Welcome to episode thirteen of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
In this episode, presenters Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino talk about sensual pleasures, temptations, and what the Buddha had to say about these topics, 2,600 ago. They further ponder how to come back to our true selves rather than looking outside of ourselves for happiness and indulging in fame, sex, and power. And is it true that what you put in your head manifests in your daily life?
Brother Phap Huu reads relevant gathas from Discourse on Youth and Happiness and digs deeper into the four elements of love and the three complexes. He also talks about finding joy and happiness in a simple monastic life (do you know why monastics shave their head?); true connection; the joy of being part of a retreat for thousands of people; witnessing transformation; togetherness; becoming ‘a place of refuge’ for others.
You’ll find tips on recognizing when the ego takes over, how to direct sexual energy into something wholesome, and how to not become a slave to pleasure.
Jo delves into spotting insecurities; breaking through the myths we create about others; letting go of inferiority and superiority complexes; humility and trust.
You’ll get some journalistic tips for editing your own life. And talking of life, if you were a sunflower in a field, which one would you be?
The episode ends with a meditation guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Discourse on Youth and Happiness
World Economic Forum (Davos)
“When we become a monk or a nun and we enter into a spiritual commitment, we are learning to let go of something, learning to put a stop to our habits, a stop to our desire. So when we shave our heads and commit ourselves to this life, it is also a sign of determination that I am ready to cut off all my friction, cut off all my desire and learn to live deeply in the present moment and be free from it.”
“To learn to recognize suffering, sometimes we have to learn to recognize our habit of running after pleasure.”
“The Buddha teaches me that I am not chasing something in the future. I am learning to live deeply in the present moment because the desire that we run after can offer just a little sweetness, but much bitterness later on.”
“When we run after pleasure, we are losing ourselves.”
“For most of us, the truth is that we don’t know ourselves and we don’t spend the time to come back to ourselves. So we get caught in this pattern of chasing after things we think will make us happy. But ultimately, we always know that you can’t find happiness outside of yourself. That’s why this podcast is called The Way Out Is In, because it’s only by coming back to ourselves and understanding who we truly are that we can be happy.”
“So much in life is a creation of our mind, and if we pierce it, we find truth. And I would much rather get to know someone more deeply than to have a fantasy about them.”
“The way you navigate in today’s world is not only internally, but you also have to take care of your connections, your environment, and the people around you, because they are also influences. They can also give some hooks unmindfully through conversations or even ideas and views.”
“The whole purpose of Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy, is to find true happiness.”
“Most of Western society now is built on bypassing our suffering, thinking that happiness is to avoid suffering, not to go through our suffering. Because the truth is that it’s by going into our suffering that we find our way through.”
“We have to heal this idea of what love is.”
“Ending desire, overcoming the three complexes,
Our mind is stilled, we have nothing to long for.
We lay aside all affliction and sorrow,
In this life and in lives to come.”
“If you think you are greater, less than, or equal, you cause dissension. When those three complexes have ended, nothing can agitate your mind.”
“Life continues in so many different ways. And the Buddha, even though he passed away 2,600 years ago, is still present today through his teachings. So each and every one of us, as human beings, we have many ways to continue in this life, even after we are not here.”
“One of the things within Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness training is to be careful what we consume because the fact is, what we consume is what we become.”
“This is because that is. We all inter-be, we all are flowers of humanity, and each flower is unique in its own way.”
“We’re always growing, we’re always changing, and that is the beauty of us. And if we recognize that we’re always changing and that the way we take care of ourselves in this very moment will shape who we will be tomorrow, then our future is very bright.”
Welcome to the latest episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And today we’re going to be talking about sensual pleasures. And in particular, we’re going to be looking at the Buddha’s teachings from 2600 years ago. And we’re going to be looking at how to come back to our true selves rather than looking outside of ourselves for happiness and indulging in fame, sex and power.
The way out is in.
Welcome, dear friends. I am Jo Confino, a journalist, a facilitator, coach and working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the Plum Village tradition under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
And today we’re talking about sensual pleasures. Wow, what a topic. So, Brother Phap Huu, before we get into that, you are looking a little tired today. What’s going on?
Thank you, Jo, for telling all the listeners how I am doing. I didn’t sleep so well last night. I woke up at four in the morning and I’ve been up since.
And why did you wake up so early? I mean, I know you normally wake up about 5:30, but four o’clock that’s a…
Yeah, we’re in the midst of a, still, a pandemic, and I got my second vaccine shot and I had some really intense dreams. I woke up from that and I realized I couldn’t go back to sleep. So I made a cup of tea and just enjoyed a quiet morning.
