From time to time, Tricycle features articles from the Inquiring Mind archive. Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015, has a growing number of articles from its back issues available at www.inquiringmind.com (help Inquiring Mind complete its archive by donating here). The following interview with Thich Nhat Hanh from the Summer 1986 issue of Inquiring Mind was conducted in Berkeley, California, in November 1985, a few days after a retreat at Green Gulch Farm. Participants in the interview included Jane and Jamie Baraz, Barbara Gates, Jack Kornfield, Wes Nisker, and Henrietta Rogell. Interspersed with the interview are a few gathas, along with excerpts from Nhat Hanh’s writings and talks.
Inquiring Mind: In your life in Vietnam, in your work there during the war, you saw tremendous suffering. You must have witnessed a great deal of death and difficulty in the war years and afterwards. What makes you choose to teach about joy, rather than teaching that life is dukkha or suffering?
Thich Nhat Hanh: Maybe it’s because suffering is not enough. I think Theravada Buddhism stresses too much on that aspect, suffering, and Mahayana stresses a little bit more on the other aspect, the wonderful nature of life.
IM: In the Theravada teachings, in the suttas, there’s a lot of emphasis on ending the realms of rebirth, on getting out of life. In the Mahayana teachings you speak more, you say, of finding the beauty in life. How do those fit together? You have studied both.
TNH: I think that people tend to go to extremes. The Buddha spoke about dukkha, and he also spoke about sukha; we don’t want to make everything into suffering. When we talk about “getting out of life,” when we use the word “extinction,” we are always referring to the extinction of something. So extinction means the extinction of ignorance, suffering, attachment, and it means, at the same time, the blooming of the opposite things.
For example, when I draw a circle, you might call it a zero, nothing. But someone looking at the circle can think of the totality of things. You see, it depends on our way of looking. When I say that a person is empty or something is empty, you think ”empty of what? It must be empty of something.” So, in the case of Buddhism, I think it is empty of separate identity, but it’s not empty of other things.
Like the table over there is empty of separate self. This means that without the non-table elements, the table cannot be. The table is empty of self but it’s full of everything: the forest, the clouds, the sunshine, the water. The table is full of everything but self as a separate entity.
So, we are trapped into words, and people tend to go to extremes in their talking. When we talk about “extinction” we mean, at the same time, the coming into existence of the opposite.
IM: So, maybe that’s why you emphasize joy so much. Because you saw so much suffering and you want to balance . . .
TNH: I don’t think that is the reason. The reason is that we should be able to smile at our own suffering, that we should not drown in our own suffering. That is the practice of Buddhism. You know that in both the Theravada and Mahayana the joy is something that you begin with while practicing. You leave the noise and complications of daily life behind to go to the forest, and you experience joy, joy of being alone, joy of going back to yourself.
You do not escape life, but rather go to yourself in order to fully realize that you are in life, that you are one with everything. So joy must be the keynote of Buddhism, both in Theravada and Mahayana. I cannot see it otherwise.
IM: But in order to fully appreciate the wonder or the joy in life, do you have to deeply experience the truth of life’s suffering?
TNH: Yes, but everyone is doing that anyway. You don’t have to do extra. You only should be aware that you are experiencing suffering, and also open yourself to joy.
A New Western Dharma
IM: You talk about creating a new dharma in the West, new forms appropriate for the Western mind. Can you give any specifics?
TNH: Buddhism is a tree that grows all the time, you know, and from time to time there is one person who is able to renew Buddhism for a certain time or a certain society. That’s why we have a variety of dharma doors that can serve different cultures. Suitability is one of the characteristics of Buddhist teachings. Buddhism for the West should be fit to serve the West and the Buddhists in the West have to work for it. They can profit from the experiences of Buddhists everywhere, but they should work for their own Buddhism in order for their own people to accept Buddhism, to practice Buddhism.
IM: How would you compare Western minds to Eastern minds? Do you think our minds are more complicated here in the West? Are we a faster, more aggressive people, more concerned about being individuals?
TNH: In the East there are people like that also. I cannot generalize on that. But I do think that the West tends to be more dualistic in seeing and thinking. It seems to me that the Westerner is more afraid of losing his or her identity, and, therefore, has some difficulty in being with the other, of being in the skin and flesh of the other person.
Just look at the American tourists who go out of America, but never try to stay and live in a different way. You see Hilton Hotels everywhere, and many Americans who have been out of America are never out of America in their way of life, in their way of seeing. I knew an American who went to Chinese restaurants, but only ordered omelets.
