Thich Nhat Hanh is a poet, a writer and a Zen master. His tireless work for peace during the Vietnam War moved Martin Luther King, Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Nhat Hanh lives in exile in France, and travels worldwide leading retreats on mindful living. He will be in the U.S. for three months in the spring of 1991.
Everything that Nhat Hanh teaches arises from an understanding of the interdependent nature of all things. “To be is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. I am, therefore you are. You are, therefore I am. We inter-are.” If we are fully present with ourselves, with a flower, or a spec of dust, we find the entire universe.
The following piece is excerpted from talks Nhat Hanh gave at a 1987 retreat for artists in Ojai, California. Nhat Hanh sees artists as playing a potentially crucial part in “an experiment to discover the true face of ‘American Buddhism,’ one that is not ‘foreign,’ but springs from the depths of our understanding.” He invites American artists to join him in mindfulness—to see into the nature of interbeing—as the foundation for their art.
Each minute of our life is a work of art. Growing lettuce is poetry. The time when we are not writing or painting, we are still creating. If we are pregnant with beauty, joy and peace, we can make life more beautiful.
When we know how to be peace, we find that art is a wonderful means for us to share that. The foundation is being. The expression will take place in one way or another, but the being is essential. So we must go back to ourselves and make peace, open ourselves, be in touch, penetrate into the nature of interbeing. When we see into the true nature of interbeing and have joy and peace in ourselves, then the creation of works of art will be quite natural; it will serve peace and reconciliation and will help the world.
There is a word in Buddhism, apranihita, which means wishlessness, or aimlessness. The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything is already here in yourself.
While we practice walking meditation, we do not intend to arrive anywhere. We only make peaceful, happy steps. If we keep thinking of the future, of what we want to realize, we lose our steps. The same is true with sitting meditation. We sit to enjoy our sitting; we do not sit in order to become a Buddha. This is quite important. Each moment of sitting brings us back to life, and therefore, we should sit in a way that we enjoy our sitting the whole time we sit. Eating a tangerine, drinking a cup of tea can also be like that.
Many years ago, I was talking with a young American. He was describing a lot of projects—peace, enlightenment, and so on. He was eating some tangerines, and thinking and talking. I was there with him. And I was really there, that is why I was aware of what was going on with him: talking about his projects and eating at the same time. He just peeled the tangerine and threw the sections of it into his mouth, and then chewed and swallowed.
So, after two tangerines, I said, “Jim, stop!” He stopped. He looked at me, and I said, “Eat your tangerine.” He stopped talking, and he began to peel the third tangerine slowly, smelling it. He took out each section of his tangerine, put it in his mouth, and felt the juice coming out to his tongue. Feeling the tangerine, he ate each section slowly, until he finished his tangerine. I said, “Good.” The tangerine became something very real.
If you can make the tangerine real, you yourself will become real. And life is real at that moment. If you do not, you will lose your tangerine, you will lose yourself, and you will lose life. What is the use of eating a tangerine? It is just for eating the tangerine. During the time you eat a tangerine, eating the tangerine is the most important thing in your life.
The next time you have a tangerine to eat, you can put it in your palm and look at it in a way that makes the tangerine become real. It depends on your concentration. You do not need a lot of time to see things, maybe just one or two seconds. Looking at the beautiful tangerine, you can see a tiny flower with sunshine, rain and a tiny fruit in it, and you can see the continuation of the sunshine and the rain, and the transformation of the baby fruit into this fully mature fruit. If you look at a tangerine in this way, you will see many beautiful things—sunshine, rain, clouds, trees, leaves—everything.
We should not think that writing a poem is more important than eating a tangerine, washing the dishes or planting lettuce. The things are on completely equal footing. We should enjoy our eating and our washing as much as writing our poem. In America, I met with a scholar who said, “You should write more poems; you should grow less lettuce.” I told her how much I enjoy growing lettuce and she said, “Not many people can write poems like you do, but anyone can grow lettuce.” I said, “No, that’s not my way of thinking. I know very well that if I do not grow lettuce, I cannot write poems.”
After a retreat in Los Angeles, an artist asked me, “What is the way to look at the moon and the flowers in order to make the most of them? I am an artist. I want to look at flowers in a way that I can profit from them, so that my art will progress.” I said, “If you look in that way, you cannot be in touch with the flower. Try abandoning all your projects, so that you can be with the flower with no intention of exploiting it or getting something from it.” The same artist told me, “When I am with a friend, I want to profit from him or her.” Of course, we can profit from a friend, but a friend is more than a source of profit.
How can we bring elements of peace to a civilization that is very used to making profit? It has become a kind of habit to look at things with the intention of getting something. We call it “pragmatism,” and we say that the truth is something that pays. Let’s reflect on samadhi and vipassana. Samadhi is just stopping, to be there, to be really with yourself and with the world. Vipassana is to see clearly. When you are capable of stopping, you begin to see, and if you can see, you understand. Peace and happiness are the fruit of that. We should master the art of stopping in order to really be with a flower, in order to really be with a friend. To be with a flower, to be with a friend—without thinking to ask for support or advice—just to be with them is truly an art.
