Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has been practising meditation and mindfulness for 70 years and radiates an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. This is a man who on a fundamental level walks his talk, and whom Buddhists revere as a Bodhisattva; seeking the highest level of being in order to help others.
Ever since being caught up in the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 86-year-old monk has committed his life to reconciling conflict and in 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying "his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity."
So it seems only natural that in recent years he has turned his attention towards not only addressing peoples' disharmonious relationships with each other, but also with the planet on which all our lives depend.
Thay, as he is known to his many thousands of followers, sees the lack of meaning and connection in peoples' lives as being the cause of our addiction to consumerism and that it is vital we recognise and respond to the stress we are putting on Earth if civilisation is to survive.
What Buddhism offers, he says, is the recognition that we all suffer and the way to overcome that pain is to directly confront it, rather than seeking to hide or bypass it through our obsession with shopping, entertainment, work or the beautification of our bodies. The craving for fame, wealth, power and sex serves to create only the illusion of happiness and ends up exacerbating feelings of disconnection and emptiness.
Thay refers to a billionaire chief executive of one of America's largest companies, who came to one of his meditation courses and talked of his suffering, worries and doubts, of thinking everyone was coming to take advantage of him and that he had no friends.
In an interview at his home and retreat centre in Plum Village, near Bordeaux, Thay outlines how a spiritual revolution is needed if we are going to confront the multitude of environmental challenges.
While many experts point to the enormous complexity and difficulty in addressing issues ranging from the destruction of ecosystems to the loss of millions of species, Thay sees a Gordian Knot that needs slicing through with a single strike of a sharp blade.
Move beyond concept of the "environment"
He believes we need to move beyond talking about the environment, as this leads people to experience themselves and Earth as two separate entities and to see the planet in terms only of what it can do for them.
Change is possible only if there is a recognition that people and planet are ultimately one and the same.
"You carry Mother Earth within you," says Thay. "She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment.
"In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. In that kind of relationship you have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change your life.
"Changing is not just changing the things outside of us. First of all we need the right view that transcends all notions including of being and non-being, creator and creature, mind and spirit. That kind of insight is crucial for transformation and healing.
"Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the centre and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing.
"So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realise you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree not to pollute the water, that is not enough."
Putting an economic value on nature is not enough
Thay, who will this spring be in the UK to lead a five-day retreat as well as a mindfulness in education conference, says the current vogue in economic and business circles that the best way to protect the planet is by putting an economic value on nature is akin to putting a plaster on a gaping wound.
"I don't think it will work," he says. "We need a real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things."
Rather than placing a price tag of our forests and coral reefs, Thay says change will happen on a fundamental level only if we fall back in love with the planet: "The Earth cannot be described either by the notion of matter or mind, which are just ideas, two faces of the same reality. That pine tree is not just matter as it possesses a sense of knowing. A dust particle is not just matter since each of its atoms has intelligence and is a living reality.
"When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born.
"We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing."
In the world of business, Thay gives the example of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, who combined developing a successful business with the practice of mindfulness and compassion: "It's possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us," says Thay.
"Looking deeply, we see that it's possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness both to other people and to us ... our work has meaning."
Thay, who has written more than 100 books, suggests that the lost connection with Earth's natural rhythm is behind many modern sicknesses and that, in a similar way to our psychological pattern of blaming our mother and father for our unhappiness, there is an even more hidden unconscious dynamic of blaming Mother Earth.
In a new essay, Intimate Conversation with Mother Earth, he writes: "Some of us resent you for giving birth to them, causing them to endure suffering, because they are not yet able to understand and appreciate you."
How mindfulness can reconnect people to Mother Earth
He points to increasing evidence that mindfulness can help people to reconnect by slowing down and appreciating all the gifts that the earth can offer.
"Many people suffer deeply and they do not know they suffer," he says. "They try to cover up the suffering by being busy. Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth.
"The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch Mother Earth inside of the body and this practice can help heal people. So the healing of the people should go together with the healing of the Earth and this is the insight and it is possible for anyone to practice.
"This kind of enlightenment is very crucial to a collective awakening. In Buddhism we talk of meditation as an act of awakening, to be awake to the fact that the earth is in danger and living species are in danger."
Thay gives the example of something as simple and ordinary as drinking a cup of tea. This can help transform a person's life if he or she were truly to devote their attention to it.
