Welcome to episode nine 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 are joined by special guest Zen Buddhist nun Sister True Dedication (Sister Hien Nghiem). Together, they look deeply at the whole concept of engaged Buddhism, and ways in which Thich Nhat Hanh made ancient teachings relevant to day-to-day questions.
Additionally, they discuss: how Plum Village is shedding the stereotypes about Buddhist monastic life; how to refresh Buddhism through a hands-on approach and engaging teachings in daily life; what it means to not take sides; the roots of evil; reducing suffering through compassionate action; healing; patience.
Brother Phap Huu digs into: what it means to apply Buddhism in contemporary life; the spiritual dimension of breathing; the importance of communities and practice centers as spiritual refuges; the dynamics of anger coming up; moving from anger to peace in activism. Plus: can you guess the one time it’s best not to do sitting meditation?
Sister True Dedication shares insights about: the early events in Thich Nhat Hanh’s life which led to the inception of the engaged Buddhism movement in war-torn Vietnam; Thay’s peace activism and his exile; Buddhism’s potential to deal with injustice; Plum Village monastery’s engagement with the outside world and what this busy community of monastics has to offer it, through retreats and active engagement in various causes. She also delves into ways of handling strong emotions, deep looking, understanding the roots of our suffering, and the importance of dialogue. And what does compassion look like in a time of crisis? How can we listen to those people in our lives who we least want to listen to?
Jo remembers his first visit to Plum Village, and tea with Thay. He further muses on: how feeling steady and grounded can act as “the tuning fork” of our being; how we can perpetuate mindful living by simply approaching the world mindfully; failure and criticism.
Finally, Brother Phap Huu ends the episode with a guided meditation on embracing suffering with compassion.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Mindfulness, Suffering, and Engaged Buddhism
The Practice for Engaged Buddhism
Please Call Me by My True Names
Israeli Palestinian Retreat
Invoking the Bodhisattva
Gross National Happiness
“We need to act with the urgency of today and the patience of a thousand years.”
“Thay says that it doesn’t matter if you’re Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian; as long as you’re breathing, you have a spiritual dimension and can practice.”
“I’d describe Plum Village as a beautiful oasis, and an engine of healing, transformation, and training. So we’re really training in practical skills that we can later take back into life outside the monastery.”
“The most effective tool in my toolbox is to turn up mindfully, because it gives others the chance to also come home.”
“[Thay] said, when we hear the bombs falling all around us, how can we sit there and do nothing, or sit there and just chant? It’s not enough. Our compassion has to reveal itself.”
“In multiple talks, Thay says that everyone needs a spiritual dimension in order to cope with what’s happening in the world, or to themselves. We may have that aspiration, but we need companions to support us. That’s where a community comes in and can be an example, can lead, and can also be a companion.”
“When Thay was exposed to peace activists and events and retreats and conversations and dialogue, his realization was that there’s a lot of anger in the peace movement. This became the kernel of Thay’s development of real practices of peace, so that, as an individual peace activist, we have a way to calm our body, to calm our emotions, to keep our mind clear, and to be truly nonviolent in body and mind.”
“You could send all the bombs to the moon, but you would still have the roots of war in people’s hearts and minds. It’s not about destroying all the nuclear warheads; it’s about destroying the nuclear warheads that are there because we hate each other, because we resent each other, because we can’t handle the other side politically, because we can’t handle people who have betrayed us. So for Thay, then, the challenge became this much deeper, human one: of creating environments where we can heal, transform, and look deeply, and make use of Buddhist teachings.”
“Our practice is to understand the roots of our suffering.”
“A bigger impact is what we carry from thought into our daily action, whether by words or by deed.”
“Man is not our enemy. It is ignorance, fear, and despair that is the root of all of this negative action.”
“When we say that, in our tradition, we do our best to not take sides, we don’t deny that people are doing what we would call wrong action or wrong speech, or perpetrating injustice against others and creating harm. What it means is that we position ourselves a little differently, and want to avoid placing blame and the aggressive stance of labeling someone a perpetrator. Because, with our way of looking at things, the perpetrator is themselves also a victim, of their wrong view, and of the wrong way of seeing the world, which is leading to this hate speech or hateful action.”
“Man is not the enemy. The enemy is wrong views. And, according to Buddhist teaching, the way to liberate ourselves from wrong views is with deep looking, and with listening, and reexamining what’s going on. And for that, we need a huge amount of compassion and collective energy, which monastics can help to bring.”
“When you’re angry, you are not very clear, you are not very present, and you won’t really see what to do and what not to do. Because, at that moment of energy erupting inside of you, the natural tendency is to act, to punish. Anger goes with punishment; they are very linked. And often we will want to retaliate, to make the ones who made us suffer, suffer themselves. But in Buddhism, we want to break free from that; we see that they make us suffer because, actually, they suffer.”
“Taking time to see the hurt that precedes the hatred and the anger, and to give that hurt the witness, the embracing, the holding, and ultimately the healing by bringing it out to the light and saying, actually, it is this hurt that we need to take care of. That work takes time. It’s not the work of one or two days; in Plum Village, those retreats would be at least two weeks long. Fourteen days of breathing, of living simply, of mindful walking, mindful eating, quiet time, sitting and breathing and meditation, as well as the support of a whole community.”
