Thich Nhat Hanh:  Live deeply in the present moment; don’t sacrifice it for the future

Interview with Thich Nhat Hanh  Interviewer: The question I wanted to ask is how long have you wanted to return to Vietnam?

Thich Nhat Hanh: About 40 years.

Interviewer: So ever since you left, basically.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yeah.  But our practice is to live deeply in the present moment, so it’s not like in other cases.  And that is why – that’s why the feeling is that going back to Vietnam is a wonderful thing.  But here and now is also wonderful, so you try your best to live deeply in the here and the now.  Why waiting, so you don’t sacrifice the present moment for your future?  That is very important, and that is why you don’t suffer.  You don’t suffer, you don’t have to suffer.  Because you know that in the future when you go back to Vietnam, it will be very joyful, very happy.  But here and now, while I been here and Europe and other places, you can be in touch with the wonders of life.  You can do the work of helping people here, now, so you can get happiness right here, right now.  And that is why you don’t have to suffer of exile.  You understand what I mean?

Interviewer: I think so, but I find it very hard to live that way myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh: That is training.  The training of Zen Buddhism.  Live deeply in the present moment; don’t sacrifice it for the future.

Interviewer: What I was told by one of your followers was that you wouldn’t have asked to try to come back to Vietnam at a point at which you knew that it would have been very difficult or impossible as it would have been trying to force the issue and that you waited until it seemed that it was quite possible to return to Vietnam before asking whether it would be possible.  Is that accurate?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Hmm.

Interviewer: You know what I mean?  I was told by one of the followers that you were not asked to come back to Vietnam; you never attempted to come back to Vietnam at when a time when it would have been difficult to do so.  For example in the 1970’s or 80’s.  That you waited until only that which was easy and acceptable to come back to Vietnam, to ask to come back to Vietnam.  Does that sound accurate?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Oh, oh, in fact – in fact, from time to time there is a feeling that maybe the return is possible and there is some hope; and sometimes later, I change and hope goes away.  And come back and goes away several times.  That is why the waiting, the expectation is not something very undistant.  But when we were in California last year – March, in month of March – some people from the Vietnamese embassy approached us.  They seemed to have the willingness to invite us home.  So that was not exactly a request from our part but an invitation from their part.  And we were in a three-month retreat with several hundred people, and our brothers and sisters had told them that I will come back if you allow his books to be published and that he can travel and offer the teachings that hadn’t – and he has enough freedom to meet with Buddhist leaders.  Things like that.  And after several months of negotiation, it was okay.  But I had one difficult moment – there was one moment when we found it impossible, so we declared that we will cancel the trip.  That was in the month of – the beginning October.  But after that, one month, so after –

Interviewer: So you did come to the Buddhist temple?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yeah, because there were some of our conditions were not met clearly.

Interviewer: Which ones?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Like larger audiences outside of temples and like universities or gymnasiums.  They cannot accept that.

Interviewer: They wanted to limit the size of the audience?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yeah.

Interviewer: What do they do that now?

Thich Nhat Hanh: No, no.  I think that we have reflected very carefully.  We find out that there’s still a lot of fear and suspicion as the outcome of the war.  So we thought that we had to help remove fear and suspicion by our full presence, and it finally work out and the trip has become possible.

Interviewer: Do you think that they are – that the Vietnamese are happy points to your return?  Let me give an example – of religious freedom in Vietnam?  Accept this religion is tolerated here?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Hmm.  Politicians will be more competent and more qualified to make that judgment.  As my part, I know very well that the people in Vietnam wants me to come home.  Because many generations of Buddhists have been born and grow up without my presence, and they have only heard about me indirectly.  They read a number of my books published underground, and they listen to a number of talks or teachings underground.  And they have received a visit from practitioners abroad, and they learn about Plum Village and how our faith is; so this is a strong desire on the Vietnamese people that I can come home.  And then many people of my generation have gone, and it has been too long.  I wanted to go home and strong enough to climb some mountains.  So finally, we accepted.  So there is the willing – the desire of the people in Vietnam, and also our desire to make people happy – and these are very important things for us.  As for political issues, we don’t – we don’t care very much.  We don’t do that because of this political faction and we don’t mind.  It’s up to politician to decide about that, but I think although there’s fear and suspicion, the decision to allow us to go in is a big one.  But it’s just one.  And though there’s still some fear and suspicion, and there is a willingness to open up, a little bit shy, a little bit hesitant, but it has happened.  And we think that our presence, our authentic presence, our presence with pure intention – not to do politics at all, just to share the teaching  and to be with people in the country for three months.  That kind of presence will help remove fear and suspicion; and that will help the opening to accelerate in the process of opening up for the profit of people in Vietnam and to the profit of the government because helping people to dissipate fear and suspicion is to help with communication; and when there’s communication, there will be less conflict, anger and fear and so on.  And I really believe that we can help with that.

Interviewer: You will be meeting with the leaders of the Unification Buddhist churches?

