The Foundation of Thay's
Teachings in the West
"Thay's teachings help us deepen our insight into the three Dharma seals of
these features of the Dharma and apply them continuously in our daily life,
we have a chance to attain full liberation."
One of the things that Thich Nhat Hanh and his community of monks and nuns in Plum Village have contributed in the last 30 years, is to bring Buddhist’ teachings from the theoretical to the applied level. We have experienced this movement in many areas. The techniques we use are based on the sutras on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness and Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone, and on key principles of Mahayana, implemented through the Zen tradition. So our core teachings and practice include the three traditions: original Buddhism as expressed in the sutras just mentioned; the interpretations of the Mahayana tradition; and the Zen tradition as expressed in the way we actually apply the teachings to our daily life.
Methods of Practice Taught by Thich Nhat Hanh from the sutras on -
The Full Awareness of Breathing,
The Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and
Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone
The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing is the foundation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s (Thay, teacher or friend in Vietnamese pronounced 'Tie') teaching in the West. A few years into his monastic life and studies, Thay was very happy to find the teachings of the Buddha recorded in the sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. The sutra shows us how to be aware of what is happening in the four main areas of our life (our body, our feelings, our mental formations, and our perceptions), so that we can live our life deeply. The insight we get from doing this liberates us from many afflictions such as fear, anger, and craving. According to Thay’s understanding and insight, the sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing is a very essential practice for any Buddhist. It is a very safe and very easy way for anyone, even a child, to enter into Buddhist meditation.
Because we have been able to stop, our mind becomes very clear and we get in touch with the positive elements of life. With the practice of “breathing in, I am in the present moment; breathing out I see this moment is a wonderful moment,” we see life in its true essence in the here and now. In Plum Village, we use mindfulness practice songs to help us remember the gathas and use them in our daily life.
The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness goes together with the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, helping us to live deeply the present moment and to understand life in that moment. The Four Establishments of Mindfulness help us to deepen our meditation on the four aspects of our being (body, feelings, mental formations and perceptions). They lead us to discover the oneness of the subject of perception and the object of perception, so that we can come to a true understanding of the teaching of the Manifestation Only school of Buddhism. It helps us deepen our insight into the three Dharma seals of non-self, impermanence and nirvana. When we are able to understand these features of the Dharma and apply them continuously in our daily life, we have a chance to attain full liberation.
The exercises prescribed by the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing and the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness can be used when offering guided meditation for beginners who don’t know what to do during sitting or walking meditation. We have developed a manual for guided meditation, called The Blooming of a Lotus, which includes thirty-four guided meditation exercises on various subjects, with commentaries explaining their sources.
Another key sutra in our tradition is the Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone, in which the Buddha taught us to live fully in the present moment -- the only moment in which life is available. The past has gone, and the future has not yet come. This sutra is a direct link between original Buddhism and the Zen tradition of Master Lin Chi. To miss the present moment is to miss life. This teaching also was well developed by the Buddha in other sutras, such as the Discourse on Teachings Given to the White-Clad Disciple. This teaching plays a very important role in our tradition and has developed into the Seal of Plum Village.
In Plum Village, the mind and body are one reality. Our practice does not exclude the body from the mind. The calming and transformation of the body lead to the calming and transformation of the mind; and calming and transforming the mind leads to calming and transformation of the body. So our way of interpreting and applying the sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing is based on the Mahayana teaching that mind and body are one.
Our afflictions and liberation also are one; they inter-are. We can never have a transformation where there is no affliction. Afflictions are the very basis of our transformation. Liberation is the process of understanding deeply the nature and roots of our afflictions. In the Plum Village teaching, there is only transformation; there is no termination of afflictions, only transformation from ill-being to well-being. The existence of well-being is based on the existence of ill-being. Without ill-being, there can be no well-being. In the past, people have thought that we had to terminate our afflictions, completely end them, in order for liberation to manifest; but in fact, it is possible to have joy and happiness in this very moment even if there is still some affliction there as well.
Without a boat, even a small pebble will sink quickly into a river; but with a boat, you can carry tons of rock and it will not sink. It’s possible to enjoy happiness even though there are still pebbles of afflictions in our body and mind. Another feature of Plum Village practice is the central importance of the Sangha, which is like the boat. If we allow ourselves to be carried by a sangha, then even if we still have suffering in our body and mind, thanks to the practice of the sangha we will not sink, we still will be able to go through life. Transformation is a process that happens day by day. There is no such thing as a completely self-contained nirvana. Nirvana is a state of mind in which we can see into the nature of reality. The mind can be free even though there are still seeds of afflictions remaining in our alaya vijnana. The teaching on Manifestation Only is used extensively in our tradition as a foundation for understanding these transformations at the base of our consciousness.
Together with the implementation of Mahayana teachings, in Plum Village we emphasize a strong dimension of social engagement. During the war in Vietnam, Thay brought Buddhism “to the streets.” When there is so much suffering in the world, the Buddha cannot simply remain in the temple; he must go out into the street to help people. For this reason, Thay founded a new Buddhist order, the Order of Interbeing, with Mindfulness Trainings (precepts) that applied the teachings to war situations. Later it was developed more broadly for social engagement and service, mainly social service. The Order of Interbeing very much embodies the bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism.
To bring more ethical guidelines for responsibility in society, to fulfill the ideals of the Order of Interbeing, Order members are asked to practice strongly the 5 Mindfulness Trainings, i.e. the five precepts given by the Buddha for laypeople. The Five Mindfulness Trainings have been rewritten by Plum Village in a modern way, so people in modern society can easily accept and understand the teaching and be able to apply it in their daily life. For example, in the Fifth Mindfulness Training, we have expressed the larger concept of mindful consumption, which includes mindful consumption of magazines, books, and TV in addition to not taking drugs or alcohol to protect our body. UNESCO essentially adopted, with very little change, these Mindfulness Trainings and promulgated them in the form of the UNESCO Manifesto 2000, which, by 21 February 2006, was signed by close to 76 million people all over the world.