|Bat Nha: a Koan|
I AM A HEAD OF STATE OR FOREIGN MINISTER. My country is or is not a member of the Security Council or the UN Commission on Human Rights. I know that events like Bat Nha, Tam Toa, Tiananmen Square and the annexation of Tibet are serious violations of Human Rights. But because of national interest, because our country wants to continue to do business with them, because we want to sell arms, airplanes, fast trains, nuclear power plants and other technologies, because we want a market for our products, I cannot express myself frankly and make real decisions that can create pressure on that country so they stop violating human rights.
I feel ashamed. My conscience is not at peace but because I want my party and my government to succeed, I tell myself that these violations are not serious enough for my country to take a stance. It seems that I too am caught in a system, a kind of machinery, and I cannot really be myself. I’m not able to give voice to my real feelings or to speak out about the situation. What do I have to do to get the peace that I so badly need? Bat Nha is of course a situation in Vietnam, but it has also become a koan for a high-ranking political leader like me. What path can I take in order to really be myself?
The koan “Bat Nha” is everyone’s koan; it is the koan of every individual and every community. The koan can be practiced by a Bat Nha monastic, by a monk or nun studying at a Buddhist Institute in Vietnam, a Venerable in the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, a police officer, a Head of Department, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Politburo member, a Chairman of a city's People’s Committee, a Provincial Party Secretary, a member of the Central Committee, a newspaper or magazine editor, an intellectual, an artist, a businessman, a teacher, a journalist, an abbot or abbess, an international political leader or ambassador. Bat Nha is an opportunity, because Bat Nha can help you see clearly what you couldn't – or didn't want – to see before.
In the Zen tradition, there are retreats of seven, twenty-one and forty-nine days. During these retreats, the practitioner invests their whole heart and mind into the koan. Every moment of their daily life is also a moment of looking deeply: when sitting, walking, breathing, eating, brushing their teeth or washing their clothes. At every moment the mind is concentrated on the koan. The most popular retreat is the seven-day retreat. Every day the practitioner gets the chance to interact with the Zen master in the direct guidance session. The Zen master offers guidance to help the practitioner direct their concentration in the correct way, opening up their mind and helping them to see, showing them the situation so the truth can reveal itself clearly.
In the direct guidance sessions the truth is not transmitted from master to practitioner. Practitioners must realize the truth for themselves. The Zen master may give about ten minutes of guidance, to open your mind and point things out, and then everyone returns to their own sitting place to continue to look deeply. Sometimes there are hundreds of practitioners, all sitting together in the meditation hall, facing the wall. After a period of sitting meditation, there is a period of walking meditation. Practitioners walk slowly, each and every step bringing them back to the koan. At meal times, practitioners may eat at their meditation cushion. While eating they contemplate the koan. Urinating and defecating are also opportunities to look deeply. Noble silence is essential for meditative enquiry, and that is why outside the meditation hall there is always a sign that reads ‘Noble Silence.’
In the past, King Tran Thai Tong became enlightened by investigating the two koans ‘Four mountains’ and ‘A true person has no position’. Zen master Lieu Quan became enlightened thanks to his practice of the koan ‘The all proceeds to the one; where does the one go?’. He presented his insight at Tu Dam Temple in the city of Hue.
If you want to be successful in your practice of koans, you must be able to let go of all intellectual knowledge, all notions and all points of view you currently hold. If you are caught in a personal opinion, standpoint, or ideology, you do not have enough freedom to allow the koan's insight to break forth into your consciousness. You have to release everything you have encountered before, everything you have previously taken to be the truth. As long as you believe you already hold the truth in your hand, the door to your mind is closed. Even if the truth comes knocking, you will not be able to receive it. Present knowledge is an obstacle. Buddhism demands freedom. Freedom of thought is the basic condition for progress. It is the true spirit of science. It is precisely in that space of freedom that the flower of wisdom can bloom.
In the Zen tradition, community is a very positive element. When hundreds of practitioners silently look deeply together, the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration is very powerful. This collective energy nourishes your concentration in every minute and every second, giving you the opportunity to have a breakthrough in your practice of the koan. This kind of environment is very different from that of a conference, discussion or meeting. The firm discipline of your meditation practice, the favorable environment for concentration, as well as the guidance of the Zen master and silent support of fellow practitioners, all provide you with many opportunities to succeed.
The suggestions given above can be seen as direct guidance to help you in your practice of looking deeply. You have to see these words as an instrument, not as the truth. They are the raft that can bring you to the other shore; they are not the shore itself. Once you reach the other shore, you have to abandon the raft. If you are successful in looking deeply, you will have freedom, you will be able to see your path. Then you can just burn these words, or throw them away.
I wish you all success in the work of looking deeply into the Bat Nha koan,
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh
Sitting Still Hut, Upper Hamlet
Plum Village, France
19 January 2010
 Long ago, Vietnam’s King Tran Thai Tong practiced Zen. He meditated on koans and contributed forty new koans, as well as various invocations, recitations and short verses, for friends to practice with him at the palace's True Teachings Temple. These koans have been recorded in his book, Instructions on Emptiness. Master Tue Trung, a lay man, composed thirteen of his own koans, which are recorded in the Record of Zen Master Tue Trung. The Blue Cliff Record, edited by Zen master Yuan Wu in the twelfth century, has over 100 koans complete with teachings, commentaries and guidelines. This classic has been used by Zen practitioners for centuries.
 Thich Nhat Hanh’s first monastery, Fragrant Palm Leaves, founded in the 1960's near where Bat Nha was later built.
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Last Updated (Monday, 25 January 2010 01:53)