Friday, 13 June 2008

A letter to Thich Nhat Hanh

For some years I have read, and tried to practise, the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk from Vietnam. The following is an open letter to him, and to the Buddhist group with whom I practise, about some of his teachings. Specifically I talk about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Other expressions that may need explanation are Dharma and Sangha.

Dear Thich Nhat Hanh & the White Clouds Sangha,

I am not quite sure who to address this letter to. But it concerns the Dharma - one of the three legs of practising Buddhism - so it seems appropriate that I address my concerns to the other two legs - my Sangha and the Buddha. (With apologies to Thich Nhat Hanh for conflating him with the Buddha!)

There are two main issues that I wish to address. They both constitute (constructive) criticisms of the way that we practise. Let me say first that I value the practice very much and I want my criticisms to be read with this in mind. My criticism comes from a place of love and respect for the Darnha, the Sangha and the Buddha.

(1) THE FIVE MINDFULNESS TRAININGS: At our Day of Mindfulness on Saturday we ended the day, as we often do, by reciting the five mindfulness trainings. Most of the group seem to find this a good way of ending the day, strengthening our resolve to practise mindfulness in the days ahead.

Unfortunately I do not find it so. There are three reasons why not:
(a) The trainings are "the basis for a happy life". My problem here is with the "the" and the exclusiveness, dogmatism even, that it implies. I broadly endorse (with some exceptions as given below) the five mindfulness trainings as a way of life; but I would certainly shrink from asserting that they are the definitive answer to the question of how to live.

But this is easily fixed: replace "the" with "a" and I am happy (and I have seen this in other translations of the five trainings so perhaps it should be this way anyway).

(b)On drugs and alcohol: Why the injunction to forgo these pleasures?

The majority of the training on consumption revolves around the cultivation of compassion for the earth and all beings on the earth. It is therefore very natural to be mindful in our consumption: to avoid meat, to avoid polluting TV programmes etc. It is not clear to me that a compassionate outlook implies a complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

In fact it seems to me that the use of drugs can be undertaken mindfully - with a view to enhancing our understanding of consciousness and our emotions, whilst aware of the risks which such an undertaking involves. It is true that most of society does not use drugs in this way, even if they intend to. But then this is also true of TV and we do not presume to ban TV altogether - only to moderate its use.

The point is this: the practice of Buddhism should allow us to live compassionately and wisely and mindfully. If we do this then the choices which we make will be good ones. It is not necessary nor, indeed, is it in any way advantageous for our spirituality, to be arbitrarily bounded by dogma. This limits us; if nothing else it removes from us the chance to say "no" for ourselves.

(c) On sex: And, really, the same applies here. We pledge many fine things in the third training but why this: "not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment."?

Why is love not sufficient? How can it not be sufficient? I mean REAL love, MINDFUL love, a Buddha-like love. Perhaps with this love we may decide to say "no" to any sexual relations which are not long term. But, then, why are we being instructed in this way, rather than being allowed to choose for ourselves?

Humanity's relation to sexuality has long been a vexed one. Religious leaders of every ilk have tried to give guidance on this issue - sometimes in good faith. But the end result has always, it seems to me, been one of two outcomes: the wise have instructed us to LOVE and to BE LOVING in all we do. The less wise have tied themselves (and, sadly, their disciples) in knots trying to prescribe monogamy, or heterosexuality, or abstinence, or free love, or... whatever it may be.

It seems that, when it comes to our sexuality, it is very hard to see the wood for the trees, to know the best way to proceed. How much more difficult then when we try to give recipes for OTHER PEOPLE's sexuality!Let us love one another. That is enough.

Before I leave this concern, let me anticipate one defence of the five mindfulness trainings: that they are guidelines for practice, not hard and fast rules. Of course I appreciate this point; I also appreciate the responsibility of the Buddha and the Sangha for giving guidance on how to live - I take this guidance very seriously.

The key point is that, in these two instances - on sex, and on drugs and alcohol, the guidance moves from the philosophical to the specific. When I "vow to speak truthfully" there is a world of reflection open to me (and my Sangha) about what this means, and how I am to put my vow into practice. This is not the case when I say "I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant..." which is an absolute statement and admits no freedom of interpretation. Yet, if I am to practice truly and mindfully, then I must have that freedom to think and to reflect and to decide for myself.

