This is a transcript of “Radical Mindfulness: Zen Teachings for Challenging Times” – a talk offered by Plum Village monastics trained by peace activist and renowned author, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The event took place at UCL in London, on May 2nd 2019 and included meditations and mindfulness practices, and discussion on how mindful action can open a way forward in a fractured world.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Tradition of engaged mindfulness was formed in heart of war his native Vietnam. He insisted that “When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time,” and trained his students to bring mindfulness into their actions as they rebuilt villages and campaigned for peace. Later, as his community has grown internationally, he has offered retreats on the art of mindful living to tens of thousands of people all over the world, who come to his monasteries to learn practices for peace.
The evening included guided sitting meditation (led by Sister Kinh Nghiem), a talk (by Sister True Dedication), a tangerine meditation (led by Brother Phap Linh), and time for questions.
The following transcript is of the talk by Sister True Dedication:
This evening we’ve been invited to speak on the theme of “Radical Mindfulness: Zen Teachings for Challenging Times.” I thought the challenging times might refer to something that began with “B” [Brexit]. And now I think they refer something that begins with a “C” or a “C-C”… [Climate Crisis].
Mindfulness as a radical energy
I guess, for us, we always think of mindfulness as an energy. We have generated that energy already this evening with our mindful breathing meditation and arriving into our body and this moment. And an energy is always a radical energy, it is an energy that will change something about the situation. For us, mindfulness isn’t a tool that we use to kind of get something. It’s not an escape. Or “a bit of mindfulness in the morning and a bit of mindfulness in the evening,” and then everything should be fine. Although we can have, for many of us, the impression that mindfulness lives in the Headspace app at the sitting position while we practice with the Headspace app.
Seeing what others can’t see
But for us, mindfulness is really a way of life. It’s much broader, and it always goes together with what we call concentration and insight. It’s a triple training. [There is] mindfulness, which naturally helps us be more concentrated and present, and that naturally leads to some kind of insight about, in the most simple terms, what is going on inside. So when we came back to our body in the breathing exercise, you may have noticed the tension, and the tension may have been easy to release or tricky to release. Or you may have noticed that you were restless or distracted. So our mindfulness gives us an “insight” about what’s really going on inside.
Connected to that, naturally, is what’s going on around us. Is it peaceful and calm? Is it disturbed? And, more broadly, how is the collective energy in the city right now, in the country, in the planet? So mindfulness helps us “tell the truth.” Which is a theme at the moment. It gives us clarity. It gives us a kind of honesty about what’s really going on. And with the practice, we also have the capacity to have courage. Mindfulness can give us a lot of courage to do the right thing.
And when can understand the situation and we can understand ourselves, mindfulness also can offer us a way to cultivate compassion. So we can say that compassion arises naturally from understanding suffering.
Is it ok to stay Zen in a crisis?
When our teacher would go to Congress or even here to the British Parliament, he always spoke about these three things — clarity, compassion, and courage — which are the kind of fruits or benefits from practicing mindfulness. We are a Zen tradition. And [in terms of] the archetypes of zen, we would like to have that quality of stillness. In fact, the word Zen means meditation, concentration, stillness.
So how can we engage with the challenges of our time while also remaining calm? Is it even appropriate? Is it even appropriate? It is possible or healthy to stay calm in a crisis? That’s a bit of a koan.
And one other question which is very close to our hearts, is, How can we engage with issues of our time in a way that helps catalyse transformation to change the situation, while also accepting the way things are, which is a fundamental practice of meditation: to accept and embrace the situation, so that we can do something about it. So how do we have both that acceptance, but also the action to engage, and to change things.
And then, as we’re engaging, how can we do so in a way that is without the tension of striving, without frustration. So we invest a lot of energy to make a difference, but somehow we have a certain freedom relating to the outcome.
And in the Zen tradition, in our tradition of Buddhism, this is very important. So how can we cultivate that kind of relationship to action and to change.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, how can we engage while taking care of ourselves? How can we engage in a sustainable way so that we don’t burn out?
The art of not burning out
Our Teacher [Thich Nhat Hanh] was really faced with this question at a key point in his path as a monk during the Vietnam War, and in particular during his time of calling the peace in the West, so, late ’60s, early ’70s. And it was in this context, this “sea of fire,” that engaged Buddhism was really developed and crystallized.
