high position in society, you cannot be truly happy. It is\r\nhard to let go of that belief until you see the truth that happiness is\r\npossible in another way. Seeing that will make the future possible for our\r\nchildren.

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So I think in Buddhist circles we have to reorganize so that\r\nwe can show people a way of living happily based on mutual understanding, not\r\nmaterialism. Just a dharma talk isn’t enough, because a dharma talk is just a\r\ntalk. Only when people see such an unmaterialistic community, when they see\r\nsuch a way of life, will they be convinced.

By LION'S ROAR

Andrea Miller

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