On December 1, 2000, Thich Nhat Hanh gave this Dharma talk at the White House in Washington, D.C., during a conference on AIDS. Thay is deeply aware of the suffering caused by AIDS, and offered teachings to encourage those present to respond to that suffering and to conduct themselves in ways that would bring relief to themselves, their families, and society.
By Thich Nhat Hanh
In the 1960s, American young people marched in the streets, shouting “Make love, not war.” I reflected deeply on this. What kind of love were they speaking of? Was it true love? If it were true love, it would be the opposite of war. If it were only craving, one could not call it “true love.” Making love out of craving is making war at the same time. In 1971, during the war for Bangladesh independence, soldiers raped 250,000 women; ten percent of these women became pregnant. These soldiers made love and war simultaneously. That kind of love is not true love.
True love contains the elements of mindfulness, protection, and responsibility. It carries the energy of enlightenment, understanding, and compassion. A church has to dispense the teaching on true love to all members of the church and to the children. In the Buddhist teaching, detailed in the third Mindfulness Training, a sexual relationship should not take place without true love and a long-tenn commitment. We must be aware of the suffering we bring upon ourselves and others when we engage in unmindful sexual activities. We destroy ourselves. We destroy our beloved. We destroy our society.
Mindfulness in the act of loving is true love. This practice of mindfulness can take place today and serve as our immediate protection. All church members should begin today the practice of mindful sexual behaviors. This is what I call immediate protection for ourselves, our community, and our society. The role of church leaders, in my belief, is to first protect themselves and their own community. If not, they cannot help protect others. When we are on an airplane, the attendant reminds us that if there is not enough oxygen, we must put on our own oxygen mask before we help another person. Similarly, our self, our own family, and religious community should be the first target of our practice and action. The elements of awakening and enlightenment need to take place immediately in our own religious community.
Children and adults should be well-informed about the problems of HIV infection and AIDS. They should be aware of the suffering that can be brought upon the individual, as well as the family, community, and society, through unmindful sexual activities. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on. What is going on now is a tremendous amount of suffering. In the year 2000, more than five million people died of AIDS; many still weep over this loss. Members of the church must wake the church up to the reality of suffering.
The awareness of suffering is the first of the Four Noble Truths emphasized by the Buddha. Next, every member of the church and of the temple has to be aware of the roots of the suffering. This is the second Noble Truth. During the forty-five years of his teaching, the Buddha continued to repeat his statement: “I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.” Only when we recognize and acknowledge our suffering, can we look deeply into it and discover what has brought it about. It may take one week, two weeks, or three weeks of intense activities before the whole community, the whole church, or the Sangha will wake up to the tragedies of HIV and AIDS in its own community, as well as in the world at large. When the church and all its members are aware of the reality of suffering and its root causes, we will know what to do and what not to do for protection to be possible. The appropriate course of action can transform our suffering into peace, joy, and liberation.
Daily unmindful consumption in our society has contributed greatly to the present suffering. The Buddha said, “Nothing can survive without food.” Love cannot survive without food; neither can suffering. Consequently, if we know to look deeply into the nature of our suffering and to recognize the kind of nutriments that have fed and perpetuated it, we are already on the path of emanci- pation. Entertainment in the media is a deep source of suffering. Movies, television programs, advertise- ments, books, and magazines expose us and our children to a kind of unwholesome nutriment, which we ingest every day via our sense organs, namely eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All of us are subject to invasions of these images, sounds, smells, tastes, and ideas. Unfortunately, these sorts of sounds, sights, and ideas in the media often water the seeds of craving, despair, and violence in our children and in us. There are so many items in the realms of entertainment that have destroyed us and our children. Many are drowned in alcohol, drugs, and sex. Therefore, to be mindful of what we consume-both edible foods and cultural items-is vital. The Fifth Mindfulness Training guides us to look at each nutriment we are about to ingest. If we see that something is toxic, we can refuse to look at it, listen to it, taste it, touch it, or allow it to penetrate into our body and our consciousness. We must practice to ingest only what is nourishing to our bodies and minds. The church has to offer this teaching and practice to all its members. The practice of protecting ourselves and our family is difficult, because the seeds of craving, violence, and anger are so powerful within us. We need the support of the Sangha. With the support of the Sangha, we can practice mindful consumption much more easily. Mindful consumption can bring us joy, peace, understanding, and compassion. We become what we consume.
Mindfulness also plays a critical role in relationships and communication. Relationships in the family are only possible if we know how to listen to each other with calm and loving kindness, if we know how to address each other with loving speech. Without the practice of loving speech and rnindfullistening, the communication between members of the family becomes tenuous. Suffering may result from this lack of communication. Many lose themselves in forget- fulness, and take refuge in sex, alcohol, violence, and tobacco. The problems of HIV infection and AIDS are intricately linked to these issues of poor relation- ship in the family and reckless consumption of sex and drugs. The layman Vimalakirti said, “Because the world is sick, I am sick. Because people suffer, I have to suffer.” The Buddha also made this state- ment. We live in this world not as separated, individual cells, but as an organism. When the whole world is devastated by the pandemics of HIV infection and AIDS, and many fellow humans are in desperate situations, our sense of responsibility and compassion should be heightened. We should not only call for help from the government and other organizations. Religious leaders need to take active roles in rebuilding our communities and reorganizing our churches by the embodiment of their own practice. The practice should aim to restore the communication between church members, between family members, and between ethnic groups. Com- munication will bring harmony and understanding. Once understanding is there in the church and the community, compassion will be born.
