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John Malkin: After the World Trade Center was attacked, even people who believe in nonviolence said, "This occasion requires some action and some violence."
Thich Nhat Hanh: Violent action creates more violence. That's why compassion is the only way to reduce violence. And compassion is not something soft. It takes a lot of courage.
John Malkin: In Western psychology, we are taught that if we're angry, we can release that anger by, say, yelling or hitting a pillow. In your book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, you offer a criticism of this method. Why do you feel that this doesn't help get rid of anger?
Thich Nhat Hanh: In Buddhist psychology, we speak of consciousness in terms of seeds. We have a seed of anger in us. We have a seed of compassion in us. The practice is to help the seed of compassion to grow and the seed of anger to shrink. When you express your anger you think that you are getting anger out of your system, but that's not true. When you express your anger, either verbally or with physical violence, you are feeding the seed of anger, and it becomes stronger in you. It's a dangerous practice.
That's why recognizing the seed of anger and trying to neutralize it with understanding and compassion is the only way to reduce the anger in us. If you don't understand the cause of your anger, you can never transform it.
John Malkin: Many people have the view that happiness and enlightenment are things that happen only in the future, and that maybe only a few people are capable of experiencing them. Enlightenment can seem like a very unattainable thing.
Thich Nhat Hanh: Happiness and enlightenment are living things and they can grow. It is possible to feed them every day. If you don't feed your enlightenment, your enlightenment will die. If you don't feed your happiness, your happiness will die. If you don't feed your love, your love will die. If you continue to feed your anger, your hatred, your fear, they will grow. The Buddha said that nothing can survive without food. That applies to enlightenment, to happiness, to sorrow, to suffering.
First of all, enlightenment is enlightenment about something. Suppose you are drinking some tea and you are aware that you are drinking some tea. That kind of mindfulness of drinking is a form of enlightenment. There have been many times that you've been drinking but you didn't know it, because you are absorbed in worries. So mindfulness of drinking is already one kind of enlightenment.
If you can focus your mind on the act of drinking, then happiness can come while you have some tea. You are capable of enjoying that tea in the here and now. But if you don't know how to drink your tea in mindfulness and concentration, you are not really drinking tea. You are drinking your sorrow, your fear, your anger—and happiness is not possible.
Insight is also enlightenment. To be aware that you are still alive, that you are walking on this beautiful planet—that is a form of enlightenment. That does not come just by itself. You have to be mindful in order to enjoy every step. And again, you have to preserve that enlightenment in order for happiness to continue. If you walk like someone who is running, happiness will stop.
Small enlightenments have to succeed each other. And they have to be fed all the time, in order for a great enlightenment to be possible. So a moment of living in mindfulness is already a moment of enlightenment. If you train yourself to live in such a way, happiness and enlightenment will continue to grow.
If you know how to maintain enlightenment and happiness, then your sorrow, your fear, your suffering don't have a lot of chance to manifest. If they don't manifest for a long time, then they become weaker and weaker. Then, when someone touches the seed of sorrow or fear or anger in you and those things manifest, you will know to bring back your mindful breathing and your mindful smiling. And then you can embrace your suffering.
John Malkin: In meditation practice, it is very common for us to feel that our minds are very busy and that we're not meditating very well. What do you have to say about this?
Thich Nhat Hanh: Meditation is a matter of enjoyment. When you are offered a cup of tea, you have an opportunity to be happy. Drink your tea in such a way that you are truly present. Otherwise, how can you enjoy your tea? Or you are offered an orange—there must be a way to eat your orange that can bring you freedom and happiness. You can train yourself to eat an orange properly, so that happiness and freedom are possible. If you come to a mindfulness retreat, you will be offered that kind of practice so that you can be free and happy while eating your orange or drinking your tea or out walking.
It is possible for you to enjoy every step that you make. These steps will be healing and refreshing, bringing you more freedom. If you have a friend who is well-trained in the practice of walking, you will be supported by his or her practice. The practice can be done every moment. And not for the future, but for the present moment. If the present moment is good, then the future will be good because it's made only of the present. Suppose you are capable of making every step free and joyful. Then wherever you walk, it is the pure land of the Buddha. The pure land of the Buddha is not a matter of the future.
John Malkin: You have wondered whether the next Buddha will come in the form of a single person or in the form of a community. . .
Thich Nhat Hanh: I think that the Buddha is already here. If you are mindful enough you can see the Buddha in anything, especially in the sangha. The twentieth century was the century of individualism, but we don't want that anymore. Now we try to live as a community. We want to flow like a river, not a drop of water. The river will surely arrive at the ocean, but a drop of water may evaporate halfway. That's why it is possible for us to recognize that the presence of the Buddha is the here and now. I think that every step, every breath, every word that is spoken or done in mindfulness—that is the manifestation of the Buddha. Don't look for the Buddha elsewhere. It is in the art of living mindfully every moment of your life.
John Malkin hosts a weekly radio program on Free Radio Santa Cruz, focusing on social change and spiritual growth.