The following conversation between Ram Dass and Thich Nhat Hanh took place at the Gorbachev Foundation State of the World Forum in San Francisco, September 30, 1995.
Ram Dass: When I look at your life—teaching all over the world, running your community at Plum Village—I wonder how you decide what to do next. What designs the dance of how you express yourself? What brings you to a big international forum like this? Who decides?
Thich Nhat Hanh: It is the whole cosmos [laughs] that made this decision.
RD: At this forum people are talking about the future of the earth and the future of civilization. You place so much emphasis on being present here and now, how do you deal with these issues about the future?
TNH: The future can be seen right now. Because the future will be made of the present. If you look deeply into the present, you know already what kind of future you’ll have. If you can produce significant change in the present moment, then you know that the future may be different. When I got the invitation to come to this forum, I was reluctant, because I had the impression that there would be a lot of intellectual manifestations [laughs], so I wrote back a letter saying, “Well, as a monk I can’t do much in this situation, unless we can organize a day of mindfulness so that I can share my practice of breathing in, breathing out, walking mindfully. Maybe then it would be useful for a monk like me to come.” I thought it would be wonderful to see people like George Bush and Margaret Thatcher practicing mindful breathing.
RD: [laughs] Smiling, breathing.
TNH: Smiling, walking. All of us on the globe would profit from their practice. I thought that my letter was a way of saying no to the invitation to attend the conference. But surprisingly I received a letter back from the organizer saying that a day of mindfulness was possible. That inspired me to come, and, in fact, this morning approximately one hundred persons came to our session of mindfulness. They listened to the dharma, they practiced mindful breathing, they practiced mindful walking. It proves that peace is possible, even among wealthy people, well-known people, even among the politicians. And I’m glad I have come.
RD: At least you got to offer a one-hour session of mindfulness at the conference. Not a day, but an hour. And more than that, in your luncheon address I could feel you shifting the consciousness of those fifteen hundred people in the room in a very profound way. Even if they didn’t quite understand it intellectually, I feel that you touched them in a deep way, opening up possibilities. I was reminded of watching my own guru in India interact with people, and seeing how sometimes it only took one moment of connection and a whole life was going to be different. You just knew it.
TNH: Taking the opportunity to plant seeds is what we should do in our everyday life. We can all do that. And who knows when the seed will sprout and become a real plant or a tree.
RD: So you’re just going around the world planting seeds.
TNH: And also watering some.
RD: A little water, a little fertilizer, whatever is needed. Do you consider your community, Plum Village, a seed?
TNH: Plum Village is a community of practice. The main practice is to live mindfully, and the practice is organized around a family, a sangha. Therefore our practice, first of all, is to live together in harmony, peace, and joy. In our community, we call each other dharma brother and dharma sister. In Plum Village you adopt the community as your family. We have people who come from broken families, and with these people we have to be very caring and loving so that they can get rooted in a family for the first time. Only after we begin to live together as family can transformation take place. That is why I recommend to my friends who are practicing in Europe and in America that the practice center should be organized as a family.
In Plum Village you don’t practice for yourself alone. You practice for your brother, your sister. Interpersonal relation is our practice. The sorrow and pain of the other person is the object of our practice. When you are able to help and transform the sorrow in your dharma brother or sister, the joy comes back to you, and it’s very rewarding. I have been in Plum Village more than twelve years, and everyone who has lived there has had a transformation. There are those of us who get transformed very quickly—in just a few weeks or a few months. Others of us need two or three years to get a transformation. But if you practice in the context of a sangha, sooner or later the transformation will take place.
RD: Are there certain times in life when people are more ripe for transformation? In India the fourth and last stage of life is considered a good time to devote oneself to inner work. I’m wondering what your personal views are on age and spiritual life.
TNH: I think that we should encourage young people to begin the practice right away, as soon as possible. When a person is still young, it’s very easy to plant positive seeds in them. As a person grows old there are too many afflictions within them, and it becomes more difficult to help. My experience is that if young people become monks or nuns at an early age—sixteen, eighteen, twenty—it is very easy to train them and make them into happy monks and happy nuns. If people begin at the age of fifty or older, it becomes much more difficult.
RD: What do you think is the reason for that? The fifty-year-olds have finished a lot of their worldly stuff, and I would think they are ideally suited for spiritual practice.
