Responses to Questions

 (Daily Life as Spiritual Life, Helping "Hungry Ghosts," Transforming Difficulties in Sangha Building)

  Thich Nhat Hanh

Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 7, 1998  in Plum Village, France.


Today is May the 7th, 1998. We are in the New Hamlet, in the Spring Retreat. This is the second Dharma talk in English, and the next one will be on Sunday.

"How can people taste the spiritual life?" is a good question, but the spiritual life is right there, very close to daily life. I think if parents have a spiritual life, that will naturally initiate the children into their spiritual life. The way the parents do things, the way the parents drink tea, or the way the parents take dinner, all of these can be spiritual, and can help educate the children to live a little bit more spiritually. Many people think of happiness as success in daily life, obtaining fame and money and sensual pleasures. If we look around, we will see that many people have fame, have wealth and try a lot of sensual pleasures, but they are not really happy; in fact they suffer quite a lot. And we know that is because they have not been able to touch the spiritual life. First of all, their life has no meaning, and because their life has no meaning, they are seeking only sensual pleasures, fame and profit.

If parents live their lives in a meaningful way, then that alone can show the children how to get meaning for their life. If the parents don’t, there is no way the children can make their lives meaningful. We know that without some stability, some compassion within ourselves, happiness does not seem to be something real. When you have some stability inside, when you feel free inside, and when you are able to feel compassion for those around you who suffer, suddenly life has some meaning. When you are able to do something, or say something that can alleviate the suffering of the people around you, the animals and the plants around you, then suddenly you see that your life has a meaning. Compassion fabricates that substance in us. Compassion gives a sense to our life, gives a meaning to our life. You feel that you are useful: you can make people suffer less, you can offer some stability, some freedom and some joy to the people, the living beings around you, and suddenly your life has a meaning. And when your life has a meaning, you are content. You don’t have the need to run after sensual pleasures. Those who run after sensual pleasures only, do that because their life has no meaning. If you are capable of lessening the suffering around you, and if you are also capable of living a simple life, you don’t need to consume much, and yet you are much happier than those people who make a lot of money and who consume a lot.

When we come together and have lunch, for instance, we can eat our lunch in such a way that eating lunch becomes a spiritual practice. When we gather two, three, four people with children, and enjoy some fruit, some tea, we can make that gathering into a spiritual practice that can bring a lot of happiness to us. And it is possible for us to do it. Everyone can organize a party; we don’t need a lot of money to organize a party, we need only time and some imagination. And we can make it into a very meaningful and happy event.

I will tell you a few things that we used to do in the past, and some of us are capable of doing them today. In the old times people liked to drink tea, lotus tea, right among the lotus flowers. The lotus ponds were very big, and thousands of lotus flowers would bloom every day. If you wanted to have the best kind of lotus tea, this is what you would do: in the morning, or at noon, you would take a small boat into the middle of the pond where the lotus flowers were blooming, and you would take out your tea and entrust it to the heart of the lotus flower. And then in the afternoon, the lotus flowers would begin to close, and the lotus flower would keep the tea all night. Meantime, the perfume of the lotus flower would penetrate into the tea. Early in the morning, you would ask a few friends of yours to come to your boat, or bring their own boats, and all of you would row to the lotus that had been trusted to perfume your tea, and you might select the time you like, when the sun is about to come up and shine on the lotus. And when you were there, among the lotus, you would take out your teapot, your teacups, and hot might even bring a charcoal stove with you and make hot water in your boat. It is very fresh in the morning, very beautiful, the air is very clean. Then you would bow to the lotus, recover the tea that you have put there the night before, and prepare lotus tea right there. And you would enjoy the lotus pond, the early morning, your friendship, and you would spend one hour, even two hours, just drinking tea and having a wonderful time. And after that you would go back with your small boats. This was enjoyment, and you didn’t need a lot of money, because in the countryside every house had a small boat, and there were a lot of canals you could travel by boat. In Thailand, for instance, many monks in the morning go on their alms rounds just by rowing a boat. They don’t use the highway, they don’t use automobiles, they just use a small boat to go on alms rounds.

