Ethical Mindfulness Wisdom

Zen Ethics: Collective Awakening and the Five Mindfulness Trainings

Each winter in Plum Village we have a three-month retreat. There are about 250 people, monastics and laypeople, practicing together for ninety days. We get up very early in the morning and we practice joyfully as a spiritual family. We listen to Dharma talks, we practice walking meditation, we practice eating in mindfulness, we practice cooking, cleaning, doing everything in mindfulness. We want to practice so that every moment of our daily life can be a peaceful moment, can be a nourishing moment, can be a happy moment. We are trying our best. And we create a very powerful kind of energy with our collective practice. Practicing the three-month retreat is our simple and modest way to contribute to collective awakening. We should wake up ourselves before we can help other people to wake up. That is our principle.

Right now, our technology is good enough to substitute the fossil fuels we are using with renewable sources of energy. We can make use of the water, the air, and the sunshine, and completely replace gasoline and coal by 2030 if we are strong enough, if we are united enough. But we need leadership. And the leadership we need is not only political. We need spiritual leadership as well.

We have a lot of fear, violence, and anger in us. We are using a lot of money in order to manufacture weapons. The big powers are still creating a lot of weapons: in the United States of America, in Great Britain, in France. That is a very important source of income for these powers. Why do people in other countries need to buy weapons? Because they have fear. They want to protect themselves.

Fear is something we should remove, we should transform, together with anger. Terrorists have a lot of violence and fear. But anti-terrorists also have a lot of fear and anger. That is why political leadership is not enough. We need spiritual leadership to tell us how to recognize the poison of violence, the poison of anger, the poison of fear in us so that we can transform them.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the kind of spiritual practice that can bring about true happiness, true love, and that can protect life, restore communication, and bring about the healing of the planet, and of every one of us on Earth.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality: a global ethic. They are a concrete expression of the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path of right understanding and true love, which leads to healing, transformation, and happiness for ourselves and for the world. To practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings is to cultivate the insight of interbeing. This is Right View, which can remove all discrimination, intolerance, anger, fear, and despair. If we live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva. Knowing we are on that path, we are not lost in confusion about our life in the present, in preoccupation with the past, or in fears about the future.

When we practice the mindfulness trainings, we make a commitment to refrain from behaviors that harm ourselves and others. We commit to not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not speaking falsely, and to abstaining from intoxicants. The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, in the family, and in society. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing, and not exploiting other living beings. The third training is the practice of responsible sexual behavior in order to protect individuals, couples, families, and children. The fourth training is the practice of deep listening and loving speech in order to restore communication and bring reconciliation. The fifth training is to practice mindful consumption, not bringing toxins into our body and mind, not consuming tv programs, magazines, films, and so on, that may contain poisons, such as violence, craving, and hatred. The practice of mindful consumption is the practice of protecting ourselves, our families, our society, and our communities.

These Trainings have come from our understanding of the Eightfold Path. For example, the root of suffering is not only that people kill. The killing happens because we have a wrong perception, a wrong view. If we see wrongly, we may be ready to kill. But if we see clearly and have Right View, we have neither the ability nor desire to kill. With Right View, we see clearly that whatever we want to kill is part of us; it is like our own family member, and we lose our ability to harm it.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are offered without dogma or religion. Everybody can use them as an ethics for their life without becoming Buddhist or becoming part of any tradition or faith. You are just yourself, but you try to make a beautiful life by following these ethics.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are not commandments; they don’t come from an external god. They come from our own wisdom and insight. The insight they contain is the outcome of our practice of mindfulness and concentration.

The trainings can be a joy, not something we have to do. It’s like when we refrain from polluting the planet or we refrain from eating too much meat, we don’t feel that we’re suffering because of it. In fact, we feel that we’re very lucky to be able to consume and to live in such a way that makes a future for the planet a real possibility. If with your practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, you feel that your understanding, loving kindness, and compassion have become bigger, then you can share your practice with others and in that way we can make things better.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

1. Reverence for Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, nondiscrimination, and nonattachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.

2. True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power, and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of climate change.

