Thich Nhat Hanh’s Suffering is His Gift of Non-fear

Most of you are probably aware by now that Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen teacher, is in the hospital. His monastery, Plum Village in southern France, announced that he had a brain hemorrhage on November 11th.

thichnhathanh1X3Thay, as he is affectionately called by his followers, has been unwell for some time. A reliable source on Facebook says that he is in a stage one coma. That’s when a patient is incapable of voluntary activities such as eye opening, and speech. However, according to Plum Village, he is “still very responsive and shows every indication of being aware of the presence of those around him. He is able to move his feet, hands and eyes. There are signs that a full recovery may be possible.”

I’m sure we all hope that will be the case. Only last month I wrote a post in commemoration of his 88th continuation day. May every day be a continuation day for this beloved teacher.

I am not part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist tradition, but for me his life and his teachings transcend sectarianism. Perhaps, you feel the same way. Plum Village is asking people to send Thay healing and loving energy. While that is certainly appropriate and perhaps beneficial, I feel his suffering is an opportunity to do something deeper, to look deeper, go deeper. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the nature of suffering.

In The Heart of Understanding, his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thay writes,

There are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of know-how, the gift of the Dharma. The third, and the highest kind of gift, is the gift of non-fear. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is someone who can help us liberate ourselves from fear. This is the heart of the Prajnaparamita.”

Avalokitesvara’s suffering was literally non-substantial, for mythical beings have no real suffering to cross over. Thich Nhat Hanh is real, and like countless other living beings in this world, his suffering is real, and painful.  Moreover, he is truly someone who is helping us liberate ourselves from fear. His current suffering, as well as all his past suffering and future suffering, is his gift of non-fear to us.

Throughout his writings, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to look deeply, listen deeply, understand deeply. He says that to meditate is to look deeply. He tells us that we can learn to love ourselves by looking deeply.  He points out that “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive . . .” When Thay uses the metaphor of a cloud in a piece of paper to explain interdependency or “inter-being,” he says that there is also sunshine in the paper and “Looking even more deeply, we can see that we are in it too.” He suggests that through listening deeply we “can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening.”

And “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be with it in order to really understand.”

We cannot stand outside of Thay’s suffering. We should take it as our own and enter it. There are many ways we can do this. His writings are full of meditation tips and suggestions for simple practices that can be performed many times each day in various settings and situation, some as uncomplicated and effortless as smiling or walking. All of them help us look deeper.

One plan would be to take a phrase or short quote of his that resonates with us, or speaks to the subject of suffering, and for however long he is in the hospital, make the words our mantra, our koan, and meditate upon them, reflect on them as we go about our daily business.  Enter the words as deeply as possible.

I am very sure Thich Nhat Hanh would want us to use his suffering as an opportunity to engrave his teachings, or any wisdom teachings, into our hearts and minds.  Of course, the deepest manner in which we can reply to Thay’s spirit is through the Bodhisattva way, by being ourselves a person who helps others cross over suffering.  The Bodhisattva’s path of compassion is a path anyone can walk.  The gift of non-fear is the gift everyone can give.

Fear is the greatest suffering and we can never liberate ourselves from suffering until we conquer fear. As Thay says “Suffering is very important for your happiness. You cannot understand, you cannot love, until you know what suffering is.”

That would be a good phrase to use for the purpose of reflecting on the nature of suffering, but there are many others. Here are some links to quotes and talks by Thich Nhat Hanh. You may have an idea yourself about a way to reply to Thay’s gift of non-fear, and if so, please feel free to share it here in a comment.




Transcriptions of Dharma Talks @ Plum Village



Many of you are familiar with the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese Taoist (Dao) text attributed to Lao Tzu  that I have quoted from often. And you may also know the Chuang Tzu, a work from the 3rd century BCE named after its purported author, from the stories I have adapted. Some of the stories in that work can also found another text, the Lieh Tzu (Liezi), considered to be the third of the great Chinese philosophical works.

Lieh Tzu or “Master Lie,”  like the Chuang Tzu, is a collection of anecdotes and philosophical reflections from a sage who may or may not have actually lived, in this case sometime during the fourth century BCE.

Here is a brief story from the “Causality” chapter. The Kuan-yin here is not the same Kuan-yin who is the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion. And by the way, in ancient China Tzu (Zi) was a honorific title, given to a man after his death, indicating that he was a great philosopher or sage. And it is not the same character as in Shih Tzu, the toy dog.

lieh-tzuLieh Tzu decided to learn the way of archery, and when he was able to hit the target, he asked Kuan Yin Tzu to appraise his shooting.