Thich Nhat Hanh: We have that intention to meet with all Buddhist people, the monks, young people, the elders, and the leaders; and among others I’m meeting with two Buddhist leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church; that was agreed upon.  Right?

Interviewer: Yes.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes.  A wonderful conditions.

Interviewer: I see.  In the talk that you gave this morning, you talked about the need for renewal of Vietnamese Buddhism, and then you took on meditation.  Do you feel that the way Buddhism is practiced in Vietnam right now is insufficiently modern?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Is –?

Interviewer: Is not modern enough?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Not enough.  In China, not up-to-date.  In Korea, in Thailand, in Buddhist countries, Buddhism has to renew itself.  It is like Christianity.  If leaders of Christianity do not renew itself in the teaching and in the practice, many young people will leave the church.  And that is why in order for the foundation to be strong, we have to make it capable of responding to the real needs of the people of this generation.  We have to understand their real suffering, their real difficulties; we have to offer the kind of teaching and practice that can help them transform the suffering and bring them happiness.  They will otherwise it will be ignored.  So the same thing is true with Buddhism.  When I met with Protestants and Catholics in Germany, I also said that.  So for Buddhism it’s true that if we do not renew ourselves, if we don’t offer teaching and the practice fit for the present conditions, and then we are losing an opportunity to serve.

Interviewer: And do you feel that’s the case with Vietnamese Buddhism right now, that it’s losing the young generation?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yeah.  Yeah.  I think people are very hungry for spirituality, and I believe that Communist countries also, they feel that kind of emptiness in themselves.  So we must offer them the kind of Buddhism that they can understand.  And according to practice, we know that Plum Village can offer that kind of teaching and practice because in the course of 40 years, we have learned a lot of the present conditions, we have come up with teachings and practice that can meet with the new situations.  And so many people of so many countries and so many traditions have come and practice and are able to transform their suffering, reconcile with themselves and with their families and so on; so it is our conviction that if the teaching and practice of Plum Village can meet the need of western young people, intellectual people, it can also meet the needs of the young intellectual Vietnamese.  Otherwise, go into the temple, there will be only old people.  And our presence may help.

We have been invited to teach in China, a Communist country.  We were able to travel around the country and give the teaching, and people appreciate very much, although you need a translator.  But people has respon – have responded very enthusiastically to that teaching and practice; and the government of China has allowed at least 50 books of mine to be published officially in China.  And now in China as you go in every book shop, you can find my books.  I think that the government of China realized that they need to renew Buddhism religion.  Buddhism in China has – was one of the cornerstones of the Chinese culture, and to help renew Buddhism is good for the country, for the unification of the country, and that is a kind of enlightenment from the government.  In the past, they did not think like that; but now they think that the growth of Buddhism in the right direction will respond to the spiritual need of the people, and that is why they have welcome and they have made it possible.  So I hope the government of Vietnam will have that kind of enlightenment also and could allow my books – all my books and my teaching be available to the people in Vietnam.

Interviewer: It was really interesting the way that your talk about – the way you talk about the past and the future sounds to Vietnamese.  I think it sometimes might sound different than it sounds in the west because the past and future here are a different kind of past and different future.  The past, of course, is very highly charged because of the war; but I think more importantly, people are so concerned with the future her and are working so hard to develop the country.  I talked to some young Vietnamese who are interested in Buddhism, but when they talk about their careers, young people who’s been in Vietnam, they say everyone is so anxious still because of the pressure of poverty.  It’s only been ten years that we have since we’ve been extremely poor, and we’re working very hard for – everybody has a lot of plans for the future; and I just wonder when you – you’re telling America, the  young American don’t worry so much about the future.  You’re saying don’t work so hard, don’t drive yourself crazy; but here, when you tell a Vietnamese person don’t work so hard, you’re telling them – in their family context it seems like it’s a much harder thing to say.  So does that make any sense to you?

Thich Nhat Hanh: I think that the teaching is the same.  Because it – the value of the teaching, if it is true, then it should be true everywhere.  To live the present moment does not mean that you are not allowed to plan for the future.  That does not prevent you from working hard.  The fact is that if the future is made only of one substance called the present, and you take good care of the present, that means you are taking care of the future.  If the present is suffering, then the future cannot be happiness.  And if the present is violence, hate, dissuasion, then the future cannot be good.  And that’s why to handle the present the best way you can is to assure you a good future; and living deeply in the present moment does not mean that you are forbidden to plan for the future.  If you are grounded firmly in the present moment, you can make additional plans for the future you can work hard on, so; but you still enjoy the present moment.  You enjoy everything you do, you enjoy what you say, you enjoy every moment you spend with your colleagues and those who work very hard but who are not capable of enjoying the here and the now.  People who work also very hard but enjoy everything they do in the present moment.  So I think the second category of the people haven’t met the future.  You see?  We are not denying the future because we can be in touch with the future right here and right now.