We know that with diseases, medical therapy alone is inadequate. We know that many people with lllV and AIDS are alienated from their own families and society. The church can offer understanding and compassion to people who suffer. They will no longer be lonely and cut off, because they will see that understanding is there, awakening is there, and compassion is there, not as abstract terms or ideas, but as realities. To me, that is the basic practice of the Sangha; that is the basic practice of the church. Without understanding and compassion, we will not be able to help anyone, no matter how talented and well-intentioned we are. Without understanding and compassion, it is difficult for healing to take place.
Thus, the practice of mindfulness should take place in the context of a Sangha-a community of people who strive to live in harmony and awareness. There are many things that we cannot do alone. However, with the presence and support of members of the community, these things can become easier for us to achieve. For example, when we have the Sangha to support us and shine light on us, we can have more success in the practices of sitting meditation, walking mediation, mindful eating, and mindful consumption. To me, Sangha building is the most noble task of our time.
In the Buddhist tradition, after we have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we come together every fortnight and recite them. After the recitation, we gather in a circle to have a Dharma discussion, learning more about these Five Trainings. We also discuss and share our personal experiences, in order to find better ways to apply the teaching and the practice of these trainings into our daily life. The Dharma teacher, the priest, or the monk attends the entire discussion session, contributes and guides the Sangha with his or her experiences and insights. If an individual in the Sangha has difficulties, the whole Sangha is available to support that person.
A true Sangha is a community that carries within herself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Dharma. The living Sangha always embodies the living Buddha and the living Dharma. The same must be true with other traditions. The Sangha, with her Sangha eyes, through the practice of mindfulness and deep looking, will be able to understand our situations and prescribe the appropriate course of practice for the protection of ourselves, our families, and society.
Today, many young people are leaving the church because the church does not offer them the appropriate teaching and the appropriate practice. The church does not respond to their real needs. Renewing the church by dispensing the appropriate teachings and practices is the only way to bring young people back to the church. We need to renew our church, rebuild our communities, and build Sanghas. This is the most basic and important practice. Again, in order to carry out this task, church leaders, whether clergy or laity, should embody the teaching and the practice. Young people do not only listen to our verbal messages. They observe our actions. Thus, we teach not with our sermons or our Dharma talks alone, but we teach through our behavior and our way of life.
Some people contract H N or AIDS from blood transfusions, but often, the issue of HIV infection and AIDS is an issue of behavior. If mindfulness practice is there, and each person has the Sangha to help him or her be mindful, then we should be able to avoid bringing suffering upon ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society.
I often tell my students and others that the energy of mindfulness, generated by the practice in daily
life, is equivalent to the Holy Spirit. The seed of mindfulness is there in each one of us. Once we know how to touch the seed of mindfulness in us through the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful thinking and consuming, then it will become a living source of energy in us. Mindfulness always brings about concentration, insight, understanding, and compassion. The practice brings back the energy of awakening and generates the energy of God in our daily life. I have trained people with terminal illness to walk in the Kingdom of God every day. If you know how to dwell in the here and the now, and invest 100% of yourself into your in-breath and out- breath, you become free of the past and of the future. You can touch the wonders of life right in the present moment. The Kingdom of God is available in the here and the now, if you are a free person. This is not political freedom that I am talking about. This is freedom from worries and fear, freedom from the past and the future. If you can establish yourself in the here and the now, you have the basic condition for touching the Kingdom of God. There is not one day that I do not walk in the Kingdom of God. Even when I walk in the railway station, along the Great Wall, or at the airport, I always allow myself the opportunity to walk in the Kingdom of God. My definition of the Kingdom of God is where stability is, mindfulness is, understanding is, and compassion is.
Each person has the energy of mindfulness within. Each person has the capacity of dwelling in the here and the now. Once you are fully in the present moment, you touch all the wonders of life that are available within you and around you. Your eyes are wonders of life. Your heart is a wonder of life. The blue sky is a wonder of life. The songs of the birds are wonders o f life. I f you are available to life, then life will be available to you. All the wonders of the Kingdom of God are available to you today, at this very moment. The Kingdom of God is now or never. Thus the question becomes, are you available to the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God can be touched in every cell of your body.
Infinite time and space are available in it, and if you train yourself, it will be possible for you to walk in the Kingdom of God in every cell of your body.
