Welcome to episode twelve 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, eco-philosopher Joanna Macy.
A scholar of Buddhism, systems theory, and deep ecology, Joanna Macy, PhD, is one of the most respected voices in the movements for peace, justice, and ecology. She interweaves her scholarship with learnings from six decades of activism, has written twelve books, and teaches an empowerment approach known as the Work That Reconnects.
Together, all three discuss: the relevance of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings to the crises we face today as a species; the energy of simplicity; truth-telling and the power of facing the truth; the grounds for transformation; impermanence; interbeing.
Joanna recollects what Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings and activism have meant to her, and shares a special meeting with him in the early 1980s, during a UN peace conference, when Thay read one of his essential poems in public for the first time. Joanna’s activism, forged during many campaigns, and her practice and study of Theravada Buddhism, shine through in her priceless advice about facing the current social and ecological crisis, grieving for all creation, and finding the power to deal with the heartbreaking present-day reality. She also addresses how grief and joy can coexist in one person, and how to be present for life even in the midst of struggle.
Their conversations will take you from the current “great unravelling” and the “gift of death” to Rilke’s poetry; the magic of love as solution; active hope; the contemporary relevance of the ancient Prophecy of the Shambhala Warriors; the possibility of a “great turning”. And can you guess her aspirations at 92? Could a swing be just the perfect place to discuss the evanescence of life?
Brother Phap Huu shares a lesson in patience from Thay, and adds to the teachings of touching suffering, recognizing and embracing the truth, consumption of consciousness, finding balance, and smiling at life.
Jo reads a special translation of one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, expands upon some of Joanna’s core books and philosophies, and recollects “irreplaceable” advice about overwork.
The episode ends with a guided meditation by Joanna Macy.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Lotus in a Sea of Fire (1967)
Call Me By My True Names
Rainer Maria Rilke
The Tenth Elegy
The Book of Hours
World as Lover, World as Self
‘The Shambhala Warrior’
The Shambhala Warrior Prophecy
‘Entering the Bardo’
Ho Chi Minh
“Do not be afraid of feeling pain for the world. Do not be afraid of the suffering, but take it. That’s what a bodhisattva learns to do, and that makes your heart very big.”
“Life is only difficult for those who pick and choose. You just take it. And that helps you feel whole, and maybe flying with the birds helps you be with the deep levels of hell. But this is life and it’s all given to us and it’s given free.”
“It doesn’t take a poet; all of us can feel that there are times when a shadow passes over our mood and we taste the tears. Taste the tears. They’re salty. It’s the living Earth. We are part of this.”
“All Rilke says is, ‘Give me the time so I can love the things.’ As if that’s the great commandment. So I want more time to do what I’m made to do. Why else do we have these hearts with more neurons in them than our brains? Why else are we given eyes that can see the beauty of this world and ears that can hear such beautiful poetry? And lungs that can breathe the air. We have to use these things for tasting and loving our world. And if she’s ailing, now is the time to love her more.”
“You are the environment; the environment is not outside of you.”
“We are in a space without a map. With the likelihood of economic collapse and climate catastrophe looming, it feels like we are on shifting ground, where old habits and old scenarios no longer apply. In Tibetan Buddhism, such a space or gap between known worlds is called a bardo. It is frightening. It is also a place of potential transformation. As you enter the bardo, there facing you is the Buddha Akshobhya. His element is Water. He is holding a mirror, for his gift is Mirror Wisdom, reflecting everything just as it is. And the teaching of Akshobhya’s mirror is this: Do not look away. Do not avert your gaze. Do not turn aside. This teaching clearly calls for radical attention and total acceptance.”
“We all have an appointment, and that appointment is with life. And if we can touch that in each moment, our life will become more beautiful when we allow ourselves to arrive at that appointment.”
“Even in despair, we have to enjoy life, because we see life as beautiful; [we see] that planet Earth is still a miracle.”
“We know we are still alive, and because we are alive, anything is possible. So let us take care of the situation in a more calm and mindful way.”
“Even wholesome things can become a distraction if you make them take the place of your sheer presence to life.”
“Maybe this really will be the last chapter. But I’m here, and how fortunate I am to be here. And I have imagined that it’s so wonderful to be here.”
“Impermanence: the fragrance of our day.”
Welcome to the latest edition of the podcast, The Way Out Is In. I’m Jo Confino
and I am Brother Phap Huu
and we are so delighted today because we have a very, very special guest: Joanna Macy, eco philosopher and Buddhist scholar. Joanna, you are very, very welcome.
I am so glad to be here. Grateful for this moment.
The way out is in.
Today, we are so honored to have as our special guest, the legendary Joanna Macy. So for those who don’t know Joanna, Joanna is 92 and many decades ago saw what was coming with the collapse of ecosystems, as she calls it ‘the great unraveling’. And also, she’s been present to help people to navigate her path through the despair of seeing our nature, our natural world unravel. Joanna, can we start a little bit because you have had a relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh since the early 1980s? Can you tell us a little bit about how Thich Nhat Hanh is relevant to the issues we face today and also how he has influenced you?
