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This Is the Buddha’s Love

Melvin McLeod interviews Thich Nhat Hanh

The great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about non-self, interdependence, and the love that expands until it has no limit.

One of the best parts of my job as editor of the Shambhala Sun is the chance to discuss dharma seriously, even intimately, with great teachers. I’m a Buddhist student before I’m a journalist, and the questions I ask are often ones that have deep meaning to me as a person and a practitioner. The result is less an interview, in the standard sense, than the record of a teaching that I received. This is a great honor and privilege for me, and I hope it is of benefit to you.   

I met Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park Monastery near San Diego, a mix of East and West, funky and elegant, mindful and playful. It sits in a little mountain valley in splendid isolation from the suburbs just a mile away. Many of its low, one-story buildings have the temporary feel of an army camp (it has been a nudist camp and a police training center) but its elegant new meditation hall is of majestic scale. Outside, young Vietnamese-American monks play basketball while elderly nuns in traditional conical hats sweep leaves off the dry ground, and earnest Western lay practitioners debate the dharma. The breakfast buffet is traditional Vietnamese fish alongside Corn Flakes and peanut butter, and everything stops when the clock chimes so people can practice a few moments of mindfulness.

I spoke with Thich Nhat Hanh for about an hour and quarter, and then he showed me the calligraphies, the ones in this issue, which he had done beforehand as a gift to the Shambhala Sun. Although he is best-known for his political and community-building work, I found he was so much more. I met a multidimensional teacher who was deep and realized, committed to both practice and community, steeped in traditional dharma and the ways of the world. He spoke directly to my heart, and if you get a chance to hear him teach, do. Words in print do not do him justice.

—Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod: Around us at this monastery are many signs and slogans reminding people to be mindful, to return to their body and breath, and to recollect their nature as human beings. At mealtimes, everyone stops eating when the clock chimes to practice a few moments of mindfulness. Why is it so important for us to return to this basic ground of breath and body and being?

Thich Nhat Hanh: To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you. All meditation exercises are aimed at bringing you back to your true home, to yourself. Without restoring your peace and calm and helping the world to restore peace and calm, you cannot go very far in the practice.

Melvin McLeod: What is the difference between this true self, the self you come home to, and how we normally think of ourselves?

Thich Nhat Hanh: True self is non-self, the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements. There’s no separation between self and other, and everything is interconnected. Once you are aware of that you are no longer caught in the idea that you are a separate entity.

Melvin McLeod: What happens to you when you realize that the true nature of the self is non-self?

Thich Nhat Hanh: It brings you insight. You know that your happiness and suffering depend on the happiness and suffering of others. That insight helps you not to do wrong things that will bring suffering to yourself and to other people. If you try to help your father to suffer less, you have a chance to suffer less. If you are able to help your son suffer less, then you, as a father, will suffer less. Thanks to the realization that there is no separate self, you realize that happiness and suffering are not individual matters. You see the nature of interconnectedness and you know that to protect yourself you have to protect the human beings around you.

That is the goal of the practice—to realize non-self and interconnectedness. This is not just an idea or something you understand intellectually. You have to apply it to your daily life. Therefore you need concentration to maintain this insight of non-self so it can guide you in every moment. Nowadays, scientists are able to see the nature of non-self in the brain, in the body, in everything. But what they have found doesn’t help them, because they cannot apply that insight to their daily lives. So they continue to suffer. That is why in Buddhism we speak of concentration. If you have the insight of non-self, if you have the insight of impermanence, you should make that insight into a concentration that you keep alive throughout the day. Then what you say, what you think, and what you do will then be in the light of that wisdom and you will avoid making mistakes and creating suffering.

Melvin McLeod: So the practice of mindfulness is to try to maintain the insight of non-self and interconnectedness at all times.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes, exactly.

Melvin McLeod: We human beings say that above all else we want love. We want to give love; we want to be loved. We know that love is the medicine that cures all ills. But how do we find love in our heart, because often we can’t?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself—if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself—it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it’s clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice.

Melvin McLeod: Why don’t we love ourselves?

Thich Nhat Hanh: We may have a habit within ourselves of looking for happiness elsewhere than in the here and the now. We may lack the capacity to realize that happiness is possible in the here and now, that we already have enough conditions to be happy right now. The habit energy is to believe that happiness is not possible now, and that we have to run to the future in order to get some more conditions for happiness. That prevents us from being established in the present moment, from getting in touch with the wonders of life that are available in the here and now. That is why happiness is not possible.

To go home to the present moment, to take care of oneself, to get in touch with the wonders of life that are really available—that is already love. Love is to be kind to yourself, to be compassionate to yourself, to generate images of joy, and to look at everyone with eyes of equanimity and nondiscrimination.

That is something to be cultivated. Non-self can be achieved. It can be touched slowly. The truth can be cultivated. When you discover something, in the beginning you discover only part of it. If you continue, you have a chance to discover more. And finally you discover the whole thing. When you love, if your love is true, you begin to see that the other person is a part of you and you are a part of her or him. In that realization there is already non-self. If you think that your happiness is different from their happiness, you have not seen anything of non-self, and happiness cannot be obtained.

So as you progress on the path of insight into non-self, the happiness brought to you by love will increase. When people love each other, the distinction, the limits, the frontier between them begins to dissolve, and they become one with the person they love. There’s no longer any jealousy or anger, because if they are angry at the other person, they are angry at themselves. That is why non-self is not a theory, a doctrine, or an ideology, but a realization that can bring about a lot of happiness.

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