Nowadays, it may be difficult to do such a thing, because we don’t have time. We have invented a lot of machines for us to save time, like washing machines. We have even invented an electric knife to cut things without using our strength. With an electric toothbrush, we don’t have to do like this (gesture). We have invented a lot of machines to save time, but we have much less time than before, and our happiness has not increased at all. We say, "I have no time," and most of us are under stress. It’s very funny—we invented machines to work for us, so we would have more leisure time, and yet we got the opposite. In France, farmers abandon their farms and go to the city to work in automobile factories and places like that. Every fifteen minutes France loses one farmer, and the big farmers who are buying all the land need only a few people to take care of each big farm. The machines do a lot of work, and yet everyone is busy. We have lost a lot of our happiness because we have become much busier than our ancestors.

I’ll tell you another thing we used to do: in the old times, when your cherry tree was about to bloom, or if you had an orchid about to bloom, you would take the opportunity to organize a reception. You would predict on which day the blooming would be perfect, and you would spend time writing personal cards inviting friends to come. You would organize so that your friends would have a wonderful tea with you, and there was a kind of delicacy to eat with the tea, called wheat-germ paste. In Vietnam we used to pick up the wheat, the best kind of wheat, when it was still young. We put it in warm water so that it sprouted, and when the sprout came out, we cooked it and condensed it into a kind of paste. We didn’t put sugar in it, yet it was a little bit sweet. We concentrated it until it was very thick, and then we would go to the river and pick up small pebbles like this, wash them very thoroughly and dry them in the sunshine. We would wrap the pebbles with wheat-germ paste and dry it, so that each pebble had a layer of wheat-germ paste around it, and that is what the ancient people used to eat when they drank their tea. It took a lot of love and energy to prepare that kind of cookie—you might call it a cookie, but it was not really a cookie, because if you were to bite into it, your teeth would be broken.

So, on that day there would only be the flower, and pebbles with wheat-germ paste, and tea. They would clean the house thoroughly for the big event. But it may happen that it would suddenly become cool, and the flower did not have enough time to bloom for the event; so the ancient people used to bring a drum to the foot of the cherry tree, and they played the drum in order to stimulate the flowers to bloom more quickly. That’s how we practiced in the past. It may sound childish, but it was very poetic, very beautiful. And when the people came, we used the garden as a reception place, and it was a festival because a friend was coming to your home. That was a big event. And not only one friend, but you may have one, two, three, four or five, six friends, and this was a great opportunity for you, and all your children and your grandchildren would enjoy the event very much. The young people learned that kind of spiritual life, with a lot of leisure, freedom and friendship. You didn’t have to teach your children or your grandchildren, they just witnessed that kind of life, very spiritual, very beautiful, very artistic, and they learned it by themselves. So drinking tea and eating your dinner is a way to initiate your children into the spiritual life.


At dinner time, you might like to do things a little bit like we do in Plum Village: you might like to invite people in the family to spend about three to five minutes eating in silence, with the purpose of recognizing what is there on the table as food, and also to recognize that the family members are all around the table, smiling to them and acknowledging their presence. These five minutes are to get in touch with the food and the family. In Plum Village, while eating we concentrate on only two things; the first thing is the food, and the second thing is the Sangha. So why don’t we do it in our family? Maybe we will make it less formal, with one member of the family doing the Five Contemplations before eating, and they don’t have to recite exactly what we recite here on Sunday. They can say which country this lettuce has come from, and how it was grown, and that the sunshine and the rain and the earth have come together to bring this lettuce into being, and it is a great joy that today we eat this lettuce, we are grateful. If we eat with mindfulness, knowing that this lettuce is a gift of the earth and the sky and the whole cosmos, then that is enough to express our thankfulness to the cosmos. If you have a special dish on that day, then you can do a meditation on that special dish by saying things about its origin, how it has come to us, how wonderful to have it on your table today, and you do this a number of times. Then one day you may ask a child of yours to do it by himself or herself. You say, "My son, today will you do the meditation before eating?" That is what you can say, and how we initiate our little boy to be able to do the meditation on what is on the table. It is getting in touch with the food on the table. And also we can initiate our children to practice being in touch with the people around the table. "Today the family is all present. Here is daddy, here is mummy, here is big sister, and it is a great pleasure to be able to share a meal with every member of the family present. We are very happy that everyone is alive, that everyone is healthy, because in our society many families do not have a chance to have dinner together, everyone eats separately, and it is a big joy, a big gift that we are all reunited every day like this for dinner." That is a kind of meditation that the children can do. And if we who are parents can do it every day then our children will know how to do it, and we will make our dinner into a spiritual practice.

