For his peacemaking efforts during the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King Jr. In this recent interview, Thich Nhat Hanh recounts how he and his fellow monks and nuns found refuge during those difficult times by creating a “monastery without walls” known today as “engaged Buddhism.”
Sounds True: What do you mean by the term “engaged Buddhism?”
Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism, because Buddhism should be practiced wherever you are. You don’t need to be a monk to practice Buddhism; you can practice as a layperson. You don’t have to go to a retreat in order to practice Buddhism; you can practice in your daily life. You can practice meditation when you drive your car, when you fix your breakfast, when you take care of your baby, when you walk, when you sit, when you bathe. Buddhism deals with the here and the now, your existing suffering. Buddhism is not offering you a relief in the future after you die. So, that is the first characteristic of Buddhism—dealing with the present moment.
The second characteristic of Buddhism is that awareness is not a matter of time. You don’t have to practice eight years in order to begin to see the fruit of your practice. As soon as you begin the practice you can notice a transformation within you. If you apply the techniques of mindful walking or breathing or drinking, right away you see that you live more deeply, you have more joy, more peace, and you are able to recognize the positive and the negative aspects of the present moment.
The third characteristic of the dharma, the teaching, is that anyone can come and see and try it by himself or herself. You don’t need the mediation of a priest. You can practice as a monk, you can practice as a layperson, you can practice as a businessman, or an artist. You can always incorporate the practice into your daily life. That is what we call engaged Buddhism.
In Vietnam, during the war, there was a lot of destruction, and there were people who thought that the practice could only be in the temple. But when bombs were falling and people were dying, you could not ignore the fact. We wanted to practice in such a way that we could be of help at the same time, so we brought the meditation out of the meditation hall. We tried to preserve our meditation while helping people—the wounded, the refugees, the dying—and we learned that it is still possible, while you help these people, while you resettle refugees, while you care for the wounded who are victims, to maintain your practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking.
Sounds True: Often it seems that even with all our best efforts, the world continues to be filled with an increasing amount of violence and hatred. I wonder if that ever depresses you.
Thich Nhat Hanh: Despair is the word, and we should do everything in order to prevent despair from overwhelming us. During the war in Vietnam there were very difficult moments. It looked like the war was going to last forever. Several times young people came to me and asked, “Thây, do you think that the war will end soon?” It was very hard for me because I did not see any chance for the war to stop very quickly, and yet I had to give an answer. I said, “My dear students, my dear friends, the Buddha said that everything is impermanent. Every war has, in the past, ended, so this war also has to follow the law of impermanence. Let us do whatever we can do in order to speed up its end and not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by despair.”
I think the same way today. We have to pay attention to what is not going wrong and we have to do whatever we can do in order to help change the world and not let ourselves be caught in worry and despair. If there are trees that are dying in your garden, you must be aware so that you can do something to save those trees. But at the same time you have to pay attention to the trees that are not dying. Embrace the beautiful trees, enjoy them so that you can get nourished, and do not let the sight of a few trees dying overwhelm you and make you feel hopeless.
Sounds True: You have said that sitting meditation is not enough to transform someone’s life. Why not?
Thich Nhat Hanh: Sitting meditation is just one part of meditation. If you listen to the teaching of the Buddha, you see that the practice should be carried on not only in a sitting position but also in the lying position, in walking meditation, standing position, and when you do things like put on your clothes or wash your feet. If you practice only sitting meditation you may get some transformation but not enough to change your life completely.
Our “habit energy” is very strong. It might have been handed down to us by several generations of ancestors. So to deal with habit energy and not suppress it, we have to be mindful all day long. And if the habit energy begins to show its head we only need to breathe in and out mindfully and say, “Hello, my old habit energy, I know you are there, I will take good care of you.”
That is enough to keep your habit energy from leading the way. The energy of mindfulness involves tenderly holding the habit energy and taking care of it like a big sister taking care of the younger sister. Every time your habit energy is recognized and embraced tenderly like that, it will lose some of its strength, and the next time it appears it will be a little bit weaker. And you will no longer feel that it is stronger than you because the other kind of energy—the energy of mindfulness, the energy of lovingkindness—has been cultivated in you.
The practice is not hard; in fact, it is pleasant, and you realize that you don’t have to remove all your pain, your sorrow, in order to be happy. It is as if you have a boat—then you can carry hundreds of pounds of rocks and the rocks will not sink in the river. But if you don’t have a boat, then a pebble you throw into the river will sink.
If you have the energy of mindfulness in you, if you are supported by a sangha, practicing mindfulness and lovingkindness, you have a boat. And so even if you still have pain and sorrow, you can survive, you can still smile, and you cultivate in yourself the capacity of getting in touch with positive aspects of life.