And can you just tell us a little bit what was going on in your dream?
Yeah. So I’ve been listening to other podcasts and I’ve been listening about history and there are some stories of very violent histories of our past and somehow that stayed in my consciousness and it manifested in my dream and I was like present to witness human suffering.
You know how to enjoy yourself. That’s not a sensual pleasure, I think.
No, no, no. That’s from consciousness, though. It’s something that it is a pleasure of listening to to something that you want to hear, though.
Yeah. And also, it shows that what you put in your head…
Manifests in your daily life, even if you are sleeping.
Yeah. So, sensual pleasure. So sensual pleasures is not a new phenomenon.
It is not.
In fact, it’s been here throughout history. And the Buddha himself did some teaching around this topic. And Brother Phap Huu, I wonder if you could just give us a sense… I think you’ve got a little story you can tell that sort of emphasizes what the Buddha had to say about this.
So there’s many stories from the Buddha’s time and each of the stories that has been recorded, they are put into Sutras. And sutra means our teachings from the Buddha. And sometimes it is seen from the Buddha himself sharing about a story and how to put the practice, a teaching into it. Or it is a recorded history, and then we can see it as a story.
Great. So what did he have to say about sensual desire?
Well, sensual desire can make a person lose themselves very easily by craving and running towards a destination that they don’t know what exactly it is, but you’re given an idea and then you can spend your whole life chasing after something. And the practice in the Buddhist teaching that the Buddha realized is to recognize suffering and to learn to recognize suffering is sometimes we have to learn to recognize our habit of running after pleasure. So when you become a monk, we shave our heads and a lot of the children that come to Plum Village throughout the years, they always ask us: Why do monks shave their head? And sometimes they get the chance to ask our teacher Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh this question in front of the whole audience. And it’s a very cute moment, and I really like this interaction between a zen master and a little child, and Thay looks at him or her and Thay would smile, and Thay would joke around and say: So that we don’t waste money on shampoo and styling our hair. And it’s a joke, but actually, there is some truth to it that when we become a monk or a nun and we enter into a spiritual commitment, we are learning to let go of something, learning to put a stop to our habits, stop to our desire. So when we shave our head and commit ourselves to this life, it is also as a sign of determination that I am ready to cut off all my affliction, cut off all my desire and learn to be living deeply in the present moment and be free from it.
So can you tell us a historical story of the time of the Buddha, what he had specifically to say about this?
Yes, so there’s this discourse is called Youth and Happiness, and I’m not going to go into it, but I’m going to share with you the essence of it. So there is this very young monk who was taking a bath at a lake, and as he was putting his robe back on, a young goddess, or we would say a young woman, appeared and saw this young monk. And she had many questions that she wanted to ask him. And one of the question was: You’re so young, why would you give up life and leave your family, leave power, money, pleasure and seek something in the future? And this part, this sentence right here ‘to seek something in the future’ is sometimes I think a lot of people have a misperception about meditation or the practice of Buddhism. And this can be my wrong perception, but I’ve heard this question and people think we become a practitioner, a meditation practitioner, in order to gain something later, and we can call that enlightenment or whatnot. But actually, the monk then replies to this goddess, this young woman, saying: Actually, the Buddha teaches me that I am not chasing something in the future. I am learning to live deeply in the present moment because the desire that we run after can offer just a little sweetness, but much bitterness later on. And so this young goddess was very confused because I’m sure she is… I am assuming she is very beautiful for them to record this as a goddess, and she was probably also questioning life in herself, like, ‘What am I doing? What? Why are other people giving up all of this while I have something to gain?’ But she was very curious, as she said: Can you explain more? I really want to know more. And this monk was only ordained for two years, and he looked at her and he said, and he bowed, he joined his palms and he bowed. He said: Look, I’m still a very young monk. I don’t have enough insight to tell you and to teach you. Let me bring you to the Buddha and I will tell the Buddha the story, and I’ll let the Buddha enlighten you. And so the goddess follows the young monk and goes and meets the Buddha. And the Buddha then shares with her a few teachings, what we call gathas, which are like verses or poems, to help her understand when we run after pleasure, we are losing ourselves. And Jo, would you like to hear one of the gathas?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, why not?