If we gather in the back yard, and sit on the grass to share oranges, we can do orange meditation. Holding the orange in the palm of my left hand, if I breathe and I look at it, I breathe and I say what I see in the orange, that is meditation. The children can see the orange tree, the orange blossoms, the rain and the sunshine that have gone into it, and how the orange has grown from a very tiny green little thing into a beautiful yellow orange like this, and how the orange has come to this place. To peel the orange and smell the skin of the orange, and to allow ourselves to feel the orange juice coming slowly onto our tongues—that is a spiritual practice. We cherish life, we appreciate life, we are thankful, and our happiness can be very deep, and yet we don’t have to spend a lot of money. So spiritual life is just life. There is a way to live our daily life to make the normal life into a spiritual life. The two kinds of life are not separated from each other.

We do very simple things, like tea meditation. Tea meditation is an opportunity to enjoy ourselves, to enjoy the company of our brothers and sisters, and yet you only need some tea. Why do people spend two hours, just because of one cup of tea? Just drinking from the viewpoint of the businessman in our time, that is a waste of time. Why should you spend two hours just for a cup of tea? You can do it in one minute. So it is a waste of time, and time is money, that is the kind of reasoning. But according to our practice, time is not money, time has much more value than money, time is life. Money is much less than life. So we value time as life, and in the two hours drinking tea together, we don’t get money, but we get life. That is the essential: to sit in such a way that you feel that you are solid, that you are free, free from the past, free from the future, free from running and chasing after sensual pleasures, free from regret, free from fear. We are supported by the strength of the Sangha, the solidity, the freedom, the joy of the Sangha. We allow ourselves to be penetrated by the solidity and the mindfulness of the Sangha, and that is a lot: just to allow yourself to sit and to be penetrated by the energy of mindfulness of the Sangha. In the Sangha there must be people who have some solidity, some freedom, some joy, they are around us. And since they are there, the energy of their peace, their joy, their solidity is radiating, and if you allow yourself to sit there and open yourself, then you will receive that kind of strength.

After having spent a few months in the city, when you come back to Plum Village you will see the difference, how much difference there is between Plum Village and life in the city. Every sound that you hear in the dining room is the voice of the Buddha. Everyone is observing mindful breathing and smiling when they hear the bell, when they hear the clock, and you feel that Buddha is closer to you. And you hear the voice of the Buddha very clearly, because the Sangha is there, the Sangha is solid in the practice. So to be in the Sangha is already something very important, and allowing yourself to be penetrated by the energy, the peace of the Sangha, that is very beneficial already. When you go to the airport for one or two hours, and then go back to Plum Village, you see how different is the atmosphere at the airport from the atmosphere at Plum Village. You feel much safer at Plum Village because the Sangha is protecting you, is feeding you with her mindfulness, her solidity. Of course there are some of us who are not solid enough, peaceful enough, but many of us have practiced for a long time and we have enough solidity and mindfulness and joy to offer, and that is the best that the Sangha can offer. So allow yourself to be seated there and to be penetrated by the collective energy of mindfulness and joy, and this is very nourishing. It will transform you and your suffering.


In a tea meditation, you drink tea as you would in a coffee shop, but your way of drinking tea is different, because when you hold a cup of tea with mindfulness, with your two hands, you are doing it with all your being. Your body is entirely here, your mind is entirely here, and you produce your true presence, one hundred percent. You are expected to be fully present in the tea meditation, because that is our practice. You sit here, and you just sit here and you don’t sit anywhere else. Sometimes we sit here, but we don’t sit here—we sit in the past or we sit in the future, or we sit somewhere else, and we are not really present. But sitting in a tea meditation, you practice so that you are entirely with the Sangha, one hundred percent. And if you are fully present, then the tea will be fully present also. If you are absorbed in the past or the future, the tea will not really be there, although you are holding it, it is not there. So the basic condition for the tea to be there is that you are there. If you are here, the tea will be here. Drinking tea in mindfulness is a miracle—you drink tea and you know that you are drinking tea. Life is present. And you drink tea in the context of a Sangha. All the Sangha is sitting there and drinking tea with you, and the Buddha is present. Peace and stability are present, and you nourish yourself with the presence of the Sangha, the Buddha, and the Dharma, because the Dharma now is alive. When you read a book on the Dharma, when you listen to a Dharma talk, that is the Dharma, but not the Dharma in practice. But if you drink your tea mindfully, or if you sit mindfully, or walk mindfully, that is the Dharma as a reality. So during the time that you sit with other people for a tea meditation, you allow yourself to be penetrated by the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and that is a very nourishing practice, and you strengthen yourself. In a tea meditation there people who can do it one hundred percent, or ninety percent, or eighty percent, but there are those of us who can do it for only five percent or ten percent; we are not solid enough, we are not really in the tea meditation, more than half of us is outside of the tea meditation. The same thing is true with sitting meditation or walking meditation. To all appearances, it looks like you are with the Sangha, but looking deeply you may not be with the Sangha one hundred percent. It depends on your practice.