Yes. Well, actually his importance to me, what he represented to me was of tremendous importance long before I met him. He brought what I have always yearned to see, which was a bringing into reciprocal enrichment, the teachings of the Lord Buddha and for our time and a life dedicated to issues of justice and the life of our shared planet. I saw in him from when I was learning about the school for social service. I was just amazed that this was going on and it was very important for me because Vietnam itself had been a focus, a very significant focus for my heart-mind. Since 1950, when I did a special thesis on the struggle still then under the French colonials and the betrayal of the colonizers, of the agreement with Ho Chi Minh. All of that fascinated me from this distance and made me feel as if I had both as a compassionate heart, but also I was somewhat indentifying with that long before I heard of Thay. And then when I did, and I think it was ‘Lotus in a Sea of Fire’ that I was reading that became a kind of teaching and action for me of what the bodhisattva heart can open to and be with the pain and in a way that can allow the heart to include more, to not be afraid of the pain of seeing the suffering. Not to be afraid of it. Because then you learn something about your own inner immensity. So there were teachings before I ever thought that I would be fortunate enough to meet this amazing monk, teacher, bodhisattva. I saw in him a kind of example of what a bodhisattva is. Yes. So then it was in the United Nations special session on disarmament in 1982 that I actually saw him with these eyes. And it was when he walked onto the stage of a little meeting ahead of time. That was a big meeting, but for the spiritual presences, the religious teachers. And there were, there was a lot of pomp and circumstance there in that meeting. And then toward the end, there was this slight figure in a brown coat walking in, so simply as if he were coming into, I don’t know, empty the wastepaper basket or something. He was just so humble… And then he reached in his pocket and said: I wrote a poem on my way here. Maybe I’ll just read the poem. And it was ‘Call Me by My True Names’.
‘Please Call Me by My True Names’, right? Why don’t we read it now? Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow, even today I am still arriving. Look deeply every second I am arriving to be a bud on a spring branch, to be a tiny bird with still fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest. To be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone. I still arrive in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive. I am the mayfly metamorphosising on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly. I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass snake that silently feeds itself on the frog. I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant selling deadly weapons to Uganda. I am the 12-year-old girl refugee on a small boat who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate. My heart not yet capable of seeing and loving. I am a member of the Politburo with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his debt of blood to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp. My joy is like spring, so warm, it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans. Please call me by my true names so I can hear all my cries and all my laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one. Please call me by my true names so I can wake up and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.
Yeah. Yes. And to hear that then, at that moment, it was in that incredible drama of the situation under President Reagan, the nuclear arms race sending our missiles all over Western Europe and arming them. The alarm that was being felt to have this incredible poem that would so encapsulate and convey, what this remarkable being, this warrior teacher was asking of us to take everyone into our hearts to… that is our true names. Just about the same time, I found another source of tremendous gratitude, and that was that in terms of the Buddhist teachings, one of the things that had been awkward for me was because in my studies I had focused greatly on the Lord Buddha’s teachings of Pratityasamutpada, the interdependance, indeed the interexistence of all things. And that was so strong for me. And I found that, but that the Buddhists, who were at least in the Zen, which is not exactly my school, but the word empty now the word empty, Sunyata. And yet it does not carry the impact of what I experienced from the Buddhist teachings in the early scriptures that we belong to each other. We influence each other deeply. We are linked to the very essence. And so, empty? And when I saw that Thay was also at that same time searching for a way to express this in a much more positive way where you could get your mind around it and sink your teeth into it… so just empty? That we are, of course, it meant empty of separate self. OK. OK, svabhava. But when he began to speak of Interbeing and I am because you are and this is… And he was teaching in such imaginative ways, I felt this was of immense importance for the Buddhist movement in all countries and around the world.
Thank you, Joanna. And what’s the power of a simple monk? Because one of the things about Thich Nhat Hanh is that he’s had no adornments. As you say, he can come into a room and you think he’s just one of the crowd, do an extraordinary teaching, and then he’ll walk out as though he’s one of the crowd. There’s no pomp and ceremony, no ego. What’s the power of that energy?
What a wonderful question. It makes it somehow like the air we breathe. I guess the message is that it belongs to life, like air. Can’t see the breath come and go. I just have to trust, just as Brother Phap Huu just now lead us in breathing. I couldn’t feel his breath, but it’s a… so that the simplicity. It was like saying, here’s the dharma. It’s like the life that you’re given. It’s a quintessence of the life we’re given. And it helps us become more alive, like the breath does.
And Brother Phap Huu, as his personal attendant for 17 years, I mean, is there something you want to add about, because, as Joanna says, it’s when the message is crystal clear and unadorned, it has nothing attached to it, it has a pure, like the mindfulness bell. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of Thay in that regard?