“We cannot possibly build a future unless we’re able to talk to each other, unless we’re able to dialogue across the divide, unless we’re able to respect each other’s differences and different needs.”
“When we’re angry at someone, we’re always angry at ourselves. When we see someone else being wrong, we’re always, to some extent, thinking that we’re wrong.”
“There’s enough suffering already, we don’t have to contribute more.”
Dear listeners, welcome to the latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino
and I am Brother Phap Huu.
In this episode, we’re going to look deeply at the whole concept of engaged Buddhism, to be engaged with ourselves and then to reach out into the world and make a difference through a sense of peace and equanimity rather than anger and frustration.
The way out is in.
Today, we have a wonderful sister with us. Sister, please introduce yourself.
Hello, everybody. My name is Sister True Dedication, and I’m also a nun, a monastic, in a Plum Village Zen tradition.
And we’re sitting in southwest France in a boiling hot day, sitting in a very small hut. So you won’t hear the sweat pouring from our bodies, but it is. Today we’re going to be talking about engaged Buddhism. And the reason we’re talking about that is because a lot of people have a misperception that Buddhism is around sitting quietly and contemplating navel. And especially monasteries, we have the sort of myth of a sort of Tibetan monastery high in the mountains where people go and retreat from life and try and reach nirvana. But in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh that could not be further than the truth. Brother Phap Huu tell us a little bit about engaged Buddhism.
Well, where do we start? I think there’s many layers to engage Buddhism, but let’s touch the present moment for us. So in our tradition, in our monastery, we get to experience meditation in everyday life. And one of the key that we always ask ourselves when we practice Buddhism is how do I apply this? How can I engage these teachings into my daily life? And this is where our teacher Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh becomes very skillful with in creating an environment that is welcoming, creating activities that doesn’t feel like is so mythical and is actually very down-to- earth. And then the teachings from the Buddha through now our teacher and now many Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition, we teach in a new tone, I would say, in a new language that is very easy to understand. And I remember one time Thay told all of us that in one of his way of renewing Buddhism and refreshing Buddhism is to make Buddhism more simple. So that means the practice that we apply and we learn in Plum Village we can apply it from the moment you here the teaching. For example, our core teaching and our core practice is mindful breathing and Thay says that it doesn’t matter if you’re Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, as long as you’re breathing, you have a spiritual dimension and you can practice. And that is a very new language. And that was very eye-opening for me. I grew up in Canada and my family is Buddhist and my only image of a temple is like incense, chanting, a lot of praying, a lot of wishing in a way like ‘please grant me this if I do something good’. And then coming to Plum Village, what was very impressive that my first impression was meeting a young monk and nun. I’d never met a young monk and nun. And the way that the monk bowed to me really left a mark in my memory. And that was, I would say, my first impression of Plum Village. And the way he bowed was just so gentle, so kind. And he was fully present. And I was only nine at that time. So imagine a nine year old boy being greeted with so much respect. It was almost kind of like blown… I was blown away and then arriving at the monastery, this is back in 1996, so Plum Village has gone a long way in our development. And back then it was very rural. It was like a farm and there was nothing like a temple. There was no curvy roof. There was not a lot of Buddha statue, nor a lot of incense. But what I felt was the environment, the atmosphere of togetherness and the conditions that made everyone kind of collective. Was that everybody had this aspiration. And we talk a lot about aspiration in Buddhism, and this aspiration is the aspiration of wanting to renew oneself, understand oneself more, and how to make my life more beautiful and understand my own suffering. And this is one of the layer of engaged Buddhism is how do I practice in the present moment, heal in the present moment and transform in the present moment for the past and the future.
Right. Sister True Dedication, can you talk a little bit about the life of this monastery of Plum Village, because, again, as I was saying, a lot of people think monasteries are where you come to be quiet and the monastics never go out into the world. But Plum Village is so different from it. What is the role of Plum Village in terms of engagement in the world?