"When I am mindful, I enjoy more my tea," says Thay as he pours himself a cup and slowly savours the first sip. "I am fully present in the here and now, not carried away by my sorrow, my fear, my projects, the past and the future. I am here available to life.
"When I drink tea this is a wonderful moment. You do not need a lot of power or fame or money to be happy. Mindfulness can help you to be happy in the here and now. Every moment can be a happy moment. Set an example and help people to do the same. Take a few minutes in order to experiment to see the truth."
Need to deal with ones own anger to be an effective social activist
Thay has over many years developed the notion of applied Buddhism underpinned by a set of ethical practices known as the five mindfulness trainings, which are very clear on the importance of tackling social injustice.
However, if social and environmental activists are to be effective, Thay says they must first deal with their own anger. Only if people discover compassion for themselves will they be able to confront those they hold accountable for polluting our seas and cutting down our forests.
"In Buddhism we speak of collective action," he says. "Sometimes something wrong is going on in the world and we think it is the other people who are doing it and we are not doing it.
"But you are part of the wrongdoing by the way you live your life. If you are able to understand that, not only you suffer but the other person suffers, that is also an insight.
"When you see the other person suffer you will not want to punish or blame but help that person to suffer less. If you are burdened with anger, fear, ignorance and you suffer too much, you cannot help another person. If you suffer less you are lighter more smiling, pleasant to be with, and in a position to help the person.
"Activists have to have a spiritual practice in order to help them to suffer less, to nourish the happiness and to handle the suffering so they will be effective in helping the world. With anger and frustration you cannot do much."
Touching the "ultimate dimension"
Key to Thay's teaching is the importance of understanding that while we need to live and operate in a dualistic world, it is also vital to understand that our peace and happiness lie in the recognition of the ultimate dimension: "If we are able to touch deeply the historical dimension – through a leaf, a flower, a pebble, a beam of light, a mountain, a river, a bird, or our own body – we touch at the same time the ultimate dimension. The ultimate dimension cannot be described as personal or impersonal, material or spiritual, object or subject of cognition – we say only that it is always shining, and shining on itself.
"Touching the ultimate dimension, we feel happy and comfortable, like the birds enjoying the blue sky, or the deer enjoying the green fields. We know that we do not have to look for the ultimate outside of ourselves – it is available within us, in this very moment."
While Thay believes there is a way of creating a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the planet, he also recognises that there is a very real risk that we will continue on our destructive path and that civilisation may collapse.
He says all we need to do is see how nature has responded to other species that have got out of control: "When the need to survive is replaced with greed and pride, there is violence, which always brings about unnecessary devastation.
"We have learned the lesson that when we perpetrate violence towards our own and other species, we are violent towards ourselves; and when we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves."
Remaining optimistic despite risk of impending catastrophe
In Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the gift of a box, all the evils were released into the world. The one remaining item was "hope".
Thay is clear that maintaining optimism is essential if we are to find a way of avoiding devastating climate change and the enormous social upheavals that will result.
However, he is not naïve and recognises that powerful forces are steadily pushing us further towards the edge of the precipice.
In his best-selling book on the environment, The World we Have, he writes: "We have constructed a system we can't control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims.
"We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and in which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth.
"In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed."
An edited video of Jo Confino's interview with Thich Nhat Hahn can be seen here.
For information on Thay's visit to the UK this spring, which includes a meditation in Trafalgar Square, a talk at the Royal Festival Hall, a five-day retreat and a three-day mindfulness in education conference, go to the Cooling the Flames website.
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Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most renowned Buddhist leaders, second only to the Dalai Lama in fame and influence.
With his 100+ books, he’s been an advocate for mindfulness at some of the most fractious moments of the past 50 years. He cut his teeth doing human rights and reconciliation work during the Vietnam War, and then was nominated for a Nobel Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. These days, he’s considered the father of “engaged Buddhism.”
In the wake of 9/11, he spoke about compassion, and has lead retreats for Palestinians and Israelis, and American police officers. He wrote a Zen response to terrorism, and the former chief climate negotiator for the UN credits him with helping her broker the Paris climate agreement.
In 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh, who is now 90 years old, had a stroke. While he continues to lead Plum Village, the monastery and retreat center in southwest France he founded in 1982, he is still recovering and is not conducting interviews.