According to Buddhism, to understand something is to be one with it, thus to lose your identity. And many Westerners are afraid of losing their own identity.
IM: In America, part of our identity is bound up with material things and it seems we often confuse comfort with the good life.
TNH: It depends on your way of looking at things. Something might appear to be the good life to some people, but not to others. Something might look comfortable to some and not comfortable to others. When we drink liquor or eat meat we may find them very good, very comfortable. But to make meat and liquor you have to use a lot of grains while people are dying of starvation around the world. With the awareness that liquor and meat mean the lack of cereal to many hungry people, you cannot enjoy them any longer. So you might find it more comfortable to refrain from drinking liquor and eating meat.
Sitting is another example. Some people think that to sit quietly for a half an hour, not saying anything, not making any movement, is very boring and uncomfortable. But other people enjoy it because they have another way of looking. The problem of comfort should be looked upon like that.
IM: In America many people have started learning about Buddhism through meditation. They go to a Zen sesshin or train in Vipassana or Satipatthana, but they return to a culture which contradicts Buddhist principles. How can we teach people to translate from sitting—where they mindfully watch the breath, thoughts and feelings— to living with compassion and seeing the interconnectedness of all of life?
TNH: I think that depends on our idea of practice, because to practice meditation is to be aware of what is going on, not only when you sit, but when you walk and work and eat.
My plate is now filled.
I see clearly the presence
Of the entire universe
And its contribution to my existence.
When you are in your daily life you are caught up in so many things that you cannot see clearly. You go to the meditation center to see the reality of the world more clearly. In the meditation hall you learn to be really aware, and if you learn it well, then you will be aware outside of the meditation hall.
If your practice of meditation in the meditation hall does not have an effect on life outside of the meditation hall, I think there is something wrong with your practice. You have to practice in the meditation hall in a way that awakens you outside, therefore bringing Buddhism into daily life.
Before starting the car, I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.
The Path of Compassion
IM: Are social concerns, such as helping to relieve the suffering of famine and war, part of the Buddhist tradition, or are they something new introduced by spiritual activists, such as yourself and [Sri Lanken social activist Dr. A.T.] Ariyaratne?
TNH: I don’t think they’re something new; the Buddha said that suffering is; that means that he knew about suffering in the life of the individual, in the life of society, and so on. If you don’t accept the First Noble Truth, then you cannot be a Buddhist. And if you are really aware of suffering, then you cannot resist doing something to relieve that suffering. It’s so simple: Seeing the suffering leads to compassion. Compassion, in Buddhism, is also basic. If you have compassion, you are not afraid to act; awareness and compassion will certainly lead to action.
Even as they
strike you down
with a mountain of hate and violence,
even as they step on your life and crush it
like a worm,
even as they dismember, disembowel you,
man is not our enemy.
— from The Cry of Vietnam
IM: What was your action when you were in the midst of the war in Vietnam? You were moved to act. How did you protest?
TNH: We protested first against the lack of awareness, because many people did not want to look at the reality of suffering. So we brought awareness of the suffering to their doors, into their homes. That is the work of information, bringing information about suffering.
Secondly, we trained young people, monks, nuns, and lay people to help the victims of the war—the orphans, the widows—to set up resettlement camps for the refugees, to build new villages, to rebuild villages that had been destroyed. We were quite active during the war, and many of our workers died while in service—because of the bombs, because of the bullets, and also because we refused to take sides. Each side thought that we were allied with the other.
We suffered a lot, but we continued. Recently, we even went to the ocean on missions to rescue the boat people. We don’t just talk about suffering; we go to the people who suffer.
IM: Do you believe in collective karma, that there was some kind of karma that Vietnam had to suffer as a society?
TNH: Did the Vietnamese War only happen to the Vietnamese? Isn’t it still here in this room with us? The karma of Vietnam is the karma of the world. Vietnam is everywhere now. Vietnam is in America, in Central America, in Africa, in Cambodia, everywhere, and we all suffer the same things more or less. The conflict of Vietnam was the conflict of the world: two giant blocks and Vietnam in the middle. Everyone wanted to take up guns in order to kill our brothers, and they thought they had to do it in order to save us from the “other side.” Buddhist monks burned themselves alive in order to appeal to the outside world to intervene, to stop that kind of confrontation. But not many listened because they wanted to take sides either with the Communists or the anti-Communists.