(2) And so to my second concern: retreat vs engagement.

Unlike my first concern which was specific and concrete, my second is one of perception and balance. Or rather a perceived imbalance. Where this balance arises I am not sure - undoubtedly it is partly within myself. But perhaps it also arises within the practice of the Sangha and so I feel I should share it.

My perception is simply this: that the idea of "retreat" has become too dominant in our practice, so that it now threatens our "engagement". As a Sangha we seem to share a love of natural beauty, of stillness, of reflective peace. This is right and proper. We seek out these experiences and share them as a group together. I have benefited greatly from them.

Even more, when we come together, we share guided meditations speaking to us of the "clear mountain air" and the "sunshine" and the "cool stream". It is good that we think of these things for they are, and so we are with them.

When I return to my daily life - at work, or on the road, or wherever - I retain in me the sense of connectedness to the clear mountain air and the cool stream, and it eases me.

But sometimes I wonder about this ease: is it the ease of a being immersed in the present moment, connected to the earth and all that dwell on her? Or is it the ease of a being who escapes the present moment through a porthole to other, more beautiful places. Am I seeing my world more clearly or, rather, am I focusing my eyes on a distant horizon and refusing to acknowledge that which lies in front of my nose?

There is no answer to this but perhaps there is a pointer for my practice. i can retreat TOO MUCH. I can seek peace and tranquillity to the point that I am not able to acknowledge chaos and drama. My practice must be immersed in every aspect of my life.

And it is not just me, the practitioner: the same may be said of the Sangha, surely. If we meet together only in places of beauty and peace, are we not in danger of unbalancing our practice? Should we not share together the trials of daily life so that we can be present together there too? How is our practice, in its current form, engaged?

It is not enough to have a Dharna pot for children in Vietnam; there must be something more. Perhaps our next day of mindfulness should be at a rubbish dump, or in a shopping centre, or outside an arms factory. Perhaps our Dharma talk should be the story of a refugee or drug addict. Perhaps we should eat rice without salt...

I am committed to reflecting and discussing and trying to resolve these concerns as best I can for myself and with my Sangha. I would appreciate any feedback.

Yours sincerely,



Anonymous said...

I don't know how i've found this! Hi!

Maybe you are not a buddhist :) only likes meditation or something... sila (five precepts or mindful trainings) is THE base (of course always talking about Dhamma), and more you practice more it becames clear that it is in this way.

(sorry for my english :) and have a good practice!)

Kate Stott said...

An interesting post.
When I first came across the 5 Mindfulness trainings in 2003 I had some similar concerns/reservations. But I did not let them put me off, I just chose which aspects I wanted to adpot, and I left those which did not feel right for me at the time.

However, as time has gone by and my practice has developed, my behaviour and beliefs have unconciously become more inline with the trainings. I agree somewhat with the previous comment in that the more you practice, the more it becomes clear that this is the way. But I do not think it is the ONLY way. I see my relationship with the 5 trainings as a continually evolving process.

As for having a day of mindfulness at a rubbish dump or outside an arms company, I notice my resistance and fear arise. Despite this, I agree that it would be very good practice for myself and the sangha. What better way to contemplate death, suffering and our responsibility in these processes. Bring it on! Are you up for the cahllenge?

Stephen Warrilow said...

In response to your posting, I feel very much the same way, on both points.

With regard to your first point about the 5 Mindfulness Trainings, I feel your quote from the Buddha says it all really.

With the deepest bow and the greatest of respect to Thich Nhaht Hanh, it may be that something was lost in translation, but in any event this is his offering of a way, and it is our individual choice as to how we respond to it.

Whilst the actual process of transformation is generic there are innumerable ways to experience this process. So personally, I bow to him with respect and gratitude for all that he teaches and offers, smile, and make my own choices - and accept the consequences.