Yes. First of all, I just want to say when Joanna was speaking about Thay, it made my heart so warm because Joanna had the experience of seeing Thay in the early 1980s, which many of us… Many of his monastic students are younger. So most of us met him at a different time. And I can, as I was listening to Joanna, I just also remember my first time being in the presence of Thay. I was only nine years old, Joanna. So I was super young and my father found Plum Village and he fell in love with the practice. And his aspiration as a father was like, I just need to take my children one time to open their eyes to spirituality. And he saw that Plum Village is such a unique place. And I remember encountering Thay, listening to his dharma talk. I wouldn’t understand everything that he was teaching because my understanding couldn’t grasp how deep it was. But I would never forget his presence, just like how Joanna explained the breath is like, it’s invisible. It’s the same with the presence of his stability and his virtue that was in the room. I just definitely felt that. And the simplicity of Thay is one of his characteristics that I still aspire to develop in myself. And I have a story as an attendant. I have many stories, but this story came up when I was listening to the sharing. One of the roles of an attendant, is to make things easier for the teacher, such as open the door, make him tea, bring his books that he needs for the dharma talk, et cetera. And one particular day we were all eating together in the Big Meditation Hall in Plum Village, and there was about two to 300 of us. And normally, after a meal, everybody stands up, bowed to each other, and then we’re on our way out. And there was a bottleneck at the door, so everybody was trying to get out and Thay was slowly approaching the door. And so in my mind, I was like, this is my job, I need to clear the path for Thay. And as I slowly progress, I felt somebody pulled me back and I looked back, it was Thay. And Thay didn’t say anything, but he just looked at me and he gave me the motion that it’s OK, you don’t need to do that. And once he arrived, the path just naturally opened and Thay gracefully walked out of the meditation hall. And that was such a moment for me, because sometimes you know that just your presence, it will manifest how the situation you want will be without even needing words. So I feel simplicity and presence is such a beautiful teaching, and I’ve learned a lot through the dharma body of just Thay.
And that finger in your collar pulling you…
Yes. I will never forget that moment. That was a teacher and student moment. I was only 14 years old, so still very naive and energetic and wanted to be perfect.
Joanna, one of the things you’re renowned for and people look to you for is your insights around the coming ecological catastrophe and and how we meet it. And I just want to start off by asking you, The Parallax Press, which is Thich Nhat Hanh’s publishing house, has just done the 30th anniversary edition of your book ‘World as Lover, World as Self’. And I was just, as I was looking at that, I was thinking there are many people who have had the foresight of what was coming and have done their best to educate and help people to see the dangers ahead and to act. But over those 30 years, we have seen what you have warned about, which is this great unraveling, as you call it, which is the collapse of life as we know it. And I just wanted to ask you what it’s felt like to know something so deeply, to do your best, to help people to recognize that, but to see largely unheeded. And the very thing you are most fearful of coming to pass. Can you just give us a sense of what that journey has been like?
Well, I received that understanding suddenly quite a time back, about 50 years ago, and when I did, that was the cumulative effect of attending a full-day symposium on all the threats to the biosphere. And I knew them all separately, but somehow, and because I was getting tired, and I was there with my two children. They were just teenagers then and somehow it was like all the information I had up in my brain, the scaffolding that held it up here in my brain gave way, and all of that information turned into a heartbreaking reality invading my chest mainly, but my whole body. And I thought we are destroying our world. And the first months of, first year of that, I couldn’t speak it because I didn’t want to poison other people’s lives, and I didn’t want to, and I even more, I didn’t want people to try to argue with me or cheer me up because I knew it was true. And so I just kept quiet. And then I had the occasion to lead a group of university, faculty at a conference, and to introduce themselves I invited them, please don’t tell your rank or your title or your responsibilities in introducing yourself, there were a group of 40 about. I said, just say your first name and then tell of a moment when the crisis of this planet, this living planet touched you personally in your life. That moment changed my life just as the previous moment when I saw that we could destroy our world and we’re doing it. I heard each one go around. Now I’m all… My voice is having tears in it as I think I was given inestimable privilege of seeing that and hearing one after another of these respectable, successful faculty people speak of a moment when they see something comparable of what happened to me. And I thought… I realized we can talk about it. We can talk about this and not feel condemned to be the sole carriers of this grief. And then the second thing I learned was as soon as that happened, everybody changed or became activated. It was like shaking up a solution or something, and they were suddenly so full of laughter and so full of creativity and initiative. And they were taking charge and something had been… They were being made whole in some way. They had finally showed up. They had finally become fully there. And that week was a week of four mornings of incredible creativity. And even with quite a bit of laughter. It was as if we had walked out of a very small little house where we were keeping ourselves contained, walking out into a great meadow or field or into life. And everybody’s creativity and humor and tears were all very present. But, you know, I have a great appetite for life. I love hiking and skiing and cooking up a great meal. And so this grief can coinhabit me along with a lot of joy. And I think that may be that the joy becomes so great, there’s so much love that comes pouring through that I think it’s because I’m not trying to protect myself from knowing things that are painful. I’m not putting any conditions on what I let into my heart. It all goes in and and so I have felt very alive. And very alive now, even at 92, seeing how after just this decade of the 2020s, are we going to be able to pull down the greenhouse gas emissions? Come on. Then maybe this really will be the last chapter. Could that be so? Well, maybe it is, but I’m here and how fortunate I am to be here. And I have imagined that it’s so wonderful to be here. That I could picture people and Buddha fields around the universe hearing about what’s happening on planet Earth and applying, standing in line, applying for the incarnation on planet Earth now. Who wouldn’t want to be here now at this, this gorgeous planet that still could be saved? Wouldn’t you want to be here?