And our teacher, he had a community of social workers that he was guiding during the war in Vietnam, who were going out to rebuild bombed villages, and to start schools and to be a positive force for change during the war. But when found himself exiled because he tried to call to an end to the war, he wanted to be able to support his students back in Vietnam. And that is the origin of the book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, which some of you may have read, and which was essentially a series of letters and words of guidance back to the social workers in Vietnam, who were saving bombed villages in this terrible situation of violence and destruction.
And our teacher, Thay, was giving them practical methods to be able to not burn out in that situation; he was giving them words of inspiration and mindfulness practices.
Mindfulness in action
And this is what has evolved into what we call kind of “Plum Village mindfulness practice,” which is a kind of meditation that we’re practicing throughout the day, and in every position. So, whether we are sitting or whether we are walking, even whether we are lying down, but most importantly when we’re in action, when we’re doing something and when we are engaging with other people. So our kind of mindfulness brings a “spiritual dimension” to everything we do in the day. For us, we don’t just wash dishes to have clean dishes. We wash dishes as a profound encounter with life, with the present moment, with our body, with our gratitude for having had food to eat. Even something as simple as gratitude for the warm soapy water. And in so doing, washing dishes becomes a kind of, in our terms, “sacred act.” We are not losing life while we wash the dishes.
While we move our bodies, or walking, taking action, whatever that is, whether it’s working in the vegetable garden, or printing fliers, or editing a document, when we’re moving our body, we practice mindfulness of the body.
And when we are listening to someone, we train ourselves to listen in a way that we can be fully present for what the person is saying and what is being left unsaid. And in our way of speaking, we practice mindfulness of speech, to really train ourselves to say things that are helpful and that nourish joy and hope and confidence in the other person. This all has something to do with engaged action. So for us, mindful aged action is mindful in every thing we do.
I remember the first time I saw Thay and Sister Chan Khong printing documents and helping edit things on the computer. And I was so surprised because I didn’t realize that documents and computers, which for me, I associate with office work, could be such a realm of mindfulness. In one of Thay’s old printers, he even had a little sticker inside saying “breathe,” for every time it broke down and he had to kind of take it apart, as a reminder.
So, really, mindfulness penetrating into every aspect of what we’re doing and every thing that it takes for action to happen. So there’s nothing that’s outside of our mindful energy.
Mindfulness leads to insight
That mindful energy, or the “energy of mindfulness” goes even one step deeper. It is not simply that we are present with what is going on and that we have a good intention, and compassion and awareness of what we are doing, always trying to nudge it in a good direction. It goes even further, which has something to do with “insight.” When we can sustain our mindfulness and develop a level of concentration, we can look deeply into things to — as our teacher would say — “see things that others can’t see.”
So, our teacher used to define meditation as the capacity to see things that others can’t see. Our mindfulness is the foundation that leads to concentration and this kind of insight.
And there’s two insights that I would like to share with you this evening, or two concentrations that lead to insight. And that is, understanding impermanence and understanding interbeing.
Personally for me, they have helped hugely in the way I am able to respond both to challenges in my own life and the ways that, as part of our community, I help with our engagement on bigger issues.
Today is a good day. I don’t know any of you noticed? There were some happy bits of news today. One of them is that it is possible to create a zero carbon economy. Wonderful. We probably already knew it. But at least, official people are now saying it. And for us, as Buddhists, we’re very happy that a key step to doing that is, a lot of things that we as individuals can do. Our teacher, when he spoke at the World Parliament of Religions a few years ago, he said that — we clearly have more than enough technology to solve the climate crisis; more than enough technology. We have the science. And as individuals, we are free also to take all sorts of decisions to change our own impact. So, for example, we are free as of the time we leave this hall to choose a low-meat diet, for example. It is simple, and it can even be pleasurable, joyful to do that. And what made me personally very happy today, is because in this climate change report they said that a low-meat diet is keen for having a net-zero carbon emissions economy.
This is wonderful because when we were speaking out loudly for that at the Paris Climate Talks [four years ago], we were one of the few voices emphasising the need for eating less meat.
And what’s wonderful also is that this is something that we are empowered to do right away. Our teacher said that when we take these kinds of changes to our life, when we change our habits, it is possible to do so with a lot of joy and freedom. We don’t need to be a kind of a veganist, or a vegetarianist, an angry vegan. It can give us a lot of happiness to know that there is not violence on our plate. And that we are eating with compassion. The choice we are making with every meal is a choice that protects, and cherishes life, not just our generation but also for future generations.