With regard to your second point about retreat and engagement, I feel that there is a place for retreat and a place for engagement. Retreat is essential as a respite from the tyranny of our conscious (left brain) thinking minds. At the personal level, we go on retreat every time we meditate. I feel that engagement is bringing the “retreat experience/consciousness” into what is manifesting now, in the present moment. In practical terms, bringing our transcendent or enlightened mind / awareness (right brain) to bear on what is manifesting and being experienced now and responding from that awareness. This way we allow that awareness to prompt whatever arises in our “ordinary consciousness” rather than responding from unconscious impulses, reactions, beliefs and values.

What is engagement any way if it isn’t simply being fully present “in the now” and acting and responding in consciousness (or mindfulness)?

I also feel that there are 2 aspects to this: firstly, integration (or balance) of the transcendent (right brain) and "ordinary" states or experiences (left brain); and secondly, acceptance of "what is" in the present moment experience - whether arising internally as a shadow aspect of our own self/selves or manifesting in external conditions.

As our practise develops and personal/spiritual development progresses and matures, we learn how to move freely between the transcendent and non-transcendent states or consciousnesses and in ways that are appropriate to our present conditions. Thus we are more able to be at ease whatever the conditions we are experiencing, and to act and behave in the most resourceful, mindful and compassionate manner – in the moment.

Also, working with and embracing and releasing our own shadow side is an essential part of balanced growth, and I do feel that there is an aspect of Sangha practise and shared experience which suggests or indicates seeking/experiencing the transcendent as an avoidance of the shadow. I say this as I feel that it is only in fully embracing our own shadow side that we can truly and fully accept what is in the present moment – however and wherever it manifests, and whatever it is – and without projection or resistance.

So in practical terms, I feel our Sangha could benefit from meditations and reflections on the dark side of life - i.e. subjects and material that reflect the full range of human misery, suffering and unconscious behaviour. I also feel that we would benefit from focusing our sharing and reflective discussions more on our responses to that – as well as the current uplifting material that we use. If we did this, I do not feel that we particularly need to physically congregate on a rubbish dump or outside a munitions factory. Although a mindful walk through or alongside either could be very interesting and productive.

bluearsedfly said...

Thanks for this, Nick. It is refreshing when someone speaks openly about the issues arising from their practice and ask difficult questions. It helps others too. I forwarded your comments to the COI UK egroup -

bluearsedfly said...

Some personal thoughts I meant to add. Interbeing was not the first Buddhist tradition I encountered. What I personally valued about the mindfulness trainings - as the COI knows the 5 precepts taught by the Buddha - was finding their wording goes farther to make them relevant to C21st life & gives more texture and richness than in traditional sources. Thich Nhat Hanh's approach actually had the effect of making me more relaxed about them than I might have been! I like you am wary of any hint of dogmatism, having grown up with the Catholic Church and its sometimes restricting /judgemental orthodoxy.

Ani in Wild Geese sangha lives part of the year at Plum Village. In relation to similar questions she always says: the most important wording in all of the trainings is "aware of the suffering caused by". Our practice is to be aware of the suffering for ourselves or others related to decisions we make in relation to each training.

Including the suffering of others can put a new dimension to things. In France, such world-renowned Wine growing country where nobody questions the value of this industry, Thay has additional motives in discouraging alcohol so firmly. He is on record lamenting the quantity of land used for cultivating crops for wine when children are starving. (I still remember thinking when I heard him that he was onto a losing battle regarding the French!)

Alcohol consumption is such a major part of our culture it is hardly realistic to expect everyone practising mindfulness to be teetotal. I don’t take drugs and rarely have alcohol now, as I can't tolerate it - but only because it just happened that way due to ill health, medication clashing with it and a natural progression. A decade ago I ‘needed’ a drink every night, and used it as a coping mechanism, which I think many people do. I mainly am relieved I save the money I could be spending on it! In not drinking, I sometimes feel I am in a parallel universe. But binge drinking is clearly a problem linked to health and social issues – it’s the extreme end of unmindful drinking. Yes, people are likely to naturally drink less if they practise mindfulness. But that argument might be better made (if it was one you agreed with of course), by a drinker among other drinkers who is also getting enjoyment from practising mindfulness, opening up a debate, than a teetotaller.

idiotbarnes said...