So I love what Brother Phap Huu was just sharing. I think what Plum Village is above all, is an environment. So if you are there in the city or having a really bad day, having a terrible day at work and you just want a refuge, an oasis somewhere that has a different perspective on life, the universe and everything, where time feels like it goes at a different speed, but also where you can really get that… satisfy your thirst to answer your deepest questions. And that’s what Plum Village offers. So what’s so funny, right, is according to what we can work out, we seem to be the busiest monastery definitely in Europe and possibly even in Europe and America. So we’re more than 200 monastics here. And in non-pandemic times we have a lot of people coming through. So several hundred at a time every week to have a really special seven days with us or 14 days or 21 days. So it’s a chance to like step… And we sometimes describe in Buddhism as space outside a space time outside of time. So it’s a chance to really get in touch with nature, to rest and to relax. And then as Brother Phap Huu was saying, you know what we’re doing here, it’s not philosophy, it’s not I’d even dare say it’s not religion. It’s really, really practical. How do we handle a strong emotion? You know, so many of us in the world and I include myself in it because I’m also part of the world, even though I live in a monastery, you know, we have great anxiety. We have greater fear now, we don’t know what our future is going to look like. How do we handle that despair? How do we handle our anxiety for the planet, for our society? How do we deal with the frustration around injustice and inequity? Right? These are real questions. And Buddhism is wanting to answer all of these things. How can we restore communication with our loved ones who we fell out with last week? How do we do it? That’s what people can learn like in a week here. So it’s a bit… you can always describe it also as a kind of laboratory where a really living, evolving, vital community… So in our busy weeks, you might have two hundred monks and nuns with six hundred guests, you know, in the beautiful French countryside, practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating and then learning deeper practices not only around relaxation, but also really communication and what we would call healing and reconciliation ourselves with ourselves and ourselves with difficult things are going on in our life. So for me, I’d probably describe Plum Village as a kind of a beautiful oasis, engine of healing, transformation and training. So we’re really training in really practical skills that we can then take back out into our life outside the monastery.
Great. And I remember…. So when I came to Plum Village for the first time, that thanks in part to you Sister True Dedication that Thich Nhat Hanh agreed for myself and my wife Paz to have a marriage ceremony in the main meditation hall. In the next day, Thay invited us for tea, which was in itself a great, great privilege and honor. And I and always remember Thay… You talk about, Brother Phap Huu, about being simple. Thay asked me the most simple question. He said: How has your experience been here the last two weeks? Couldn’t be more simple, but what I heard come out of my mouth was that, because I hadn’t thought about it, I said: these have been two of the happiest weeks of my life. And Thay said, well, you know, why? And I said, because this is the first time in my life where I feel I’ve come home to myself. And for so much of my life, I’d been at war with myself. There’s been one part of me attacking the other part. It’s been like this constant war. And this was the first time where I felt that both sides put down their weapons and I was able to be truly present and be truly myself. And what I realized is that by being in that state and to some extent being able to maintain it, I’m much more effective when I go out into the world, because actually when I’m balanced, when I feel at home, when I feel steady and grounded, when I go out and do the work I do in the world, I’m able to bring that. And that’s it’s a bit like a tuning fork that when I’m able to resonate to that tune, it gives other people permission to be the same. And in fact, I found that the most effective tool in my toolbox is to turn up mindfully because it gives other people the chance to come home also.
Beautiful. And can I also just add, I think one of our responsibility as a practice center is also a refuge, like a spiritual refuge. And I’ve heard on multiple talks, our teacher shares that everyone needs a spiritual dimension in order to cope with everything that’s happening in the world to themselves. And we may have that aspiration, but we need to have companions to support us. And that’s where a community comes in and can be an example, can be a lead, also can be a companion. And I think this was very important for me because I notice that I’m someone who is very eager to start something and I may start it, but the fire can be turned off really quickly. But if I have others around me to help remind me and to help show me, then I can maintain it much longer. And I see that with meditation is the same. A lot of us, we have this aspiration, but if it hasn’t yet become such a foundation for us in our daily life, it’s very hard to be motivated. So coming to Plum Village or any monasteries or any practice centers is also to help people be reminded of this awakened nature inside of them. And I think this is really important because even for monks and nuns, sometimes we feel like we’ve become a monk or a nun and we’re leaving society because in the word Vietnamese, like xuất gia, it means we leave, we exit, we exit our family. We are kind of like departing from the normal world, enter into a spiritual world, but it’s actually… looking at my teacher’s life and looking at his mission is the opposite. He’s so engaged and he always wants to see, understand the suffering of the world. And how can I help as a monk? Because a monk and nun, we’re also a part of society. And I think one of Thay’s vision of renewing Buddhism, like showing the monks and nuns, like we’re human beings. It’s OK to suffer, but we know how to take care of our suffering. And that is what is going to give us experience and give us the kind of tool in order to share to the the many people that come here and to let the monks and nuns know that we’re also a part of the world and we have a responsibility to continue to be engaged, even though we do have our space, our quietness, our spiritual home. But we shouldn’t be too comfortable. And I think this is what motivated me, and that’s why I feel inspired to to become a monk. And when I saw Thay, I just… Whenever I saw him walk in the monastery, I just saw this man who’s been through so much and can still walk with so much peace. And I was like, how do I do that?
Sister True Dedication, can you talk a bit more about sort of almost just a brief historical perspective on Thich Nhat Hanh’s activism in the world, because he was very active in obviously dealing with the Vietnam War and trying to bring peace and working with Martin Luther King on that. He was very active in saving the Vietnamese boat people. He’s been very active on the environment front. I mean, actually, his whole life is one of engage Buddhism. Can you just talk a bit about… give us some sort of context to that?
