When Thich Nhat Hanh was in California last September, I joined an interview with him conducted by San Francisco Chronicle religion editor Don Lattin. A small group of us—including Wes Nisker, Barbara Gates, Sister Chan Khong, cofounder of Plum Village, and Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald from the Community of Mindful Living—had tea with Thay on a sunny afternoon outside his cabin at Kim Son Monastery near Watsonville. A retreat for Vietnamese monks and nuns was under way. Temple bells rang true in the mountain air.
Don Lattin’s interview dealt with basics for people unfamiliar with Thay’s life and teachings. But Wes and I got to squeeze in a few questions addressing our own uncertainties. Later, as we were gathering empty tea cups and packing tape recorders away, Thich Nhat Hanh reminded us that if we were to be Buddhist activists, we had to remember our Buddhist practice of mindfulness moment by moment.
Alan Senauke: I remember in 1991 when you were here. The Gulf War was happening, and the verdict had come in from the Rodney King case. You spoke of seeing those videotapes. It was a difficult time, and you spoke of the challenge of your own emotions in that situation. I remember the talk. Over the last few years, at retreats and talks, what I’ve been hearing you speak about has been the pain within our families and within ourselves. Could you say something about the current emphasis of your teaching?
Thich Nhat Hanh: My practice and my teaching are always focusing on the real difficulties that we are having in the present moment. There is violence within, there is loneliness within, there is anger within, there is restlessness within. And we suffer. And because we suffer we are not able to help the people around us. If we have the desire to help, we cannot help because we don’t have enough peace inside. The people in our society are very individualistic, selfish, each for himself, each for herself, alone.
In our elementary schools, high schools and universities, everyone is thinking of himself or herself—focusing on going to school, getting a diploma, having a means to survive later on, getting a job. You don’t have the time to care, and maybe you are not interested in other people. So teacher is teacher, student is student, and school is no longer a family like it used to be. In the past the teacher was looked upon like a father, and the students were like children in the same family. In Asia we used to have that very strongly, and I think in the West it did exist, a spirit of a family within the context of public school. Now that is gone. Each is for himself or herself, and in such an environment, we cannot train ourselves in understanding each other and loving each other. That is why when we graduate and go into society, we continue to be out for ourselves, and it even gets worse, because out there we have more difficulties than we did when we were still in school.
I think it is useful to talk about these kinds of things. You recognize the pain within yourself, and you try to work it out with the support of other people, brothers or sisters in the Dharma, a teacher, a sangha, a community. Good practice can help us address these issues very radically. If you are able to walk mindfully, to breathe mindfully, to be able to live each moment of your daily life with more peace, solidity and freedom, you have already begun to help your society and your people.
Wes Nisker: When he returned from Beijing before the Chinese had invaded Tibet, the Dalai Lama spoke of how amazed he was that these people called themselves Communists because he saw himself as half-Buddhist and half-Marxist. Do you think that Socialism is a system that has any resonance with Buddhism?
TNH: Why do we have to compare one notion with another notion? Socialism should not be a doctrine that you have to accept at the outset in order to start. Socialism can simply be daily life. If you can improve your quality of being, of walking, of talking, of eating, you are already a socialist, because by being more of yourself, by improving your quality of life, you change society without making any declaration.
AS: Is there a need to make a declaration?
TNH: You can make a declaration by the way you drink your tea.
WN: Why do we get caught in our individualism, in our selfishness? Do you think that human beings are innately selfish, or does Buddhanature mean that we all have the innate ability to see clearly, to be loving and to share?
TNH: There is a tendency in us to be individualistic, a seed of egoism, but that isn’t all that is in us. There is also the seed of togetherness, the desire to help and be kind to others. If you are exposed to an environment where the negative seed is watered every day, that seed will grow and manifest in your daily life, strongly. But if you have the chance to be exposed to a loving, understanding environment where the seed of compassion, of lovingkindness, can be watered every day, then you become a more loving person. We have both tendencies. These tendencies are somehow organic, so they need not be enemies of each other.
It is like suffering and happiness. We have the tendency to run away from suffering and to look for happiness, but in fact if you have not suffered you have no chance to experience real happiness. Suffering is the base of happiness.
WN: In the same way, is selfishness the base of selflessness?
TNH: If you go in the direction of selfishness for some time, you experience a kind of suffering. Then you have a chance to learn about it, and you can make a decision to turn around and go in the other direction. Any kind of suffering can be helpful.
Don Lattin: In the talk you gave at the Berkeley Community Theater, you said: “Nirvana is another word for God.” But isn’t there a major difference between the Christian God and the Buddhist idea of Nirvana? How are the two different and how are they the same?
TNH: There are different levels of understanding in both Buddhism and Christianity. For a Buddhist like me, it is not difficult to talk with a Christian mystic.
In the beginning, you might look for God as someone outside of yourself in the form of a human being, and maybe you are interested in doing so because it is easier. But if you really focus in your practice, you will find that God is not someone else outside of you. You begin to feel the love inside you. And finally, you discover that God had always been there as the ground of your being, just as water is the substance of the wave.
Love is the ground of being. That kind of language is very close to the language of Zen Buddhism. As you compare the water with the wave, you see wave and water are the same and not the same. The wave has a beginning and an end, is high or low, small or big. Water is free of these notions. Yet the wave is, at the same time, water. Water is the substance of the wave, the ground of being of the wave.
AS: I wasn’t able to go to the retreat in Santa Barbara, but I was told that in one of your talks you said, “God is a lesbian, too.” Several lesbian friends of mine who were there were deeply touched by that. Could you say something about what brought you to speak about that?
TNH: I had the feeling that the whole retreat was a family, because we had something in common. That is why we had gathered together in one place. The retreat was a creation of all of us there. I contributed my part. And the teaching flowed out in a very natural way. Any statement that I happened to make flowed out very naturally. So I did not premeditate about making a declaration.
It’s very clear that the water has made the wave, so the wave can say, “Well, the water is wet.” If God has created me as a lesbian, there is a relationship between God and lesbian. Why did he make me into a lesbian or into a gay? A rose would say, “God is a rose. If not, why has he made me into a rose?” And a rabbit would say, “God is a rabbit, because he has made me into a rabbit.” My relationship with God is a relationship of ground of being and manifestation. So it’s very natural that I say, “God is a lesbian.” And God is also a non-lesbian. You see?
With deep understanding, peace becomes possible. Division is no longer there. So even if other people keep discriminating against you, if you get down to the ground of your being, you stop suffering. If you feel you have touched the truth, you are liberated; you are no longer a victim of discrimination. “God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.” That is the Biblical message. If they continue to discriminate, it is because they have not touched the depth of their being. Because I have touched the ground of being, I am free. I don’t hate them anymore, because I see them as victims of ignorance.
Not only the Black people feel that they are victims of discrimination. Not only gays and lesbians think of themselves as victims of discrimination. We Asian Buddhists have also been victims of discrimination. In the Vietnam war, the life of a Vietnamese person compared with the life of an American soldier was nothing. Discrimination was there, very strong, very clear. We have been victims of discrimination, so we know what it is. But because we have touched the truth, we no longer suffer. So we can forgive. We don’t hold any anger against the ones who discriminate against us. This is my message for those people who continue to suffer because of discrimination. They can practice; they can liberate themselves. And one day they may be able to help the people who practice discrimination against them.
A version of this interview appeared in Turning Wheel, Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (Winter 1998). Segments of this interview appeared in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle (Sunday, October 12, 1997).