in THENAC (BORDEAUX)
Row after row of vines, forests and lush meadows emanate a powerful sweetness as they scroll past the window of the rural French train between Bordeaux and Bergerac. It’s the same gentle force that can be found in the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. A Vietnamese Buddhist monk, he lives together with his monastic community at Plum Village, on the hills around the tiny village of Thenac. Everyone calls him Thay, simply ‘Teacher’. He is eighty-eight years old, with an apparently stern face that suddenly blooms into the infectious smile of a child. He was exiled from South Vietnam in 1973, and he chose the West, where he was already appreciated by Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton, and known in America for his speaking tours calling for peace. In over a hundred books he has created a Buddhist teaching adapted to the West, based on “Mindfulness”: awareness and presence. Together with the Dalai Lama he is perhaps the most famous Buddhist in the world, with centers in each continent and a following of hundreds of thousands of people. Remarkably, he does not ask his Western followers to abandon their religion. Among the almost seven hundred Italians present at the retreat in late August, many were in fact Christians.
Thay, what does your Buddhism offer to the digital generation, young people who spend the whole day on the Internet? “Today young people spend too much time on the Internet, this is a illness of our time. When any of us spend three hours in front of the computer, we completely forget that we have a body. The Internet is a tool that can be used to great benefit. It can also bring many problems. Using the Internet is a kind of consumption. We consume through the ideas, images and sounds we come in contact with, and they can be either healthy or toxic. People are often overwhelmed by sheer amount of information we receive online. And many of us may develop a real addiction to being online. We lose ourselves in this sea of information and are not present for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for nature. We delude ourselves by thinking that online we can connect with others, but in reality we only feel more and more alone. Mindfulness helps us be moderate in the time we spend online, and at the same time helps us to know if what we’re in contact with is beneficial, or whether it makes us feel even more loneliness and despair. We consume the internet to cover up our loneliness, but in reality always it only makes us feel worse. Very often, when we consume news, movies, pornography and advertising, we are consuming anger, violence, fear and desire. “
Buddhism considers the individual an illusion: there is still room in this vision for the distinction between good and evil?
“In the twentieth century individualism was put in the foreground and this has created a lot of suffering and difficulties. We create a separation between ourselves and others, between father and son, between man and nature, between one nation and another. We are not aware of the interconnection between ourselves and everything around us. This interconnection is what in Buddhism we call “interbeing.” The ethical path that is offered by Buddhism is based on a deep understanding of interbeing. What happens to the individual influences what happens in the whole of society and the whole planet. In this way the practice of mindfulness helps us to make a distinction between what is good and evil, right and wrong. When we’re mindful, we can see the destruction that has been caused to the animals and the planet in order to produce meat for our consumption. With this awareness, eating vegetarian food becomes an act of love towards ourselves, towards our ecosystem and the planet. Many of us are running after fame, power, money or sensual pleasures. We think that these things can bring happiness, but on the contrary, they can lead us to destroy our body and our mind. Young people often confuse sex with true love, but in reality an empty sexuality can destroy love, and bring even more desire, loneliness and despair. Mindfulness helps us to develop our understanding about the other person. True love can not exist without understanding. “
Is it possible to overcome the fear of death? “The root of fear is our mistaken view regarding the nature of death. We fear death because we feel that once we become dead, we become nothing. Yet modern science teaches us that nothing is created, nothing is lost and everything is transformed. Observing a cloud we can ask whether it can die. Can a cloud from something become nothing? Looking deeper, we can see that the cloud can only become rain, snow, hail, and then again water vapor. Even our nature is like that of the cloud. Just as rain and snow are the continuation of the cloud, our actions of body, speech and mind continue us forever. “
We live in a world full of conflict and social injustice, as a Buddhist how can you improve it? “Conflict and injustice arise from people’s minds. The ethical path that is offered by Buddhism shows us practical ways to cultivate true love and true happiness in ourselves. When these elements are present, we can create peace in ourselves and in the world. When our mind is driven by ambition, fear, and greed, social injustice then violence will always result. The practice of mindfulness helps us to cultivate happiness and peace in the present moment. And this is a wonderful contribution to world peace, and at the same time the foundation on which to base our activism.”
You teach mindfulness and concentration, and yet today’s world is marked by ever-decreasing attention spans…
“Many of us do not know how to be truly present to the people we love and the wonders of life that are available in the present moment. Our minds are easily distracted, and the market constantly supplies us with new ways to keep our mind in this state. Our body is here, but our mind is lost in our plans regarding future, regret for what concerns the past, and the dissatisfaction and unease we feel in the present. Not long ago we were invited to Google headquarters in California to teach the practice of mindfulness to more than seven hundred employees. The first thing that we shared with them was the practice of stopping because in today’s society we are always running. When we are able to stop, we can pay attention to everything that is happening in our bodies and in our minds and this is the way in which we can begin to take care of ourselves. In the present moment we already have more than enough conditions for our happiness. We just need to stop and recognise them in order to touch true happiness. ”