I recently got in touch with one of his senior disciples to talk about the Buddha’s psychological teachings on fear, and we ended up discussing a great many other things. Brother Phap Dung is Vietnamese American, and has lived at Plum Village for six years. He was ordained as a monk in 1998. Our conversation, which happened over Skype, has been edited for length and clarity.
Many people feel very fearful and uncertain about what the future will hold — the harm that will come to America and the planet from new policies under President-elect Donald Trump. What is the best way to manage deep uncertainty and fear in a moment like this?
We see the mind like a house, so if your house is on fire, you need to take care of the fire, not to go look for the person that made the fire. Take care of those emotions first; it’s the priority. Because anything that comes from a place of fear and anxiety and anger will only make the fire worse. Come back and find a place of calm and peace to cool the flame of emotion down.
As a collective energy, fear and anger can be very destructive. We make the wrong decisions if we base it on fear, anger, and wrong perception. Those emotions cloud our mind. So the first thing in the practice that we learn from the Buddhist tradition is to come back and take care of our emotion. We use the mindfulness to recognize it.
So you don’t think anger is a healthy reaction right now?
People are so convinced that anger and all this energy will produce change. But in fact it’s very destructive, because you’re opposing. Opposition wastes energy. It’s not healing.
Emotions can be good. Passion can be good, and compassion is very passionate. But compassion doesn’t waste energy. It includes and it understands; it’s more clear.
Engage in protest, but not from a place of anger. You need to express your opinion, and you need to go out there and say this is wrong. But don’t do it by saying hateful things. In a way, we Buddhists look more at energy than personality. That helps us be wiser.
I think some people understand that, yes, they should have compassion. But they struggle with it. They look at people who voted for Trump or Trump himself, and see power and hate. And so people fear being too passive. They think, “If I’m compassionate, that makes me passive, and I could get hurt.”
Compassion is not sitting in your room; it’s actually very active and engaging.
Trump is not an alien who came from another planet. We produced Trump, so we are co-responsible. Our culture, our society, made him. We love to pick somebody and make them the object. But it’s deeper than that. We have to see him inside of us.
We’re shocked because we found out there’s a member of our family that we’ve been ignoring. It’s time to listen and really look at our family.
We are afraid to engage, but you can dialogue and debate. It requires a lot of practice to sit there and listen, and not judge so you can understand.
You cannot end discrimination by calling the other names. All the people who voted for him are not bigots and racists and women haters. We are all judgmental, sometimes even a bit racist.
What’s in my heart is that people find the patience and clarity to listen before they start to blame and criticize.
How has the outcome of the US election sharpened and clarified your view of humanity in the 21st century?
There is definitely a need for restructuring in terms of political power and economic concentration. Listening to Bernie Sanders, he revealed a lot of truth that we didn’t want to hear. We are living in a delusion that we are free.
I liked that Sanders said he was going to share what no politician is going to share. I’m paraphrasing: “When you elect me I will not be able to help you because the president is still all under the corporations.” Wow, that was an amazing speech. That was pretty brave. I think that’s correct.
I grew up in Los Angeles around activists. I like the talk in the Democratic Party to rebuild and restructure the party — to wake up and look at themselves. And the same for the [Republicans] pulling away from Trump. Our society is very vulnerable to being very polarized and that’s what the media is taking advantage of. We have to be really careful.
I don’t follow politics a lot, but because of my background and my teacher and how I come from a war, I had to look at some of these things. I’m not fooled by the media anymore.
What war did you live through?
I was child in Vietnam. I lived with this stuff, a divided system like this. They divided us, they called us north and south. All we wanted was independence and to determine our own livelihood. We think democracy is the highest thing; it is not democracy, come on. We impose it on others and create division.
So let’s say we’re calm, ready to act. What is best way to act?
Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair. This is the medicine. We go out and we help.
Don’t allow hate and anger to take over your world. Because there are other things happening. Trump is not the end of the world — eight years, maybe, okay.
But right now people in our family are still there, and they might need us. Our friend may be somebody who is being discriminated against. You can only be there to offer them that kindness if you are stable. You cannot help them if you are filled with hate and fear. What people need is your non-fear, your stability, solidity, clarity. This is what we can offer.
You and your master recommend daily practice of meditation, right?
Our minds and hearts need food. And meditation is a kind of food. So we feed ourselves like that. You need to eat, and your peace, kindness, clarity need to eat as well. Meditation is not just praying; no, you’re cultivating this so you can offer it to others.
