Buddhist News Network: Visiting Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that “Heaven is here and now. Don’t look into the distance. The kingdom of God is really available in the here and now.”
His head is shaved, his small frame wrapped in the brown robe of his faith. It is late morning, and Thich Nhat Hanh is bathed in a sunlit room talking about heaven.
Heaven, he is saying, is here and now. Don’t look into the distance. “The kingdom of God is really available in the here and now.”
This is important, because he believes that if you truly understand that you’re living in the kingdom of God right now, you’ll behave better right now. “If you have the kingdom of God, you’ll not have to search for happiness in sex, wealth or fame anymore.”
Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced tick-naught-han) was only 16 when he joined the monkhood in Vietnam. Now he is 77 and one of the most popular Buddhist leaders in the world.
A best-selling, and prolific, author, his most popular books include “Anger,” “Creating True Peace” and “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” which draws parallels between Buddhism and Christianity. He says his newest book will deal with the subject of power.
He’s also a poet, a teacher and a master in Zen Buddhism, blending the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of an Eastern religion that dates back 2,500 years and emphasizes human transcendence over the traditional Western concept of God. He has built a worldwide reputation for his devotion to the pursuit of peace and his adherence to the spiritual practice of mindfulness.
Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from his native Vietnam decades ago for his anti-war efforts and now spends much of his time at his main monastery, called Plum Village, in southern France. But this winter, he and about 300 monks and nuns from his Unified Buddhist Church have gathered for a long retreat at his Deer Park Monastery in the hills above Escondido.
He arrived earlier this month and plans to leave in April. Between now and the end of March, he will participate in several programs and talks in Southern California – including a special alms round procession Saturday at San Dieguito County Park. Deer Park also is open to the public for days of mindfulness on Wednesdays and Sundays (his Dharma – or teaching – talks are in the mornings in the newly completed meditation hall).
This North County monastery opened almost four years ago, complementing his centers in France and Vermont. He is no stranger to this country. He studied at Princeton and taught at Columbia University. In the 1960s, he worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in protesting the Vietnam War (King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize).
On this particular morning at Deer Park, Thay, or teacher, as he is affectionately known by his devotees, is sitting in a small house, talking about mindfulness and happiness, about America’s war on terrorism and war against Iraq, and trying to explain just why it is that Buddhism is so popular.
On mindfulness: “Mindfulness is the capacity to live deeply in the moments of your entire life.” Whether it’s drinking a glass of juice or being with a child, mindfulness means treasuring the present-tense – and not getting caught up in what’s going to happen next or in having to chase after other things. Mindfulness sets people free, he says. “There is freedom from worries, anger and forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is the opposite of mindfulness.”
On the popularity of Buddhism: “I think, first of all, Buddha is not a God. Buddha is a human being. He has suffered as a human being.” The strength of Buddha, he says, is that as a role model “he can offer wisdom, insight and practice.” He believes that followers of other religions can use the practices of Buddhism to deepen their own faiths. He does not want to convert people. (“We believe Christians should not be uprooted from their culture,” he says as an example. “It’s like a tree without roots.”) He compares Buddhism to a river; each person can take as much as you want. And there is no single truth, no single way. “Buddhism is inclusive, not exclusive.”
On teaching children spiritual practices: It can begin in the womb of the mother. “You don’t hear things that are violent, you don’t eat things that are violent and your husband should treat you with gentleness,” he says. Children have an almost natural affinity for mindfulness. “They can be in the here and now very easy, more than adults.” During his talks at Plum Village, he says he’ll give a short lesson for the children and then let them go out and play. “They practice in the form of play.”
On Americans: Americans are not as accepting as they used to be, he says. And he warns that when Americans reach out to other countries, they need to do it out of compassion, not out of control. He offers the Middle East as an example. Americans should seek ways to foster hope and “help them see a future.” Peace, he says, would benefit everyone. “If they have peace, they have trust.” And where there is trust, he suggests, there is an absence of fear and violence.
On the U.S.-led war in Iraq: It was a bad idea, he says. “I think the war in Iraq has cost a lot.” He favors relying more on the United Nations and thinks America should get more involved with that international body.
On the war on terrorism: In Buddhism, he says, every person is looked upon as a potential Buddha. But the war on terrorism turns that around to regard each person as a potential terrorist. “When a culture goes like that, it goes wrong,” he says. This campaign has “created more hate and terrorists.”
On post-9/ll: After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he believes America would have been better off with dialogue. The key question: Why would anyone hate us enough to do that? “If we are able to listen, they will tell us,” he says. If other countries have the wrong impression of the United States, then we should try to explain ourselves to them. “That kind of dialogue,” he says, “is much safer.”
On happiness: “The art of happiness is to learn how to be there, fully present, to attend to your needs and to attend to the needs of your beloved ones.” It’s about finding peace and harmony in your own self, and then helping those you love to do likewise. “And if you don’t do the first step, it’s very difficult to do the second,” he says. Happiness is possible. His advice? “Stop running and begin to make steps.”