Well, I love is the the length of the arc of Thay’s life. So when he’s entering the monastery, the temple, age 16, you know, this is a temple without electricity, without running water. They’re taking water from the well. They’re having to boil water with, you know, a fire started with pine needles. He’s taking care of buffalos in the rice fields. So it’s a very, very simple and rustic life. And I think what an incredible span to go from that, then in like 2013, hanging out at Google, the World Bank and Harvard and everything else. And I sometimes ask myself, what drove such an arc of life where Thay from such a simple and almost sort of ancient way of living, you know, there would have been the same for hundreds of years in the Zen temples in Vietnam… What really drove Thay on a path of deep, deeper seeking? And I think what it was, is that in bearing witness to so much suffering around him, first of all, under the colonial occupation of the French, then a little bit of the Japanese during the Second World War, then the wars actually with the French, then as the Second World War came to an end and as the French were withdrawing or not, then there was a huge amount of violence and skirmishes around that time. And it was already then in the late 40s, early 50s, Thay has this burning question: how can the Buddhism that I’m studying and learning in the temple, that I’m chanting in the sutras, what does it have to offer, to speak to the problems of my day? And I think there was a whole movement in Asia at that time in the early 20th century. How can we have a robust, dynamic, applied, engaged Buddhism that really speaks to contemporary problems and is not only a Buddhism of ritual and perhaps a sprinkling of superstition, you know. There was a lot of reliance on ceremony at that time, and there was a whole wave of, I guess, awakened study that Thay sort of rode in on. And he had a chance to have wonderful mentors and great peers as he was growing up then as a young monk in Saigon in the late 50s, 1950s. And he really saw the immense potential of the deep practical wisdom of Buddhism. What is the word? The teachings of Buddhism had the power to name what is the root of the suffering and the power to give a practical path through it, to be able to see clearly what is injustice, what does injustice look like and what is a Buddhist response to it. How can you have upright engaged speech for what is right and not what is wrong? You know, like what is the foundation for that? How can you be at the service of those who are poor, those who are oppressed, those who are victims of injustice without burning out? And they started to be the questions that he and his peers were facing, and that’s what led them to create an engaged Buddhist movement. And so there was a wonderful amount of writings, you know, what do you do when you’ve got a corrupt political regime? What do you do when the poor are starving? What do you do when people have no opportunity and no education? And they created what was kind of like a Peace Corps, a young Peace Corps there in Vietnam. And it was by creating this incredible initiative and really seeing what Buddhism might look like in action, in terms of social work, bringing education, irrigation, medicine to rural villages, helping them reconstruct after the bombs. It was really like hands-on work. What does compassion look like in a time of crisis? And for me, this is really powerful to understand the roots of Thay’s Buddhism because he was seeking this as a young man. Now we’re all in our 30s, I’ve just reached forty, Thay was a young man in his mid to late thirties at this time of real experimentation. He said, when we hear the bombs falling all around us, you know, how can we just sit there and do nothing or just sit there and only chant? It’s not enough. Our compassion has to reveal itself in action. So this is the 1960s and Vietnam, like you say, that then led to Thay’s peace activism. We would call Thay a peace activist. And anti-war activism both in Vietnam and then he was invited to America to represent the voice of the Vietnamese people for peace. And through his friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, he met many other spiritual leaders who were also trying to to bring peace. But unfortunately, that was why he was then exiled from his homeland for 39 years. He didn’t know it at the time. He thought it might just be a short exile, but it turned out to be almost four decades. And so then what we have is someone with a great what we would call in Buddhism bodhicitta – a great wish to reduce suffering in the world through compassionate action, finds himself isolated from his homeland in the West. And so then Thay was really exposed to peace activists and with events and retreats and conversations and dialog. And his first realization then was there’s a lot of anger in the peace movement. And this started, I think, to be really the kernel of Thay’s development of real practices of peace that can help the work of peace so that as an individual peace activist, we have something we can do to calm our body, to calm our emotions, to keep our mind clear and to be truly nonviolent in body and mind as we do the peace work. And then went Thay couldn’t go back to help his homeland, even though the suffering in Vietnam was only continuing to increase. And then with the flight of the boat people leaving Vietnam, then he, as you said, had these programs to to rescue the boat people from the high seas and save as many lives as they could. In many ways, his efforts were, you know, thwarted and undermined by the authorities. But we can really see Thay’s heart like, what is the big suffering and what can I do about it? Thay sponsored tens of thousands of orphans, so young children being orphaned in Vietnam. They then spent a lot of their time in their late 70s and 80s, Thay and his friends, raising money to be able to sponsor young orphans back in Vietnam. And what is really interesting is then the shift that started to happen for Thay and his friends and colleagues in the late 70s where they realized that in order to truly be a fountain, a source of peace, it’s so important to have an environment of practice where people can come to… They can hear one talk, they can maybe, you know, spend a day or an afternoon with you. But what Thay really wanted to see is if that change of habits could happen over a longer time and that the healing that we all need in order to be less violent and less toxic in the world. What is the environment that can make that healing possible? So they started with a small center outside Paris that they… little farmstead, and they quickly outgrew that. And that’s how we ended up with Plum Village in the early 1980s. That wish to transform the deep roots of violence and fear that lie in our hearts and to transform that over many days, many weeks even through our own healing, to transform those habits. And one of the lines I love the most from Thay which I find so powerful, he said, you can send all the bombs to the moon. And that time there was the nuclear disarmament disarmament kind of campaigns. You can send all the bombs to the moon, but you would still have the roots of war in people’s hearts and minds. It’s not about destroying all the nuclear warheads. It’s about destroying the nuclear warheads that are there because we hate each other, because we resent each other, because we can’t handle the other side politically, because we can’t handle people who have betrayed us. So for Thay, then the challenge became this much deeper human challenge of creating environments where we can heal, transform and look deeply and making use of Buddhist teachings to effect that kind of transformation. So what’s interesting, as Brother Phap Huu was saying, we offer really simple practices, but they’re rooted in the ancient teachings, the ancient texts, and would be recognizably Buddhist practices, but just without the kind of ritual and superstition.