3. True Love

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness—which are the four basic elements of true love—for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

4. Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully, using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

5. Nourishment and Healing

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, tv programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society, and the Earth.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings Come from Our Practice

When we study and practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are aware that they are the fruit of our meditation. They are born from our mindfulness and concentration. They represent our insight. We need to practice them daily with a lot of joy.

We know that killing has been going on in many places in the world due to fanaticism, narrowness, and wrong thinking. If we just say that killing is not good, that doesn’t help very much. But if we know how to help the person who is about to kill to get the insight of interbeing, to remove fanaticism and narrowness, then naturally that person will stop killing.

Interbeing and the First Mindfulness Training

War is a product of misunderstanding and wrong perceptions. We have wrong perceptions about ourselves and about other people. And from those wrong perceptions arise a lot of anger and fear. In order to end wars, we should try to help each other remove our wrong perceptions.

The cause of violence, the cause of war and wrong perceptions is also our attachment to our views. We believe that our view about the truth is the only correct view, and that we should destroy other kinds of views. And that leads to fanaticism, intolerance, and war. That is why the First Mindfulness Training encourages us to look deeply in order to change our way of thinking. We have to look deeply in order to see the interconnectedness of everything and release our dualistic thinking. Once we can see the interconnectedness of everything, we will be able to understand the views of others.

People are killing each other, and it’s because they don’t have the insight of interbeing. They don’t see that the person they’re killing is themselves. If we just advise people not to kill, that may not be enough. We have to inspire them. We have to help them to understand that killing someone is killing yourself. If you’re inhabited by the insight of interbeing, you know that killing someone is killing yourself. The first mindfulness training, not to kill, always to protect life, should not be just a commandment, someone telling you that it’s a good thing to do. But you have to understand why you should not kill. If you can touch the insight of interbeing, and you are free from double grasping—the illusion that subject and object are separate from each other—then you see very clearly that killing the other is to kill yourself.

A person who is free from all views, a person who is capable of seeing the interbeing nature of everything, will never have the desire to kill. The practice of the First Mindfulness Training nourishes our compassion. Compassion benefits us and makes us happy. Without compassion we cannot relate to the world and to other living beings. Communication is impossible. That’s why cultivating compassion is crucial. It will bring well-being to us and to the world. It is a training; we need to train ourselves to be able to help compassion grow day by day.

There were moments during the Vietnam War that many of us were very close to despair. The war was going on and we did not see any sign that it would end. Every day, every night, people died, and the country was being destroyed by bombs and chemicals. The young people came to me and asked, “Thay, is there any hope that the war will end soon?” In that moment, we did not see any hope. We were very close to despair, because the war went on and on for a long time. So when people ask you a question like that, you need to breathe in and out several times. After having breathed in and out several times, I told the young people, “The Buddha told us that things are impermanent. The war is also impermanent. It should end some time.”

But the problem is: are we doing anything to help end the war? If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the feeling of despair or anger, we can’t help. We can even fuel the war and make it intensify or last longer. So the question is whether we can do something for peace, whether we can be something for peace.

When you produce a thought of compassion, of loving kindness, or of understanding, that is peace. When you do something to help the victims of war, the children and adults, to suffer less, and when you bring food for refugee children, these are the kinds of actions that can help relieve a situation of suffering. So in that difficult situation, it’s crucial for you to find a way to be peace, a way to practice peace. Even if you can do it only in a very limited way, it will help you survive. It helps you nourish hope. It’s very important not to allow ourselves to be carried away by the feeling of despair. We should learn how to bring peace into our bodies, to our minds, so we’re able to give rise to thoughts of compassion, words of compassion, and acts of compassion in our daily lives. That will inspire many people, and it will help them not be drowned in the ocean of despair. Our thinking and acting show that the First Mindfulness Training is possible. If we have some peace within ourselves, in our way of thinking, speaking, and acting, we’ll be able to influence people and inspire them to go in the same direction. Little by little, we can improve the situation.