And Joanna, I mean, a lot of young people, as you know, are despairing and actually not feeling that this is a great time to be alive and worrying. And you’ve spoken in the past very beautifully about, you know, we’re walking down this road and on one, there’s a ditch on either side and one side is paralysis that people feel so fearful that they’re closing down. And on the other side of the road is another ditch, which is around panic that people are panicking there. There are a lot of young people who don’t want to have children because they don’t think there’s a world for them to grow up in. What is your message, especially for young people who are not feeling joy but are feeling only despair?
To take the despair. And here I think that the teachings of Thay are so relevant. Do not be afraid of it. Do not be afraid of your pain for the world. Do not be afraid of the suffering, but take it. That’s what bodhisattva learns to do, and that makes your heart very big. There was a bodhisattva that I loved very much: Ksitigarbha. And he had such a compassion that I, yeah, he was a celestial bodhisattva, so he would go to where there was suffering to be with the people, I guess maybe he would also if he saw people having a great time or a great feast or wonderful party, he’d go there too. But that’s the human condition now. Don’t be afraid of it. And then he would go with the birds in the air where they sing, and he could understand their language and be so happy. But he would also go to the deepest layers of hell to hear the mourning of people in anguish and loss. And he’d then there too… All of life, as we’re given life, and so let’s take all of it without fear. The only thing we have to watch out for is if we pick and choose, say, Well, I’ll just take that. Thank you. I will take it when I want a little hot fudge sauce on it, I think I’ll have that… It’s like that great poem of the Fifth Patriarch, you know, life is only difficult for those who pick and choose. You just take it. You take it. And that helps you feel whole and maybe flying with the birds helps you be with the deep levels of hell. But this is life and it’s all given to us and it’s given free.
Yeah. Brother Phap Huu is anything you want to add to that about that teaching of don’t avoid our suffering? Actually, the joy and the suffering are interdependent, you cannot separate them. Is anything you want to add?
Yes. Yes, the question you asked, Jo, it’s a meditation in itself, but when we look at the teachings of the Buddha, we can see that the First Noble Truth is to recognize suffering and we have to identify and we have to accept the suffering. I think a lot of the time as human beings, we are very selfish and we like to be in our own comfort. And when there is suffering, we may recognize it, but we don’t see that as our suffering. Then we can push it away and we don’t care like we have choices, we start to discriminate. And this is one of the roots of our suffering and in Buddhist teaching and in the Zen teaching, it is to have time to recognize what is happening in the here and now. And if you truly are present and you recognize the suffering, you can’t ignore it because the teaching of Interbeing says that their suffering is also your suffering. Your well-being is also their well-being is the planet’s well-being. And later on in the teachings of Thay, as Joanna spoke of bodhisattva Ksitigarbha, Thay added new bodhisattvas that we should have gratitude and meditate on. A new one that we always recite is also bodhisattva Gaia, which is Mother Earth. We have to Thay teaches us we need to learn to fall back in love with Mother Earth so that we can hear her cries, hear her wounds and see that as our own wounds. And with the practice of stability and awareness, we don’t have to ignore the despair, but we can find the balance in our life. Like Joanna said, we have to… She still enjoys life. That is so important. Even in despair, we have to enjoy life because we see life as beautiful, that planet Earth is still a miracle. Then we want to protect and we want to find ways to restore the goodness of life. And I think this is very key. There is a metaphor that Thay once gave us. It’s like, when we’re on a ship and there’s a big storm and everyone is panicking, then the ship will surely flip. But if there are those of us on the ship that can recognize, OK, there’s a storm, let’s remain calm, let’s take a breath. We know we are still alive and because we are alive, anything is possible. So let us take care of the situation in a more calm and mindful way. And therefore the situation will be so much more different than us acting on frustration, anger and despair. And I see this is the teaching of two thousand six hundred years ago has been transmitted through so many patriarchs and through our teacher and to our time and it’s still so relevant. So it is important to suffer, but from the suffering we can grow our our insight of understanding and our insight of love. And I think this is where Thay says that, you know, Maitreya… The Buddha once said the Maitreya would be the next Buddha of our times, and Maitreya means great love. And our teacher’s insight is that we don’t need one Buddha, but we need many Buddhas. So if all of us can come back and nourish our love inside of us, I believe there is a way to take care of the situation that we are in and to offer love back to our precious mother, which is Mother Earth.
Thank you, Phap Huu. Joanna, I wanted to ask you about the power of sadness and grief of going into it, not to get stuck in it, but to go through it. And one thing that my family shares with you and your family is that my mother translated some of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry from German into English. And she translated the the ten elegies, and I brought along just part of the tenth elegy, which I just wanted to read to you. And it’s about sorrow, and it says: That, one day, I might go forth from bitterest insight, singing out in exultation and praise to responding Angels! That none of heart’s clear-struck hammers fail on strings weakened, loosened or torn! May my face bathed in tears give me more radiance, may tears unseen secretly flower. Oh, how I would cherish you then, nights of anguish! On bended knees, I should have enfolded you closer, inconsolable Sisters; should have lost myself in greater abandon in your free-flowing hair. We squander our sorrows, dismiss them too soon, hoping, one day, their sad permanence must end. But they are our winter foliage, our darker mind-green, one of the seasons of our inward year. Not only season: Sorrow is place, settlement, sight, base and dwelling.