And I got also very happy when I discovered that the land saved that we don’t need for having livestock can be rewilded and planted with trees, and that’s all part of the plan. So it is wonderful to know that our simple choices can have long term benefits.
Have you fallen in love with the Earth yet?
Around 2012-2013, our teacher had a whole series of insights about how important it is to fall in love with the Earth. He gave a whole series of Dharma talks and he wrote some beautiful texts, some of which were published as a book, “Love Letters to the Earth.” And his insight was that, if we can love the Earth enough, then we’ll have all the energy we need, all the joy and delight we need to help protect the Earth. When we’re really driven or inspired by that energy of love.
I remember one time he really addressed the hall, we were several hundred of us sitting in Plum Village, our Monastery in France. And he asked us — have you fallen in love with the Earth yet?
And it was quite a deep question. What would that mean for each one of us? Because of course, to fall in love, it really has to be in our own way, with what we love most about the Earth.
I remember Thay telling a story, when he was explaining how he fell in love, how he was falling in love with the Earth that day, about the cold drops of water, as he opened the tap to wash his face, and he realized that he didn’t want to open it very wide, so he just opened it to a drip, because the water he felt was so precious. And then he took these fresh drops of water to refresh his eyes in the morning, and he felt that he was taking the snow of the Himalayas to moisten his eyes. And as he stepped out, it was a frosty morning in Upper Hamlet and there was frost on the grass. And he felt that every twinkling bit of frost was also from the Himalayan Mountain peaks. So, there’s something to do with allowing ourselves to see the magic and mystery in the world and in nature, and to really cherish its preciousness. And our Teacher said that when we can do this, we have a kind of infinite source of energy. Love is a huge source of energy. We will do anything to protect what we love and it gives us joy to protect what we love.
Insight leads to joy in action
Something I have heard a few times over the last few years, and even it has come up in the last few days, is people are not ready to make a change in their habits or their way of living. Somehow there’s a sense that people feel we’re too attached with our creature comforts.
And our Teacher really emphasized that when we see the truth, when we hear the truth, when we know the nature of the situation and the danger that our planet and our species and other species are in, we have a lot of energy to make a difference. We have a lot of energy to change our habits. So there’s a need for that collective awakening that each one of us is a part of. And I’m very eager to see how the Extinction Rebellion movement demonstrates and continues to grow and demonstrate exactly how much energy of awakening and readiness to change our way of living is out there.
For many of us, we can see that, the language that people use is, Are we ready to make sacrifices? Are we ready to have a slightly colder house? Are we ready to take more train journeys, or walk more, take more public transport?
And also in our tradition, we say that this has something to do with what life is all about, what true happiness is, and what matters most.
If our main criteria was to be efficient and effective, if we say that time is money and I have to maximise everything. Then maybe we don’t have time to walk. We don’t have time to take the train. We don’t have that spirit of generosity towards the planet.
But with the energy of mindfulness, when we stop and we really take a moment, like, really what is life all about? And what does a day well lived look like?
Checking our ideas of happiness
We would say “true happiness” is not necessarily what society or the majority is telling us. I think many of us here might already know that true happiness hasn’t got to do with how much money we have, or how much power or influence we have. We may know that already. And yet there may be something in us, we have that sense of striving, and we’re pushing and we’re filling our lives to kind of get something or get somewhere. Whether that is the next promotion, the next kind of move in our career, the next pay rise, a better kind of housing setup. And we may have all these things that we are sure — I can be happy when… I can be happy then… When I’ve bought these things, then I will be able to relax a little bit, then I can do a four day week.
So we somehow put our happiness into these certain boxes. But that may not be what true happiness is. True happiness may be a day lived deeply in connection with ourselves, taking care of our body and mind as we go about our daily business, in connection with our loved ones, being with good friends, laughing with our colleagues, and being connected to the earth. Relaxing out in a park, or just going for a walk. Making it out to a beach somewhere.
And our teacher, when speaking to Silicon Valley CEOs a few years ago, he really said to them, please reexamine your ideas of happiness. Are you sure? Are you sure that what you think will make you happy, will really make you happy?
But if we come back to take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and the earth, we will really be able to arrive into our life and to live our days deeply.