When you sit with someone who’s calm, you can become calm. If you sit with someone who’s agitated and hateful, you can become agitated and hateful.
Meditation is not an esoteric practice; it’s not something you do only in a meditation hall or Buddhist retreat center. It can happen right in whatever activity you’re doing — while walking, in the office. It means you are there, present with calm and peace.
With a breath, you can bring calm, clarity and rest your thinking.
Can you talk about the political dimensions of Buddhism today? Is there a Buddhist political coalition? Is there a vision for Buddhist engagement in politics?
When we engage with worldly politics, we try not to take sides. It’s easy to choose a side, but as Buddhist practitioners we try to have more inclusiveness to intervene.
The thing is that left and right were never separate. Your right hand maybe has done a lot of awful things — like smashing trees, destroying the forest. But when the right hand gets hurt, your left hand comes to its assistance, grabs and holds it without hesitation. This is the way we engage in politics — we try not to see other as separate from us; they are us. We get out there and try to heal but we don’t cause more harm.
Both sides are suffering — they may have different levels of suffering — but both sides are suffering. People don’t want to be hateful or harming. We keep that in mind.
The wake-up call is to not to be too quick. That’s the hard part. When someone hates, it’s hard for us to accept that and listen. But to find relief, we have to listen.
What if they don’t listen back?
We have hosted retreats for Israelis and Palestinians in Plum Village. But we don’t gather them and try to get them to listen right away. It takes three days — to calm down, to prepare to listen. So with each one of them, we walk, learn to calm ourselves, and with meditation we learn to touch our own deep suffering.
Then one side listens to other without reacting, and that’s the end of the session. Then they go back and practice meditation. Then the other side listens. Through meditation, they begin to see interconnection.
Stopping is a requirement before deep listening.
So let’s say you’re anticipating a conversation with a family member at Thanksgiving who holds a racist view. And you see that as the wrong view. What would you recommend as way to engage with this person?
The way I practice is that you cannot ask people for what they do not have. You only make yourself suffer. So you don’t need to try and convince them. Don’t put stuff in their box they’re not going to want. It’s a waste of saliva.
When there is discrimination, you can use the opportunity to increase understanding. You can concentrate on what makes you happy; there are other elements in this person, not just the prejudice. You have to find also the good qualities in them. Don’t focus on wrong views because that makes you angry.
This is not wishful thinking or deluded thinking. This is taking care of yourself. Only when you can do that — when you can be a good listener and be nonjudgmental — is a dialogue possible.
When I think I am right, I am on a course for a lot of conflict. Because I am stuck with my own views and not open to other people. So I suffer. When I see that in other people, I see they are suffering. Maybe kindness is there. Their viewpoints may not be correct, but their heart may be kind.
Your master had a stroke. Does he know about President-elect Trump?
Yes, one of our teachers shared it with him. I wasn’t there myself, but I heard that he took his left hand; he went like this (opens palm). You can interpret that all you want.
He is totally aware of it, but his mind is in trying to recover and heal and be present with his community than with political things. We are his continuation.
He was with us today. I had lunch with him, and it was very sweet. He took his teacup and he made sure we were all drinking tea, and he gestured, “Drink your tea.” One of the sisters, she was talking to another sister, and he looked over and gestured to us to tell her to stop talking and drink the tea. He is aware of the quality of what is happening in the moment in the room.
I know when things like this happen in one part of the planet, he puts more effort into our community to nourish people with trust, compassion, love. I have been around him when many things have happened around the world on a grand scale, and so we are continuing that. We just did that; we had a day of mindfulness with hundreds of people, [to] try to cultivate goodness in them.
I want to come back to the question of fear and the future. Why shouldn’t we fear it?
The future is built with the present moment and how we take care of it. If you are fearful, the future will be fearful. If you are uncooperative, the future will be divisive. This is very important.
The future is not something that will come to us; the future is built by us, by how we speak and what we do in the present moment.
Community practice is crucial at this time. It’s crucial not to be alone in front of the computer, reading media. That makes the world dark for you. Find flesh. There are still wonderful things happening.
— An essay by Baratunde Thurston on the need for empathy to go both ways.
— Vox’s German Lopez on the debate about whether or not to approach Trump voters with understanding and empathy.