Right. And I always remember when I went to Bhutan a few few years ago with my wife and there were there facing a lot of problems with young people there, sort of drugs and drink and all sorts of problems even in Bhutan. And the Gross National Happiness Project was trying to get the local monastics in Bhutan to come and work with the young people. And the monastics refused to come down from the monasteries up in the mountains to work with young people, so the Gross National Happiness Project was actually flying in monastics from Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in Hong Kong to come and do the work with young people. So that for me, it was just such a powerful sort of recognition of the difference between a sort of traditional Buddhism, which is which is sort of withdrawn, as opposed to one that is engaged. But Brother Phap Huu just picking up on something Sister True Dedication was talking about, which was about time never took sides. And I was always amazed at that because because in this world currently in the modern world, people seem to only take sides, you know, either for something or against something. And if someone speaks out, someone else is attacking them. And it’s a very toxic atmosphere. But Thay had this extraordinary ability to say, actually, it’s not about someone being right and about someone being wrong. And one of his most famous poems, I think, is Call Me by My True Names, where he equates, in a sense, in terms of the Vietnamese boat. People are sort of young girl sort of being raped by a sea pirate and the sea pirate themselves. And actually that you can’t say one was good and one was evil. Can you talk to us a little bit about what it is not to take a side?
Well, this is a deep question. I’ll try my best. In Buddhism, our practice is to have breakthroughs and have an insight to see beyond the opposites. And we talk about a lot of opposites in Buddhism. Suffering and happiness is an opposite. Evil and goodness is an opposite. Left and right. Up and down. And we can keep going on and on. And the reality is that if there is a left, there is a right. If there is happiness, suffering is there. And another one that’s very… which is maybe the core of our fear is our death. And if there is death, there is life. And if there’s life, there is death. We’re all of the nature of all of these opposites also. So in the practice when Sister True Dedication did talk about in Buddhism our practice is to understand the roots of our suffering. And a lot of the times, the root of our actions, whether it is good or evil, depends from that foundation of how we are cultivating our nature, meaning our capacity of love or capacity of understanding how… what is our mind, what is our views in life, which then leads to action in words, in thinking, even our thoughts is an action. But then what is a bigger impact is what we carry on from the thought into our daily action, whether it is by words or whether it is by deed, by daily activities. And I think for Thay at that moment of being in the midst of the war, you can’t deny that there is suffering. You have to see that there is suffering there. But what is the cause of it? And it is from wrong view. And one of the insight that Thay has and he’s written into another poem which later on he shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And in one of the peace march, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had that phrase in a banner. And we have a photo of it. And it is very powerful and it says that: Man is not our enemy. It is ignorance, fear, despair, that is the root of all of this action. It is because this side has these thoughts, therefore he behaves that way. And so when you meditate like that, then you can see beyond that person’s daily action and you can somehow, if there is somehow a way to touch compassion in you, then that you protect yourself. And it doesn’t mean that we accept his or her action, but it means that we can meditate on this action and see beyond the action we see. He or she is behaving like this is because he or she has such a wrong feel and he or she is being led by these conditions. And as a meditation practitioner, then we have to ask then how can we help that person see the light?
Yeah, I think now so in our really politically divided times, we also sometimes hear that, you know, we can’t have the step of kind of truth and reconciliation until we’ve really had the step of like listening, healing and really acknowledging what harm has been done to sort of each side. And so when we say that in our tradition, we do our best to not take sides as Brother Phap Huu was saying it doesn’t mean that people are not doing what we would call wrong action or wrong speech or perpetrating injustice against others and creating harm. But what it means is that we position ourselves a little bit differently and we want to avoid this blaming and a more aggressive stance of, you know, labeling someone a perpetrator, because with our way of looking at things, the perpetrator is themselves also a victim of their wrong view, of the wrong way of seeing the world, which is leading to this hate speech or hateful action. Even if they’re a powerful person or outwardly powerful, they’re also… they can still be a victim of their wrong views. And as a practitioner, our role is to try and help them open their mind. So maybe release their view and broaden their perspective. And this dialog has a huge role in this. So it’s not a passive… we’re not going to take sides, we’re going to sit on the sidelines and witness injustice happening between groups. That’s not the case. It’s our responsibility to offer our presence as much as we can, our compassion, and to speak out and say, hang on, there is listening needed here. There is great wrong taking place, but let us try and understand each side. What are your fears? What are your concerns? Why do you feel so threatened by the other side? And it creates a different kind of dialog. If we take the example of the American political scene, the right, the Republicans, they also have fears and concerns. They’re afraid of losing something. What are they afraid of losing? What are the values that they’re holding dear? And for the other side, the progressives, we might be more familiar with them. We know what are the values they also cherish and that they’re afraid of losing. So there’s a question of dialog and framing. And I think that’s where many different contemplative traditions can contribute something because we can offer our presence, our support, our holding, our listening to create a safe space where maybe just at a kind of pilot level, different groups from the different sides can begin to really listen to one another at a human level. Man is not the enemy. The enemy is the wrong views. And the way, according to Buddhist teaching to liberate ourselves from wrong views is with deep looking and with listening and reexamining kind of what’s going on. And for that, we need a huge amount of compassion and kind of collective energy that I think the monastics can help to bring. And Thay always encouraged us to offer as best we can.