The Buddha recites four gathas, but this one, when I read it, I see myself being caught in these perceptions also: Beings produce wrong perceptions concerning objects of desire, that is why they are caught in desire because they do not know what desire really is. They proceed on the path to death.’ That’s a little bit strong, but we can see it in the light of like… in today’s world… Our senses, our eye senses, our ears, our nose. We’re living with many stimulations and a lot… If we go into a very busy city, let’s say New York or London, where there’s a lot of lights, there’s a lot of advertisement, and all of that touches a perception in us, touches a sense in us that makes us maybe feel inferior and makes us feel that we should be something else and then gives us an idea that we should run after something. And I think this is a suffering that we face each and every day.
And, in fact, the truth is that for most of us, we don’t know ourselves and we don’t spend the time to come back to ourselves. So we get caught in this pattern of chasing after things we think will make us happy. But ultimately, we always know that you can’t find happiness outside of yourself. That’s why this podcast is called The Way Out Is In, because actually, it’s only coming back to ourselves and understanding who we truly are that we can be happy. And when you just think about it, you know… So, for me, I think of it as a sort of egoic mask. It’s like because we feel inferior or something lacking in ourselves, we create this persona, which is in a sense a mask outside. And then we seek to bring ourselves happiness. But even if we get happy, even if we have something that succeeds, actually what it does is it feeds the mask. Actually, it feeds this mask of ourselves. But we, who we truly are, never gets satisfied, never gets the pleasure, never gets the real happiness from that because it goes to meet this mythical persona we’ve created. So, actually, you know, it’s very hard though, for… and I would say, especially for young people, you know, when we’re bombarded with so many images and so many temptations. I mean, I know the Buddha before he reached enlightenment was offered many temptations, but I think he would have found it even more difficult in this world because temptations come from all directions like a constant bombardment.
Yeah. And I think that in our meditation, when we say we come back to the present moment, it doesn’t mean that we are forgetting the past or the future. But it teaches us that in this present moment, we have to ask ourselves: What is our deepest happiness? If we can understand that we can cut off a lot of desire because a lot of the time… because we don’t know what we want to be or what is our happiness, therefore we are lost. And if we are not careful, we will be pulled into so many different directions. And in one of the teachings of the Buddha is to learn to not be caught by the bait. And there’s a lot of bait in our world, and if we don’t know how to navigate, we will lose so much energy. And that is why we practice mindfulness. It’s learning to become aware of our mind, learning to see where our mind is carrying us away. And if we have mindfulness, we can see the hook in the bait and we can be more free.
Yeah. And I really feel that in the sense where we create these ideas of what will make us happy. But they’re by nature, empty. But actually, the answer is always, I’ve been taught, to get close to the things that we desire to break through this myth. So I was once taught that if you meet a beautiful woman, you have this sort of idea that you either need to walk away or you indulge in trying to chat up a woman, this woman, for instance. But what I was taught is actually, you get… the best is to step closer to that person and actually to see beyond this idea of that person and actually get to know that person. And then, actually, the whole idea of this sort of sexual energy or this desire or this wish to be with that person actually evaporates because actually you start to see the real person underneath this persona you’ve created. So much in life is a creation of our mind. And actually if we pierce it, we find truth. And actually, I would much rather get to know someone more deeply than to have a fantasy about them.
You’re right. And here’s the second verse that the Buddha offered to this young goddess, and it talks about the mind: ‘When you know the true nature of desire, the desiring mind will not be born. When there was no desire and no perception based on it at that time, no one is able to tempt you.’ That’s really powerful and this is not just about sex and sensual pleasure of the body, but it’s also even in power and wealth and positions and superiority complexes and inferiority complexes. Because when we live in a world that that we feel that we have to be someone else and we have to achieve something which is running after something, then we can always be hooked by so many different directions and we can spend our whole life running after something.
But, you know, these temptations, brother, are very, very strong. And I’ll give you an example. I was once asked to chair a big sustainability conference in Amsterdam, and it was with more than a thousand people. So there was already me thinking, Oh, I’m going to be three days in front of a thousand people. So there was a bit of sort of ego in that. And then I arrived at the conference with a colleague from the Guardian and within about the space of five minutes, two or three people came up to me and asked to have their photo taken with me and to give them my autograph and silly stuff. But I tell you, in that moment, I just felt this sense of, Oh, I’m more than who I am, I’m important. And it felt, I felt the hook in it. Exactly what you say, the bait in it. I suddenly thought, Oh, look at me, look at who I am. And it was such a strong feeling that actually, for the next week, I had to constantly tell that story to people, to almost exorcize it from my mind and to show it up. Because right away I got it that this was false, that actually this was just my insecurities pumping out, then saying, Oh, look, I can be bigger than I am, I can be more important than I truly think I am. So I caught it. But even though I caught it, I had to spend a long time just saying this is not the truth. But gosh, was that tempting.