Generosity and the Second Mindfulness Training

The second mindfulness training is about generosity, not stealing, not harming the environment, not being greedy. It’s about our ability to be happy with a minimum of conditions. This is very important. The second mindfulness training is about true happiness. If people are not able to practice this training, it’s because they have too much desire. If you have too much desire, you don’t have time to live your life, to love, and to experience healing and transformation. You burn yourself with the fire of desire. This training should be a bell of mindfulness for people who work too hard. There are many such people in our world. They may be powerful. They may be very successful in their enterprises. But they suffer; they don’t really live their lives; they are sucked into their work.

We cultivate compassion by looking deeply to understand the suffering inside us and around us. You don’t have to be rich to help people. In fact, if you’re too wealthy you can’t help people. Some people invest all their time and energy in maintaining their wealth; they don’t even have time to take care of themselves and their family, so how can they help others? Being wealthy is not a good condition for spiritual life. It is possible to live simply and to be happy. When you transform yourself into a bodhisattva, you have a lot of power—not the power of fame and money, but the power that helps you to be free and enables you to help and bring relief to many people.

With awakening, we no longer think that we need more power, more wealth, more sex, or more fame in order to be happy. If we want to save our planet, we need to have a new way, a new view of happiness. And with that collective awakening we can stop the course of destruction of our society and of the Earth.

Every one of us has an idea of how to be happy. We have our own view of happiness. It is because of that view that we have sacrificed our time. We have run after objects of our desire. We have destroyed our body and our mind to a very great extent. And that is why it’s very important to have a new view about happiness. The Buddha said that, “Well, happiness is simple. If you go home to the present moment, you realize that you have the conditions to be happy right here and right now.” All the wonders of life are in you and around you.

That is why in Plum Village we practice the Fifth Mantra: “This is already a moment of happiness.” Before sitting meditation, we recite the mantra, before sharing lunch or dinner, we share the mantra. Before working together in the field or in the vegetable garden, we practice the mantra. And happiness can come right away. So easy. So simple. “This is a moment of happiness.” Yes, we are very lucky. We are still alive. And our planet is beautiful. We have to really be there in the present moment to live deeply in that moment. We can get nourishment and healing in the here and the now. And we have to release the kind of craving, anger, and hate that has destroyed much of us and much of the world.

When we practice walking meditation, for instance, we focus our attention on our in-breath and out-breath. And every time we breathe in we can take one step, or two steps, or three steps. We are fully aware of the contact between our foot and the ground. We walk as if we kiss the Earth with our foot. Because we are entirely in the present moment, every step we make brings us home deeply in the present moment. With every step we touch all the wonders of life that are in us and around us. That’s very nourishing, very healing both for us and the Earth.

We have done injustice to the Earth. We have done a lot of damage to the Earth. And walking like that, kissing the Earth with every step, we heal our self and we heal the Earth. And this practice is not only for Buddhists. Everyone can do it: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Communists. We can all enjoy walking like that. And every step like that can bring solidity, freedom, peace, and joy. That is why I recommend that we practice walking meditation every day.

The Third Mindfulness Training and Love

If we really love others, we will try to protect ourselves and protect others, and sexual misconduct will not happen. Sexual misconduct usually comes from violence, fear, anger, and craving. It is not about sex or love. If true love and understanding are there, anger and violence decrease, and we do not act out of fear.

We have many kinds of energies in us, including the energies of anger, violence, and craving. Compassion is also a very big energy. If you allow the energy of compassion to take over, you will spend all your twenty-four hours doing things that will profit people.

We all have sexual energy. The ways we eat, play, and spend our time are big factors in how we handle our sexual energy. The way we serve, the way we spend our leisure time, the way we pass our time when we’re with others has a lot to do with it. This is an art. We shouldn’t suppress any kind of energy in us, including sexual energy. But we need to be intelligent in the way we handle this energy. There are good kinds of energy, and there are energies that can disturb us. Mindfulness, concentration, and the time we spend together with other practitioners can help us tremendously. We should smile to our own energies and know that we have the capacity to handle them. “My dear energy, I know you are there. I am here for you. I will learn how to help and to handle you. Together we can be in peace. And you can help me also. You are energy, and it’s possible to transform one energy into another, like the wind can be transformed into electricity.” So sexual energy can be transformed into the energy of compassion and acts of compassion. We only have to learn how to transform it. With a community, a Sangha, it’s possible to learn. The way we eat, drink, and manage our leisure time; the way we work together; and the way we serve, will determine our success.

