An Experiential Retreat with the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist Master.

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh or Thay is a Vietnamese born Zen master and has written many books on Buddhism.  He was exiled from his own country by the communist government.  He has set up a monastery called the Plum Village in the south of
France.  He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the late Martin Luther King Jnr..

I came across books on Buddhism written by Thay, about nine years ago.  I was also given a book titled the “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Sadhana, a dear friend of mine.  Apart from Pema Chodron’s books, Thay’s writing on Buddhism appeals to me because of its simplicity, sensibility, gentle and loving guidance.  Although, I grew up in a Buddhist family, I never really understood the practice I obediently followed as a child or, rather, I took it for granted.

The understanding and practice of Buddhism did not have much impact on me until recently when I had an opportunity to attend a five days retreat led by Thay and his sangha of 90 nuns and monks from his monastery.  Reading Thay’s book titled “Peace Every Step” which came into my hand before the retreat was very helpful.  In this book, apart from the mindfulness practices, it stated that understanding is the key to wisdom and compassion.

I always have much respect for practitioners who practice what they preach and having had a first experience with Thay and his sangha, I have to say that he is a first class practioner that is true to his teachings and has a world wide impact.  When he sits, he really sits upright like  a Buddha and when he walks, he walks so silently and very mindfully and yet the simplicity is profound. For the first time, the practice in Buddhism of seeking refuge in the three jewels and the five mindfulness training really dawned on my own understanding and awareness.  His writings and teachings make the practice of Buddhism sound so simple, sensible and palatable to the laypeople and therefore appeals greatly to the Westerners.  Today, there are about seven hundred sanghas, worldwide, practising his teaching.

There were about seven hundred retreatants from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, USA and Europe.Despite the numbers, the retreat was very well organized.  In general, everybody kept up to the schedule and regulations without much fuss.  In fact, it was adhered with much reverence, harmony, peace, unity, love, joy and an atmosphere of comraderie.  People just unconditionally cared and watched out for each other in a brotherly or sisterly manner despite having met each other for the first time.  It evoked a very beautiful and warm feeling just to witness such happenings.

The ritual during the retreat was getting up at 5am, attending a sitting meditation at 5.45am, followed by walking meditation, eating meditation, dharma talk, relaxation exercise, touching the earth, dharma group discussion, announcements, question, answer session, communal eating, noble silence and retiring at 10pm.  We were also introduced to the process of beginning anew with ourselves, the process of peaceful reconciliation with deep listening and loving speech and the sharing of monastic life experience by some of the monks and nuns.  Bells were sounded almost every fifteen minutes to remind us to  stop doing whatever we were doing, and practice mindful breathing i.e. to breathe in and out three times and to and get back into our centre and then we continued with what we were doing.

Thay’s dharma talk was so nurturing.  His voice was like a quiet whisper that you had to listen carefully and pay attention to the flow of the talk which was of divine essence. His manner of speech was like a loving and gentle prodding of a grandparent to a grandchild.  And yet the dharma rain from his talk had an impact like a thunder that probably touched some of us deeply for life.  He simply says that you too can become an enlightened person if you focus your mind on the present and become mindful or conscious of your daily activities.

To him, nirvana is not something that lies in the future or in the past but something you can experience right now, with every breath you take. Whatever Thay taught was nothing new in Buddhism but the way he conveyed it was so understandable and acceptable that it need no convincing except the openness and the willingness to practise it.  Thay said that anyone who practises mindfulness and compassion is already a Buddhist, keeping in mind that Buddhism is a way of life.

  

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Prior to the retreat, he had visited Vietnam and Hong Kong.  Following the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke on Buddhism’s contribution to good governance and development, the theme of the International Buddhist Conference on the United Nations Day of Vesak (Visakha Bucha Day) Celebrations 2007, at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok.  The following are excerpts taken from the news media and they are not in any order :

++ He said leaders will also have to learn “loving speech and deep listening” in order to restore healthy communication.  They would then be able to transform the government and parliament into a family where people can listen and learn from each other and work in harmony and with compassion.

++ “We may become victims of our own power,” he warned gently, “if we don’t have a spiritual life. If you look around us, you will see many famous people or powerful people who have become victims of their own power and suffer deeply.”   “When we ourselves suffer,” he explained, carefully and caringly, “we carry that suffering to others, whether we are leaders in a government or a business, or fathers or mothers in families”.  

He stated simply that all decision makers – whether in political or economic arenas – should take spiritual care of themselves and their families and loved ones first, as part of their spiritual exercise of loving their countries and the world.By taking care of themselves, regularly and seriously, they become more healthy, loving and wholesome so as to run their countries smoothly and work openly towards solving all problems.   “With the practice of mindful walking and breathing, they can transform their government, the parliament into a kind of family, where people can listen to each and learn from each other, and work with harmony and compassion.”“A good leader should be free from anger. They should be always knowledgeable, ready to love and forgive others,” said Mr Hanh, adding that the abuse of power might destroy a country.
 

The Zen master made the statements Monday morning at United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok in his keynote speech addressed to Buddhist leaders from 61 countries participating in the Fourth International Buddhism conference organised by Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University in Bangkok. The gathering was to mark the world Visakha Puja Day falling on May 31. The Zen master said that the ultimate goal of national development and ruling a national government was to bring real happiness to the people.
 

