by Joseph Emet
The Buddha left behind a rich legacy. His many heirs in different countries have taken diverging paths, creating such diverse traditions as Zen, Vipassana and Pure Land. A little bit like the different diets in vogue today, each emphasizing a different group of foods, each of these traditions emphasizes one aspect of the original teachings. And within each tradition, teachers with powerful personalities establish their own diverging “diets” almost with each passing generation.
Against the backdrop of this perennially expanding Big Bang of the Buddhist Universe, Thich Nhat Hanh has a unique place: he has woven these divergent traditions into a many colored tapestry without losing the richness that each gained through the centuries. With Thich Nhat Hanh, Pure Land, Zen and Vipassana enlighten and inform each other, while contributing to our understanding in their unique ways. Indeed, to my post-Thich-Nhat-Hanh mind, each of these traditions taken alone now appears incomplete, a little bit like the picture of the proverbial elephant that several blind people touching different parts of the animal each formed in his mind.
I sometimes encouner people who say that they are following Vipassana teachings, but they are not aware of Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vipassana teacher, one of the foremost of our time. He has translated the key Sutras of this path, and commented on them in Breathe, You Are Alive, and in Transformation and Healing. The transcript of a 21-day retreat based on these Sutras has been compiled as The Path of Emancipation (all published by Parallax Press.) He incorporates elements from these sutras into many of the retreats he offers. He has echoed the feeling of other Vipassana teachers in saying that with these key Sutras, the Anapanasati sutra and the Satthipathana sutra, we come close to the original teachings of the Buddha without later accretions. He has added that before we study traditions that developed almost a thousand years after Buddha’s passing, such as Zen, we should familiarize ourselves with the Buddha’s own words and practice. Yet, he has also written perhaps the clearest text on Zen, Zen Keys (with an introduction by Philip Kapleau). For him, knowing the Buddha’s own words and practice informs and illuminates the Zen path.
I first came upon the word “mindfulness” in the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s 1975 book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. An edition of the two volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary published in the same year does not have an entry for “mindfulness,” although it has one for “mindlessness.” “Mindfulness” was clearly not a word in common use at that time. That has changed since then: now there are 2000 books in print in English alone featuring that word in the title. But that is just the tip of the iceberg: only a small portion of books about mindfulness contain that word as part of the title; The Miracle has triggered a veritable avalanche.
“What is mindfulness?” I am sometimes asked. You can define concepts, but can you define a skill such as meditation, or clarinet playing? A skill but has to be practiced, learned, enjoyed, and developed. It is best taught by example as well as explanation, and by apprenticeship as well as scholarship. At best, you can describe a skill: mindfulness is the art of bringing our accumulated knowledge, life experience, wisdom and insight to bear upon the present moment, upon each moment, moment after moment. But how do you do this? This is a hurdle for many beginners. I have worked as a music teacher, and I particularly remember a young lady of about 12 who wanted to learn to play the clarinet. After we put the clarinet together carefully, she looked at me and asked, “How do you turn it on?” It is relatively easy to find a pillow or bench, sit in the meditation pose and so on, but “how do you turn it on?”
I know that hurdle. I have dabbled in some kind of meditation most of my adult life: I stayed in Yoga ashrams, learned to appreciate Indian music and vegetarian food, did OM chanting, kirtans, and sat every morning and evening. But I was mostly faking meditation. I sat straight all right, but do not ask me what was going on in my mind, because I had no clear idea. Then followed 11 years with the Sufis, and afterwards a period of Japanese style Zen. I continued to fake meditation in these different settings. By “faking it” I do not mean to say that I was trying to fool anybody, just that I had not yet made friends with my mind, and did not have much awareness. I was just sitting straight and was silent, while my mind kind of went on as usual in its merry way.
I invite you to look at The Miracle of Mindfulness against this backdrop, and read it as I read it in those days. It does not start with a description of sitting posture, but in an informal, chatty way: “Yesterday Allen came over to visit with his son Joey. Joey has grown so quickly!” Then follows a discussion about family life, about washing the dishes, having a cup of tea, and eating a tangerine—all ordinary everyday activities. Up to that time, “meditation” meant “sitting” for me, often in exotic or special settings. Now it was to gain a new meaning. Till then, the meditation period and the rest of the day were quite distinct and separate. Thich Nhat Hanh was suggesting that meditation could be a daylong process of awareness, of being present and in the moment. This emphasis on everyday activities, and on the mental process of meditation as opposed to posture finally opened my eyes.
With that book, the mindfulness renaissance was on, and it has spawned a number of mindfulness based therapies such as ACT, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, and Hakomi. Indeed, the Buddha occupies an important place in the mental health field today, as many hospitals now have mindfulness based programs for Traumatic Stress Syndrome or palliative care, and many universities have mindfulness based counseling programs. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the pionneers in this movement as he threw the spotlight on this aspect of the Buddha’s heritage 35 years ago.
The teachings on mindfulness now form the core of what is packaged and taught as Vipassana. The two core Sutras of this movement are included in The Miracle of Mindfulness, but Thich Nhat Hanh teaches them in a wider context that includes other Buddhist traditions such as Pure Land and Zen. This puts them in a rich perspective. The Buddha gave more than those two teachings. However, mindfulness practice (sati in Pali) occupies a central place, as it brings to the present awareness of the insights one has had, and of the things one has learned. In English as well as in Pali, the word has a connotation of remembering—the opposite of mindfulness would be forgetfulness. This aspect is foremost in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching: the mindfulness bell is a constant feature of Plum Village practice, reminding us every few minutes to come back to our breath, to the here and the now, and to who we are.
