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Melvin McLeod: And peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Sure. Peace is the absence of separation, of discrimination.

Melvin McLeod: You are renowned for teachings on community, which in Buddhism is called sangha. Through practices such as the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, you define mindfulness in ways that are social, even political. You teach about communication techniques and the power of deep listening and loving speech. Why do you emphasize the community, interpersonal aspect?

Thich Nhat Hanh: You have experiences in the practice—peace, joy, transformation, and healing—and on that foundation, you help other people. You don’t practice just as an individual, because you realize very soon on the path of practice that you should practice with community if you want the transformation and healing to take place more quickly. This is taking refuge in the sangha.

In sharing the practice with others, the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and joy is much more powerful. That is what the Buddha liked to do. Everywhere he went, many monastics accompanied him, and that way the monastics could learn from his way of walking and sitting and interacting with people. Soon the community began to behave like an organism, with everyone engaged in the same energy of peace, joy, calm, and brotherhood.

At the same time, everyone in the sangha speaks for the Buddha, speaking for him not just by their words but by the way they act and the way they treat people. That is why King Prasanjit told the Buddha, “Dear teacher, every time I see your community of monks and nuns, I have great faith in you.” He meant that the sangha is capable of representing the Buddha. The Buddha with the sangha can achieve a lot of things. I don’t think a teacher can do much without a community. It’s like a musician, who cannot perform without a musical instrument. The sangha is very important—the insight and the practice of the teacher can be seen in the sangha. It has a much stronger effect when you share in the practice and the teaching as a sangha.

Melvin McLeod: So for the dharma to really be powerful we must transform not just ourselves but, in effect, society.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes, that is Mahayana. That is going together in a larger vehicle. That is why Buddhism should always be engaged. It’s not by cutting yourself off from society that you can realize that. That is why Mahayana, the great vehicle, is already seen in what they call the Hinayana, the lesser vehicle.

Melvin McLeod: Do you think that one reason you emphasize community and society as a practice is the terrible conflict that you saw in your home country of Vietnam? Did seeing a society destroyed by war, seeing the terrible stakes involved, heighten your concern for our community life?

Thich Nhat Hanh: I think that’s true. It is the insight you get when you are in touch with the real situation. But it is also emphasized in the tradition. We say, “I take refuge in sangha,” but sangha is made of individual practitioners. So you have to take care of yourself. Otherwise you don’t have much to contribute to the community because you do not have enough calm, peace, solidity, and freedom in your heart. That is why in order to build a community, you have to build yourself at the same time. The community is in you and you are in the community. You interpenetrate each other. That is why I emphasize sangha-building. That doesn’t mean that you neglect your own practice. It is by taking good care of your breath, of your body, of your feelings, that you can build a good community, you see.

Melvin McLeod: You’ve been in the West now for a long time. What do you think are the best ways to present Buddhism to meet the needs of Western students?

Thich Nhat Hanh: I think Buddhism should open the door of psychology and healing to penetrate more easily into the Western world. As far as religion is concerned, the West already has plenty of belief in a supernatural being. It’s not by the law of faith that you should enter the spiritual territory of the West, because the West has plenty of this.

So the door of psychology is good. The abhidharma literature of Buddhism represents a very rich understanding of the mind, which has been developed by many generations of Buddhists. If you approach the Western mind through the door of psychology, you may have better success helping people to understand their mind, helping people to practice in such a way that they can heal the mind and the body.    

The mind and body are very much linked to each other, and we can say that the practice of Buddhist meditation has the power to heal the body and the mind. You see this very clearly when you study the basic texts of Buddhist meditation, like the Anapannasati Sutra, on the practice of mindful breathing, and the Sutra of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The practice of meditation helps us to release the tension—within the body, within the mind, within the emotions—so that healing can take place. Even if you take a lot of medicine, it won’t work very well if the tension is still strong in your body and your mind. So the Buddha offers very practical methods, such as, “Breathing in I’m aware of body; breathing out I release the tension in my body. Breathing in I’m aware of the emotion in me; breathing out I release the tension in the emotion. I embrace my body and my feelings with the energy of mindfulness.”

The practice of releasing tension in the body and mind is the foundation of healing. In the beginning it helps to bring you relief. Then, with more mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking more deeply into the pain and the tension, and you find its roots, the cause of the ill-being. You discover the second noble truth. You can identify the source of that tension, that depression, that ill-being. And when you identify the roots of the suffering, namely the second noble truth, then you begin to see the fourth noble truth, the way that leads to the cessation of the ill-being, the tension, and the pain. That is the most important thing to see—the path.  If you follow the path, very soon ill-being will disappear and give way to well-being, which is the third noble truth. So the Buddhist principle is the principle of medicine.

Another door that we should open is the door of ecology, because in Buddhism there is a deep respect toward animals, vegetables, and even minerals. In Mahayana Buddhism we say that everyone has buddhanature—not only humans but animals, vegetables, and even minerals. When you study the Diamond Sutra you can see that the Diamond Sutra is the oldest text on the protection of environment. The idea of self is removed, because self is made of non-self elements, and the idea of man is removed, because man is made of non-man elements, mainly animals, vegetables, minerals, and so on. That means that in order to protect man you have to protect the non-man elements. It’s very clear.

So the door of ecology is a very wonderful door to open. And the door of peace, because Buddhism is about peace. The true Buddhist cannot refuse working for peace. And I think the door of feminism, the nondiscrimination between genders. The Buddha opened the door for women to enter the holy order and that was a very revolutionary act on his part.

I think all these dharma doors should be opened wide so the West can receive the true teaching of the Buddha. These dharma doors all exist within the roots of Buddhism, but many generations of Buddhists have lost these values. Buddhists should practice in such a way as to restore these values to the tradition so they can offer them to other people.

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