It’s very hard, though, isn’t it? Because if you take the example of, let’s say, climate change, you’ve got the big American oil companies, friends of the global oil companies, sort of wreaking havoc with the environment. And you have the campaigners who want to change them. So it’s a hard balance to get right, isn’t it? Because if you keep on attacking the oil executives, they withdraw and they get defensive and so they withdraw from the debate. So that’s not healthy. But at the same time, if they are not challenged and they’re not shown up for what they’re doing, then in a sense you’re giving them permission to carry on so, you know, it is a fine line to get that right.
It is. And I think this is where it’s like we need all all kinds of human to contribute. Right. We need we need all different kinds of roles. You know, we need the Greta Thunbergs who are just calling it out as it is very direct, truthtelling, very clear. We also need the activists who are moved to put their body in the way to block the pipelines, to block the trees from being felled, we need those people. They, I mean, my understanding would be they’re also Bodhisattva expressing one part of the human conscience with their own bodies, putting their life and liberty in danger to be able to stop these actions. And we also need some of us to volunteer to be the bridge builders, to open up communication to go towards the heart of these people who are causing harm and really not only to our own generation, but to future generations to the planet, to other species. But we need those of us who can volunteer to go towards them, you know, in a spirit of non combativeness, but in a spirit of human, I’d say human help and friendship, like in the in a Buddhist sense, we’d also say we don’t want them to have that Karma of committing such harm in their lifetime. And everyone has a chance to turn around and to follow another path if the awakening is strong enough. So I think we do need all parts of human society to engage as we can and in all these different levels. But I think, as Christiana Figueres has said in explaining her own work, like with the Koch brothers, who are the big oil industrialists that, you know, she has been in rooms with them and it’s her practice to meet them, first of all, as human beings. And it’s been her Buddhist practice in our tradition, her practice of breathing and deep looking and compassionate presence that has allowed her to be in a room with them, to engage them in conversation and to keep that human connection in order to understand what is it they don’t yet get? What is it that they have not yet understood about the facts about this situation that leads them to still cause harm? And so, you know, Christiana, I’d say is a Bodhisattva volunteering herself at that level, but I think we need everyone we we need all of us to contribute in our own different ways and spheres.
And Brother Phap Huu can you talk a bit more about what Sister True Dedication was talking about was when people get angry. So there’s so much anger in the world that people are opposing things and that anger comes out. Can you just talk a little bit about the dynamics of what happens when anger comes up, but also what is the practice by which people can go from a place of just seeing real anger at the injustice in the world to a place of peaceful activism?
Are you asking me this because you see I’m an angry monk?
I’ve never seen you angry. I’ll catch you out one day.