A leader is likely to abuse his power if his spirit is not strong enough. A healthy spirit can be obtained by regular exercise based on Buddhist teaching emphasizing love, wisdom and avoiding anger. Leaders who take regular spiritual exercise including mindful breathing, walking meditation and the application of basic Buddhist precepts will find themselves happier.
 
In his 50-minute address, he told of teaching peacemaking, love, compassion and respect to police and prison guards, and to western politicians — as well as Buddhist audiences — as a means of helping them and their countries to find their ways to peace.

++Question and answers session during his visit to Hong Kong :

++ The way of teaching and practising Buddhism should be renewed in order to speak directly to the younger generation and the more intellectual people. If we don’t refresh our language and our practice, the younger ones won’t feel at ease.That is what we’ve been trying to do for decades in Europe, in America, and now many young and intellectual people come to practise. We believe that if it works for the West, it will work for Asia as well.

++ Tell us about “engaged Buddhism”.It can help us solve the problems of the heart by releasing the tension in the body and the mind and transforming the suffering in the heart. You establish communication and reconcile with other people. This is practice, not just prayer. Buddhism is as an art of living rather than mere belief.

++ How do you apply it in daily life? How do you advise young people to be good Buddhist in everything that they do?

They have to learn how to live mindfully, every moment. While driving, you can drive mindfully. Talking, you can talk mindfully. Otherwise your mind wanders and you’re not there to take of yourself and the people you love.

++ These young people must have asked you whether you believe in God. How do you answer?  Where do we go after we die?

Most of the people who come to us don’t feel comfortable with the Judaic and Christian churches. If people think of God as the basis of being, somehow equivalent to nirvana, that can be acceptable to Buddhism. You cannot describe God in terms of language. God is something to be experienced only. In Buddhism you can’t describe nirvana – you can only touch on it.  Nirvana is the here and now.  Not only after we die, but right now, we speak of “continuation” in terms of karma. When you talk, that is also a kind of energy, and your talk can have an impact right way on your health and on the health of theworld.

So the dissolution of our body doesn’t mean the end of what you have created. To think that after the body’s dissolution there is nothing is a very short-sighted view, and not very scientific. What we produce as talk, speech and action will continue for a long time into the future. And that is the ground of our rebirth, our continuation. This kind of teaching can be accepted by scientists. We have organised retreats for scientists, psychotherapists …

++ What about politicians?

We have also organised a retreat for congressmen in Washington. Many of them came and they enjoyed it, because their lives are very stressful, very busy. Now those congressmen know how to walk mindfully and eat mindfully to reduce the tension. They can think more clearly and do their work better.

++ Do you support Buddhists getting involved in politics?

Anything that is done mindfully and with compassion is Buddhist. If politicians live their lives mindfully with compassion, they are Buddhists.You should not distinguish too much between politics and non-politics. Sometimes you have to boycott coffee from a country because politics is involved in everything, and we have to refrain from consuming something because, if we did, it could create more suffering.

++ Do you allow your monks to take political positions?

Yes. As a monk you shouldn’t think of becoming a politician, but you do have your insights. You should be able to say, ‘What you do there, Mr Politician, is right or wrong. We support you if you do the right thing, the thing that does not create suffering. We oppose you when you do things that can create more suffering.’That is a political stance, and you don’t need to be involved in politics in order to express yourself like that.

++ What’s your position on the war on Iraq?

The day after the destruction of the Twin Towers I advised the American people not to start a war with Iraq, to be calm and ask why have they done such a thing to you. You might have done something; you might have said something that made them hateful, angry toward you. If you respond to it right away with violence, you will bring about a lot of suffering to your nation and to other nations. But it started right away, minutes after the event. Now people have found that what we said was true.

++ Have you condemned terrorism?

The word is not “condemnation”. It is about looking deeply to see why such a thing has happened. There must be a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, a lot of wrong perceptions that have led terrorism to be born. If you want to uproot terrorism, you have to remove these kinds of perceptions, and that cannot be done with bombs.

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My intention in attending this retreat was to gain clarity.  Attending this retreat has got me to be intimate with my own breath and  brings about calmness, peace and clarity.  Participating in the walking meditation, I have for the very first time, discovered my harmonious rhythm of walking and breathing and being in touch with the nature at the same time.  As a result of this, I experienced deep contentment.  Touching the earth ritual was a humbling and personal experience for me.  It brings about the awareness of oneness.  It also helps with emotional release.  I used to think that speaking the truth is good enough but according to Thay, speaking the truth is not good enough if the objective is not towards peaceful reconciliation.  And communication by itself is also not good enough unless it is carried out with deep listening and loving speech.  This according to Thay,  will help alleviate suffering.  Beginning anew is to look deeply into our own nature and transform by watering our good seeds.  Overall, being mindful brings about awareness and being aware leads to understanding and compassion.  And it all starts with ourselves first. 

If Thay’s teaching and retreat activities is of any interest to you, you can visit the following websites : www.plumvillage.org and www.mindfulnessbell.org.  The wonderful thing about the retreat is that it is also available to the children and teenagers. 

  

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2 Responses to “An Experiential Retreat with the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist Master.”

  1. EdaMommy Says:

    Thank you for a really wonderful post!

  2. uacinfinity Says:

    Dear EdaMommy,

    Thank you for your kind feedback. You are most welcome! Best wishes! Kayce

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