TNH: I have helped train many generations of monks and nuns, and my experience is that young people are better suited for spiritual practice. When you already have a lot of pain and sorrow within yourself, it will be much more difficult to plant the seeds of joy, of peace, of lovingkindness inside of you. You have to spend a lot of time trying to transform or lessen the pain and sorrow before you can do anything. If young people start out with the awareness that true happiness can only be based on inner peace, they can make progress very quickly. They know that happiness cannot be obtained by running after wealth, fame, sex, and so on, and they become determined to close the door to these avenues. Once they have decided to close the door, they get very concentrated and make quick progress toward peace and freedom within their hearts.
I would like to invite my friends to look more deeply into this matter. There are children who come to Plum Village when they are nine or ten, and they practice one month or two months a year, and after ten years they are quite different from other young people. They are very capable of being peaceful and joyful—not only in the community but when they are out in society as well. You can see the difference between young people who have been trained in the practice and those who have not. Those who have had some mindfulness training are more capable of being happy, of being serene. They are more able to reconcile with other people. That is why it is my belief that children should be initiated into the practice as soon as possible.
The practice can be made very joyful and pleasant for children. I have offered mindfulness retreats to children in Europe and America, and they like it a lot. At the end of the retreats they say, “Why do we have to go?” Our practice with children includes things like the pebble meditation. Each child is provided with five pebbles, which he or she puts into a small bag. When the child comes to the meditation hall, she sits beautifully like a lotus flower and takes out her five pebbles. Then the child does the meditations:
“Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. Breathing in, I see myself as space. Breathing out, I feel free. Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. Breathing out, I feel firm. Breathing in, I see myself as still water. Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.”
Then the child picks up one pebble and moves it to the right and then goes back through the meditations again before moving another pebble to the right. After having moved through their five pebbles, the children hear the bell and stand up, and then they practice slow walking. As they walk they repeat, “Flower, fresh. Space, free. Mountain, firm. Water, reflecting.” And they enjoy it immensely.
RD: It’s such a beautiful practice.
TNH: In France, I offer the children walking meditation with only two words. When they breathe in they say, “Oui. Oui.” And when they breathe out they say, “Merci. Merci.” They are learning to say yes to the earth, to the sky, to the trees. And learning to say thanks to life.
RD: In your teachings I’ve heard you speak about holding anger and emotions in a tender way. Could you say a little bit more about that?
TNH: You can think of holding anger like a mother holding a baby. Just as the anger is inside of us, so is the lovingkindness of a mother. So one part of us is taking care of another part. Every time the energy of anger is there, we should invite the energy of lovingkindness to be there to take care of the anger.
RD: And the vehicle to do that could be just three breaths, mindful breaths.
TNH: When you breathe mindfully, you are not ignoring anger. In fact, you become mindful of your anger and take care of it. “Breathing in, I know I am angry. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.” If you continue like that for some time, there will be a transformation in the heart of the anger. It’s like the action of sunshine on the flowers. In the morning the flowers are not yet open, but the sunshine continues to visit. And the sunshine is not only circulating around the flowers, it is penetrating deeply into the flowers. If the sunshine continues like that for a few hours, then the flower has to open herself to the sunshine. Our anger is a kind of flower that needs the care of the sunshine of mindfulness.
RD: Many people who are activists—whose hearts hurt because of the pain of injustice or the destruction of the environment—say to me that being mindful of the anger will dissipate the energy of the anger that they use for social action. How would you respond?
TNH: Anger may be a source of energy, but when you are angry you are not lucid. You may say or do things that are destructive. That is why it’s better to use the energy of compassion or the energy of understanding. People should know that the energy of anger can actually be transformed into the energy of understanding and compassion. We don’t have to throw any energy away. We only need to know how to transform one form of energy into another.
RD: How does the motivation to serve get activated? Where does it come from?
TNH: Happiness is not an individual matter. When you are able to bring relief, or bring back the smile to one person, not only that person profits, but you also profit. The deepest happiness you can have comes from that capacity to help relieve the suffering of others. So if we have the habit of being peace, then there is a natural tendency for us to go in the direction of service. Nothing compels us, except the joy of sharing peace, the joy of sharing freedom from afflictions, freedom from worries, freedom from craving, which are the true foundations for happiness.
And once we have the condition of peace and joy in us, we can afford to be in any situation. Even in the situation of hell, we will be able to contribute our peace and serenity. The most important thing is for each of us to have some freedom in our own heart, some stability in our heart, some peace in our heart. Only then will we be able to relieve the suffering around us.
Thanks to Arnie Kotler and the Community of Mindful Living for the material used in this interview.