The Fourth Mindfulness Training and the Power of Communication

We have organized groups of Palestinians and Israelis to come to spend time in Plum Village for many years. At the beginning of each retreat, the two groups are suspicious of each other and have trouble looking at each other. Both groups have suffered a lot, and they have a belief that their suffering has been caused by the other side. We give each side plenty of time apart from each other to practice and a lot of support in using the practices of deep listening and loving speech.

One side uses loving speech, and one side uses compassionate listening, and the outcome is wonderful. While listening, you recognize that those on the other side have suffered almost exactly the same way as you have. Before that, we thought that only our side had suffered in that way. But now we see they have suffered exactly the same things—fear, anger, suspicion, and so on. So you begin to see them as human beings, like you. And when you begin to see them as human beings who suffer, the intention to punish is no longer there, and you begin to look at them with the eyes of compassion. You may even be motivated by the desire to say something or do something so they can suffer less. That is the transformation you experience during the time you practice compassionate listening. When you look at them now, you suffer much less, because you’ve been able to see the suffering in them, and you see them as human beings like you. When they see your eyes, they feel that you are looking at them with love and not with suspicion, fear, or anger anymore. So transformation takes place on both sides. And you know that you will also have a chance to speak out, maybe next week. And you will tell them about your suffering, and they will listen. This practice of compassionate listening and loving speech is very important to liberate us from our fear, anger, hatred, and so on. And it has the power to restore communication.


In the beginning we may notice that others have many wrong perceptions. It’s because they have suffered so much. That’s why in their way of speaking there’s still some bitterness, accusation, and so on. But because we’re practicing mindfulness of compassion, we don’t interrupt them, and we allow them to speak out so they suffer less. And the outcome is that we recognize them as living beings who have a lot of suffering. And so we suffer less, and we no longer have the intention to punish them. We have the intention to help. We say that we can provide them with information that can help them to see that it’s not our intention to make them suffer. And we know that on our side there is also fear and suspicion that makes us difficult for them. If we have a difficult relationship with our partner, or with our parents and family members, or even with someone from a group we think has hurt us and our family, it’s always possible to restore communication and to reconcile by practicing compassionate listening and loving speech.

There are those who are capable of using loving speech in the political circle. President Barack Obama is capable of loving speech. I think the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq can be ended with the practice of deep listening and loving speech. We don’t have to send more troops. The Taliban are human beings like us, and they also love their country, their people, their nation. And we can talk to them. I think President Obama can invite them to the White House, invite them to dinner, to do walking meditation together, and share with them the difficulties of America, and ask them to help, and offer help to solve the problems in Afghanistan. And they can talk about global warming, the danger that our planet is facing. We need our leaders to be together in such a way. To spend time together as friends, the way we do in Plum Village. We cook together, we clean together, we walk together, we sit together. We let the other know about our suffering, our difficulties. We listen to their suffering, their difficulties.

I think a peace conference should be organized like that. People come, they have to spend a few weeks living together and sharing together in a very informal way, and establish real human relationship and understanding of each other, especially the difficulties and the suffering. If we do that, our peace negotiation will be successful.

With the practice of the fourth mindfulness training, we can restore communication in our family and bring back happiness. With the practice of deep listening and loving speech we can bring warring parties together. I think spiritual leaders have to help political leaders in this respect. They have to work hand in hand. We need a lot of patience, compassion, in order to solve problems like Iran, Afghanistan, and so on. President Obama can go to Iran as a guest and stay a few weeks with the President of Iran. And they should eat together, walk together, share together their suffering, their difficulties—because President Obama has a lot of difficulties also. And as two human beings living on the Earth, they will understand each other and they can release the fear, the anger.

We need our political leaders to practice this kind of spirituality. And we don’t need to be a member of a religion in order to do so. It’s possible to have spirituality without religion. The way we drink our tea can be very spiritual. We drink our tea in such a way that we become alive, that the world shines, that happiness becomes possible in the here and the now. You don’t need a god, you don’t need a religion in order to do that.

