Questions and Answers
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Stress and Work
Q: How do you maintain mindfulness in a busy work environment? At times it seems there is not even enough time to breathe mindfully.
A: This is not a personal problem only; this is a problem of the whole civilization. That is why we have to practice not only as individuals; we have to practice as a society. We have to make a revolution in the way we organize our society and our daily life, so we will be able to enjoy the work we do every day.
Meanwhile, we can incorporate a number of things that we have learned in this retreat in order to lessen our stress. When you drive around the city and come to a red light or a stop sign, you can just sit back and make use of these twenty or thirty seconds to relax-to breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy arriving in the present moment. There are many things like that we can do. Years ago I was in Montreal on the way to a retreat, and I noticed that the license plates said Je me souviens-"I remember." I did not know what they wanted to remember, but to me it means that I remember to breathe and to smile (laughter). So I told a friend who was driving the car that I had a gift for the sangha in Montreal: every time you see Je me souviens, you remember to breathe and smile and go back to the present moment. Many of our friends in the Montreal sangha have been practicing that for more than ten years.
I think we can enjoy the red light; we can also enjoy the stop sign. Every time we see it we profit: instead of being angry at the red light, of being burned by impatience, we just practice breathing in, breathing out, smiling. That helps a lot. And when you hear the telephone ringing you can consider it to be the sound of the mindfulness bell. You practice telephone meditation. Every time you hear the telephone ringing you stay exactly where you are (laughter). You breathe in and breathe out and enjoy your breathing. Listen, listen-this wonderful sound brings you back to your true home. Then when you hear the second ring you stand up and you go to the telephone with dignity (laughter). That means in the style of walking meditation (laughter). You know that you can afford to do that, because if the other person has something really important to tell you, she will not hang up before the third ring. That is what we call telephone meditation. We use the sound as the bell of mindfulness.
And waiting at the bus stop you might like to try mindful breathing, and waiting in line to go into a bank, you can always practice mindful breathing. Walking from one building to another building, why don't you use walking meditation, because that improves the quality of our life. That brings more peace and serenity, and the quality of the work we do will be improved just by that kind of practice. So it is possible to integrate the practice into our daily life. We just need a little bit of creative imagination to do so.
The Benefits of Silence
Q: Could tell us about the benefits of silence and how we could bring that home with us from this retreat?
A: Many of us have realized in the last few days that silence can be enjoyable. We realize that there are many things that we do not have to say, and that then we can reserve the time and energy to do other things that can help us to look more deeply into ourselves and things around us.
If you are pushed by your habit energy to say something, don't say it. Instead, take a notebook and write it down. A day or two later, read what you wrote, and you might find out that it would have been an awful thing to say. So slowly you become master of yourself, and you know what to say and what not to say.
I remember one time I proposed to a sister that she practice silence. She was an elder nun and she had a few negative seeds in her that prevented her from being happy. She was just a little bit too hard on the other sisters. I proposed to her that she was a very talented person, very skillful in many things, and she could make many people happy if only she knew how to be silent and to say only things that needed to be said.
I proposed to her that she use only three sentences for three months. She could repeat these three sentences as many times as she wanted (laughter) and I told her that if she practiced that for a week, she would feel happiness right away. The first sentence was, "Dear sister, is there anything I can do to help you?" (laughter) The second sentence was, "Did you like what I did to help you?" The third was, "Would you have any suggestion that I can do it better?" (laughter) If she could say that, she would make many people happy and the happiness would go back to herself very quickly.
In the family we can practice silence. We can ask the other members of the family to agree that we will practice silence for three days or for a week. It is very beneficial. There will be a transformation after the period of practicing silence.
Letting Go of Suffering
Q: Why do we cling to our suffering?
A: Many of us are not capable of releasing the past, of releasing the suffering of the past. We want to cling to our own suffering. But the Buddha said very clearly, do not cling to the past, the past is already gone. Do not wait for future, the future is not yet there. The wise people establish themselves in the present moment and they practice living deeply in the present moment. That is our practice. By living deeply in the present moment we can understand the past better and we can prepare for a better future.
Today I attended a Vietnam war veterans' discussion, and my heart is still heavy. The condition of the war veterans-their heart, their mind, their body-do you think that they will ever be emotionally healed in this lifetime? I think if they practice with all their heart and they are determined to relieve the past, they will be healed.