And how can you practice better? It is not by forcing yourself to be there, but by tasting the joy of the practice. When you are able to taste the joy of the practice, it’s very easy to be there one hundred percent, and to participate in the practice one hundred percent. But if you force yourself to be there one hundred percent, it will be very difficult. The children, young people also, if you force them to have a spiritual life, that will be very difficult. But if you know how to initiate them into tasting the joy and the peace of the spiritual life, then they will be drawn to it, and they themselves will take the initiative to go and participate in this kind of life. Of course, children suffer like adults, and suffering plays a very important role in the practice. If you have not suffered, then there will be no chance for you to know what peace, non-suffering and happiness are. If you have never been hungry, then you don’t know exactly what a joy it is to have something to eat. If you have not been cold and without clothes, you don’t really know the joy of having warm clothes to wear. If you have not experienced fear, you don’t know how wonderful non-fear is. If you don’t know what instability is, you don’t know the joy of being stable. That is why suffering is important: suffering allows us to know the opposite of suffering, namely freedom, solidity, joy and happiness. So the children, although they are young, have already begun to suffer; and against that background of suffering, you can show them the difference between suffering and non-suffering, and they might be able to taste the solidity of sitting still, of being quiet, of drinking deeply their orange juice.

When the children eat an ice-cream, a yogurt, or an orange, they may eat without mindfulness, they may eat very quickly, but it is possible to show them another way of eating ice-cream that will increase their pleasure ten or twenty times. There is a way of eating an orange that will increase your happiness one thousand times, and you show them how to enjoy eating an orange like that. You need time, you need deep looking. The way you hold the orange, the way you peel it, the way you smell it, the way you visualize the orange tree, the way you take each section of the orange and put it into your mouth, the way you feel it with your mindfulness, the orange juice coming slowly onto your tongue--these things are to be learned, and that is learning how to be happy. And you should be able to teach your children to be happy. You don’t have to teach them to suffer; they will learn it by themselves. But to be happy… you have to teach them how to be happy.

I remember during our trip to India, the time before the last time: we were a big delegation and we sat on our bus, and the travelling was not very comfortable. The dirt road was very long, and so on, and we spent many hours on the bus, going up and down, and the driver sometimes had to stop in order to have tea at the teashop. I remember that time I had to bring along some dry milk and some muesli. I was told it was not safe to drink the water outside. At lunch time I would put only some muesli in my bowl, and some dry milk. Then I poured some mineral water in it, and I just had to stir it and I would have my lunch.

It was much safer. And every time I made tea I had to boil the mineral water. If there was no mineral water, I had to boil the water for at least fifteen minutes. One day sitting in the bus I saw a young lady who was part of our delegation, just sitting on the steps of the bus and enjoying a cup of tea, with some milk in it. In India we called it chai. She sat there with only that cup of tea with some milk in it, and seeing the way she drank I knew that she enjoyed it a lot. She drank that tea like drinking tea was the most important thing in the world, in her life. She was young, and she had got the practice. She really enjoyed having her cup of tea and sitting on the steps of the bus. And I was very pleased to see a student of mine enjoying her tea like that; I was very proud of my student. Drinking tea can be a very spiritual practice, even tea with milk in it, even sitting on the steps of your bus. So we have to learn in order to be happy. While walking you walk. You can hurry in order to arrive, but you can also walk in such a way that every step brings you joy and peace, as if you are walking in Paradise. And every step can make you very happy. To walk like that you need some training, and if your parents know how to do it, your big brothers and sisters know how to do it, then you’ll be able to learn. Therefore, happiness is an art, is a practice: happiness is not something that can be sent to you through the Post Office. Happiness is a practice. We have to learn to be happy. And you can be happy while sitting, drinking, walking, eating an orange and the children can learn it very well from their elders.

