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You put a lot more emphasis on enjoyment—on enjoying breathing, sitting, walking, enjoying life altogether—than many other Buddhist teachers do.

In the teachings of the Buddha, ease and joy are elements of enlightenment. In life, there’s a lot of suffering. Why do you have to suffer more practicing Buddhism? You practice Buddhism in order to suffer less, right? The Buddha is a happy person. When the Buddha sits, he sits happily, and when he walks, he walks happily. Why do I want to do it differently from the Buddha? Maybe people are afraid that others might say, “You are not very serious in your practice. You smile, you laugh, you are having a good time. To practice seriously you have to be very grim, very serious.” Maybe the people who want to get more donations put it like that—to leave the impression they practice more seriously than other people. Take the practice of sitting all night. You aren’t allowed to rest and you think that is intensive practice, but you suffer all night and drink coffee in order to stay awake. That’s nonsense. It’s the quality of the sitting that can help you transform, not sitting a lot and suffering while you do. Sitting and walking meditation are for enjoying, and also for looking deeply and developing insight. That insight can liberate us from fear, anger, and despair.

I really enjoyed the outdoor walking meditation we did on this retreat.

Usually in the Buddhist tradition, you sit, and then you stand up and do slow walking in the meditation hall, and then you sit again. We don’t do that here. Instead, we do outdoor walking. That practice is helpful because you can apply it in your daily life. You walk normally—not too slowly—so you don’t look like you’re practicing and people see you as normal. And then when you go home, when you’re going from the parking lot to your office, you can enjoy walking.

The basic practice is how to enjoy—how to enjoy walking and sitting and eating and showering. It’s possible to enjoy every one, but our society is organized in such a way that we don’t have time to enjoy. We have to do everything too quickly.

What do you think makes someone a Buddhist?

A person may not be called a Buddhist, but he can be more Buddhist than a person who is. Buddhism is made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you have these things, you are a Buddhist. If you don’t, you aren’t a Buddhist. When you look at a person and you see that she is mindful, she is compassionate, she is understanding, and she has insight, then you know that she is a Buddhist. But even if she’s a nun and she does not have these energies and qualities, she has only the appearance of a Buddhist, not the content of a Buddhist.

Can a ceremony make someone a Buddhist?

No, it’s not by ceremony that you become a Buddhist. It is by committing to practice. Buddhists get caught in a lot of rituals and ceremonies, but the Buddha does not like that. In the sutras, specifically in the teaching given by the Buddha right after his enlightenment, he said that we should be free from rituals. You do not get enlightenment or liberation just because you perform rituals, but people have made Buddhism heavily ritualistic. We are not nice to the Buddha.

Do you have to believe in reincarnation to be a Buddhist?

Reincarnation means there is a soul that goes out of your body and enters another body. That is a very popular, very wrong notion of continuation in Buddhism. If you think that there is a soul, a self, that inhabits a body, and that goes out when the body disintegrates and takes another form, that is not Buddhism.

When you look into a person, you see five skandhas, or elements: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. There is no soul, no self, outside of these five, so when the five elements go to dissolution, the karma, the actions, that you have performed in your lifetime is your continuation. What you have done and thought is still there as energy. You don’t need a soul, or a self, in order to continue.

It’s like a cloud. Even when the cloud is not there, it continues always as snow or rain. The cloud does not need to have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning and no end. You don’t need to wait until the total dissolution of this body to continue—you continue in every moment. Suppose I transmit my energy to hundreds of people; then they continue me. If you look at them and you see me, well, you have seen me. If you think that I am only this [points to himself], then you have not seen me. But when you see me in my speech and my actions, you see that they continue me. When you look at my disciples, my students, my books, and my friends, you see my continuation. I will never die. There is a dissolution of this body, but that does not mean my death. I continue, always.

That is true of all of us. You are more than just this body because the five skandhas are always producing energy. That is called karma or action. But there is no actor—you don’t need an actor. Action is good enough. This can be understood in terms of quantum physics. Mass and energy, and force and matter—they are not two separate things. They are the same.

What can we do about the high level of materialism in our culture?

You can set up an environment where people live simply and happily, and invite others to come and observe. That is the only thing that will convince them to abandon their materialistic idea of happiness. They think that only when you have a lot to consume can you be happy, but many are very rich without being happy at all. And there are those who consume much less, but who are happier.

We need to demonstrate that living simply with a practice of the dharma can be very fulfilling, because until people see it and experience it, they cannot be convinced. In Plum Village, we laugh all day long, yet not one of us has a private bank account. Not one of us has a private car or a private telephone. We only eat vegetarian food. But we don’t suffer because we don’t eat eggs or meat. In fact, we are happier because we know that we are not eating living beings and we are protecting the planet. That brings a lot of joy. We are fortunate to be able to live like that, to eat like that.

There is a belief that unless you have a lot of money, unless you hold a high position in society, you cannot be truly happy. It is hard to let go of that belief until you see the truth that happiness is possible in another way. Seeing that will make the future possible for our children. So I think in Buddhist circles we have to reorganize so that we can show people a way of living happily based on mutual understanding, not materialism. Just a dharma talk isn’t enough, because a dharma talk is just a talk. Only when people see such an unmaterialistic community, when they see such a way of life, will they be convinced.

From the January 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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