And that’s why we say when we meditate is a practice because it’s not a one time and you’re done, because these habits and these feelings that you just expressed, it will come back and it will say: Hey, make me you, make me more powerful, make me stronger, get more attention. And these are all the baits. And if we don’t have this eye of meditation or this practice, this energy of mindfulness to recognize that… and the teaching of the Buddha and the teaching of our teacher is nonviolence. So you don’t say you are nasty, get out, you know. But it’s actually you recognize it and say, call it by its true name, and that might be ego. Ah, this is my ego. I know you want to be more important, but hey, hey, we’re all together. And even we need leaders in the world, we need people who are very solid, people who can be refuge. But people come to them for refuge because they feel connected to that person. And if you can see that you are a place of refuge and you can help connect people, this ego will be transformed and it will give you also a sense of togetherness. And this is very important for today. This world where we feel that the coming together of communities are so important to help remind us of a more mindful lifestyle and a more sustainable lifestyle.
One of the things about Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh that, in a sense, I most admired is… You know, he’s considered one of the greatest spiritual masters of the last century. He’s considered the father of mindfulness. He had hundreds of thousands, I mean, of course, he’s very ill, he still has hundreds of thousands of followers. He’s written all these books. People come from all and came from all over the world to see him. And yet he maintained this extraordinary ability to maintain his presence as a simple monk. I never, ever, ever in all the years I saw him once be hooked out or tempted or looked bigger than himself. In fact, you know, just watching him be his great, great, great teacher and then just disappear into the mist as a completely ordinary person. I was so impressed by that.
Yeah, and this is because he really lives by the notion of a simple monk. If you have a chance to come to Plum Village France and you visit his hut, one of his huts…
Which we’re sitting in right now.
Exactly. Which is called Sitting Still Hut, you will see is very simple, and you have to nourish yourself by also the conditions around you or else the conditions around you will also influence your mind. So the way you navigate your way in today’s world is not only internally, but you also have to take care of your connections, your environment, the people that are around you because they are also influences. They can also give some hooks if unmindfully through conversations or even ideas and views.
And that sense of humility is actually at the core of trust because, actually, what I think so many people are looking for these days is a safe space. That there’s so much manipulation in every sphere, in the commercial world, in the political world and in the business world, and, actually, people are looking for a place which is a refuge where they can just be who they are. And actually a sense of just simplicity of honesty is actually the very core of people feeling safe. Because if you’re feeling manipulated, then you’re always on guard. And I think so many of us tend to be on guard so much of the time. And actually, we just want to just…
Take a deep breath and relax, right? And I just wanted to say and to not have a misperception, as also in the practice of Buddhism, it is to learn, to enjoy life, to learn to touch life in the present moment, but is to be free from it. So let’s say we are here, we have a cup of tea and somebody says, Oh, but Brother Phap Huu, isn’t that pleasure? Shouldn’t you just drink normal water, just a cup of water? But that’s not it. It’s like learn to enjoy the cup of tea in this very present moment. And, you know, and when it’s done, you move on, you continue and you’re not attached to it. You don’t become a victim or a slave to this pleasure. This, yeah, even this happiness.
Yeah. So, as you say, I mean the whole purpose of Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy is to find true happiness.
But actually, we know that when we find it outside of ourselves and in sensual pleasures, it is the path to ruin because we cannot find the answer. And in a sense, that’s again, you know, most of Western society now is built on bypassing our suffering, bypassing… Thinking that actually the happiness is to avoid suffering, not to go through our suffering. Because, actually, you know, the truth is that actually, it’s by going into our suffering that we find our way through.