If there are children, young people, who have contemplated suicide, who are drug-addicted, it is because no one has initiated them into the practice of joy, the practice of peace. These children suffer because their parents themselves suffer. Their parents make each other suffer, their parents become hell to each other. I have always said that the greatest gift that parents can make to their children is their own happiness. Parents don’t have to leave behind a huge sum of money or many houses in order for their children to be happy. Their children have the capacity of earning their own livelihood. The greatest gift you can make to them is to be happy yourself, as parents. Parents don’t have to teach their children, they just live their lives happily, taking care of each other properly, and then the children will naturally learn the art of happiness-making. But if parents create hell in the family, children will have no faith in the family. They will be afraid of building a family: "I don’t want to build hell. The family of my father and mother was hell--there is no reason why I have to build hell for myself." So, she has no faith in family, he has no faith in family. That is a big loss, because the family should be a very solid unit of society, and if the structure of the family disintegrates, then society will disintegrate, and that is what is happening in our time.

So parents have to be responsible for their children. And the best thing they can do is to inspire their children with confidence by living with each other in harmony, knowing how to make each other happy. That is the greatest gift they can make to their children. The children will always remember, my father always did that for my mother, my father took care of my mother in such a way, this is the way he used to talk to her and this is the way she used to talk to him and take care of him. And in their turn they will do the same for their companion, and it becomes a tradition of happiness making. But if the parents suffer, and make each other suffer, they let their children down. You know the feeling of a child who has been let down by his or her parents: you become a wounded child, you don’t believe in family, you don’t believe in ancestors, you don’t believe in father and mother, and that is a big loss for the child. If the child does not have a chance to rebuild his or her trust, to transform the wound within himself or herself, he or she will never recover, and the suffering will be transmitted to later generations. That is a wheel of Samsara: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren will continue to suffer just because one generation of ancestors have suffered and was not able to stop the suffering and transform it. So if the child never has an opportunity to encounter a Sangha, or to be welcomed into a sweet family, his or her wound will never be healed, and he will never again trust the family structure, or parents’ love. And that is a big loss, not only for him, but also for society, especially for his children and grandchildren. If he or she suffers so much, he or she will find ways to forget the suffering for a few hours, and drugs and alcohol are a means for them to do so, and that is why drugs and alcohol are everywhere.

If you want to get rich, you only have to set up a shop selling alcohol, or become a drug dealer, and you’ll get a lot of money, because so many need drugs and alcohol, because so many people are wounded and would like to forget their suffering. There are those who are a little more fortunate, who may try to get busy with their work in order to forget their suffering, they don’t use alcohol or drugs. They are not alcoholics, but they are workaholics. They are addicted to their work. They get busy because they don’t want to go back to themselves, a little boy or a little girl full of wounds within. So the way to help those young people who are wandering around like hungry ghosts, to prevent them attempting suicide again, is to put them in touch with a family or with a community where trust, love, compassion and joy exist. It is rare, but it is still possible. Here and there, there are families, there are communities where people still love each other, trust each other, and know the art of making each other happy by deeds, by words, by care, and so on. And if the young man or young woman has the opportunity to come into touch with such a body, then maybe a seed of happiness and trust can sprout.

It is very difficult to help a hungry ghost; a hungry ghost is someone who does not believe easily, because he or she has been deceived quite a number of times. They have been let down by their parents, by their society, by their friends, so they are by nature very suspicious. Even if you have goodwill, if you have love and understanding to offer to him or her, they are not ready to accept it, because they are highly suspicious of everyone. They don’t believe in family, they don’t believe in society, they don’t believe in the church, they don’t believe in tradition, they don’t believe in culture, because everything has let them down, so they wander around looking for something to believe in. They go to India, they go to Tibet, they go to China, to look for something that can replace their culture, their religion, their society, their family. There are so many of them, you need only to breathe in and look around and you’ll see so many of them, thousands of them, and many of them come to Plum Village also, and if you are mindful you can recognize them—it’s not difficult.