It’s like myself.  Prior to the departure to Vietnam, I knew that on the 12th of January I would land in Vietnam.  But during many weeks, I was still able to enjoy every minute of my life in Plum Village, in France.  I did not allow my mind to get caught by the moment of arriving here in order to lose the time there.  So the future is there and even more beautiful if you know how to handle the present moment and live deeply and happily in the present moment.

It needs some more explanation, and especially it needs some training in order to do it.  If you just listen like that and you have not had a chance to put it to practice, you might ask questions; but if you put it to practice, you find out you might be able to find out answer by yourself.  It’s like drinking tea like this.  If you are not able to enjoy the tea in the present moment, and then there will hundreds of cup of tea in the future, you will not be able to enjoy them.  So you have to be able to enjoy the tea in the here and the now.  So the future will be only a ghost if you don’t have the capacity of living in the present moment.

Interviewer: Are there any other ways in which you’d change the texture of your speech when you are in Vietnam? I think it’s different then the way you give talks here.

Thich Nhat Hanh: So to have the people to understand better the teachings from Plum Village.  I think the teachings should read in the context of the culture of the country, and that is why images the way language and all these things should be taken into account in order to transport the teaching.  Yeah, it’s like architecture.  Buddhist architecture is different in different countries, but they all aim of offering the kind of line and beauty that can help calm people down, help people get in touch with the beauty, with the present moment.  It’s like Buddhism in Thailand and Buddhism in Burma.  They are different – it might be different, but if you deeply inside, you see the same essence of Buddhism, which is the Four Nobel Truths, the Eight Fold Path and so on.  So you have to make use of the element of cultures with the local Buddhist teaching and practice.

Interviewer: A couple of people who have read your – well, this actually I translated it a bit.  But the first time as part of our preparation for your arrival here and thought it was beautifully written.  This was an essay that you wrote – it’s about Mother’s Day, I think?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yeah.

Interviewer: That you wrote when you were maybe 23 years old or something like that.  A long time ago.

Thich Nhat Hanh: No, it was 60 – ’62.  1962.

Interviewer: Uh huh.  Yeah.  Do you feel you write better in Vietnamese than in other languages or about the same?

Thich Nhat Hanh:  Of course, writing in Vietnamese is easier.  Mother tongue.

Interviewer: Yeah.  So it’s a relief for you to come back and be able to –

Thich Nhat Hanh:       Yes.

Interviewer: –talk that way?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes.  I have spent – but I have spent half of my life abroad.  That essay on the love of mother is a piece of literature that has no Buddhist similarities; but it really carries essence of the practice.  I said that, “Did you know that your mother is still alive?”  And it’s a big gift.  If you don’t pay attention, if you don’t protect the mother, it may be gone.  And that is why aware of what is going on in the present moment and treasure what is available is what you have to practice.  Mother is a big gift.  Treasure and enjoy before it is gone.  And that is the practice of Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness.  It put you in touch with the wonders of life and the conditions of happiness that are available in the here and the now.  So it’s very simple.  Children can read these things and can understand the essence of the teaching and practice without having to go through Buddhist terminologies and things like that.

Interviewer: I think that was all the questions I had.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes.  I think one thing I like in the copies that I left is the self of a body, the single body, the community body, but things I have been practicing.  That is why I am going home as a body and not as a self anymore.  And that is true.  This is very nice thing.  Thank you.

Interviewer: So I hope you have a wonderful trip; I’m sure you will.

Thich Nhat Hanh:  Thank you.  I said that before I left Paris, I said that we have not come to support any faction of political faction of a country.  We have learned we have come thus because the people need us, and we also want to make the happiness of the people.  And then they don’t have the intention to make declarations about political situations because we want to listen very deeply to every side, look deeply to understand the situation deeply.  Because if you don’t know the situation well, if you have wrong perceptions about reality, you may say wrong things that will cause suffering.  So the practice of deep listening and deep looking is our practice during the time of the visit.  And meanwhile, we can share with the people here the fruits of our practice in the west; and we can be sure that sharing that will do no harm at all because we have – we only express what we have directly experienced in the west, our teaching, practicing and helping people.  And people here can profit a lot from that.  They go reflect on their situation of the practice, and they will be able to modify their way of teaching and practicing so that they can share more of the practice with many other people.

Interviewer: Okay.  I did actually want to ask one more rather important question, which is the Buddhist movement that you were a part in the 1960’s in Vietnam was an extremely public movement.  You, as I understand it, you went to the United States and to the west initially to explain what the Buddhist movement in South Vietnam was about; and that was extremely public.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Buddhism is very active.  And that is why some people are afraid.

Interviewer: I just wondered whether that’s still a part of you – of the way that you teach people to approach life in your teachings.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yeah, the teaching is Engaged Buddhism.  Buddhism should be alive and present in the life of the family, the community, the country; but there is – there should be a distinction between Buddhist religion and politics.  I think that there plenty to do in the field of Buddhism, and that Buddhists should not interfere in the political scene.  And there are a lot of things to do in the realm of politics, and politicians should not interfere with the Buddhists.  You see, that will help both sides, and we want that to happen here in Vietnam.  You know what I mean?