Yeah, I had this moment with Thay. Thay means teacher in Vietnamese, and when I say that is referring to my teacher. We were in Nottingham, in England, during a retreat in 2011, and the coming year, 2012, was going to be Plum Village’s 30th anniversary. And I was having a cup of tea with Thay and I said, Thay, 30 years, that’s a big deal. Let’s enjoy it. But can I suggest, Thay, maybe for the thirtieth year, Thay, you don’t go anywhere and you just stay in Plum Village and we do retreats here, let the people come, we don’t have to travel. And that was my perception, that was my idea of joy and happiness. And Thay looked at me and he really gave it a thought because I also wanted Thay to have some time to rest, because every year Thay would go on very big tours either to North America, Europe and Asia. And we would split it throughout our calendars and Thay would go every single year and I just wanted Thay to also enjoy the massive peace that he has created, which is Plum Village and this community. And Thay after a few minutes of just sitting and drinking a cup of tea, and then Thay looked at me, and Thay said: But you know what? But Thay enjoys offering retreats. Thay enjoys going out and help people recognize their suffering and have transformation. It is like somebody who has some antidotes to some pain, I can’t just hold that for myself. It is my aspiration to go and offer that to the people and to the ones that I meet. And Thay said: And you know what? There are so many people that can’t afford to come to Plum Village. It is also part of our aspiration to go to the places that don’t have that condition and to bring the Dharma to them. And in that very moment, I saw this, this understanding of aspiration, and that is also a very deep happiness. And that is a happiness that will guide us on a path that will bring us well-being. Because, Thay said, because offering these retreats is not for other people, it’s for Thay. It brings me a lot of joy and it brings me a lot of nourishment.
So, brother, I have a question for you. And it’s a question I think most of our listeners will have, which is: You chose to be a monk and all the other 200 monastics have chosen such a different path from the norm. So you own two or three robes. You have no possessions, you have no money. You have committed to a vow of chastity. You don’t enjoy the normal pleasures of someone who lives in a city. What’s that like? And how do you deal with the fact that actually feelings come up? I mean, you know, sexual energy it’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s an energy that is going to come up regardless, whether you indulge in it or you don’t indulge in it. And I’m just wondering, you know, how do you deal personally? But also, how does the community work with these energies because they’re all there and a lot of monastics have lived a life outside before they come in, so they’re fully aware of what those temptations are. So tell us a little bit about that.
Well, Jo, you describe my life pretty miserable.
No. I’m sure many of our friends listening may also have this question and very curious about our monastic training and how we find joy and happiness in a simple life.
Let me first talk about the sexual energy because this is a training that we all have to become aware of and we apply right away. So first of all, is to see that sexual energy is not an enemy. It’s not something bad, it’s not something that we shouldn’t talk about. And we, as human beings, we manifested through this energy, through the coming together of our father and our mother. So this sexual energy has been transmitted to us the moment we were born, the moment we were conceived. So number one is to see that it’s an energy of life. And part of our being is also to have offsprings, to have continuation. So it’s very natural for us to have this energy inside of us. Now, the training comes: recognize it, embrace it, become a friend with it and learn to channel this energy because we’re not just sexual energy. Our aspiration is an energy. What we want to transform, that’s an energy. What we want to offer to the world, that’s an energy. How we take care of our well-being, that’s an energy. So how do we use this vitality, the sexual energy and direct it into something wholesome? And I have learned that even even though that I have chosen a life of chastity, not having my own blood continuation. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have continuation. The things that I do today, the things that I am able to offer to the world, by my sharing, by my connection, by me being part of this community, this will also be my continuation. And that gave me a new insight. I said, life continues through so many different ways. And the Buddha, even though he has passed away 2600 years ago, he is still present today through the teachings. So each and every one of us as a human being, we have many ways to continue in this life, even after we are not here. Number two is to see that sexual energy is also an energy of love. We all want to love and we all want to be love and we want to know how to offer love. So we are taught how to love now. And I think we also have to hew the idea of sexual energy, which is like sexual energy means you just got to go and have sex to fulfill this, need this pleasure. And I think we have to hew this as a society. And a part of our our way of life is to show that love is very beautiful and has four elements to it. And the first element is loving kindness. If we, if we have someone we love, we know we want to be kind to that person. That is human nature. It’s in every single one of us. And that is love. The second is compassion. Because we know that we have suffering and we know that we can grow from our suffering. And when we have suffering, we have pain. And when we look at someone else and they have suffering, we can have compassion for them. We don’t expect them to be like this or like that. They are of the nature of suffering also. So we have compassion, empathy, we can understand and we can embrace them, and we don’t look for perfection in people. And this also has to be given towards ourselves. We have to be compassionate for ourselves. That is also love. The third is joy. Thay always teaches us if in a loving relationship that we always cry and we’re always in pain and there’s no joy, we really have to look at how we love each other. And this is not just for a couple, this is even in a community, in friendship, in a father, daughter