Oh, oh, I’d love you to send me them. But I think that it doesn’t take a poet, I think all of us can feel that there are times when a shadow passes over our mood and we taste the tears. Taste the tears. They’re salty. It’s the living Earth. We are part of this. Yeah. So it’s helped me, Rilke has helped me hugely. Quiet friend who has come so far, feel how your breathing makes more space around you. Let this darkness be a bell tower, and you, the bell. And as you ring what batters you becomes your strength. So move back and forth into the changes. What’s it like this intensity of vain? So curious about it, the way you get that kind of curious about what’s going through your body, mind and Satipatthana, you know… You pay attention. Yeah, you pay attention. There’s also what the darkness brings. There’s another poem you’re gonna… just let me say one more.
But there’s another sonnet from the ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’. He wrote those at the same time as he wrote the Duino Elegies when he finished them, about half of them, when he was in Switzerland after the war, First World War. Dear darkening, ground, suffering… He’s been talking to God. All the time, even now, he says, You’re not a king on the throne, you are like the mist that draws forth the morning. You know, you are like the pool in which there’s thousand roots silently drinking. That’s his vision of the sacred. And so then in this one, he actually speaks to God as the Earth. And he says: Dear darkening ground, you’ve endured so patiently. The walls we built. Please grant the cities one more hour. And the churches, cloisters, maybe give them two. And those that labor and let their work still grip them for another five hours or seven before you become water and widening wilderness and waste in that hour of inconceivable terror when you take back your name from all things. Just give me a little more time. I just wanted a little more time because I am going to love the things as no one is thought to love them. Until they are real. And worthy. And cherished. I really get that. He sees this, he has back then, that was in the closing year of the 19th century. And he knew nothing about the rise of fascism or the two world wars or the death camps or the nuclear bombs. None of that. But he had this intuition deeply, I saw it and see it in many of his poems that there was something that was deeply heartbreaking and spirit breaking about the tragedies that would befall us in the 20th century. But his move is help, and if it does not help, let me out of here. Or even give me the power to stop it. All he says is give me the time so I can love the things. As if that’s the great commandment. So I want more time so that I can do what I’m made to do. Why else are we having these hearts with more neurons in them than our brains? Why else are we giving eyes that can see the beauty of this world and ears that can hear such beautiful poetry? And lungs that can breathe the air. We have to use that as for tasting and loving our world. And so if she’s ailing now is to love it more. So I just, you know, you hear somebody else saying just grant me a little more time because I’ve got this great plan and I’ve got a grant that I’m going to submit to the Ford Foundation and I’ve got my… I’ve got to get a job with whatever, with our solutions. And from the poet’s point of view, there’s no strategy or solution as great as the utter magic of our love.
Thank you, Joanne. And Brother Phap Huu, one of the things that Thay has, I think one of his core teachings, is that we’re not separated from the environment. Mother Earth and us are not separate selves that actually we are the environment. The Earth is us. We are the Earth. And therefore, if we are acting in support of the Earth, we are the Earth healing herself. We are not human beings trying to save the Earth. We are the Earth healing ourselves. Can you tell us a bit about, you know, from your understanding, the importance of recognizing and collapsing any sense of separation?
Yes, that’s why we so need to to learn how to be mindful of our life, of the present moment. Because with mindfulness, we are in touch with the wonders of life. Most of the time we live in the world, but we are not here. And this is why so many of us are attracted to spirituality, I feel, because if you live in that way, at one point you’re going to feel so lost and so empty. Even though we have a house, a car, a position, but deep down inside, as human beings, we are a child of this earth. And if we lose this connection to the environment, to the trees, to the birds, the bamboo, the flowers, then how can we say we are alive? And that is why to practice mindfulness is to recognize the simplicity of life. And that’s why I think, for me, I don’t want to be so complicated in teachings, and I just want to be like a small percentage of Thay in explaining how simple Buddhist teaching is to just learn to come back and to see the present moment, because if you are more capable of being in the present moment, life will present itself with its wonder when you open your eyes. Every morning we have a gatha: Waking up this morning, 24 brand new hours are for you. Just that line itself is enlightenment. If you can recognize that you have 24 brand new hours, you’re not caught in the past. You’re not worried about the future that 24 brand new hours is a gift. And with that understanding your way of living will start to change. And this is the core which is understanding if we can recognize in the present moment what we have, we will start to live very differently, and that’s why gratitude is so important to be in touch with the wonders of life, to be grateful for your lungs, you are breathing. To be grateful for the teachers that have taught you life, understanding, to be grateful to your parents that know that by living, you are their continuation. And by taking care of this present moment you’re taking care of the future, can be your children, can be your friends. And then the gratitude of the environment. And one of Thay’s quote that became such a statement of today is that you are the environment, the environment is not outside of you. It’s because of this dualistic thinking that we think we have to protect the environment or we are just taking care of ourselves, we just want happiness for ourselves. That’s why there is this ongoing destruction that mankind is adding without awareness. But suddenly when you see that the environment is you, that’s enlightenment of the present moment, of what is happening in the here and now. With that understanding you will have to change your way of living.