And so once we’ve got a right view of happiness, that means there’s a lot of time and energy to invest in the things that are truly the most important to us. And perhaps taking action and investing time and energy in caring for the planet, protesting on a bridge or a crossroads, maybe that is the best way we can use our time, and we know that, and we are confident about that.
I think one of the things that has excited me most about the Extinction Rebellion protest is the spirit of community, the spirit of nonviolence, and the spirit of joy and creativity. I think the protesters look like they’d been having a lot of fun, even those who are getting arrested. I hope their arrests are not too painful.
And I think that fits very much with our idea of sustainable engaged action. That really we have joy in the doing of it. We are not struggling and striving, but we… are encountering life while we are taking action. We’re encountering deep connection with our fellow human beings and with the earth. And what we are doing comes really from a place of love, and faith, and hope.
Two Radical insights
I wish to be a bit bold and share with you some more radical practices that in our tradition really penetrate to the heart of the matter. And I think for me, it’s when we can touch something deeper, what we call in Buddhism “the ultimate dimension,” that we have the kind of insight we need, and the kind of clarity we need, to make deeper decisions about our life, our time and our energy.
1. The insight of impermanence
One of the practices we have in our tradition is called the Five Remembrances. It is a torpedo, that touches the roots of our fear. I realise that even in my own engagement with issues relating to the planet, there’s a sense of — this change needs to happen in my lifetime, or, if we are not successful, then what? So there’s a sense of tension and striving.
I’ll never forget one Dharma talk where our teacher said — no matter what we pour on the Earth, the Earth will have the capacity to recover, even if it takes her millions of years.
I didn’t like this at all. I didn’t like it at all. But it’s really stuck with me. So the Earth, even if she has different eras of species, so of course there would be a great species loss, but the earth herself will recover, even if it takes millions of years. It’s humanity that has a problem. Because we’re done for. And I found that a very helpful contemplation. A very helpful contemplation.
And this practice of the Five Remembrances, it has five steps. It helps us confront our own fear of our own death, as well as the death of our loved ones, and the death of our civilization even.
So it’s a real kind of wake up call of a practice. These are the Five Remembrances:
The first one is to become aware and to realize that I am of the nature to get sick and there is no way I can escape getting sick.
The second is that I’m of the nature to get old and there’s no way I can escape getting old.
The third is that I am of the nature to die, and there is no way that I can escape death.
The fourth is that all that is dear to me and every one I love are of the nature to change, and there is no way I can escape being separated from them.
And the fifth is that I inherit the results of my actions of body, speech and mind. My actions are my only continuation.
These are a practice that we can contemplate every night before we go to sleep and they could give us a lot of energy about how we want to live our days. I practiced them before realizing that I wanted to become a monastic, a nun. And I think they had something to do with that realization. So they can be very, very powerful in helping us realize how we want to use our time and how there’s no point in being afraid; we can encounter our fear. And every night when we recite it, we touch that fear of our own impermanence and the impermanence of our loved ones.
When we’ve practiced this with ourself, we can then practice this with our loved ones as the object, and then with the earth as the object and we’ve got civilization as the object of our concentration. And our teacher said that only when we can accept the impermanence of our civilization, will we have the kind of freedom, in a strange way the kind of peace that we need to really be able to take action with a certain quality of calm and freedom. But so long as we’re struggling against this underlying fear: it can’t happen, it can’t happen, I have to stop it happening. Then that level of struggle, will kind of define our stress and it will give us that tension. Whereas, when we can accept the possibility, then we say, alright, it’s going to happen anyway, well, what can I do, with a lot more joy and freedom, to shift it a little bit. So this is a very, very powerful practice. This is what we would say helps us touch the longer, “ultimate” dimension of things.
2. The insight of interbeing
And the second practice, which also leads to insight, and this one leads to the insight of interbeing. This comes from the Diamond Sutra. And some of you may already be familiar with the Diamond Sutra, some of you may be hearing about it for the first time. One fun fact about it is it’s the oldest printed document in the world. Actually there’s a copy in the British Library. So it’s a later Sutra, and the printed copy is at least form the year 700-ish A.D. And the Sutra, we can call it perhaps the oldest text on deep ecology in the world. It’s a beautiful text, very simple, and it goes very deep. And it says — what kind of insight would sons and daughters of good families need to get in order to put an end to all affliction and to help the world? There are four insights that we would need to get. And these insights all have something to do with interbeing.