I gained a clearer understanding of Pure Land Buddhism in 2002, when I accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh and a large group of monastics and lay practitioners on a trip to China. I had been immersed in Pure Land Buddhism on my trips to Plum Village in France where Thich Nhat Hanh lives, but I was not quite aware of it, because the practice was not labeled as such. Plum Village has a non-denominational flavor: there is Vipassana practice, Zen Practice and Pure Land practice happening all the time there, but they are not often identified and separated out as such. The integration is quite seamless, and for many, this is the essence of the “Thich Nhat Hanh brand.”
At the Bao Quoc temple in China, we were looked after by lay volunteers immersed in Pure Land practice. We saw them always with the Buddha’s name on their lips: “Hello” was “Buddha,” “Good-Bye” was “Buddha,” and “How are you?” was also “Buddha.” This simplified the Chinese language greatly! And these smiling, helpful and gracious people were happy, and truly present in Buddha’s Pure Land.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a mind game: supposing that a group of people who are full of negative energies like greed, anger and hatred were suddenly to find themselves in paradise. It would not take them long to transform paradise into hell (a situation that is actually happening in many parts of the world today). The converse of this is described in the Pure Land tradition: when a Buddha is enlightened, he finds himself in paradise. Pure Land rephrases the goal: the elusive sudden enlightenment, or “Kensho” of Zen becomes transformation. Transformation is also a key goal in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching; several of his books have that word in the title. Happiness is transformational, and is the direction of much of the practice at Plum Village. For me, after pursuing enlightenment with grim determination, it was such a relief to find myself there, surrounded with the transformational energy of mindfulness, and bathed in the sunshine of the present moment.
Do not expect to find the Heart Sutra or the Diamond Sutra in a Vipassana or a Pure Land Center. However, these and other Mahayana texts form an integral part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching, and add clarity and vigor to his practice. He reminds us constantly of our love affair with ideas and concepts, and our propensity for taking them for reality. He often quotes Zen Koans, but does not use the Rinzai pedagogy of leaving the student alone with a puzzle. As one of his monastic students, the regretted Thich Giac Thanh once said to me, “When I was younger, I spent some time in a Zen center in New York state because of some suffering in my life. But soon, the practice at the center became a further source of suffering.” The practice at Plum Village is designed to be a source of joy and happiness.
When we talk about the practice at Plum Village, we are also discussing pedagogy. Pedagogy is Upaya, appropriate means for leading someone closer to the truth about herself, and about life, closer to the Dharma. The particular mix of the formal and the informal, of silent walks and discussion periods, of inspiring Dharma talks, and some amount of informal socializing that is the hallmark of Plum Village life creates time and space for people to find themselves. Plum Village is not the army, it is not a place where every minute is controlled and regimented. It is a place of inspiration where the practice often leads one closer to nature, and allows nature to work its magic.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a scholar with a thorough knowledge of the Buddhist tradition, but he is not tradition bound. In other Buddhist centers I have chanted the Heart Sutra in medieval Japanese which most Japanese people no longer understand, and in Sino-Vietnamese, which neither the Chinese nor the Vietnamese know any more. It was refreshing to hear it chanted at Plum Village in English and French, with attractive original melodies composed by residents. Unlike some ethnic centers which impose a kind of reverse colonialism on practitioners, Plum Village is willing to let Buddhism evolve within the western culture while staying true to its roots. This was very inspiring to me.
I am a musician, and I soon found myself setting Thich Nhat Hanh’s poems to music. Call Me By My True Names, Thich Nhat Hanh’s book of poetry, soon became my constant companion. In that book, a different facet of his personality emerges: in his poems, he is no longer speaking in a didactic voice, but with the voice of birds and flowers, with the voice of inspiration. I was to discover all over again in composing songs what I learned in meditation about the mind. I learned to make friends with my inner self (unconscious mind, if you prefer), and allow it to come up with melodies and other ideas, and guide it gently along to sing its songs to Thich Nhat Hanh’s words. It was a lesson in listening, in being open to inspiration, and in learning to use the conscious and the unconscious sides of the mind to work together in harmony. Peace is Every Step, one of the poems I set to music, can be understood in this light: when there is peace among the different facets of the mind, “the endless path turns to joy.”
These days I enjoy sharing the practice with others at the Mindfulness Meditation Centre in Montreal. As a result of my past frustrations in trying to “nail down” the process of meditation, I have developed a series of 12 guided meditations each on a different aspect of the practice. In our sessions we first do one of these guided meditations, and then a period of silent meditation. I am also putting the finishing touches on a new CD, with original words this time. My first four CD’s were about the practice of mindfulness. This one is about living an everyday life in the light of mindfulness. It’s working title is Be Here Now.
Joseph Emet is the founding teacher of the Mindfulness Meditation Centre in Montreal, Canada (mindfulnessmeditationcentre.org). His Dharma songs have been enriching the practice of Plum Village, and other communities of Mindful Living around the world. They are published by Parallax Press as Basket of Plums, a boxed set of two CD’s and the sheet music. He lives with his partner Suzanne Forest.