Yeah. Joanna, I just wanted to ask you about truth telling and the power of facing the truth. So in the prolog to the 30th anniversary edition of your book ‘World as Lover, World as Self’, you wrote a prolog which is… I read this to a lot of people, actually. I have it right next to my computer and my phone, and when people phone me in and we’re discussing this topic, I will often read it because it speaks very deeply and profoundly to me. So I just want to read the first couple of paragraphs and then maybe ask you just to sort of take us deeper into the sensing of it. It’s called ‘Entering the Bardo’: We are in a space without a map with the likelihood of economic collapse and climate catastrophe looming, it feels like we are on shifting ground, where old habits and old scenarios no longer apply. In Tibetan Buddhism, such a space or gap between known worlds is called a bado. It is frightening. It is also a place of potential transformation. As you enter the bardo, there facing you is the Buddha Akshobhya. His element is Water. He is holding a mirror, for his gift is Mirror Wisdom, reflecting everything just as it is. And the teaching of Akshobhya Mirror is this: Do not look away. Do not a virtual gaze. Do not turn aside. This teaching calls for radical attention and total acceptance. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Akshobhya’s Mirror had a lot of graphic reality for me as an American here, in this country, because what it brought forward to our gaze was things that our culture and our politicians too, and our, yeah, the whole culture doesn’t want to see. What did we bring forward first? The places we warehouse the aging. The seniors were there in their nursing homes were beginning to die, dying from this disease. And then in the prisons, where we warehouse the people who we want to get out of the way. Huge epidemic scales in the prisons. In the meatpacking industry, where we don’t want to see what we do to the carcasses of the steer and what we bring in. And we certainly don’t want to see the conditions in which the slaughtering takes place and what it does to the people who are recruited, often undocumented workers. And so that that was our attention before I even thought of, you know, the relevance of the bardo or Akshobhya. The whole culture was riveted on what it had chosen not to see. So that relevance of it had struck me and that as it’s true in the Buddha dharma talk throughout, is that what we can open our heart-mind to fully is what we most need and is the grounds for transformation. Yeah. That’s true in every religion, isn’t it? To be with, to make that choice, to be radically present. And we spent so much of our time avoiding it is a great cost.
Yeah. A distracted culture. Yes, and Joanna, can you say a little bit more about that sense of a distracted culture? That actually the whole of Western society seems to be built on avoidance of suffering, avoidance of seeing?
Exactly. Countless ways that we can need to be distracted, either amused or terrified or with… that’s all kinds of distractions. Even wholesome things can become a distraction if you make them take the place of your sheer presence to life.
And Brother Phap Huu, I mean, I know one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s ethical trainings is about consumption. And a lot of people, when they think about consumption, think, oh, it’s about food or films, but it’s about consumption of consciousness, of everything we see with our eyes, we hear with our ears. It’s not just limited, it’s actually a whole way of consuming life almost.
So do you want to just tell us a little bit about, you know, why it’s so important to focus on that, and, as Joanna says, you know, to move through these directions to see the truth because it’s only when we see the truth that we can change.
I think that as a human being, we need many sources of nutriments to survive. But at the same time, to be a human being, we’re not only consuming through the mouth for nutriments, but we are consuming by all of our senses, our eyes, our ears, our smell, our way of being, just connecting, sitting beside each other that is a consumption. And we know that consuming is two ways. So when we take in, that is a consumption. But at the same time while we are taking in, we are also contributing to something else and what we consume also will affect how we live our life. If we are always listening to news that are dreadful, are hearing angry conversations or hearing sounds that touches the seat of fear in us and that will become us. So the practice of taking care of oneself is also to be very mindful of how we expose ourself. What are we consuming by consciousness? What are we consuming by the situations that we are around who we are living with? And seeing that is not outside of us by what we are consuming, but by what we are consuming, is that insight of interbeing has to come in, it would become us and then we will also offer something for someone to consume. So as a practitioner and as someone who wants to walk down the path of contributing peace and understanding to the world, in my daily life I have to recognize how I am taking care of what I consume, by conversation, by presence, with other friends, by also my own development. Because that will become what I offer to the world. So I like to meditate on what I’m consuming, but also on how I’m offering something to the people around me and to the environment, as well as to collectively the whole world, the whole cosmos.
And also, as Joanna pointed out, you know that that spirituality can be a mask from reality as well. And I’m sure, you know, of the many thousands of people who come to Plum Village every year, or were coming before the pandemic and will come again in the future, that you must see lots of people who come here almost as an avoidance rather than… And how do you help people like that? So when people come in and and are very sort of doing all the actions, but actually you see behind that that it’s an avoidance to.
We help them touch suffering. That really helps, because when they can see the suffering inside of them. Everyone has suffering, and I think that’s the uniqueness when we come into spirituality is that we see that everyone has different layers of suffering and that connects us because then we have understanding, we have more compassion. And so once you touch suffering, then you know that the dharma which we practice, we can call it meditation, we can call it awareness, we can call it focus. But because we’ve touched suffering, all of these practices will not be a way to avoid or to hide behind the practice. But the practice is to help us see clearer. That is the truth. So we help people recognize the truth and be able to embrace it. And what is also very important in our dharma door is taking care of well-being, to learn to smile. When I smile I am not trying to fake it, but it’s not even a smile to someone else, it’s a smile to life. Even I have practice, moments when I am in distress, where I’m suffering, I also learn to smile to that suffering because I don’t see that outside of me. I see that that suffering is me. And thanks to my presence and thanks to me being able to recognize and take care of it, it has a chance to transform. And this is the practice in itself because when we touch suffering and we truly take care of it and practice with it, this transformation, and then you cannot say the practice is to avoid suffering.
