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Thich Nhat Hanh on... / Understanding our Father

Photo credit: Martin Lam

Many of us have painful relationships with our parents. Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how can use meditation to understand and accept our own suffering, and then look deeply into the suffering of our father.

Transcribed from a Dharma talk offered at a retreat on Buddhist Psychology, Key West, Florida, November 8, 1997.

Dear friends,

At a past winter retreat in Plum Village, everyone was given an assignment to write a love letter to their father. A young American named David thought that he could not do it. He told us that every time he thought of his father the suffering overwhelmed him, so he couldn’t bear to write him a letter. His father had passed away, and yet he could not reconcile with him. When I learned of his situation, I offered him the exercise of the five-year-old boy.

Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old boy.
Breathing out, I smile to the five-year-old boy that was me.

I asked him to practice that for a week during walking meditation, sitting meditation, doing things in the garden, in the kitchen, and so on.

When you breathe in and see yourself as a five-year-old child, you can touch your vulnerability and fragility. At this age, we are so fragile that a stern look from an adult can create a wound. When your father shouts at you, “Shut up!” you receive another deep wound in your heart.

As a five-year-old child, you have suffering and difficulties. Sometimes you try to express them to your father or mother, but they are not patient enough to listen, and you don’t have enough words. You try your best, but they get irritated, and then they shout at you. It’s like a bucket of ice water poured on your heart. The next time you won’t dare to try to share your feelings. You are fragile and vulnerable as a five-year-old child, and when you see that, compassion will arise in you.

Breathing in, I see myself as a five-year-old boy.
Breathing out, I smile to the five-year-old boy who was me.

When you identify the little child in you, soon you realize that your child is always alive and needs your care. You have deserted your child for a long time. Your child may be deeply wounded; and you need to help, embrace, and heal your child so the wounds won’t remain forever. This practice should be done during the first week.

“Every mindful in-breath, every mindful out-breath, every peaceful step, every smile is an act of liberation.”

Every mindful in-breath, every mindful out-breath, every peaceful step, every smile is an act of liberation.

The next week I gave him another exercise:

Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old boy.
Breathing out, I smile to that five-year-old boy who was my father.

It is helpful to visualize your father as a five-year-old boy, as fragile and vulnerable as you were when you were five. You might want to get a picture of your father as a five-year-old boy to help you practice.

Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old boy.
Breathing out, I smile to that five-year-old boy.

Maybe this is the first time you are able to see your father as a vulnerable little child, and you begin to understand your father might have been a victim like you when he was five. He might have been abused by his father and didn’t have a chance to meet a teacher or to have a Sangha help take care of his wounds. That is why he allowed that seed of suffering to rise up in him, and he has transmitted that internal formation to you. To get back at him now is unjust. He needs to be helped and not to be punished. So:

Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old boy.
Breathing out, I smile to him.

This is a smile of understanding and of compassion. The young man from America also got a picture of his father as an adult, and he placed that picture on his table in his room in the Upper Hamlet. Every time he was about to leave the room, he would stop by his table, turn on the light, look into the eyes of his father, and practice mindful breathing.

Breathing in, this is my father.
Breathing out, I smile to my father.

And every time he entered his room, he would practice this before he lay down on his bed.

The Emptiness of Transmission

I also offered him the meditation on the Emptiness of Transmission. What does it mean? It has to do with the teaching of the Fifty Verses [on the Nature of Consciousness]. Emptiness of transmission means that everything depends on everything else, that nothing is separate. In every transmission there must be three elements: First, there must be a transmitter; then there must be an object to be transmitted; and then there must be a receiver of the transmission.

Every time you take a shower, breathe in and out deeply, and look at your body as an object of transmission. Who has transmitted this body to you? Your father and your mother. What have they transmitted to you? They have transmitted themselves to you, nothing less. Are the transmitter and the transmitted two or one? They belong to a pair of opposites. You can say two, you can say one. Reality is like that; it is free from concepts. That is the meaning of nirvana, “the extinction of all concepts.”

You practice for your parents and for your children and their children.

The third element is called “the receiver of the transmission.” Who is he? Is he distinct from the object transmitted and the transmitter? That body that has been transmitted: Is it one with you or two? If you look deeply into the nature of your body and the nature of transmission, you will see that there is an emptiness of transmission. Although we think there are three elements, the three elements cannot be separated. Neither the same nor different. That is the training. You have to learn how to look at things like that in order to begin to perceive the realm of things in themselves.

When David was young, he was very bold. He declared: “I do not want to have anything to do with my father.” But is it possible for us not to have anything to do with our father? Can you take your father out of yourself? When you look deeply, you see that you are the continuation of your father. You are your father. There is no escape.

So if you declare that you don’t want to have anything to do with your father, that is only your anger, your wish. In reality that is impossible because you are your father. It is better to reconcile with your father within you. It is better to reconcile with yourself.

One day, after crying a lot, David sat down and began to write a love letter to his father. Because of the insight that came from that practice, he was able to see his father’s suffering and his own ignorance.

I told him, “If you don’t practice, you will transmit that suffering to your children and your grandchildren.” You practice for your parents and for your children and their children. When you are able to make a peaceful step, it is not for you alone. You do it for all your ancestors, and you do it for all your children and future generations. When you are able to smile, all the ancestors in you are able to smile. It is very important. You need a Sangha to support you for that smile to become possible.

You may think that a smile is nothing, but it is a lot. With a true smile, you make all generations of ancestors in you smile. It is liberation; it is transformation. Every mindful in-breath, every mindful out-breath, every peaceful step, every smile is an act of liberation. You offer liberation to your ancestors and to your children.


This is an extract from a Dharma talk which was published in the Summer 2020 issue of the Mindfulness Bell, the magazine of the international Plum Village Community.

You can find out more about the magazine and subscribe digitally or to the print edition on the Mindfulness Bell website.


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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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