Helping a hungry ghost is not easy because you have to earn their trust before you can help them. Even if you are full of good intentions, even if you have love and understanding to offer, he or she will not believe you right away. So you have to be very patient. And to me, patience is the real mark of love. If you are not patient, you are not a real lover yet. You have to be patient.


You have to embrace a hungry ghost with your mindfulness, with your tolerance, with your compassion for a long time before he or she can show the first sign of confidence. He is like a tree without roots. It is not easy for him or her to be integrated into the community, into the family. It takes some time, a long time, for the tree to get rooted. There is a kind of vegetable hormone called Rootone that we use to water a tree that is freshly planted. That kind of hormone helps the tree to be rooted quickly. If you want to plant a cutting, then you had better dip the cutting into the Rootonebefore planting it into the moist soil, and with the Rootone, a small root can grow more quickly. So "Rootone" in this case is some patience, some tolerance. You have to embrace the hungry ghost with some compassion, some tolerance and then wait, and one day a root may come out. Without that tolerance and compassion and forgiveness you cannot be patient enough; sometimes he or she will say something very ungrateful, and that will make you unhappy, feeling that that young man or young woman does not have a sense of gratitude, of understanding, and you will lose your patience. And when you have lost your patience, he or she will have lost the chance also. So it takes time for a hungry ghost to trust you, and the time that he begins to trust you is when you begin to help him or her to be fully rooted; and after he has become sane and vigorous you send him back to his society, to his church, to his family, and ask him or her to rebuild what has been devastated by the former generation.

This is the line we follow in Plum Village. We always ask the young people to practice, to get solid, to get transformed, and then we urge them to go back to their spiritual roots, to their cultural roots, to their social environment, in order to do the work of reconstruction. Because much damage has happened just because our father, our mother, the former generation, did not know how to handle difficult situations. That is why they have created hell for themselves and for their children. And if we continue to blame them, to get angry at them, we go nowhere. We have to practice in order to look deeply to see that our parents, the former generation, did not want to do that, but because they were not lucky enough to have big brothers, big sisters or teachers to show them the way, they have damaged the situation, they have let you down, they have created the wounds within you. If we practice looking deeply like that we will not be angry at them anymore, and when we have recovered our balance we will be motivated by the desire to go home and rebuild what has been shattered during our childhood. And many young people have been able to go home and rebuild the family, helping their father and their mother. Every time we receive news like that we are very happy here in Plum Village we are very happy, because we know they are there, practicing for all of us, to heal the wounds of society, and of family. The number of young people who commit suicide is very large nowadays. It has been reported that that number is larger than the number of people killed by automobile accidents. And automobile accidents are also due to alcohol, and alcohol has something to do with this kind of suffering, so the two kinds of accident are linked to each other.


I would say that the way to help them is to introduce them to a milieu, an environment where there is trust, there is compassion, there is love, there is caring for each other. A family or a community doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be helpful, because even during the time of the Buddha the Sangha did not need to be perfect. We know that the Sangha during the time of the Buddha was not a perfect Sangha. But it was enough for people to take refuge in, because in the Sangha there were people who had compassion, solidity and insight enough to embrace others who do not have enough compassion, solidity and insight. It has been true for all the Sanghas. So if, in a Sangha, there is a percentage of the members who practice mindful walking, mindful sitting, mindful breathing, mindful doing of other things, then the energy of holiness is already there. The light and the energy of mindfulness serve as the torch showing the way, and even if there are members who are not solid enough and mindful enough, the Sangha can still generate that energy to nourish itself and support the people who come to it. This is already a jewel--the Sangha is one of the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

So one of the ways to help the young person who attempts suicide, who is drug addicted, is to bring him or her to a family or a Sangha where there is enough trust and compassion, so that the person will see: "Ah, I begin to see that trust and compassion and gentleness do exist," and that alone is very helpful. Life has some meaning. And if the young person is told that he or she can practice in order to bring out the best within himself or herself, that will inspire the person very much. Last time we said that there are seeds that have been transmitted to our ancestors, blood and spiritual, that really need a forest fire to sprout. And the utmost suffering that the young people have just been through can be described as the forest fire, and now the rain of the Dharma will help that seed to be sprouted, and if we know how to handle the seeds we will have the most beautiful flowers for our society, for our humanity and for all living beings. What happened to one of us is happening to all of us, because we inter-are. One individual doesn’t have to shoulder all the suffering. Because we are practicing interbeing we know that we are one, and we have to shoulder the same suffering. The forest fire is for everyone, all of us bear the wounds and the suffering caused by the forest fire, and we have come together in order to heal ourselves and to create an opportunity for the future.