Yeah. Thank you Phap Huu. Joanna, I wanted to ask you a bit about attachment because a lot of people have an attachment to a particular outcome. So everyone wants to save this precious jewel in the cosmos, and everyone has this need to say that there can be only one outcome that is the right outcome, which is that we end up turning, as you as you referred to it, ‘the great turning’, that we will succeed in that transformation and we become a different society that’s based on different values. So everyone wants that, but some people are very attached to that. But the truth, if we look in that mirror, the truth is that it may not happen. It may be that we see a great collapse and unfathomable suffering that is, even as we sit here, we can talk about, but we’re unable to grasp it. How do we commit? How do we give all of ourselves to something and also know that at the level, people think it might be for nothing?
The thought that came immediately in my mind as you began on this, in the very first sentence is how do we deal with utter failure? We can work for something and it can be noble and we can give it a devotion and hard work, et cetera. And the first thing that came to my mind is that is the great gift of death. Death walks with us. And that is the great mystery. And I love the way it’s put in the writings of the dharma, that death is certain. But the time of death is uncertain. And it’s like a double whammy. You are going to die and you don’t know when. It could be in five minutes or fifty years. So this keeps us kind of on an edge of presence. It helps to be present and not to… What if you are to live forever? Oh, it would be so boring to have that. You know, the concoction is that we are impermanent. Look at these hands, they’re all covered with wrinkles, as is my face. I am mortal. I have a good chance to be in my old age. It’s wonderful. Least my experiencing it that way. But we are on borrowed time, and I think that this gives us a quality of being able to be present. And in the now. Because it’s all we know we have, it’s really all we have. Otherwise we’re go off and we’re absent on conjectures and amusements. But yeah, and death helps, I guess, to think that you’re necessary. For… you just…
One of the best pieces of advice… When I was young in my career I ran the business and finance desk of a newspaper in England called the Daily Telegraph. And I was working all God’s hours and very stressed. It was a very stressful job. And I remember one of the senior journalists coming up to me late one evening and said, Jo, I’m going to give you one piece of advice in your life, and that is to know that the cemeteries of England are full of people who thought they were indispensable. Now go home and get some sleep. And it was the best bit of advice I think I’ve ever been given that not to take, not to think it’s all me, not to think for any of us is up to us. There’s is such a strong feeling in people: I have to save the planet. Is, you know… And people burning out, trying to save the planet as though it’s all on their shoulders and it creates a lot of suffering and in fact creates the very thing that will perpetuate the problems of this world rather than solve them.
Yeah. And that is sense. And you know what? There’s a line from Rilke says that: Oh, impermanence, the fragrance of our days.
Seeing it as a positive thing. That we just have this moment. And however old we go, we only have this moment, this now. It’s the only time we can sniff the fragrance or breathe or wake up.
And Joanna, what’s it like being 92? I mean, I know the present moment is the present moment, but what’s it like? I mean… you know, at the moment, there’s the three months Rains Retreat in Plum Village, and everyone’s asked, what is their aspiration for that three months? What is at the grand age of 92, what is your aspiration? Where do you want to put your energy knowing everything you know? Where do you want to place your energy in the remaining time you have?
I want to love the things. I am given a little more time. I want to… I have a shelf there with about 50.. That many? 40 of spiral notebooks and those were my journals of the last 50 years. And I felt I could read them. And then once I’ve looked, if there’s anything worth saving, I could share it and then I toss it. Maybe I wrote something is beautiful, or maybe I wrote a poem. So that’s one thing. But mostly I have a swing. I have a swing in the backyard. It’s a rope swing. It sits like a hanging chair. There are two of them. So when you come to visit me and that means both of you, you can sit in the swing beside me and we can gently rock as we talk and we will talk about the beautiful evanescence of life and how everything is always in motion. And the sun is sinking in the light and the shadows are changing and we are like water flowing.
I would love that. I would love to come and sit on that swing with you and do nothing.
But there are two of us. We need three swings, Joanna.
We will build another swing for Jo.
Phap Huu tell us a bit about Thich Nhat Hanh and that, you know, what Joanna just said is so essential about this moment and sitting on a swing, breathing and being, listening to each other, just being present to life. And how Thay… Because Thay also… I used to see him on his hammock sort of gently swinging.
I have one quote from Thay and he says: we all have an appointment and that appointment is with life. And if we can touch that in each moment, then our life will become more beautiful when we are allowing ourselves to arrive at that appointment.
Oh, that is wonderful.
Joanna, I just want to ask you one final question, and it’s also in your book ‘World as Lover, World of Self’, and it’s about the Prophecy of the Shambhala Warriors. And as you say, it was written, well, not written, it comes from more than 1200 years ago and it wasn’t written down, it was spoken.