When we do not think of something as a work of art, then it is a work of art. When I want to talk about art, I try not to use the word art, because I really want to talk about art. There was a Zen master who said, “Every time I pronounce the word Buddha, I have to go to the river and rinse my mouth three times.” Another said, “Every time I hear you pronounce the word Buddha, I have to go to the river and wash my ears three times.” There are Buddhists who hate the word Buddhism, and we understand why. We have to be careful; every word can get sick, including the word art.
What about techniques, the techniques of writing poetry, of painting? I would like to tell a story. There was a young man who liked to draw lotus flowers but he did not know anything about drawing. He did not know how to handle a brush or to mix color. He went to a master, and the master took him to a lotus pond and asked him to sit there and look at the lotus flowers all day without doing anything, just breathing and looking at the lotus flowers. The young man witnessed the blooming of one flower when the sun was high, and then the returning of the flower into a bud when night fell. The next morning, he practiced in the same way. When one flower withered, when its petals fell into the water, he just looked at the rest of the flower and then he moved to another lotus.
He just did that for ten days, and then he went back to his master. His master asked him, “Are you ready?” He said, “I will try,” and the brush and paint were given to him. He was painting like a child, but the lotus was very beautiful. He was nothing but a lotus at that time, and the lotus just came out. You could see his naivete concerning technique, but real beauty was there. The truth was really there. Peace was really there.
When the young man began looking at the flower, at first the flower was something other than him. But finally, he became the flower, and the flower became him. There was a kind of harmony, a kind of reconciliation. At first he wanted to paint the flower, but finally he became the flower, and his intention to paint was no longer there. That is why he succeeded in painting. The harmony, the oneness, could be seen in the flower and in his own heart. That is why the harmony could be seen in his painting.
There is a way to live our daily lives that reconciles us with the world, and if we do that, we have peace right away. We have a sense of harmony, of nonduality—harmony between everything. We call this interbeing because interbeing is being in harmony. So breathe, smile, be in the present moment with peace, with joy, with harmony, and then everything you do, or everything you do not do, is peace, is art.
Shortly after the Buddha’s enlightenment, as he was sitting under a tree, he saw about thirty young men rushing by, looking for something. When they saw the Buddha sitting under a tree, they asked, “Reverend Monk, did you see a young lady go by this way?” The Buddha looked at them and asked, “Young men, tell me the story. What girl?” And they told him the story.
It was a holy day. They had gone for a picnic in the woods, and they brought along a young lady who sang well, to entertain them. After the picnic, the young men took a nap in the forest and during that time, the young lady stole all their valuables and ran away. When they woke up, they didn’t see her so they began looking for her.
The Buddha said, “Young men, would you like to find the young lady, or would you find yourselves?” The young men were quite surprised. Looking for a young lady was understandable, but looking for themselves, what does that mean? The monk had said something provocative, and they looked at him with great interest.
The Buddha said, “Sit down, my friends,” and he told them what it means to look for yourself. He told them that life can be found only in the present moment. If you look for it in the past, you sacrifice the only moment you are alive. “Look, young men. Look at the leaves under the effect of the sunshine. Aren’t they beautiful?” Suddenly the young people looked and saw that the leaves on the tree are very beautiful. The Buddha said, “If you look for something else and sacrifice the present moment, how will you see the beauty of these leaves? Please sit down and breathe with me, as we look at these beautiful leaves.”
These intelligent young men understood the point made by the Buddha. They sat quietly for some time, enjoying looking at the trees and the plants and listening to the birds. That was the first time in their lives they enjoyed such simple pleasures. Suddenly, the Buddha saw that the young man on his right had a flute. When the Buddha was young, he liked to play the flute. So he asked that young man, “Can you play your flute for us, my friend?”
This was a surprise, because no monk was interested in playing the flute, yet this monk was asking him to play. So, he smiled, brought his flute up to his lips, and began to play. And he played for close to half an hour, and there was sorrow in his playing, because the musician had a lot of pain in himself. After he finished playing, there was silence again, and the Buddha sat down, smiling, looking at his new friend.
Suddenly the musician handed the flute to the monk. “Now, you play!” he said. That aroused curiosity in the other young men. They expected that the Buddha would refuse, but the Buddha nodded and received the flute. Slowly, he brought it to the level of his mouth, and he played. Everyone was impressed. Nobody had imagined that a monk could play the flute that well. It seemed that the birds stopped singing in order to listen to the flute, and the wind and the leaves also. The entire universe became very still, and everything and everyone listened to the Buddha’s flute.
At first the sound was like smoke from an incense stick swirling up to the heavens, and then it became a stream of fresh water trickling down the mountain pass. Finally it became a lotus flower with thousands of multicolored petals, the colors dancing with the sounds. Everyone was absorbed in it. Everyone became the sound of the flute. The Buddha stopped, and the young people were still with the flute. Silence was there for a long time.
Finally, the musician asked, “Why is it that you play that flute so well? Who is your teacher? Can I become your student? I would like to follow you in order to learn to play the flute that way.” The Buddha said, “Young man, if you want to play the flute well, you have to be really yourself. You have to go back deeply to yourself and reach the highest point of your spirit. If I play it well, it is not because I practice music a lot but because I have returned completely to myself. When you are your best, your art will be the best kind of art.”