relationship, mother, son relationship, father and son relationship. In true love there has to be joy. And a lot of the time when we love someone, we want them to be what we want them to be. We have a perception of how they should be and we think that this is our love to them. And if we don’t have the tools to communicate and sometimes it is just to have a conversation and saying, my dear child, what is it that you really want in this life? And how can I support you? And it’s because of our own suffering of the past, what we didn’t have, we might think that this is what our child needs and we will give this idea and give this view to them. And that can actually be suffering. So sometimes our love can be very suffocating. So, in love, there also has to be the essence of joy. How we love each other, do we take care of our well-being? Do we have the time to sit down and hear each other’s aspiration? And can we put our self aside to see that that person’s joy is also our joy? That’s so important. And the fourth element, it is equanimity, which is also nondiscrimination. If we are in a relationship and we say we only love them when they’re happy and when they suffer, I can’t love you, then that is not true love because in true love we see that your happiness is my happiness, your suffering is my suffering, your transformation is also my transformation. I’m living in a community of multiple people and we are continually learning from each other. And I have witnessed brothers’ transformation on their path. And when they have a breakthrough, I just feel so energized and I just feel so grateful for the practice. And I have so much more faith in myself, in the practice and in humanity, knowing that we can have transformation and we can heal our past. So we also have to heal that this idea of what love is. Love is not just sex. Thay, our teacher, has actually said sex can be something very holy because it is the bringing together of a manifestation. A child, a human being is a manifestation of the whole cosmos. And so for us to also see that life is more than just these desires, these very quick moments of fast, fast pleasure we can call them. I think there’s many ways of describing it, but we can see that the outcome of it, sometimes it is a long-lasting bitterness.
And also, one of the things within Thich Nhat Hanh’s sort of mindfulness trainings is about being careful what we consume because the fact is what we consume is what we become. So if you’re constantly sort of looking at images or, you know, whether it’s around sex or consumption or whatever, you’re constantly… Whatever you surround yourself, whatever environment you’re in, you form habits and those habits become very, very difficult to dislodge. So actually, one thing we can do for ourselves is just be careful what we consume. And almost we have to now become, you know, I’ve been a journalist for 40 years and as a journalist, what you did constantly was you had to filter the news.
So in any one day, I might, you know, I used to run the business and finance section at the Guardian, for instance, and every day I would have hundreds of stories come through. And at the end of the day, I had, you know, when I was… before the website, we had three pages to fill and that meant you could have maybe 15 stories. So out of maybe 500 stories that came through my sight, I actually published 15. And that was a constant curation of saying, actually, what is important? What do people really care about? What is it? What do we want people to know about? And in a sense, I think we all need to have that sort of mentality in today’s world where actually, if we are constantly surrounded by images of any type and we will become that. And so, in a sense, one of the decisions of my wife and I to come and live next door to Plum Village was in a sense partly that… It’s that we are now surrounding ourselves with different images, different teachings, different visual identity, et cetera, et cetera. And that infuses who we are. It’s not like I have to come to Plum Village every day and think, you know, do… read a sutra or sort of sit there and study, actually just being in the presence of Plum Village changes who I am.
Yes. And to continue on how to transform and to see this energy as a part of life is also seeing that in humanity, in communities, we need connection. This is something that I feel we can all agree with through this pandemic is that this disconnect of personal contact has really touched loneliness inside of us. Right? So a lot of times we are running after this feeling of running after sensual pleasure is also because we’re trying to fill in this void of loneliness. And where we find an antidote that is brotherhood and sisterhood, companionship, friendship that is something that is so important today. We see that for myself I know I cannot succeed as a monk by myself. There’s too many temptation. There’s so many desires. There’s so many things that can draw me away. But it is thanks to this community that reminds me on a daily basis of the beauty of life and also of the aspiration. And, you know, when we, as a community of monks were able to support each other, that fulfillment comes back 10 times for us and that fills this void of feeling a part of something. And the second thing that in our tradition that is very important in our training is serving. Serving here can be in so many different layers. But one of the greatest joys is when we’re able to offer a retreat for a thousand people, creating a space for people to come and feel peaceful, feel connected, feel that they can touch something very deep inside of them, whether it is suffering, despair or reconnect with their deepest aspiration. And seeing somebody come on the first day who is a little bit dry and like a flower that’s not been watered for so long, wilted. And then on the last day, blooming like a flower or like fresh and solid, like a mountain. And knowing that we have an impact on that person’s life just in this very moment that also gives us this fulfillment. So part of our life as a monk, even though we have let go of a lot of things and that is our choice, that’s our personal choice, and seeing that that I am able to still have an impact by living a spiritual life, that gives me so much fulfillment. Just like when Thay says, as somebody who has a few techniques and practices that can offer to help somebody touch their suffering and recognize it and transform it and bring them healing. That is nourishment that you cannot buy.