Yeah. And it spoke of a time when there was a great danger to Earth and it was the time for the Shambhala Warriors to show up and and go into training. I’m going to actually just read a little bit because you talked about, and this is where I want to get into at the end, you talked about that their weapons, the weapons of the Shambhala Warriors are compassion and insight. And you wrote both are necessary. You have to have compassion because it gives you the fuel to move you out there to do what is needed. It essentially means not being afraid of the suffering of your world. But the weapon is very hot. It can burn you out, so you need the other weapon. You need insight into the radical interdependence of all phenomena. With that wisdom, you know it is not a battle between good guys and bad guys, for the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart. We are so profoundly interwoven that actions undertaken with pure intent have repercussions throughout the web of life beyond your capacity to measure or discern. By itself, that insight may appear too cool, too conceptual to sustain you and keep you moving. So you need the heat of the compassion, the openness to the world’s pain. Together within each Shambhala Warrior and among the warriors themselves, these two can sustain us in our work. They are gifts we can claim now for the healing of our world. We’ve spoken about this to some extent, but when I read it, it’s so powerful to me because the story has never changed, has it? In that sense, I know at the core what was written 1200 or what was spoken, the story of 1200 years ago, is the same story as now. There’s something that, while we have impermanence, there’s also certain values or understandings that don’t change or that are fundamental to life. And I just wonder if you can just talk about that prophecy.
Yeah, that prophecy which was spoken to me because it’s from an oral tradition by my dear teacher Dru-gu Choegyal Rinpoche still living and from the Tibetan Village Center Monastery of Tashi Jong in Northwest India. But what it brings forward for me is the timelessness, and it seems so real right now. But then that’s always been. It’s what we humans with our self-reflexive consciousness, our capacity to choose, our busy hands, our countless ways of deceiving ourselves, and loving things, and inventing things, and fooling ourselves, and grabbing for power. That hasn’t changed, and so I love this prophecy because it makes all other humans contemporaneous with me. They’re all here. I can feel them, you know. Charlemagne or Genghis Khan or Leonardo da Vinci or as Joan of Arc… and they populate my life too. They love this world in their way. And when I see what we’re doing to our world at this point, I somehow wanted to evoke them… That these rivers we’re polluting, these forests that were like the sequoias, that they’re… You know, they’re putting foil around them to save them from the fires. These great fires are threatening the almost sacred, as sacred as anything can be in this culture. I like to people my world with those who have loved it or loved it in their own way. I guess Genghis Khan, he loved what he could possess. He spent a lot of time extending that. But I love feeling the company, particularly in this moment when we become so incredibly destructive with our weapons and with our greenhouse gas emissions, and so it brings us together. There’s humanity. Humanity is here with us, not just the living ones. All who loved our world, all who cared for them and used our rivers, our forests, sailed our oceans, who fished for our great schools of fish. I want them here now. I want to bring them in my mind. I do bring them in my mind to be here, because this is something so vast that we’re required to open ourselves too. If we want to have an impact, if we want to make a difference, then we have to expand ourselves to know what is asked of us. And it is something quite big. And the ancestors can help us. Don’t you think?
Joanna, thank you. And also a personal thanks because your work has accompanied me over the years, your book ‘Active Hope’ sits with me and I refer to it when I feel a bit lost, it brings me back. And you may remember when I was at The Guardian you came and ran that day workshop. And you know that sense of there, in that work, in that workshop, in the heart of The Guardian was about the ancestors from the past, but also talking to the descendants way into the future and realizing we are part of a great stream of life.
Oh, I remember. When I went and asked to just see that vast room with all the typewriters… laptops, all those people that it just was like seeing a dimension of heaven to me. I was just practically on my knees. Is this speaking truth? Yeah.
Joanna, bless you. And Brother Phap Huu do you want to say something?
Yes. Joanna, just on behalf of the monks and nuns of Plum Village, we also want to express our deepest gratitude for all of the work that you have done for humanity. And we have a lot of brothers and sisters who have read your books and are very inspired by the works and the words that you have put in. And they are aware that today we have this opportunity of recording with you and they all send their heart, their love and their admiration and gratitude to you. So I just want to share on behalf of all the monks and nuns of Plum Village. Thank you so much. And on a personal note, just hearing the stories that you shared when you were close to Thay in the early 1980s, being present when he introduced the word Interbeing, I wasn’t there but hearing it from you, I felt like I was there. So thank you for carrying the torch of wisdom also.
Joanna, we close each session with a guided meditation. And we’ve taken up a lot of your time, but do you have the energy to maybe take us all through a two or three minute, just guided meditation?
Wow. I lead it? OK.
Right. Okay, so. Let us breathe out all that has been preoccupying us, so that we in this moment can be here. This moment is given to us. It’s very fresh. It’s very new, it hasn’t happened before. And this breathing in hasn’t happened before, either. And this breathing out. Infinitely precious is this Anapanasati, being breathed by life, life that is breathing. So many others. For some, it’s their first breath. For some, it is their last breath. And we can experience the blessing of life itself, at this moment. And for those of us here, and in Plum Village and around the world, it brings such gratitude for our teacher, for his life, for this wisdom that is ever fresh, to be discovered afresh. To be met afresh each moment, each now. Thank you.
Joanna, thank you so much.
Thank you, dear friends, dear listeners, for joining us in today’s podcast as well as practicing with us this mindful breath, and we look forward to seeing you again in our next episode.
The way out is in.