“Do you know why your arrow hit the target?” said Kuan Yin Tzu.

“No, I do not,” Lieh Tzu replied.

“’Then you are not yet very good, are you?”

Lieh Tzu left and continued to hone his skill with the bow and arrow. After three years, he returned to Kuan Yin Tzu and demonstrated his progress.

Kuan Yin Tzu again asked, “Do you know why your arrow hit the target?”

“’Yes, I do’ said Lieh Tzu.

“So then, all is well. Hold onto that knowledge, and do not let it slip.”

“The balance between mind and body is found within oneself. Once you understand the causal process which makes you hit the target, you will be able to determine how destiny unfolds, and when you release your arrow, you will rarely miss.”

This principle applies not only to archery, but also to the affairs of government and to personal conduct. Therefore, the Sage examines not just the bare facts of continuation and decay, but also the causes that produce them.

We don’t try to understand causality so that we can find a way to manipulate the causal process, for example, learn how to make a particular cause in order to produce a specific effect. It’s something more intuitive, something that is more the fruit of meditation as opposed to knowledge gained from reading and listening. It’s about recognizing that nearly all the suffering we experience has as its inner cause a wrong attitude toward the world.

We can always correct that attitude. Because there is causality, there is change, and because there is change there is also continuation and decay, birth and death.

Shunryu Suzuki said, “The teaching of the cause of suffering and the teaching that everything changes are thus two sides of one coin.” Understanding this, understanding causality, then, is a crucial cause for freeing ourselves from attachments and finding harmony with the universal order.


Mindfulness Can Cure the Dreaded Berry Berry Disease (and Cooties)

Unlike some folks, I like the idea of corporate mindfulness.  Anything that helps foster more responsible capitalism should be encouraged. Take Forbes, for instance. A business publication founded back in 1917. They’ve jumped on the Mindfulness bandwagon. Just in the last month they’ve published articles such as Does Practicing Mindfulness Really Make For More Effective Leadership?, Meditation Isn’t Just Mind Medicine, It’s Also Good For Your Heart, and The Mindfulness Craze.

Speaking of the Mindfulness craze, I’m just wondering . . . Are you having a mindful day? Did you know that mindful meals are healthier? Are you running mindfully or practicing mindful walking? Do you know how to conduct a mindful job search?  Or, if you are already employed, are you being a mindful employee? Are you a parent? Do you know about mindful parenting? Do you have the mindfulness app for your Smartphone or iPhone?


I could go on and on . . . and on!

You know what I find truly irritating? It’s when people use the term “mindful meditation,” for if “mindful” meant exactly what it is supposed to mean, then I think “mindful meditation” would be redundant. Wouldn’t it?

So, this begs the question, are we using mindful/mindfulness properly? In the proper context? One thing I know – we sure as hell are overusing it.

Mindfulness stands for the Pali word sati and the Sanskirt smrti, both of which mean “memory,” “recollection,” “remembering.” These terms signify the recalling of past events, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with meditation. An instruction that I’ve often given, one I borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh I think, is to sit with “no thought of the past, no anticipation of the future, just be in the now.”

Buddhist scholar John Dunne says “It is not really about memory in any very direct way; it is really the facet of mind that keeps the mind from wandering.” The Buddha used the word sati/smrti in the sense of “moment-to-moment awareness of present events.”

How did we get started with mindfulness in the first place? In 1881, T.W. Rhys Davids was the first to use “mindfulness” in his translations of suttas from the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. It’s all his fault.

When we meditate we are trying to be mindful of the “present moment,” to use another term we’ve beaten to death like a dead horse. (?)

But, the real point I’d like to make is – oops, sorry, have to save it for another post. The mindfulness app on my phone just went off. Gentle bells alerting me it is time to be mindful . . . Oh joy, joy. I feel so special being ever so mindfully mindful.


Protesting the Dalai Lama

Robert Thurman has written an article posted on Huffington Post titled Concerning The Current Wave of “Protest Demonstrations” Against His Holiness the Dalai Lama by the Just-formed New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) Shugden Protest Front Group, The International Shugden Community (ISC).

Protest over Dalai Lama in New York City on Nov. 4, 2014 (Credit: CBS2)
Protest over Dalai Lama in New York City on Nov. 4, 2014 (Credit: CBS2)

The title alone tells you an awful lot about the whole controversy. You see, these “protesters” would like people to believe they are a “people,” an indigenous-like religious minority group, which is why they have recently begun to position themselves as the International Shugden Community, when in fact they are almost all Western believers in a Western cult of Tibetan Buddhism, the New Kadampa Tradition, founded by Kelsang Gyatso.

