Creating an Enlightened Society
more than ever, says THICH NHAT HANH, we
need a global ethic of compassion, understanding, and peace. Here’s how
Buddhism can help.
world in which we live is globalized. Economies halfway around the
world affect our own. Our politics, education, and cultural consumption
happen on a global scale. Our ethics and morality also need to be
globalized. A new global order calls for a new global ethic. A global
ethic is the key to addressing the true difficulties of our time.
the world, we are facing climate change, terrorism, and wars between
people of different religions. Fanaticism, discrimination, division,
violence, economic crises, and the destruction of the environment affect
us all. We have to look deeply into these sufferings so we can make
good decisions and conduct ourselves wisely. We have to sit down
together, as people of many traditions, to find the causes of global
suffering. If we look deeply with clarity, calm, and peace, we can see
the causes of our suffering, uproot and transform them, and find a way
A Global Offering
are many different cultures and nations, each with its own values, ways
of behaving, and criteria for ethical conduct. Every country and every
culture can offer something beautiful. It will take all of our
collective wisdom to make a global code of ethics. With insight from all
the world’s people and traditions, we can create a global ethic that is
based on mutual respect.
people base their ethics on their religion. If you believe there is a
deity that decides what is right and wrong regardless of what you
observe, then you only need to follow the rules laid out by that
religion to engage in right action. Others follow a scientific or
utilitarian approach, looking only at what is a logical consequence of
their actions. A Buddhist contribution to global ethics is different
from both of these. It is based on observing and understanding the world
with mindfulness, concentration, and insight. It begins with an
awareness of the nonduality of subject and object and of the
interconnectedness of all things. It is a practice that can be accepted
by everyone, regardless of whether or not you believe in a god. When you
train yourself in this practice, you will see that you have more
Applying Buddhist Ethics in Daily Life
created the term “engaged Buddhism” during the Vietnam War. As monks,
nuns, and laypeople during the war, many of us practiced sitting and
walking meditation. But we would hear the bombs falling around us and
the cries of the children and adults who were wounded. to meditate is to
be aware of what is going on. What was going on around us was the
suffering of many people and the destruction of life. So we were
motivated by the desire to do something to relieve the suffering within
us and around us. We wanted to serve others and we wanted to practice
sitting and walking meditation to give us the stability and peace we
needed to go out of the temple and help relieve this suffering. We
walked mindfully right alongside suffering, in the places where people
were still running under the bombs. We practiced mindful breathing as we
cared for children wounded by guns or bombs. If we hadn’t practiced
while we served, we would have lost ourselves, become burnt out, and not
have been able to help anyone.
Buddhism was born from this difficult situation; we wanted to maintain
our practice while responding to the suffering around us. Engaged
Buddhism isn’t just Buddhism that’s involved in social problems. Engaged
Buddhism means we practice mindfulness wherever we are, whatever we are
doing, at any time. When we are alone, walking, sitting, drinking our
tea, or making our breakfast, that can also be engaged Buddhism. We
practice this way not only for ourselves but also to preserve our-
selves so that we are able to help others and be connected with all
life. Engaged Buddhism is not just self-help. It helps us feel stronger
and more stable and also more connected to others and committed to the
happiness of all beings.
Buddhism is Buddhism that penetrates into life. If Buddhism is not
engaged, it’s not real Buddhism. this is the attitude of the
bodhisattvas, beings whose whole intention and actions are to relieve
suffering. We practice meditation and mindfulness not only for
ourselves; we practice to relieve the suffering of all beings and of the
Earth itself. With the insight of interbeing—that we are inherently
interconnected with all other beings—we know that when other people
suffer less, we suffer less. And when we suffer less, other people
as well as engaged Buddhism, we are using the term “applied Buddhism.”
“Applied” is a word that is often used in science, and we deliberately
use it here as a way of saying that our understanding of reality can be
used to help clarify and find a way to transform every situation. In
Buddhism, there is something that can be used in every circumstance to
shed light on the situation and help solve the problem. there is a way
to handle every situation with compassion and understanding so that
suffering can be lessened. That is the essence of applied Buddhism.
The Starting Point
is the basis of a Buddhist ethic. What does being mindful mean? It
means, first of all, that we stop and observe deeply what is happening
in the present moment. If we do this, we can see the suffering that is
inside us and around us. We can practice looking deeply with
concentration in order to see the causes of this suffering. We need to
understand suffering in order to know what kind of action we can take to
relieve it. We can use the insight of others, the mindfulness of our
sangha—our larger community of practitioners—to share our insight and
understand what kind of action can lead to the transformation of that
suffering. When we have collective insight, it will help us see the
mutually beneficial path that will lead to the cessation of suffering,
not only for one person but for all of us.
The Virtuous Path
In Vietnamese, we translate ethics as dao duc, the virtuous path. Duc
means virtue in the sense of honesty, integrity, and understanding.