When we are able to touch the Holy Spirit through the energy of mindfulness, we will also be able to have a deeper understanding of our true nature. The Buddha taught that there are two dimen- sions to reality. The first is the Historical Dimension, which we perceive and experience chronologically from birth to death. The second is the Ultimate Dimension, where our true nature is revealed. In Buddhism, we may call the ultimate reality “Nirvana,” or “Suchness.” In Christianity, we may call it “God.” If you are a Christian, you know that the birth of Jesus does not mean the beginning of Jesus. You cannot say that Jesus only begins to be on that day. If we look deeply into the nature of Jesus Christ, we find that his nature is the nature of no-birth and no- death. Birth and death cannot affect him. He is free from birth and death. In Buddhism, we often talk in terms of manifestations rather than creation.
If you look deeply into the notion of creation in terms of manifestation, you may discover many interesting things. I have a box of matches here with me, and I would like to invite you to practice looking deeply into this box of matches, to see whether or not the flame is there. You cannot characterize the flame as nonbeing or nonexistent. The flame is always there. The conditions for the manifestation of the flame are already there. It needs only one more condition. By looking deeply, I can already see the presence of the flame in the box, and I can calIon it and make it manifest. “Dear flame, manifest your- self!” I strike the match on the box, and there, the flame manifests herself. It is not a creation. It is only a manifestation.
The birth of Jesus Christ is a manifestation, and the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is also a manifestation. If we know this, we will be able to touch the Living Christ. In the Buddhist teaching, not only the Buddha has the nature of no-birth and no- death, but every one of us, every leaf, every pebble, and every cloud has this nature. Our true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death.
I have learned from my practice that only by touching the Ultimate Reality in us can we transcend fear. I have offered this teaching and practice to numerous people with terminal illness. Many of them have been able to enjoy the time that is left for them to live with joy and peace, and their lives have been prolonged. In certain cases, the doctors told them that they had just three months or so to live, but they took up the practice and they lived fifteen to twenty more years. My wish is that the church will dispense teaching and practice on how to touch our Ultimate Reality to people who have been struck with the mvI AIDS, and also to those who have not. We should be able to help members of our community live in such a way that we can all touch Nirvana, that we can all touch the Ultimate Dimension within us in our daily lives. With the learning and the practice, we will be able to touch our true nature of no-birth and no-death. That is the only way to remove fear. Once the wave realizes that her nature-her ground of being-is water, she will transcend all fear of birth and death, being and nonbeing. We can help the people who do not have much time to live, so that they are able to live deeply with joy and solidity for the rest of their lives.
Once we can establish ourselves in the here and the now, and the fear of death is removed, we become the instruments of peace, of God, of Nirvana. We become bodhisattvas-enlightened beings working to free others from their suffering. Those of us who have been struck with mvIAIDS can become bodhisattvas, helping ourselves and other people, and acquire that energy of healing called bodhicitta, or the mind of love.
During the Vietnam War, numerous Vietnamese and American soldiers and civilians died, and many who survived were deeply affected. Twenty-five years later, the survivors continue to be devastated by this war. I have offered a number of retreats to American war veterans. I tell them that they can become bodhisattvas because they already know what the suffering of war is about. I advise them that they should play the role of the flame on the tip of the candle. It is hot, but it will help create the awareness, the realization, that war is what we do not want. We want the opposite. We want true love. Each person can transform into a bodhisattva, creating the awareness in his or her own people, so that we will never have a war like this one again. You life will have a new meaning and the energy of true love will guide you.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to end suffering and attain well-being. This path you have chosen to end suffering-your own and others’- is the bodhisattva path. Not only can you transcend the suffering of the past, but you bring joy and peace to yourself and your beloved ones, because you are helping to awaken people in your own community and society. The war veterans can practice creating awareness and waking people up, and the people who have been struck by mv and AIDS can do likewise. Once motivated by the desire to work for true love, we can engage our daily lives in the activities that awaken and embrace others as well as ourselves. The work of a bodhisattva will help our healing process to take place very quickly. Our lives may become longer and of deeper quality than the lives of many who do not have mv or AIDS.
Everything I have said comes from the experience of my own practice. I do not tell you things that I have read in books. It is possible for us to install immediate protection today, for ourselves, our families, and our communities. It is possible to provide understanding and compassion to those who suffer, so that everyone has the appropriate opportu- nities and conditions to heal. It is possible to experi- ence the Kingdom of God in the here and the now. It is possible to help the world heal as we are healing ourselves. Whatever our religious background, we must practice in such a way that we bring forth understanding, compassion, true love, and non-fear, so that possibilities become actualities. I f our practice does not yield these flowers and fruits, it is not true practice. We must have the courage to ask ourselves: “Is our practice correct? Do we generate understand- ing, awakening, and compassion every day?” If we do not, we have to change our way of teaching and our way of practicing.
To me, the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, representing the energy of mindfulness, of awakening to the reality of suffering. W e have to bring the Holy Spirit back to our religious communities in order for people to have true faith and direction. I sincerely believe that Sangha building is the way. It is the most noble task of the twenty-first century. Not only church leaders, but health professionals, gays and lesbians, schoolteachers, and members of different ethnicity should build Sanghas. Please reflect on this. The practice of Sangha building is the practice of giving humanity a refuge, because a true Sangha always carries within herself the true Buddha and the true Dharma. When the Holy Spirit manifests in our church, God is with us.
Enjoy your breath, enjoy your steps, while we are still together as a Sangha.