We cling too much to the past; we have to face the future. We have to stand on the ground of the present moment. The war in Vietnam was just a war. There are many wars still going on and we continue to create victims of war and war veterans. The number of American soldiers who died in Vietnam was something like 55,000. Every year the number of people who die in car accidents in America is exactly that number, 55,000. So there is the equivalent number of dead people caused by alcoholism and unmindful driving. This is another war. The toll is as huge as the damage inflicted by war, and every time a person dies because of a car accident, it creates many war veterans in the children who lose their mother, the mothers who lose their son.
If we stick to our suffering we can never stand up for healing and prepare the future for our children and their children. I would say to the Vietnam war veteran, okay, you did kill five children. We know that. But here you are, alive in the present moment. Do you know that you have the power to save five children today? You don't have to go to Vietnam or southeast Asia. There are American children who are dying every day; they may need only one pill to be saved from their illness.
If you know how, every day you can save five children from dying. Why do you let yourself get caught in guilt and become paralyzed year after year? Why don't you make a bodhisattva vow to use your life to work for the safety of many children? Did you know that 40,000 children die in the world every day just because of the lack of food and nutrition? You are here; you can do something. Why do you let yourself get caught in the past? You can save children in the here and now. You can use your life in a very useful and intelligent way. You can very well transform that negative energy into a positive energy that empowers you and makes life meaningful.
Q: When I go home, I return to my husband who is a hunter. He goes into our beautiful woods to shoot birds. He brings them home to show our seven-year-old twins, who want to be like daddy. What can I do to stop him from this habit of killing?
A: If you do not know how to be patient, how to care, how to use loving speech, you cannot help other people to change. But if we have the energy of compassion and loving kindness in us, the people around us will be influenced by our way of being and living. Reproaching them, shouting at them, blaming them, can never help them. Only our love, our patience and our loving speech can help. And if we are in a situation where our own skillfulness, our own compassion, is not strong enough, we could need the support of our dharma brothers and sisters in order to do the job.
Q: What are your views on abortion?
A: I am inclined to devote more of my time and energy to preventing the situation from happening than to what happens when you have to decide whether you have to do it or not to do it. If we prepare ourselves in such a way, then the problem will not present itself to us, and we don't have to make a decision between abortion or not abortion. In the last 2500 years we monks and nuns have helped a lot in limiting the population of the planet (laughter). And if you'd like to join us (laughter), it's never too late.
Q: In regard to television news and newspapers, how can we balance not taking in toxins with not closing our eyes to suffering?
A: Myself, I want to be informed about what is going on in the world. I want to be informed, but that does not mean that I have to listen to the news three times a day. I think there is some kind of vacuum in us we want to fill up; that is why we buy so many newspapers and magazines and why we view so much television. We do not need that much information. I think maybe five minutes daily is enough. Sometime we can survive several months without any news bulletins. And you have friends who can tell you what is important that has happened.
Space and Freedom
Q: Can you please elaborate on what is space inside of us? Why is this good? I feel lonely sometimes. This feels like emptiness or space inside, but it does not feel good.
A: Space here does not mean loneliness. Space here means freedom because you are not busy inside--you don't have a lot of worries, fears, projects, things to think about. That is space. Space here is the basic condition for you to enjoy life. If you are preoccupied with so many things, you don't have that condition.
One day the Buddha was sitting in the wood with thirty or forty monks. They had an excellent lunch and they were enjoying the company of each other. There was a farmer passing by and the farmer was very unhappy. He asked the Buddha and the monks whether they had seen his cows passing by. The Buddha said they had not seen any cows passing by.
The farmer said, "Monks, I'm so unhappy. I have twelve cows and I don't know why they all ran away. I have also a few acres of a sesame seed plantation and the insects have eaten up everything. I suffer so much I think I am going to kill myself.
The Buddha said, "My friend, we have not seen any cows passing by here. You might like to look for them in the other direction."
So the farmer thanked him and ran away, and the Buddha turned to his monks and said, "My dear friends, you are the happiest people in the world. You don't have any cows to lose. If you have too many cows to take care of, you will be very busy.
"That is why, in order to be happy, you have to learn the art of cow releasing (laughter). You release the cows one by one. In the beginning you thought that those cows were essential to your happiness, and you tried to get more and more cows. But now you realize that cows are not really conditions for your happiness; they constitute an obstacle for your happiness. That is why you are determined to release your cows."
We have to ask what is really essential to our happiness. We believe that things are essential to our happiness, but we have to look again. Many of us have cows, many cows that prevent us from being happy. That is why we have to learn to release our cows. Also there are many cows inside, so many preoccupations! Many things to worry about, to be angry about, and there's no space at all inside.
