This article was published in the Southern German Newspaper, the Suddeutsche Zeitung, for the weekend Saturday-Sunday 1st-2nd June 2013. It was based on an interview given in August 2012 at the EIAB, and has been translated from the German.
Interview by Malte Conradi and Sarah Raich
Waldbröl- If Yoda, the wise master from “Star Wars,” had been based on a person from real life, he would have been based on this man.
Kindly smiling, Thich Nhat Hanh, 86, is sitting on the floor of a meditation room [hall], his head shaven, wearing the brown jacket of a Buddhist novice [sic], a small teapot of freshly brewed green tea before him.
This small, gentle man is considered to be the most significant representative of Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.
He was forced to leave his native home of Vietnam in 1969 when his pleas for reconciliation in the middle of the Vietnam war displeased the communists in power. He lives in exile in the south of France where he teaches Buddhism to Westerners.
Once a year he comes to Germany to teach monks, nuns and lay people in the Rhineland province. Interviews? There is rarely time for them. And if there is time for an interview, his disciples take advantage of the opportunity to listen to him speak.
After 90 minutes Thich Nhat Hanh is still sitting calmly in the lotus position, his back erect [lit: straight as a candle, Kerzengerade] – while his guests’ joints are all aching.
SZ: You have witnessed a lot of suffering in your life. How did you manage not to lose hope?
Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes, I have witnessed a lot of suffering, especially during the Vietnam war. At that time, I was helping to build a village for refugees in the demilitarized zone when it was bombed by the Americans because Vietcong were hiding there. So we rebuilt it. Then it was bombed again. So we rebuilt it again. Once again it was demolished. The third time we discussed if we should rebuild it again. It was my belief that if we gave up, people would lose all hope. So we rebuilt the houses again a third time, then a fourth time and finally a fifth time.
SZ: But where did you get the strength to do that?
TNH: We try to transform suffering into something good. Even a lotus flower needs mud in order to grow. It can’t grow on marble. You have to recognize that there is a close connection between suffering and happiness. If you run away from suffering, you cannot find happiness. On the contrary, we should try to identify the roots of our suffering. Only then can we gain understanding and cultivate compassion.
These two things are the key to happiness. All the money and power in the world will not bring happiness unless there is understanding and compassion. The only thing that helps in the face of fanaticism, oppression, fear and anger is looking deeply into the mud in order to allow a lotus flower to grow. If you can recognize the suffering of your aggressor, you don’t need to hate him.
SZ: Today you invite Westerners to your monasteries in order to spread these teachings. What exactly do you do there?
TNH: You do not need to be a Buddhist in order to apply our practice. We call it mindfulness. This is the art of living in the present moment, a kind of energy you can create. Mindfulness helps people to release tension and sorrow and to enjoy their lives more. They learn how to deal with their suffering, their anger, their confusion. After attending one of our seminars [retreats], they know how to create more joy and peace in their lives, how to reestablish communication with others. We might be called Buddhist, but actually our work is universal.
SZ: That sounds rather abstract.
TNH: Oh, it’s actually very simple. For example, when you walk from your parking lot to the office, you stop thinking in that moment. You walk only with your feet, not with your head, step for step. It takes practice, but walking like this brings you back to the here and now and makes you a free person. Enjoy every step. When you get to your office you will be able to make good decisions. It is so simple, really. You see, the practices are very concrete. And after only a few days they bring change [transformation] and healing. You can experience this for yourself.
SZ: But people have so many things to think about, so much pressure, so many worries. How can you relax on the way to work?
TNH: I would like to tell you a story about that. A while back I met a young woman called Laura. Her husband, Frederik, was a successful businessman. Although they had everything, Laura was not happy because they didn’t have any time for each other or for their son. Frederik only had time for work. At first she was proud of him, but she soon began to feel lonely. She tried many things, went back to university and got a degree, organized charity events. But it didn’t help. She often cried at night. Frederik insisted that nobody could replace him at work. He said that maybe in three years’ time he would be able to work less. But three years later he was still working just as much. He wasn’t even able to come to the hospital when his son had an operation. Then one day Frederik had a car accident. He died. Three days later someone else was doing his job. This happens to many. We have to wake up. Now. Not in three years. We shouldn’t sacrifice our happiness today for the future!
SZ: Why is there such an interest in your teachings in the West?
TNH: We are experiencing a deep crisis, particularly in the West. People are running away from their sorrows, they are afraid. This is why they are consuming more and more: music, alcohol, food, the Internet. They do not consume because they need these things but because they cannot stand their loneliness, the emptiness within. We are afraid our sorrow may overwhelm us if we look it straight in the face. But the sorrow keeps growing. We are filled with regrets about the past, and fears and worries about the future. The practice of mindfulness helps us. When we let go of the past and the future, we free ourselves from our suffering.
SZ: You have been living in the West for 50 years. Has this changed your work?
TNH: When I was forced into exile after [sic] the Vietnam war, I first had to get used to the Western way of thinking and doing things. That helped me to present the teachings in such a way that the Western mind could easily understand. I avoid using Buddhist terms; we prefer to express ourselves very simply. For example, “to repent” is a very heavy term. So we speak about touching the earth. We touch the earth and begin anew, we leave the past behind. Today we even translate some of these terms back into Vietnamese. Everywhere we use a new language in order to reach young people. People in the West like our teachings because there are not too many rituals. We shouldn’t overload the teachings with a lot of theory and complexity. It’s all about our daily life. By the way, the same applies to Christianity. Only a renewed Christianity can serve people in modern life.
SZ: Reformers are rarely welcomed by conservatives.
TNH: That’s right. As a young monk I also had difficulties with conservative Buddhists. I even had to leave my own monastery. So together with friends I created a new one, in the middle of the jungle. But in Buddhism we are only loosely organized, we do not have a sort of Vatican. So we are also not at risk of being excommunicated.
SZ: You have published over 100 books. How have you managed to do that?
TNH: We do it together. Like a river. Our motto is: Be part of the river, not a drop of water. Flow with the river. We do not have individual heroes. Many books are not written by me at all [sic]: a brother or a sister takes notes of one of my talks, another one puts it into form. We make decisions collectively: we discuss a problem together first, then someone makes a suggestion for a solution. If you agree, you remain silent. If you have a different opinion, you speak up. We ask three times if everyone agrees. If everyone remains silent three times, the decision is passed. This is the way we do business. Everyone could do like this, even businesses.
SZ: Are you a good businessman?
TNH: Yes. We have found a good basic principle for our business life: joy and happiness should be the most important thing. Without this, a lot of money is not much use. If we work wholeheartedly and with joy, we succeed in our work. And our business will be successful. But our goal is not money- it’s community.
SZ: You seem to be completely content. Are you never unhappy?
TNH: (Laughs). You haven’t listened well, young man! [You haven’t understood what I have said.] Happiness is not possible without sadness and suffering. Not even I can grow lotus flowers on marble.