In a sense, when you stand back and you breathe and stop, you know, how can it be any other way than our happiness we find inside of ourselves? And the true happiness is when we find out who we truly are and are able to really stand on our two feet and be totally present and to say, actually, I understand who I am. I’m able to look out in the world with with this eyes of understanding rather than chasing something outside of ourself, you know. And I see it all the time, you know, it’s this, you know, someone… their greatest ambition is to get a Ph.D.
And they think that’s going to be the answer. And then they get their Ph.D. and the next day, it’s like, well, what’s next? And I think this idea of going from one thing and then realizing it’s not the answer, then looking for another thing that’s not the answers is, you know, with power, it’s with, as you say, with sex, it’s with fame, all those things. And we see so many examples in the outside world, especially around fame of this idea that it will create happiness. But so when you get underneath it, so few people who seek fame truly are happy because they’re living who they’re not. And how can you be happy if you’re who you’re not? Brother, I’m just wondering, can you read us the short gatha on complexes? Because I think that would be really interesting.
Yes. If you think you are greater, less than, or equal, you cause dissension. When those three complexes have ended, nothing can agitate your mind.
Hmm. So do you want to explain that a moment, brother?
Yes. So. We all have complexes and I still how complexes, I’m not saying that I am free from it. And a lot of the time these complexes divide us. It is because we feel more superior than somebody else. We look down on them, we cut them off from us. That’s a complex. That’s arrogance. That’s ego. That’s pride. That’s something that can push people away from us. The second, and I think actually the third complex, which is like inferiority, which is feeling not worthy, feeling smaller than and always running after something else and then idolizing someone else and not truly touching their own true beauty in this very moment. And that complex can also bring us so much suffering, can make us feel so worthless. And then even equality, and when we talk about equality here, right now, there’s a lot of discrimination through different races. This is the equality when we’re running after, it means that because we feel that we are not equal to that person, therefore, we want to be equal, that we’re still not free, we’re still running after something. And then if we feel as equal as that person and we see somebody else more inferior than us and that we’re still not free. So in Buddhist meditation and in the Buddhist teachings we have to transcend these three complexes. We have to see us as one, as a whole. This is because that is. We all inter-be, we all are flowers of humanity, and each flower is unique in its own way.
So I was… This is a perfect segue way for what was on my mind, brother, because I was walking with my wife a few days ago and we were walking past – all the sunflowers here are in bloom – so we were walking past a huge field of sunflowers. And I stopped and I asked my wife, I said: You know, if you were a sunflower in this field, which one would you be? And so that… You know, and the sunflowers all point towards the sun, but there’s often one or to that point the other direction. She said: I would be one of the ones in the middle of the field, but would be pointing away from the sun because she has this wish to be different and to not be just one of the mass. And she asked me the same question and just in front of where we were standing was this very, very… On the edge of, for those who don’t know, on the edge of the sunflower fields often there are some very tiny ones that are sort of, that are like a fifth of the size of the big ones, and they look rather inferior. And I said, I feel like I’m that sunflower. And it’s funny because I’ve spent my whole life feeling at the edge, but wanting to go into the center, so wanting to be one of the big sunflowers. And my wife said: Ah, well, I’ve been always… Because as a child, she was a model and an actress, and she was by her mother put in the center, she said, I’ve always been at the center wanting to come to the edge. But for me, what I realized that, you know, as a child, I had a deep inferiority complex and it colored everything in my life. I always thought that other people had the answer that I didn’t. I was always looking for other people’s company. And even at university people called me a butterfly because I was so desperate to be liked and to have the attention that I would go to any group and just light there for a few minutes, then go off to another group. Because, actually, I was always looking for that. And what I realized is that low self-esteem actually always led to me feeling less than and always thought that other people were the answer. And I remember how needy I was to fill that hole. And one small thing that comes to my mind, I once went to Australia to a big environmental conference and I also went to Davos every year. And at each of these places they have, they have your sort of… the card you have that shows, puts your name in and knows who you are. And they always have different levels. So, at Davos, they have the sort of the diamond one. If you’ve been going for 20 years, you are super important. And then they have the basic white one, and then, you know… And at this conference in Australia, I had the highest level badge which gave me access to everything. And I remember when I was given it, I thought, wow, I can go into all these places. And so I thought, well, I’m going to make use of this, and so I went to the places where I could go that no one, very few other people could go and I went in. But actually, I felt very lonely. I felt that in