The word is small but it implies a lot—forgiveness, compassion,
tolerance, and a sense of common humanity—all the good things that
everyone needs. The path should be able to provide the kind of virtuous
conduct that will help us trans- form ourselves and bring a happy life
to everyone. When we have the characteristics of someone who is
virtuous, we don’t make people suffer. This kind of virtue offers us a
guideline, a way of behaving that doesn’t cause suffering to others or
Another way to translate ethics is luong li, which means the behavior of humans to each other. Luong means the morality of humans and li means the basic principles that lead to correct behavior and correct action. When you put the two phrases together, you get dao li luong thuong,
which means moral behavior that everyone agrees to. Thuong means
common, ordinary, something everybody can accept, about which there’s a
consensus. Ethics are something consistent; they don’t change from day
to day. So this means a kind of permanent ethics, basic principles we
can agree upon that lead to more understanding and acceptance.
Mindfulness, Concentration, and Insight
the time of his first teaching delivered to his first disciples, the
Buddha was very clear and practical about how we can transform our
difficulties, both individually and collectively. He focused on how we
put the teachings into practice in our every- day lives. That is ethics.
Practice is key because practice generates mindfulness, concentration,
and insight. These three energies are the foundation of all Buddhist
practice and Buddhist ethics.
cannot speak about Buddhist ethics without speaking of these three
energies. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight help us build a path
that will lead to peace and happiness, transformation and healing. It is
so important that we don’t focus on ethics in the abstract. Our basic
practice is the practice of generating the energy of mindfulness,
concentration, and insight. We rely on our insight to guide us and help
us bring compassion, understanding, harmony, and peace to ourselves and
to the world.
a Christian theologian asked me how to bring about a global
spirituality. The person who interviewed me seemed to distinguish
between the spiritual and the ethical, but there is always a
relationship between the two. Anything can be spiritual. When I pick up
my tea in mindfulness, when I look at my tea mindfully, and begin to
drink my tea in mindfulness, tea drinking becomes very spiritual. When I
brush my teeth in mindfulness, aware that it’s wonderful to have the
time to enjoy brushing my teeth, aware that I’m alive, aware that the
wonders of life are all around me, and aware that I can brush with love
and joy, then tooth-brushing becomes spiritual. When you go to the
toilet, defecating or urinating, if you are mindful, this can also be
there’s a deep link between the ethical and the spiritual. If you can’t
see the spiritual in the ethical, your ethics may be empty. You may
live by this ethical code but you don’t know why, and so you can’t enjoy
it. If your ethical and spiritual practices are connected, you will be
able to follow your ethical path and be nourished by it.
The Buddha’s First Teaching
of years ago, under a sacred fig tree in Bodhgaya, India, the Buddha
woke up; he realized deep awakening. His first thought upon awakening
was the realization that every living being has this capacity to wake
up. He wanted to create a path that would help others realize insight
and enlightenment. The Buddha did not want to create a religion. To
follow a path, you don’t have to believe in a creator.
the Buddha was enlightened, he enjoyed sitting under the Bodhi tree,
doing walking meditation along the banks of the Neranjara River and
visiting a nearby lotus pond. The children from nearby Uruvela village
would come to visit him. He sat and ate fruit with them and gave them
teachings in the form of stories. He wanted to share his experience of
practice and awakening with his closest five friends and old partners in
practice. He heard they were now living in the Deer Park near Benares.
It took him about two weeks to walk from Bodhgaya to the Deer Park. I
imagine that he enjoyed every step.
his very first teaching to his five friends, the Buddha talked about
the path of ethics. He said that the path to insight and enlightenment
was the noble eightfold path, also called the eight ways of correct
practice. The eightfold path is the fourth of the Buddha’s four noble
truths. If we understand the four noble truths and use their insight to
inform our actions in our daily lives, then we are on the path to peace
A path to Action
four noble truths are the foundation of Buddhism’s contribution to a
global ethic. These truths are: ill-being exists; there are causes of
ill-being; ill-being can be overcome; there is a path to the cessation
four noble truths, including the noble eightfold path contained in the
fourth noble truth, are the Buddha’s strategy for handling and
relieving suffering. the truths are called “noble,” arya
in Sanskrit, because they lead to the end of suffering. The four noble
truths are about suffering, but they are also about happiness. Suffering
exists, and we can do something to relieve the suffering within us and
around us. Happiness, transformation, and healing are possible. These
truths encourage us to act in order to create the happiness we want.
They offer an ethical path to our own transformation.
happiness is possible, why does the Buddha talk first about suffering
and ill-being? Why doesn’t he just speak about happiness and the path
leading to happiness? The Buddha starts with suffering because he knew
that happiness and suffering are linked to each other. they inter-are.
Suffering contains happiness. Happiness contains suffering. Suffering
can be useful. It can teach us the compassion and understanding that are
necessary for insight and happiness.
and suffering are not opposites. This kind of non-dualistic thinking is
one of the key elements of a Buddhist contribution to a global ethic.