Thierry Dodin, a Tibetologist who has taught at the University of Bonn and has served as director of the Tibet Information Network in London, says “The NKT can be described typologically as a cult on the basis of its organisational form, its excessive group pressure and blind obedience to its founder.” This sounds very similar to the Japanese Buddhist group with a like organization form, excessive group pressure, and blind obedience to its (de facto) founder, which I spent some years with.

The NKT just opened a new center a few blocks from my home. It’s called Kadampa Meditation Center Hollywood. Outside the building (a church that went out of business), a sign proclaims that this is Modern Buddhism. Another sign advertises a class called “Mindfulness for Busy People.” That alone is enough to make me want to boycott the place. Intro to Meditation classes cost $12, as do some other classes. If you want to drop in for a nice, relaxing guided meditation in the morning or midday: 5 bucks. Not a lot of money but if you went frequently it would add up after a while. I am used to “free” or “suggested donation” both of which are more in line with the Buddhist tradition of not charging for the dharma.

It’s a real shame because having a Buddhist center so close by would be just great. Their opposition to the Dalai Lama (they have a new book out called The False Dalai Lama The Worst Dictator in the Modern World) and their adherence to Shugden practice, insures that I will never set foot in the place.

To be fair, their practice is more diverse than just Dorje Shugden worship. And what’s wrong with that in the first place? Read this piece I posted a while back that includes some of the Dalai Lama’s remarks about protector deities.

And what is the beef these protesters are voicing? Robert Thurman explains

In the case of the current wave of ISC “protests” against the Dalai Lama, we have to ask ourselves–what is the real motive? What does the small group of highly motivated, well-organized, seemingly media-savvy “protesters” really want? They say they want “religious freedom,” but they have always had religious freedom in India or the West, nobody has banned them worshiping as they wish. Within Tibet they have special support from the Chinese government that dominates Tibet (not giving such freedom to pro-Dalai-Lama Tibetan Buddhists), and outside of Tibet they have their own monasteries, Meditation Centers, and support networks. Their Western followers are free to worship as they choose, and are also free to attack the Dalai Lama, as they are doing. They say they want to end “segregation,” but they themselves choose to separate themselves from member of their own Gelukpa sect who decline to propitiate the protector entity they call Shugden, as well as from other sects of Buddhism.”

Read the rest of Concerning The Current Wave of “Protest Demonstrations” Against His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Huffington Post.


Singing Shantideva

Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) contains ten chapters made up of some seven hundred verses. Intended to serve as an introduction to the bodhisattva path (the title literally means “Entrance to the Bodhisattva Way”), this work of great philosophical depth and poetic beauty is also a comprehensive course in Buddhist philosophy. Sent to a deserted island and allowed to take only one book on Buddhism with you, this would be one to take.

It is the ultimate self-help book, a guide to learning how to deal with hatred, resentment, regret, and other negative emotions and mental states. For centuries, it has been studied, practiced, and taught by Buddhists of nearly all traditions. The Guide has many contemporary admirers; perhaps foremost among these is the Dalai Lama who has said, “If I have any understanding of compassion and the practice of the Bodhisattva path, it is entirely on the basis of this text that I possess it.”

In “A Mahayana Liturgy”*, Luis O. Gomez tells us that the first four chapters of the Guide became a classical liturgy “very popular, at least in monastic circles, during the later Mahayana period (about eighth to thirteenth centuries C.E.).” Liturgy is a ritual or form of public worship. Both the liturgy (which Gomez provides text) and the work itself contain many expressions of reverence for the Awakened, the Protectors, the Conquerors, all of which are names for Buddhas, but it goes without saying that these outward declarations are less important than the inward looks of self-reflection the work promotes.

Today’s post deals with the 2nd chapter, most commonly translated as “Confession” – confession of sins or faults or errors. The Tibetan word for confession is bshags pa: “the process of admitting or ‘exposing’ one’s misdeeds before a witness or support, feeling regret for them and vowing not to repeat them in future.” (Rigpa-wiki)

The “evil” or “sin” we are trying to expiate has to do with such things as arrogance and conceit and nothing at all with violating some being’s will. This point can be confusing, especially when we read in Buddhist texts like this one references to “supreme beings,” but we should read these reference more as “mythical celestial beings” and keep in mind what was written above about the expressions of reverence.

I ran across this clip on YouTube: the 2nd chapter of Guide done in song, performed by Vidya Rao, an Hindustani classical singer and writer. I have no other information about it other than that. It is a beautiful rendition, and since it is not in English, as you listen you may wish to read the Wallace translation of the chapter here.

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* Lopez, Donald S. (Ed.), Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995