all those places which were very exclusive, actually, they were pretty dead. But out in the main sort of event, there was loads of life and it reminded me of a story I once heard on the radio of someone who said they went to Africa and they went on safari and they, first of all, went to this very posh place and the waiters and the staff were not allowed to talk to the guests. And it was this sort of stultifying atmosphere. But then they moved on to another lodge, which was very friendly and everyone was talking to each other and was like, there was hardly a difference between the guests and the staff and how that created this warmth and sense of community. And I wrote an article which was based on that, on that experience, that feeling. And also I mentioned the Dr Seuss story, The Stars upon Thars, which has one group of characters who have stars on their chest and feel very, very important. And then the ones who don’t have stars who feel like they’re nothing. And then this character comes along with this machine called ‘the stars out and stars off’ machine. And the ones with stars who didn’t have stars can go in and pay $5 and then have stars on them. And so they become super important. And then the other ones with stars want to be different. So they pay $5 and it takes their stars off and eventually it becomes a hot mess where actually they will realize they were all exactly the same. And I just know that, you know, one of the things about this practice that has helped me the most, I would say, is to let go of my inferiority complex and come back to myself and realize actually that I do not need to be inferior. And also the temptation that if you feel inferior, there’s this temptation to feel superior to get away from your inferiority complex and also then project back onto the people who then you feel are inferior and project your fears onto them. So I really, really understand that sense of letting go of that.
And I just wanted to end with the last gatha, which wraps up this sutra: ‘Ending desire, overcoming the three complexes, our mind is stilled, we have nothing to long for. We lay aside all affliction and sorrow, in this life and in the lives to come.’ And after that, the young goddess understood and she went away. And our teacher would remind us over and over again: Be beautiful, be yourself. And each of us is a flower. And we’re always growing. And there is going to be moments when we need to be the big flower that will shine towards the sun to help the other sunflowers shine towards the sun. And sometimes we don’t need to be that big flower. There’s another big flower. Enjoy being a part of all of these other flowers. And then there’s going to be moments when we’re just going to be a little flower, when we need a little bit time for ourselves, a little bit of space for ourselves to have some suffering. That’s also totally fine. And we’re always growing, we’re always changing, and that is the beauty of us. And if we recognize that we’re always changing and the way we will take care of ourselves in this very moment will be who we are tomorrow, then our future is very bright.
And, brother, if we truly understand these complexes, then we can be present for other people when they come with their suffering and to show and by our example that it is possible to be different. So not only do we save ourselves, but we support other people and we change the future.
Exactly. So there’s going to be times when we’ll be the leaders, but it’s going to be moments when we don’t have to be, and enjoy that moment. And that’s also a gift, that’s a gift of trust that we have to continue to develop in our life.
Dear readers, I think that’s enough for one day. So for those of you who followed us all the way to this moment, we would just like to finish off as we do in nearly every episode with a short, guided meditation by Brother Phap Huu. Brother…
Dear listener, this is that moment when I would like to invite you to practice meditation with me. If you have a chance to sit still, to stand still or to lie down, just come back to your breath in this very moment, become aware of it. Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. This is inbreath. This is an outbreath. Breathing in, I follow my inbreath from the beginning to the end. Breathing out, I follow my outbreath from the beginning to the end. Deep inbreath, deep outbreath. Breathing in, I feel ease in this moment. Breathing out, there is calmness in this very moment. In, ease. Out, calm. Breathing in, I connect to my freshness inside of me, like a flower. Breathing out, I am a flower in the garden of humanity. Beautiful and fresh. In, flower. Out, fresh. Breathing in, there is solidity in me. I feel solid, present, still. Breathing out, like a mountain. In, solid. Out, mountain. Breathing in, there is calmness, stillness, just like a clear lake reflecting reality as it is. Whatever is present in me, recognize it, embrace it, take care of it. In, stillness. Out, like a clear lake. And breathing in, I have space inside of me, I have love, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness. Breathing out, that is freedom. Freedom from desire. In, space. Out, freedom. Breathing in, I’m in touch with this present moment. Breathing out, this is a wonderful moment.
Thank you, listeners, for practicing with us, and we look forward to seeing you again in the next episode.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this and just say if you have enjoyed it, you can find all our episodes on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on all platforms that do podcasts. And, particular mention, as always, to the Plum Village App, where you’ll find so many resources that can support you in your daily life.
And we would like to give thanks to the Thich Nhat Hanh foundation, as well as the Plum Village community for this podcast to be possible.
The way out is in.