The Ethical and Spiritual Aspects of the Fifth Mindfulness Training

Suppose you practice the fifth training and you’ve stopped drinking alcohol or using drugs. But you’re suffering because you still have the desire to drink alcohol or use drugs. You’re following the guideline, the precept, but you haven’t yet really seen the value of it, the insight, and the spiritual dimension. You still refrain, because you know that it’s good for your health to do so, but you suffer. It is possible to enjoy refraining from consuming things that are toxic for body and mind, just as it’s possible to enjoy being vegetarian. If you’re happy eating vegetarian food, you feel lucky to eat only vegetables and not cause suffering to other living beings. There is joy, there is insight, and there is compassion and spirituality in your eating. Eating becomes a very spiritual thing. There is no barrier dividing the ethical and the spiritual—they are one.

In Buddhism we speak of four sources of nutriment. Edible food is only one source, the first kind of nutriment we consume.

Sensory impressions are the second source of consumption. What we view, like television programs; what we read, like magazines; what we listen to, like radio and music, are objects of our consumption. With mindfulness we know how to consume only the items that can bring about peace and well-being into our body and our mind.

The third source of nutriment is called volition. It means your deepest desire, your deepest aspiration. Our desire is a kind of food. If you have a good desire, like the desire to preserve our planet, the desire to help people suffer less, the desire to bring safety to children and others from abuse. That is a good kind of desire. And each of us should have a strong desire in us in order for us to be truly alive. If you have no desire in yourself, you are not very alive. This is called volition, the deepest aspiration that each of us could have.

So let us look deeply into ourselves to identify our deepest desire. If that desire is wholesome, like the desire to help protect the Earth, to help end war, and to help other people to transform and to be happy, that is a good desire. But the desire to run after more fame, more sex, more power, more wealth may not be healthy.

Our deep desire should be nourished, because it gives us vitality, it is a source of joy. You will give up your efforts to help the world if you don’t have the support.

The fourth source of nutriment is the collective consciousness. If you live in a bad environment, your ideal, your beginner’s mind, your good intention, will be gone very quickly. That is why it’s very important to choose a place, a community, a neighborhood where people are producing together the energy of loving kindness, the energy of peace, the energy of brotherhood and sisterhood. If you live in such a community, your good desire will be protected and nourished.

If you allow yourself to be in a crowd that is very angry, or filled with craving, or that has a lot of discrimination and despair, you will consume that energy in the collective consciousness, and you will destroy yourself. That is why environment is another kind of food. As practitioners, we have to create the kind of environment that can help provide us with the wholesome energy of brotherhood, sisterhood, hope, peace, and happiness.

We should try to create as many of these kinds of communities as possible in the world. Spiritual and religious teachers have the duty to create these communities, living in a way that can produce the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, to generate the energy of brotherhood, sisterhood, and happiness in the here and the now.

We don’t have to consume much in order to be happy. If we understand the teaching of the four nutriments, we will know how to nourish ourselves and our community, and how to protect our environment.

Happiness and well-being are key to a global ethic. We practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings because we see that they increase our well-being and ease our suffering. And there is no distinction between our own suffering and the suffering of the world. We act ethically because we’re motivated by the insight we have into interbeing and nondiscrimination. Our insight causes our thoughts, speech, and physical actions to manifest in a way that brings well-being to the world and to ourselves. We act this way not because we think we have to or are told to, but because of our own insight. Therefore our actions only bring about more well-being.

We need a collective awakening. Many of us, all over the world, are trying to bring that about. If we have a collective awakening, everything will be fine. With a collective awakening, we will live together in such a way that we’ll be able to save the planet and to make a future possible for our children and their children.

Featured calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh
Drawings by Mayumi Oda, re-published with her kind permission

This is a fragment from True Peace Work (available in all major bookshops) re-published with the kind permission of Parallax Press.


Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered around the world for his pioneering teachings on mindfulness, global ethics and peace. Find out more about his life, and work on the Plum Village website.

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