Yeah, we’ve been asked this before, and anger is a very powerful energy and it’s a big source of energy that can lead to a lot of destruction. If we look at war, a lot of it is also caused by that, by anger or terrorism as by a view that leads to a lot of anger. So a lot of a lot of the questions sometimes they ask us, like if we are angry isn’t that and we want to do something good. Isn’t that a positive energy? And our practice is to say that, yes, anger is present and it is a part of you, but when you’re angry, you are not very clear, you are not very present and you won’t really see what to do and what not to do, because at that time, at that very moment of that that energy that is erupting inside of you, the natural tendency is wanting to act, to punish. Anger goes a lot along with punishment, as I think those two are very linked. And most of the time we will want to cultivate that mind in order to retaliate to to make the ones who suffer, who made us suffer, for them to suffer because we may see them as equal. And in Buddhism, we we want to even break free from that. We see that they make us suffer is because they actually suffer. And our practice, we have a whole mindfulness precept or mindfulness training that is just dedicating to taking care of our anger. And our practice it tells us when we are angry, the first thing we need to do is to recognize it, be present with it and embrace it and take care of it. And taking care of it to direct our energy into a foundation where it can be embraced, just like a mother holding a baby that’s crying like our anger is crying. And we, for myself and I think for many of us in Plum Village, we will take refuge in mindful walking to be with nature. Let nature also embrace us. Let nature hear our anger, but let nature use the love that is around us to try to tell us that beauty is still present. So let’s not be more disruptive, let’s now see what the situation is and how do we take care of the situation that doesn’t lead to more anger. Because sometimes we are angry, we want to punish and it just escalates and they will come back to us and it will be just non stop cycle of just punishment, violence and back-and-forth, back-and-forth. In Buddhism and meditation, one of the wing is to stop. So if we see we are angry, we have to learn how to recognize our anger and make sure we don’t now contribute back to another source of anger. And it sounds much easier than done. And what we are what I was encouraged by one of my mentor when I was a young monk. I am still a young monk, but younger, was when you’re angry, don’t do sitting meditation. Don’t sit still because you don’t have yet the capacity to truly hold and be present with the anger, but to be with the body because your emotion is very connected to your body, you will feel the tension. You will see your fist, you will see your body being very stiff and then learn to relax your body. Let your relaxation also guide the energy of anger and let yourself be in a position where you can ease yourself, where peace can be born. And at that time, what we connect to is our energy of mindfulness. So we have an energy of anger. We recognize it. Then we have to come to our our store consciousness, which all of us have. We have this seed of mindfulness inside of us, which is awareness. And we tell our awareness to say, I am angry, let me be with my anger, and then we can even guide the anger, talk to the anger. I have done this. I said anger, breathe with me. Breathing in, I know anger you are there. Breathing out, I am embracing you. And something happens at that moment. It’s like a crying baby says, huh, you’re there for me? OK, let me be with you. Because that emotion is you. There is a reason why you are being angry and then you have a chance to also see the action that is making you angry. Is it even worth it? A lot of times if we are so… if we’re in an environment that we’re always triggered and our seed of anger is very big, anything can make us react and even explode and we may regret that. And so in that moment of anger, we’re not very lucid, we’re not very present. And that’s why we say don’t rely on the energy of anger, transform the energy of anger and let it become understanding, let it become compassion. And don’t think compassion is very gentle, very kind. And it’s flowers and peace. Actually, there’s fierce compassion. There’s when you see something needs to be done that is wrong, you come and you said that is wrong. And you give yourself the ability to be fully there and to say and to do what is right and what is wrong. And even though that might hurt that other person. But that is also compassion because you may help that person not lead to another wrongdoing.
One of the things Thay did, he used to bring groups of Palestinians and Israelis to Plum Village, and what I understood about that process is about patience. That in a sense, we’re all in a hurry to solve the problems in the world. But actually, things take time. And even when things are urgent, haste can actually make things worse. Can you just talk about that whole idea of what it is to be engaged and patience, the fact that actually it takes time for people to listen to each other, to understand each other, that if you try and rush that process actually you’ll probably get nowhere.
Yeah, thank you, Jo. That’s a really good observation. I mean, just listening to Brother Phap Huu that I was also thinking of my own practice and embracing anger. And often I also with a little bit of time, I realize that there’s usually a hurt behind the anger. So my sort of my go to practice at the moment is always to see what is hurting and why is it hurting so much. And that’s for me, the process of listening that takes a bit longer, like you say. And then that’s also what can give rise to the compassion that can help kind of cool and break through the anger. And I think that when we look at other groups that may be in conflict, like Israelis, Palestinians or the left and the right, politically, I think a certain amount of deep looking is required that does take time and patience. You know, what is… How have we been hurt by the other side? And sometimes it’s a conceptual hurt, you know, and sometimes it’s a real deep offense that we feel deeply threatened or maybe our loved ones. Maybe we’ve lost loved ones. And so taking time to see the hurt that lies behind that sort of preceded the hatred and the anger and to actually give that hurt the witness, the embracing, the holding and ultimately the healing by bringing it out to the light and saying, actually, this was the hurt that we need to take care of here. And so I think that work takes time. You know, it’s not even the work of one day or two days. In Plum Village those retreats would be at least two weeks long. So 14 days of breathing, of living simply, of mindful walking, mindful eating, quiet time, sitting and breathing and meditation, as well as the support of a whole community here. And I think that was part of the genius or the power of those retreats was the presence of the hundreds of people here on site to support those who were engaged in this process of reconciliation over those two weeks. And I think many of us would love to reproduce that experience and to offer Plum Village to be able to to help with reconciliation between really divided parties. And I think, you know, we live in such a fast time, you know, and everything just seems to be getting faster and faster. I don’t know if that’s possible. It’s very hard to stop, to slow down and to give things the time that they need. And there’s a phrase I came across recently and it really spoke to me. It’s you know, we need to act with the urgency of today, but with the patience of a thousand years. And in our lifetime, there may be problems and divisions that we’re not able to solve and heal even. There may be other problems that take years, other problems that take months, you know. And so how to have that balance where we challenge ourselves to go out of our comfort zone in this area of reconciliation and communication and to try and see how can we be bridge builders in our own lives? How can we listen to those people in our lives who we least want to listen to? And how can can we start doing that work wherever we are? And for me, I think that’s one of the most urgent things we can do because as as a species, I think we’ve got more technology for collaboration than ever before. And yet in some ways I think we’re more cut off from each other and more distant from each other than we have been for a long time. So, yeah, I think this work of how to really connect as humans with a similar aspiration and this is where other aspects of Buddhist teachings start to be really interesting. We have an aspiration to create a future for future generations, you know, for our children, grandchildren. How are you going to do that? You know, if we are so divided as a species, how are we going to do that? And we cannot possibly build a future unless we’re able to talk to each other, unless we’re able to kind of dialog across the divide, unless we’re able to respect each other’s differences and different needs. So these are really the problems of our time. And I think Buddhist meditation and Buddhist teachings, so the vision, the insight of Buddhism as well as the really concrete things that we can do in terms of trainings and practices really have something to offer.