Perhaps "retreat" is the wrong word - since the idea of time away is to bring you closer to yourself, other people and the nature of reality. In retreat, we move towards not away. And that includes the ugly and uncomfortable, right? Modern life, with all its distractions is the real retreat, I reckon. (So next time you've spent all weekend playing Grand Theft Auto, if anyone asks, tell them you've been on retreat.) Meditations on "clear mountain air" or "sunshine" are helpful in attaining relaxed or peaceful states of mind, but I don't necessarily think this equates to enlightenment. I'm more a fan of the whole non-conceptualising thing, and just staying with the feeling regardless of "good" or "bad". I mean: in theory. Obviously, realistically, I'm probably watching tv.

The booze / sex / drugs question really depends on whether you want to be like Thich Nhat Hahn. Personally, I think he's cool, but I'd rather have the option of sex, drugs and booze than living a life of total peace and serenity. I think this is cultural. I mean, I live in London, he lives in Plum Village. I acknowledge that in the long-run, perhaps TNH's approach is more satisfying, but it's me that's getting laid...

Er... And I was doing so well.

Anonymous said...

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mish said...

I've come across these questions along the way myself. I don't have a strong answer, but here are some thoughts ...

First I find it good to take into account the Kalama Sutta:

The core of this is only to accept teachings when you yourself know it to be right. But also, importantly, when the teachings are "things praised by the wise". This seems to be an important clause to stop you selecting anything that seems OK to you. So it is OK to not accept all the teachings immediately, but to bare them in mind as you explore the various practices, and hold up the teachings in the light of your own experience.

So on alcohol/drugs, the arguments I know are about creating barriers to mindfulness. And one of the great aims is to be mindful all the time, being aware of what is going on inside you so you do not act with unknown motivations. Any intoxicating substance reduces your awareness.

In my experience I have not fully accepted this, I still drink (not so often with my ME, but nevertheless sometimes I really enjoy a nice ale or whisky). Though I also often sit around with friends while they drink and I won't. My meditation practice is currently most days, and so I try to watch out for differences in my awareness the morning after drinking. This experience will inform my decisions as I go forward.

On sex, I believe the usual arguments are to do with attachment and desire. Managing your sexual desire within a long term loving relationship is seen as reasonable, but if you have sex just on lust, or you frequently change partners, then your mind will be constantly off kilter as desire or craving run riot, preventing your mind becoming quiet and you attaining mindfulness.

Again, I'm not sure how much I accept this. It seems to make sense, and I can certainly remember sexual desire leading to attachment and the associated suffering. Being in a long term loving relationship has lead to my mind being much quieter. But then having read some stuff about polyamory I can see there are ways of doing that which could be compatible with mindfulness.

Ultimately on such questions, you can be guided by the teachings of the wise, but only you can accept or reject them based on your own experience.

On retreat, the standard arguments I know are that making progress on the path to a quiet mind and towards defeating craving, aversion and ignorance is very difficult. A quiet environment helps, so on a regular basis it is good to retreat to a quiet place so as to help your own spritual path, and to be stronger afterwards. That makes sense to me. But I also believe that engagement with the world is the other side to it. So balance is required. The idea of doing some of your practices in places such as rubbish tips seems interesting. I know that some buddhist activists at the DSEI protests meditated on the DLR. They did not stop anyone going. Their presence may have made some arms dealers think about what they do (or it may not). But I imagine it would have been pretty challenging as a personal practice, whether just being mindful of the feelings inside themselves, trying to generate compassion to the arms dealers around them, or whatever other practice they chose.

There are a few good places I know to discuss these issues. The Network of Engaged Buddhists (NEB) is a UK group of buddhist activists. They have a magazine and an email discussion list that is not too high volume, and some of the discussions are very interesting. I was thinking about forwarding this discussion to the list. If you would like to join yourself then let me know, and I'll wait until you're on the list before raising it. Otherwise I'll point people at this blog post, so they can add to the comments.

They have a space at the Buddhafield festival (which I highly recommend) and there, and at other workshops at the festival, many of these questions can be discussed. I believe they will also be running a space at this years climate camp.

Hope life is lovely with you :)

mish said...

Just thought I'd check you were aware that the 5 mindfulness trainings are expanded versions of the 5 precepts that are the basic buddhist moral code.

and, with a little more reasoning about them

Anonymous said...