The first is the insight that there is no such thing as a “separate self.” So myself, my brother’s self, my sister’s self, yourselves, we inter-are, we’re profoundly interconnected. If you haven’t got this insight yet, then I invite you to do what you need to do to get to the bottom of this insight. It has something to do with what has made us who we are, whether that’s our education and teachers, our genetic inheritance, our culture, our environment, the food we’ve eaten, the inspiration we have had, we are not exactly a separate self.
The second insight is that there is no such thing as a “human being.” I think we know already that we have mitochondria in the heart of our cells, that we have a whole community of the intestinal flora in our stomach. We are made of so many things that are not exactly human, and we inter-are with all other species. We inter-are with the trees, we inter-are with the oceans, with the sky and the atmosphere, with every element that supports life. We cannot have human beings without these other things.
The third insight is that there is no such thing as a living being that is separate from kind of inert matter. This is very interesting. Luckily modern science and biology also supports this. We cannot say where life begins and life ends.
The fourth realization: there is no such thing as a lifespan. I think that it naturally follows on from the first three, but it is a wonderful koan and it’s connected to the Five Remembrances I just read. It is our actions of body, speech and mind that continue us, even long after we pass away. It’s like there is energy rippling through society and the cosmos during our lifetime, and those ripples continue beyond our lifespan. But if we don’t have a self separate and if we’re not a separate human being and we’re not a separate living being, then naturally we don’t have something that’s limited to a lifespan.
Are we being good ancestors?
These four kind of insights are so helpful when we engage and take action, especially as many of us are doing now on the climate, when we’re really engaging for future generations. What we’re doing now, we are the fruit also of dozens and hundreds and thousands of generations before us. They don’t get to be alive now in order to make a difference. It’s our turn. We are here now and they are continued in us and as their continuation we can have a lot of energy to do our best in our lifetime. And then looking forward — the kind of “seventh generation” insight — we know that what we do now also builds the future for generations to come.
So what we do in any moment is connected across time, and it’s also connected across space, because of our interbeing with the whole planet. And this insight is very helpful as a source of energy. Because if we think — oh, I’m very active, I’m doing a lot to save the planet, and if we think that it’s a “small me” doing a lot to help, we will easily run out of energy. But so long as we realize that we are “vast us,” and that we are helping our vast selves across space and time, we have a lot of energy and we know that we do our best, and then we let go.
Is optimism possible?
Our teacher was once asked by a journalist — would you describe yourself as a pessimist or an optimist? And I remember him opening his arms — “I am an optimist!” with a big grin on his face. The journalist said, yes, but what if it’s not enough? What if humanity is doing now is not enough? How can you still be an optimist? How you you still have peace? And Thay said — we can have peace because we have done our best, and that is why I am optimist.
Do we need anger to take action?
So like many of you I subscribe to the Extinction Rebellion emails and I smiled a little bit at the sign off, “love and rage.” And I loved it and I thought — am I allowed to love it? [laughter] You see as Buddhists we really practice not to be angry. And I remember once our teacher said, “Well, we can have a little bit of indignation.” Enough indignation in order to act. But I like that fact that it’s love and rage together, because we speak of compassion as the antidote to anger. So when you have compassion, that is already neutralizing the anger. But I think the reason why we have the word “rage” there as well as being a wonderful cool phrase is because there’s a sense of unique energy that drives us to change and action.
So I sat with this and walked with this, and Brother Spirit sitting here on my left, he said, “Well, maybe you can speak of fierce compassion.” In Buddhism we really need that kind of fierce compassion. In the temples in Asia you can see the two bodhisattvas guarding the entrance to the temple. And one of them is very angry to kind of ward off the evil spirits. So that fierce compassion. We can also speak of “thundering compassion.” Compassion isn’t necessarily weak, it can be very powerful. And actually that root of care and loving kindness, and protection that naturally arises with compassion is a huge source of energy and can sustain along the long term. Whereas my own experience with anger is it’s a bit like an explosion that burns itself out and usually burns me in the process.
We also speak of another energy that drives action in Buddhism is the energy of volition and aspiration. So that the deep intention to care for, to protect, to engage, to help that’s really coming from our love for the earth, for each other and for all species, that is a very powerful energy of aspiration and volition. And that, combined with the love, with the compassion, is a huge energy driving us to act and it can sustain itself, and sustain those of us who are acting with that kind of energy.