I want to give just as you were both talking, I was just thinking about my day today because my wife and I were doing some painting together. And so I have this judgment about her that she’s not as good a painter as I am. And so when she did her bit of painting, I did mine and I saw mine was better, I got irritated with her and I realized, you know, when I look, I sort of picked it up a bit at the time. But when I look at it deeply now, because you were talking, Phap Huu, about punishing, what I was doing by telling her that she had not done a good job, was I was punishing her. But actually, on another level, actually what I was doing was punishing myself because actually, you know, I have this idea as a young person of constantly failing. I’ve never been good enough. And so I was realising is a very prosaic, very simple moment today. But actually, in that moment of criticism, I was still playing out my feelings of failure as a young person and projecting my frustration about myself onto her. And I think sort of on some level we’re, you know, we’re always punishing ourselves. You know, when we’re angry at someone, we’re always angry at ourselves. When we see someone else’s being wrong, we’re always at some point thinking that we’re wrong.
Sister True Dedication, it’s been so lovely to have you. This conversation has been very enlightening for me and it actually gave me a lot of energy. I came in a little bit tired. We had a hiking day today and the sun was burning and I have a sunburn. But now after listening and having this conversation, I feel really energized. And I think one thing that we all want to continue to do is to light up the heart of understanding and love and compassion in us, because those energy is what is what our world needs today. And Thay always says, and I love this quote. He said: There’s enough suffering already, we don’t have to contribute to more. We as a practitioner, we have to learn to recognize it. And each and every one of us have to do our part and help transforming it. Because like Sister True Dedication shared, some of the suffering it comes from hundreds of years also because we are also a continuation of life and some of our ancestral suffering has been passed on to us and some of the suffering of society has also been passed onto us. So let us step by step, do it together, but do it with joy, with peace and also with togetherness.
And can I just take this opportunity because my wife is sitting in our room to say I’m sorry that I was short tempered with you about this morning and that and that I take it back.
And just for the record, Paz has given a loving smile and a bow of acceptance of Jo’s apology.
And Brother Phap Huu and Sister True Dedication has witnessed it.
So we would like to finish off today’s session with a short meditation.
Perfect. So, dear friends, wherever you are, thank you, first of all, for listening. And if you are sitting on the bus, sitting in a car, on a commute, on a plane. No, not on a plane. Maybe on a plane. On a train, going for a walk, jogging, cleaning your house, whatever you may be doing. If you can just allow yourself to be still whether standing or sitting. And let us enjoy coming back to ourself. This is meditation. As I breathe in, become aware of my inbreath. To say this is inbreath. As I breathe out, to be with the outbreath, acknowledge it, recognize it. This is inbreath. This is outbreath. We don’t have to force our breath to become short or long, it is just happening. Just become aware of it. Be mindful of it as I breathe in through my nostrils. As I breathe out, gently and calm. And now let us bring our awareness to our shoulders, relaxing our shoulders. If there’s any tension from the stress, just let the shoulders relax with the outbreath. Breathing in, aware of my shoulders. Breathing out, relaxing. As I breathe in, I bring my attention to my face. My face is a way to communicate, it expresses a lot of emotion. Let me allow myself to smile. And the smile is not to anyone. It is to myself. Giving myself a little compassion, kindness and love. Breathing in, I smile to life. Breathing out, I smile to myself. And breathing in, I become aware of my whole body from my head to my upper body, my lower body. If there’s any tension at any part in my body, I release that tension with my breathing. Breathing in, aware of body, breathing out, I relax my body. Breathing in, breathing out. I’m breathing in. Give a compassionate thought to oneself. May I be happy, may I be kind, may I have love. And breathing out, may I offer that to someone who is dear to me. Inbreath, connecting to compassion. Outbreath, I offered that to a loved one. Now, let us go a little bit deeper. Breathing in, I am aware of someone who is suffering or a place that is suffering. And as I breathe out, I send my peace, my loving kindness and my compassion to that place. Breathing in. Suffering. Breathing out, I send my love and my compassion to that place, that person, that environment.
Thank you, friends, for practicing. Thank you Sister True Dedication for being here. Thank you Jo for being here.
And if you enjoyed this episode of The Way Out Is In, then you can find the rest of the series on Apple podcasts, on Spotify, on other platforms, podcast platforms. And finally and a special mention to the Plum Village App.
And this podcast was brought to you by Plum Village and the TNH Foundation.
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