How can you be happy in such a state of being? That is why to release the cows around us and to let go of these preoccupations inside is a very essential condition for happiness. That is the space we are talking about when we practice. I am space; within and out. I feel free. Freedom is the real foundation of happiness. Sometimes if you don't know how to love, love will deprive you of your freedom and deprive the person you love of her freedom. That is why space is so essential in relationship.
There is a beautiful poem praising the Buddha: "The Buddha is like the full moon/traveling in the vast sky of emptiness." Because of that freedom, the happiness of the Buddha cannot be measured by our mind.
Going Back to Our Religious Roots
Q: Thay, what do you mean when you say to go back to our religious roots? How can we do that and continue to study and practice Buddhism, which is so practical and helpful?
A: I think we have to look into our religious roots, because sometimes we are not capable of identifying our spiritual roots. If you are a Buddhist, then you know that Buddha is a root, but you are aware that before the Buddha there was already something -- the Buddha was somebody who also had roots. So your roots did not begin with the Buddha. To inquire about the Buddha and the ancestors of the Buddha is important.
When you are a Christian, of course Jesus Christ is your spiritual root, but before Christianity there were other things. Therefore it is interesting and even exciting to inquire about our roots. Our roots can be very old, and our roots can also be new. We inherit things like democracy and freedom. The people who made democracy and freedom possible for us to enjoy are our roots also, so to go back and search for our roots is a very joyful, very important thing. Of course, we will encounter negative aspects and elements, but that does not prevent us going back to our own source. Our roots are also the roots of many people around us. If we can go back to our roots and try to discover the real values, the jewels contained in that tradition, we will be able to benefit many people who have come from these roots. This morning a young person asked me what should she do if she is in love with a young man who belongs to another religious tradition, since she doesn't want to betray her roots. She is a Buddhist, and the other family might require that she abandon her Buddhism to become a Catholic.
I would like to tell you a story. Thirty five years ago I had a student who fell in love with a young man who was Catholic, and the family of that young man required that the young lady abandon the practice of Buddhism in order to be baptized as a Catholic. That was the basic condition for the marriage, and she suffered very much. Her family was also opposed to that. She cried and cried, and one day she came to me. I said that Buddhism is not there to make you unhappy. Buddhism is not an obstacle, so I think in the name of the Buddha I can tell you that you can become a Catholic and marry him, but I would like to make a recommendation. You have received The Five Mindfulness Trainings; you should continue to look on them as the guidelines of your life. You don't have to be called a Buddhist; you only have to be a true Buddhist within yourself. Live accordingly and practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and that would make me happy enough. She was so joyful that she was allowed to marry the person she loved. But she did not sleep during that night, and the next morning she came very early, and she said, "Thay, a tradition that is so embracing, so tolerant, so open, if I abandon it and turn my back to it, I am not a person of value. A tradition that is so strict, that has no tolerance, that is not able to understand, how could I formally identify myself with it?" So she just refused to get married to that person. I thought that I would help her get married to that young man, but I caused the opposite to happen. Today, thirty five years later, she is here somewhere in this Sangha.
When I was in Korea a few years ago, I participated in the first dialogue between Buddhists and Christians, and I said that many young people have suffered due to being caught in that kind of situation. So I proposed that we should be able to allow Buddhists and Christians to marry each other, with the condition that the young man would learn and also practice the tradition of the young woman, and the young woman would also learn and practice the tradition of the young man. Instead of having one root, you have two roots. Why not? If you love mangoes, you are free to continue to eat mangoes, but no one forbids you to eat pineapples or oranges. Your favorite fruit is the mango, yes, but you don't betray your mango when you eat pineapple. I think it's too narrow-minded, even stupid, to enjoy only mango, when there are so many different fruits around in the world. Spiritual traditions are like spiritual fruits, and you have the right to enjoy them. It is possible to enjoy two traditions, to take the best of two traditions and live with that. If you like to eat Italian food, you can still enjoy French and Chinese cooking. You cannot say, "I have to be faithful to my Italian cooking", that's too funny.
This year I would like to publish another book, as a continuation of my book Living Buddha, Living Christ. I would like to publish the book with the title: Buddha and Jesus as Brothers. In fact, they could have taken each other's hands and practiced walking meditation, so why not the two of you, one as a Buddhist and one as a Christian? You are the continuation of the Buddha, and you are the continuation of Jesus Christ. That is only beautiful, if you can share your wisdom, your insights, and you can learn from each other and enrich yourselves. That is what I envision for the future, that we remove the barriers between different spiritual traditions, and we behave as people do in the circle of psychotherapists. They enjoy and learn from all other traditions, and I think that each tradition of psychotherapy has something to offer. It's too narrow if we only want to be faithful to one school of psychotherapy.
