Oprah: Beautiful. Now I’m going to ask just a few questions about monkdom. Do you exercise to stay in shape?
Nhat Hanh: Yes. We have the ten mindful movements. We do walking meditation every day. We practice mindful eating.
Oprah: Are you vegetarian?
Nhat Hanh: Yes. Vegetarian. Complete. We do not use animal products anymore.
Oprah: So you wouldn’t eat an egg.
Nhat Hanh: No egg, no milk, no cheese. Because we know that mindful eating can help save our planet.
Oprah: Do you watch television?
Nhat Hanh: No. But I’m in touch with the world. If anything really important happens, someone will tell me.
Oprah: That’s the way I feel!
Nhat Hanh: You don’t have to listen to the news three times a day or read one newspaper after another.
Oprah: That’s right. Now, the life of a monk is a celibate life, correct?
Nhat Hanh: Yes.
Oprah: You never had trouble with the idea of giving up marriage or children?
Nhat Hanh: One day when I was in my 30s, I was practicing meditation in a park in France. I saw a young mother with a beautiful baby. And in a flash I thought that if I was not a monk, I would have a wife and a child like that. The idea lasted only for one second. I overcame it very quickly.
Oprah: That was not the life for you. And speaking of life, what about death? What happens when we die, do you believe?
Nhat Hanh: The question can be answered when you can answer this: What happens in the present moment? In the present moment, you are producing thought, speech, and action. And they continue in the world. Every thought you produce, anything you say, any action you do, it bears your signature. Action is called karma. And that’s your continuation. When this body disintegrates, you continue on with your actions. It’s like the cloud in the sky. When the cloud is no longer in the sky, it hasn’t died. The cloud is continued in other forms like rain or snow or ice. Our nature is the nature of no birth and no death. It is impossible for a cloud to pass from being into nonbeing. And that is true with a beloved person. They have not died. They have continued in many new forms and you can look deeply and recognize them in you and around you.
Oprah: Is that what you meant when you wrote one of my favorite poems, “Call Me By My True Name”?
Nhat Hanh: Yes. When you call me European, I say yes. When you call me Arab, I say yes. When you call me black, I say yes. When you call me white, I say yes. Because I am in you and you are in me. We have to inter-be with everything in the cosmos.
Oprah: [Reading from the poem] “I am a mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly…. I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda. I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving…. Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one. Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.” What does that poem mean?
Nhat Hanh: It means compassion is our most important practice. Understanding brings compassion. Understanding the suffering that living beings undergo helps liberate the energy of compassion. And with that energy you know what to do.
Oprah: Okay. At the end of this magazine, I have a column called “What I Know for Sure.” What do you know for sure?
Nhat Hanh: I know that we do not know enough. We have to continue to learn. We have to be open. And we have to be ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher understanding of reality. When you climb a ladder and arrive on the sixth step and you think that is the highest, then you cannot come to the seventh. So the technique is to abandon the sixth in order for the seventh step to be possible. And this is our practice, to release our views. The practice of nonattachment to views is at the heart of the Buddhist practice of meditation. People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore.
Oprah: Isn’t the true quest to be free?
Nhat Hanh: Yes. To be free, first of all, is to be free from wrong views that are the foundation of all kinds of suffering and fear and violence.
Oprah: It has been my honor to talk to you today.
Nhat Hanh: Thank you. A moment of happiness that might help people.
Oprah: I think it will.
He’s been a Buddhist monk for more than 60 years, as well as a teacher, writer and vocal opponent of war–a stance that left him exiled from his native Vietnam for four decades. Now he reflects on the beauty of the present moment, being grateful for every.