If we live in a Sangha where everyone is perfect, everyone a bodhisattva or a Buddha, that would be very difficult for us, so don’t expect everyone in the Sangha to be perfect. It would be impossible for you to practice if everyone around you were a Buddha or bodhisattva. That is why weakness in the other person is very important, and weakness within yourself if also very important. It is thanks to the presence of that weakness in you, and the weakness in a brother or a sister, that you know how to practice—otherwise, what is the use of the practice? To practice is to have an opportunity to transform, and if you didn’t have shortcomings, or no one is angry here, or no one is jealous, that would be very difficult. Anger is in us, jealousy is in us. Anger is there in one sister, two sisters, one brother, two brothers; also arrogance. All these kinds of things are very human. And we know that the practice of the Dharma can help to transform these, and to bring out the best things yet to bloom in us, the best flowers, the best seeds that have been handed down to us by several generations of ancestors. And the Buddha has transmitted to us so many wholesome seeds, and not all the seeds he has transmitted have sprouted. I think the seed that we try to nourish, to help to sprout in Plum Village, is the seed of living happily right in the present moment. In many other places people practice for the future; here, we practice just for the present moment. If the present moment is okay, is solid, is joyful, then you don’t have to worry about the future, because the future is something that is made entirely of the present. If the present is good, then the future cannot be less than good. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present, just because the present is the substance with which you can manufacture the future. That is why drsta dharma sukhavihara, living properly, deeply, happily in the present moment is our practice. That is a seed handed down by the Buddha, and we try to make it sprout and to make it into a practice for our Sangha and for many sister Sanghas all over the world. So, embracing the Sangha, embracing the wholesome things in the Sangha in order to get the nourishment, and embracing the weakness in the Sangha in order to transform it, is our daily practice. If these weaknesses did not exist, then we would not need the practice of the Dharma.


Sangha building is an art that every one of us has to learn, and the family is also a Sangha. A school is also a Sangha. We cannot live without a Sangha. The city is a Sangha, the nation is a Sangha. Sangha building is an art that everyone has to learn. The bees are doing very well, and other kinds of living beings like the ants organize their Sanghas quite well. They don’t seem to have classes and books and things like that to learn the art of Sangha building, but the bees and ants do quite well at what we call Sangha building. Humans cannot live without the Sangha, and that is why everyone has to learn how to build our family, to build our school, to build our city, to build our monastery. It is stated very clearly that you have to take refuge in your Sangha, because without your Sangha you cannot continue the practice. In building a Sangha you have to be very patient, and you have to take care of every member of the Sangha. Every member of the Sangha has his or her weakness, his or her strengths, and you have to recognize them in order to make good use of the positive elements for the sake of the whole Sangha, for the happiness of the whole Sangha, and you have to recognize the negative elements so that you and the whole Sangha can help embrace them. You don’t leave that negative element to the person alone, because she may not be able to hold and transform it by herself alone. You have to bring your mindfulness, your love, and your compassion, and coordinate with her so you can help embrace that negative energy in her. So on one hand, as a Sangha we support the positive, we help to develop the positive element in that person, so that all the Sangha will benefit from that. On the other hand, we have to come and help to embrace and understand that weakness in him or in her, so that she will have energy in order to transform it. The transformation of that weakness is also for the joy of the whole Sangha, and that is why Sangha building has to be done as a collective thing.

As individuals we know that we are members of a Sangha, and the best thing we can do is to transform ourselves into a positive element of the Sangha. By our way of walking, of sitting, of eating, and of working, we generate the energy of mindfulness, and if members of the Sangha see us practicing like that they will have confidence and they will do better. That is why the basic thing for you to do for your Sangha is to be a good element of the Sangha. One person is a lot, and your presence in the Sangha is like the presence of a bodhisattva: the way you walk, the way you move around, the way you talk to your brother, your sister, the way you use the facilities of the kitchen, the way you help your sister or your brother, all show that you are a real living bodhisattva in our midst. When I see you like that I have a lot of confidence in the Buddha, in the teacher, in the Dharma, and that is the best way you can serve the Sangha. In every one of us there is a bodhisattva like that, and we allow the bodhisattva to come out as a Sangha builder. We don’t have to do a lot. You have to allow the best in you to manifest, and when the bodhisattva in you manifests himself or herself, the Sangha will profit greatly from your presence. If there are two, three, four, five, six, seven of you like that in the Sangha, I’m sure the Sangha will be a happy Sangha and will be the refuge of many people in the world.