You are welcome to continue your practice of Buddhist meditation, because you find it practical and helpful, transforming and healing. But you can think of other people who have come from the same tradition as you, and who have not encountered the practice. You can do it by sharing your Buddhist practice, and also proposing to them that you go back to your spiritual roots, and you might discover things that you have not seen. You might begin anew, so that your tradition will become very refreshing, something that can provide true answers to the questions of the new generations, and that will benefit many people. When I say that you have to go back to your roots, that does not mean that you have to abandon the Buddhist practice that you enjoy now. But the Buddhist practice will help you to understand more deeply, so that your work of transformation and renewing of your tradition will be possible; and especially so that your heart will open to embrace the people who do not seem to be open and understanding enough when they try to transmit their tradition and values to the new generations of people.
Q: Thay, what are your views on capital punishment? Suppose someone has killed ten children. Why should he be allowed to live on?
A: Ten people are dead; now you want another one, you want eleven.A person who has killed ten children is a sick person. Of course we want to lock him up to prevent him killing more, but that is a sick person, and we have to find ways to help that person. Killing him does not help him, and does not help us. There are others like him in society, and looking at him deeply we know that something is wrong with our society; our society has created people like that. Therefore, looking at him, we can see in the light of interbeing the other elements that have produced him. That is how your understanding arises in yourself, and then you see that that person is there for you to help, and not to punish. Of course you have to lock him up for the safety of other children, but locking him up is not the only thing you can do. We can do other things to help him. Punishing is not the only thing, we can do much better.
Recently Buddhist books on meditation, Buddhist magazines, and even Dharma talks have been offered in prisons, and many inmates have been practicing accordingly. Several of them have gotten relief, and have been able to live peacefully in prison. I myself get a number of letters from prisoners, and many of them come from prisons in North AmericaÑwho have read my books. One person said, "Thay, when I stand above the staircase and look down, and see other inmates running up and down, I can see their suffering, their agitation. I hope they can do as I do, walking down and up the staircase in mindfulness, following my breathing. When I do that, I feel peace within myself, and when I feel peace within myself I can see very clearly the suffering of other inmates." That person has been able to create, to give rise to the compassion within him. You know, when we have compassion in our hearts, we don¹t suffer too much. When compassion is there in our hearts, we are not the person who suffers the most.
There is another prisoner who received a copy of Being Peace, a photocopy, and later on he got the real book Being Peace, so he had two copies. He had stopped smoking, but he still kept some tobacco. One day the fellow next to his cell banged on the wall and shouted to ask for some tobacco. Although he did not smoke anymore, he wanted to offer him this tobacco. And he took the first page of Being Peace, and he wrapped some tobacco in it, and sneaked it to the other side, with the hope that the other person might enjoy being peace. He himself had enjoyed being peace, and had started practicing sitting meditation in his cell. He just gave a small amount of that tobacco, and the next time he used page two, then page three. He was on death row. Finally he had transferred the whole set of copied pages to the other prisoner. It was wonderful, the other prisoner began to practice in his cell, and became very quiet. In the beginning he had banged, and shouted, and cursed. But finally he became very subdued and very calm, and he was released. In order to thank the other person, he passed in front of the cell, and they looked at each other, and together they recited one sentence from the book, which they both knew by heart. That prisoner on death row was able to write a whole book on his practice, within his cell, and the book has been published by a publisher outside.
So it is clear that punishment is not the only thing we can do. There is much more we can do in order to help. Transformation and healing is possible in these difficult situations. Another prisoner wrote to me, saying, "Thay, I am very surprised to find that I can still retain my humanness in prison, and that I have not gone mad. That is thanks to the practice. My only hope is that one day when I am released, and someone comes to see me and looks at my face, and says, "With the amount of suffering he endured in prison, yet he can look like that" that would be wonderful, the greatest reward that I could get." He said that the conditions in which he lived, the suffering he endured in jail, you could not imagine. But he has managed, in order to survive, to keep his humanness alive through all these difficulties. If we suffer less outside here, and have a little bit of time, of course we can do something to help those inside. That is why killing that person only reveals our weakness. We surrender. We don¹t know what to do any more, and we give up. That is a cry of despair, when you have to kill people. I hope that together we can practice looking deeply in order to find better means than to approve of capital punishment. My answer to the question is that not only can we reconcile justice and compassion, but we can also demonstrate that true justice must have compassion and understanding in it.