The Five Mindfulness trainings were recently revised to make then even more dogmatic. Thay has implied in a talk that these revised trainings were produced by the fourfold Sangha in a process started on November 15th 2008 lasting across three retreats at Plum Village – Winter, Francophone and 21-Day. This is not the case. The Sangha did produce a new draft on June 14th, but this was quite different in spirit and tone from that which has recently been published. I thought everybody might like to see the Sangha’s draft and have therefore posted it below.


The 5 mindfulness trainings are guidelines for an open-hearted response to life’s challenges and for caring for our world. They are also doors that open to peace, joy and freedom.
Based on the insights of interbeing – the dynamic and supportive interdependence of all things – the trainings express the realization that our suffering is not separate from the suffering of others and that our happiness is not separate from the happiness of others.
Aware that all actions originate in the mind, the trainings invite us to embody understanding and compassion in our thinking, speaking and acting. They are to be practiced with compassion, skill and flexibility, conscious that our understanding is still developing and that circumstances may call for new insights and ways of acting.
Each time we practice a training, we offer a priceless gift to the world and to ourselves.

First mindfulness training: Respect for life

Aware of the suffering caused by lack of respect for life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and the Earth.
Knowing that harmful actions arise from incomplete understanding, I am committed to developing my insight into the nature of reality. I will practice recognizing and transforming mental states that cloud awareness, such as fear, anger, intolerance and dogmatism. I am committed to practicing non-attachment to views and will listen with an open mind to those who hold perspectives different from my own. I will also try to understand and enter into dialogue with those who seek to impose their views through means such as war, fanaticism or terror.
Aware that I harm myself when I harm living beings and the Earth, I am determined to reduce suffering and nourish in my community respect for the diversity and preciousness of all life.

Second mindfulness training: Generosity and Justice

Aware of the suffering caused by self-centeredness and greed, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thoughts, words and actions.
Knowing that true happiness comes from caring for myself and others, and not from the pursuit of wealth, fame, or power, I will live a simple sustainable life and practice joy on the path of service.
I am determined to take only what is freely given and I will choose the products I buy and use and the investments I make with awareness of their impact on other beings and our precious Earth.
I am committed to finding ways to stand with and share my resources with those who are in need. I will work with others to create just and generous societies.

Anonymous said...

Third mindfulness training: Cultivating loving relationships
Aware of the suffering caused by the unmindful use of sexual energy, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to promote loving and respectful relationships.
I will generate joy, kindness, compassion and inclusiveness, in myself and others – these are the foundation of true love and intimacy.
Knowing that sexual activity motivated by craving harms myself and others, I will be mindful of the source of my desires. I am aware that sexual energy is sacred and at the base of all life. I will learn appropriate ways to express my sexual energy or to transform it into the energies of service and spiritual growth. If I choose to engage in a sexual relationship, I will do so only when there is love, mutual respect and a commitment to deepen the relationship. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I will be mindful of the consequences of my actions, and I will respect my commitments and the commitments of others.
I will work to create a world in which every child, woman and man is loved and protected, where there is tolerance and compassion and in which there is reverence and support for both sexual and non-sexual relationships of love and respect.

Fourth mindfulness training: Compassionate listening and loving speech

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen, I am committed to cultivating compassionate listening and truthful loving speech, in order to bring happiness to myself and others.
I am determined to listen with my heart, recognizing the suffering in myself and others, and to speak truthfully and kindly. I will look into the sources of my views so that my thoughts and words are not distorted by wrong perception or strong emotions. I will choose words that inspire compassion, confidence and joy. I will endeavour to resolve all conflicts, however small. I am committed to working for peace and reconciliation in my family, community, nation and the global society.

Fifth mindfulness training: Nourishing peace and joy

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to looking deeply into the consequences of what I eat, drink, use, purchase and allow into my consciousness.
Knowing that everything I consume has the potential of nourishing happiness or suffering, I am committed to consuming only items that nourish well-being in my body and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant.
Rather than seeking to escape unpleasant feelings by losing myself in entertainments or other distractions, I will practice recognizing, embracing and transforming the perceptions and memories that give rise to my unhappiness and cravings. I will breathe and walk mindfully so that I am able to touch the many wonders of life that are always available.

Jason West said...

"long term commitment" = serious attachment