If we look, we see that Vietnam is everywhere now, and everybody is taking sides. Few are trying to do the work of mediation, reconciliation.
IM: How does one do the work of reconciliation?
TNH: You need to stay independent in order to understand the suffering of both sides. The American side is scared. The Russian side is scared. We are all scared of the situation. To do the work of reconciliation you need to inform each side of the suffering of the other.
We need you very much if you can do this. But you must know that doing this work is very dangerous because, as with our experience in Vietnam, each side may think of you as belonging to the other.
IM: It takes a very, very strong commitment to be effective in transmitting the message of reconciliation.
TNH: Yes. You have to use your whole life in order to hope that the message will come through.
IM: Today we’re faced with ecological disasters, the threat of nuclear war, and people in power who refuse to pay attention to the other side. A rare quality of mind is needed to do the work of reconciliation at this time. What are skillful ways that the peacemakers can create change without polarizing people?
TNH: Even in the Peace Movement people take sides. Meditation is very important in the work of reconciliation. To meditate is to understand, to see deeply. Through meditation we see our interconnectedness. We understand that identification with the delusion of a separate self means an incapacity to understand other people. To see beyond duality, to understand other people and situations is a beginning.
IM: Suppose I have developed awareness through meditation. How do I translate that awareness into effective action that wakes up others, that wakes up especially the people in power?
TNH: Meditation should lead to a new relationship with the people in power. The fruit of meditation is understanding, and understanding is acceptance and love. Through meditation we can understand the people we used to consider our enemies. We have called the people in power our enemies; we have blamed them for not giving us peace. This is because we don’t really understand them, and we don’t understand the situation, which prevents them from doing what we expect.
If you do not understand a government, it is very hard to make the kind of suggestions that can be accepted by the government. Sometimes you have the impression that if you had the power in your hands you could make peace right away. But that is not the case. I think when you have the power in your hands you will do exactly the same thing as the people you protest against now.
So try to understand first and talk to them in the kind of language that will help them to understand you. And try to see whether in the present situation they can do the things you suggest. And if they cannot, consider how we together can make it possible, because all of us dictate the policy of our governments. The way we live our daily lives, the way we consume, is the root of everything. If we do not live the life of reconciliation, then it will not be possible for our government to bring reconciliation in the world.
When I say “reconciliation” I mean peace. I just told you about drinking some liquor, enjoying the liquor. I don’t think we can reconcile that with 40,000 hungry children who die every day if you drink that glass of liquor. If you try to reduce the eating of meat, say 50 percent, I think we can be more able to reconcile ourselves, our life with the life of the world. Then if each of us lives a life of reconciliation, we have the weight of our words in order to push for a change in policy.
Meditation has to do with all these things.
Teaching Buddhism to Children
IM: You put so much emphasis on teaching children at the retreat just now and in the community in Plum Village. What does Buddhist teaching have to offer for children?
TNH: I don’t think that Buddhism is only for adults. It is better that our children begin to sit when they are young. Sometimes I notice that children understand Buddhism more quickly than adults. They have less prejudices. Their minds are very fresh. I put a lot of my time into teaching children because I see more effectiveness in that work.
The other day, during a dharma talk, children were sitting in front of me and there was a boy whose name is Tim smiling beautifully. I said, “Tim, you have a very beautiful smile.” And he said, “Thank you.” I said, “No, you don’t have to thank me, I have to thank you. Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful. So instead of saying, ‘Thank you,’ you should say, ‘You’re welcome.’” For the past two days the children have been smiling a lot, and when I look at them, they say, “You are welcome.” – From Being Peace
If you wait until a tree is big and plant it, it’s quite difficult to take care of it. When you plant a tree very young it is always easier. The tree will grow more beautiful.
IM: What message do you try to get across to the children?
TNH: The same message as for adults: to be aware. To practice meditation is a clever way of enjoying life. If you are happy and you are not aware that you are happy, then you are not happy.
Also the children can be aware that their father and mother have problems, and they can try to understand the situation of the family. If they understand, they will be able to accept and to love. That is the most important teaching of Buddhism, and I think both traditions have it in depth: to be awake, to understand and to love.
More Inquiring Mind Articles by or featuring Thich Nhat Hanh:
Peace Becomes Possible: An interview with Thich Nhat Hanh
Refuge from Violence: Tools for Nonviolent Living
Walking a Landscape of Change
The Next Buddha May Be a Sangha