Without you, the Dharma will not be strong enough, and what we offer to the world may not be substantial, what we offer to the world may be fake, and that is why your true practice in your daily life is your deepest, your most precious contribution to the world. There are a lot of difficulties, and they come mostly from within. If you have no difficulties from within, then all the difficulties around you will become very easy. That’s my experience. Once you are able to accept, to be compassionate, then all the difficulties around you become easier, and you can help. If the other person has just said something that is insolent, that is not respectful enough, ungrateful, insulting, you may get angry and want to punish him. Since you are angry and want to punish that person, you know that you suffer. You have not said anything, you have not punished the other person, but you have already punished yourself: by getting angry and by having the intention to punish, you suffer. And since you suffer, you know that you have to do something in order to cross to the other shore, the shore of non-suffering, so you practice breathing and walking. And just breathing and walking for one or two minutes you see that the other person is to be helped, and not to be punished. And the ambrosia of compassion is born in your heart. You feel much better now after one or two breathings, and you say, "I don’t need to punish, I need to help him or her." And suddenly what was very difficult becomes very easy.

Regarding your question to me as to how to deal with difficulties in Sangha building, the answer is to transform yourself. The tradition that we come from may be very conservative, very difficult to approach. That is not because they want to be like that, but because they have not been exposed to something that has more space, more understanding. The churches now have many fewer people than before, and a lot of those in the younger generation are leaving the church, because the people responsible for the churches are not very open. They don’t understand the need, the suffering of the younger generation. That is why they still want to impose things that cannot be accepted by the young people. We want to be part of the church, we want to effectuate a change within the church, but it seems that it is very difficult to talk to church leaders. You hesitate between leaving the church, and staying with the church, but sometimes you feel despair, because you have made some effort and you have not seen any improvement on the part of church leaders.

I think that church leaders know that young people are deserting them. Sometimes we desert them angrily, but that is not helpful. I think we have to use the kind of language that will help them understand. You can write a letter of protest, very logical, very eloquent, but the best letter of protest will not help. If you know how to write a love letter, then you will have much more chance, because people will accept and read a love letter. A love letter is a letter that is written on the basis of understanding and love. People are conservative and closed because they have not been in touch with space, with understanding. And maybe it’s not their fault. You know, in the history of religion there are always attempts to open up and renew the teachings and the practice, in order for the tradition to be accepted and followed, to satisfy the needs of our times. That is true in every spiritual tradition. Mahayana Buddhism is one such attempt to renew Buddhism. From time to time, every one or two hundred years, there is one practitioner who stands out and does the work of renewing Buddhism; this is true in every country. That is why we have to do the same thing.

We have to propose, we have to explain why changes need to happen, what are the real needs of the younger generations, what is their suffering, and how the teaching and the practice have not been able to help the younger generation to transform. If you write a letter, if you talk to your leaders on the basis of understanding and love, they will accept and listen to you. "I understand it is difficult for you, but it is very difficult for us also. You have suffered from this, we understand. You have suffered from the insolence of the younger generation, you have suffered because the people don’t listen to you anymore, your parents and your children don’t care anymore, they don’t know that you have done your best to preserve the tradition. But please do know that the members of the younger generation themselves suffer a lot…" And describe all these kinds of suffering: "They feel that they are not understood, they feel that they have no space, they feel that you are too rigid in such and such a respect…" With that kind of language, with that kind of permanent dialogue, you will be able to change the minds of church leaders. If you get angry you will have no chance. Therefore do your best on your part, and there will be a time when they will be able to do their best, and the two generations will be able to come together. Things are changing very quickly in our time, and if we don’t change ourselves, we’ll get lost. We cannot serve our society, our nation, our country, if we hold on to our ideas and our ways. We have to change--everything is changing in every domain of society. That is why our spiritual tradition has to change also. We keep the basic principles, but the teaching and the practice should be changed in order to be accepted and adopted by the younger generation, with their new needs.


(End of Talk)