The good is not possible without the bad. Good exists because bad
exists. The Buddha taught that good and bad are products of our minds,
not objective realities. There are many pairs of opposites like this,
such as being and nonbeing. We tend to think that being is the opposite
of nonbeing. We can’t have the notion of being unless we have the notion
of nonbeing. We can’t have the notion of left without the notion of
right. But in fact, reality transcends both being and nonbeing. Being
and non- being are simply notions; they are two sides of the same
the left and the right. You cannot eliminate the right and keep only
the left. Imagine you have a pencil and you are determined to eliminate
the right side of the pencil by cutting it in half. As soon as you have
thrown one half away, the cut end of the piece that remains becomes the
new right. Wherever there is left, there is right. The same is true with
good and evil. The notion of goodness and the notion of evil are born
from each other. Reality transcends the notions of good and evil.
and object are another pair of opposites. We tend to think of our
consciousness as something inside us and the world as something outside.
We assume that subject and object exist independently of each other.
But subject and object are not separate. They give rise to each other.
Reality transcends both. If we observe reality over time and truly taste
the teaching of nonduality, we have right understanding.
we have this view, the first aspect of the noble eightfold path, then
the other aspects of the path easily follow. Right thinking, right
speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right
mindfulness, and right concentration all arise when we have right view.
The Buddhist contribution to a global ethic contains no dog- mas. It
doesn’t say that it is right and everything else is wrong. This
understanding is what the Buddha discovered from deep practice and deep
observation. We each need to practice mindfulness and deep observation
so that we can know the truth for ourselves and not just follow someone
Each Truth Contains the Others
nondual nature of reality is also part of the four noble truths.
Although there are four truths, each truth contains the others; they
can’t be considered completely separately from each other. If you fully
understand one noble truth, you understand all four. If you really begin
to understand suffering, you are already beginning to understand the
path to its cessation. The four truths inter-are. Each one contains the
first noble truth is ill-being. The second noble truth is the causes of
ill-being, the thoughts and actions that put us on the path leading to
ill-being. the third noble truth is well-being, the cessation of
ill-being. The fourth noble truth is the path leading to well-being, the
noble eightfold path.
second noble truth is the action that leads to suffering, and the
fourth noble truth is the action that leads to well-being, so in a sense
they are two pairs of cause and effect. The second noble truth (the
path of ill-being) leads us to the first (ill-being), and the fourth
noble truth (the noble eightfold path) leads us to the third
(well-being, the cessation of ill-being). Either we are walking the
noble path or we are on the ignoble path that brings suffering to
ourselves and others. We are always on one path or the other.
four noble truths can’t simply be understood intellectually. They
contain key ideas, such as nonduality, emptiness, no-self, interbeing,
and signlessness, that can only be understood through practice. The
foundational practice of the Buddha is mindful breathing. Before we can
commit to or practice any ethical action, we need to begin with our
breath. Awareness of our breath is the first practical ethical action
available to us. This is the only way we can begin to truly understand
the basic suffering of human beings and how we might transform it.
we look at all the suffering around us, at poverty, violence, or
climate change, we may want to solve these things immediately. We want
to do something. But to do something effectively and ethically, we need
to be our best selves in order to be able to handle the suffering.
able to stop, to breathe, and to walk or move in mind- fulness are the
keys to the practice. they can be done anywhere, at any time. We can
Breathing in, I know this is my in-breath.
Breathing out, I know this is my out-breath.
very simple but very effective. When we bring our attention to our
in-breath and our out-breath, we stop thinking of the past, we stop
thinking of the future, and we begin to come home to our-selves. Coming
home to ourselves is the first thing we need to do, even for
politicians, scientists, or economists. Don’t think this practice
doesn’t apply to you. If we don’t go home to ourselves, we can’t be at
our best and serve the world in the best way. We have to be ourselves to
be our best. Our quality of being is the foundation for the quality of
Breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body.
Breathing out, I’m aware of my whole body.
mindfully brings us back to our bodies. We have to acknowledge our
bodies first because tension and suffering accumulate in the body.
Breathing in this way, we create a kind of family reunion between mind
and body. The mind becomes an embodied mind.
If we are truly aware, we know there is tension and pain in our bodies.
We can’t do our best if we don’t know how to release the tension and
the pain in ourselves.
Breathing in, I’m aware of tension in my body.
Breathing out, I release all the tension in my body.
can do something right away to improve ourselves and release our
tension and suffering so we can see and act more clearly. With our
mindful breathing, body and mind come together, established in the here
and now, and we can more easily handle the difficult situations in our
lives. Mindful breathing brings more well-being into our bodies. In one
breath we can recognize and release the tension within us.
can use our in-breath and out-breath to help us notice the painful
feelings inside us. With our in-breath we can acknowledge these feelings
and with our out-breath we can let them go.
Breathing in, I am aware of a painful feeling arising.
Breathing out, I release the painful feeling.
This is a nonviolent and gentle way to help our bodies release tension and pain.
is possible to practice mindful breathing in order to produce a feeling
of joy, a feeling of happiness. When we are well-nourished and know how
to create joy, then we are strong enough to handle the deep pain within
ourselves and the world.
one in-breath and out-breath, we can practice all the four noble
truths: we acknowledge our tension or pain and call it by its true name;
we release it and let well-being arise.
Reprinted from Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society by Thich Nhat Hanh (2012), with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.