Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the world’s most renowned Buddhist leaders, second only to the Dalai Lama in fame and influence.
With his 100+ books, he’s been an advocate for mindfulness at some of the most fractious moments of the past 50 years. He cut his teeth doing human rights and reconciliation work during the Vietnam War, and then was nominated for a Nobel Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. These days, he’s considered the father of “engaged Buddhism.”
In the wake of 9/11, he spoke about compassion, and has lead retreats for Palestinians and Israelis, and American police officers. He wrote a Zen response to terrorism, and the former chief climate negotiator for the UN credits him with helping her broker the Paris climate agreement.
In 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh, who is now 90 years old, had a stroke. While he continues to lead Plum Village, the monastery and retreat center in southwest France he founded in 1982, he is still recovering and is not conducting interviews.
I recently got in touch with one of his senior disciples to talk about the Buddha’s psychological teachings on fear, and we ended up discussing a great many other things. Brother Phap Dung is Vietnamese American, and has lived at Plum Village for six years. He was ordained as a monk in 1998. Our conversation, which happened over Skype, has been edited for length and clarity.
Many people feel very fearful and uncertain about what the future will hold — the harm that will come to America and the planet from new policies under President-elect Donald Trump. What is the best way to manage deep uncertainty and fear in a moment like this?
We see the mind like a house, so if your house is on fire, you need to take care of the fire, not to go look for the person that made the fire. Take care of those emotions first; it’s the priority. Because anything that comes from a place of fear and anxiety and anger will only make the fire worse. Come back and find a place of calm and peace to cool the flame of emotion down.
As a collective energy, fear and anger can be very destructive. We make the wrong decisions if we base it on fear, anger, and wrong perception. Those emotions cloud our mind. So the first thing in the practice that we learn from the Buddhist tradition is to come back and take care of our emotion. We use the mindfulness to recognize it.
So you don’t think anger is a healthy reaction right now?
People are so convinced that anger and all this energy will produce change. But in fact it’s very destructive, because you’re opposing. Opposition wastes energy. It’s not healing.
Emotions can be good. Passion can be good, and compassion is very passionate. But compassion doesn’t waste energy. It includes and it understands; it’s more clear.
Engage in protest, but not from a place of anger. You need to express your opinion, and you need to go out there and say this is wrong. But don’t do it by saying hateful things. In a way, we Buddhists look more at energy than personality. That helps us be wiser.
I think some people understand that, yes, they should have compassion. But they struggle with it. They look at people who voted for Trump or Trump himself, and see power and hate. And so people fear being too passive. They think, “If I’m compassionate, that makes me passive, and I could get hurt.”
Compassion is not sitting in your room; it’s actually very active and engaging.
Trump is not an alien who came from another planet. We produced Trump, so we are co-responsible. Our culture, our society, made him. We love to pick somebody and make them the object. But it’s deeper than that. We have to see him inside of us.
We’re shocked because we found out there’s a member of our family that we’ve been ignoring. It’s time to listen and really look at our family.
We are afraid to engage, but you can dialogue and debate. It requires a lot of practice to sit there and listen, and not judge so you can understand.
You cannot end discrimination by calling the other names. All the people who voted for him are not bigots and racists and women haters. We are all judgmental, sometimes even a bit racist.
What’s in my heart is that people find the patience and clarity to listen before they start to blame and criticize.
How has the outcome of the US election sharpened and clarified your view of humanity in the 21st century?
There is definitely a need for restructuring in terms of political power and economic concentration. Listening to Bernie Sanders, he revealed a lot of truth that we didn’t want to hear. We are living in a delusion that we are free.
I liked that Sanders said he was going to share what no politician is going to share. I’m paraphrasing: “When you elect me I will not be able to help you because the president is still all under the corporations.” Wow, that was an amazing speech. That was pretty brave. I think that’s correct.
I grew up in Los Angeles around activists. I like the talk in the Democratic Party to rebuild and restructure the party — to wake up and look at themselves. And the same for the [Republicans] pulling away from Trump. Our society is very vulnerable to being very polarized and that’s what the media is taking advantage of. We have to be really careful.
I don’t follow politics a lot, but because of my background and my teacher and how I come from a war, I had to look at some of these things. I’m not fooled by the media anymore.
What war did you live through?
I was child in Vietnam. I lived with this stuff, a divided system like this. They divided us, they called us north and south. All we wanted was independence and to determine our own livelihood. We think democracy is the highest thing; it is not democracy, come on. We impose it on others and create division.
So let’s say we’re calm, ready to act. What is best way to act?
Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair. This is the medicine. We go out and we help.
Don’t allow hate and anger to take over your world. Because there are other things happening. Trump is not the end of the world — eight years, maybe, okay.
But right now people in our family are still there, and they might need us. Our friend may be somebody who is being discriminated against. You can only be there to offer them that kindness if you are stable. You cannot help them if you are filled with hate and fear. What people need is your non-fear, your stability, solidity, clarity. This is what we can offer.
You and your master recommend daily practice of meditation, right?
Our minds and hearts need food. And meditation is a kind of food. So we feed ourselves like that. You need to eat, and your peace, kindness, clarity need to eat as well. Meditation is not just praying; no, you’re cultivating this so you can offer it to others.
When you sit with someone who’s calm, you can become calm. If you sit with someone who’s agitated and hateful, you can become agitated and hateful.
Meditation is not an esoteric practice; it’s not something you do only in a meditation hall or Buddhist retreat center. It can happen right in whatever activity you’re doing — while walking, in the office. It means you are there, present with calm and peace.
With a breath, you can bring calm, clarity and rest your thinking.
Can you talk about the political dimensions of Buddhism today? Is there a Buddhist political coalition? Is there a vision for Buddhist engagement in politics?
When we engage with worldly politics, we try not to take sides. It’s easy to choose a side, but as Buddhist practitioners we try to have more inclusiveness to intervene.
The thing is that left and right were never separate. Your right hand maybe has done a lot of awful things — like smashing trees, destroying the forest. But when the right hand gets hurt, your left hand comes to its assistance, grabs and holds it without hesitation. This is the way we engage in politics — we try not to see other as separate from us; they are us. We get out there and try to heal but we don’t cause more harm.
Both sides are suffering — they may have different levels of suffering — but both sides are suffering. People don’t want to be hateful or harming. We keep that in mind.
The wake-up call is to not to be too quick. That’s the hard part. When someone hates, it’s hard for us to accept that and listen. But to find relief, we have to listen.
What if they don’t listen back?
We have hosted retreats for Israelis and Palestinians in Plum Village. But we don’t gather them and try to get them to listen right away. It takes three days — to calm down, to prepare to listen. So with each one of them, we walk, learn to calm ourselves, and with meditation we learn to touch our own deep suffering.
Then one side listens to other without reacting, and that’s the end of the session. Then they go back and practice meditation. Then the other side listens. Through meditation, they begin to see interconnection.
Stopping is a requirement before deep listening.
So let’s say you’re anticipating a conversation with a family member at Thanksgiving who holds a racist view. And you see that as the wrong view. What would you recommend as way to engage with this person?
The way I practice is that you cannot ask people for what they do not have. You only make yourself suffer. So you don’t need to try and convince them. Don’t put stuff in their box they’re not going to want. It’s a waste of saliva.
When there is discrimination, you can use the opportunity to increase understanding. You can concentrate on what makes you happy; there are other elements in this person, not just the prejudice. You have to find also the good qualities in them. Don’t focus on wrong views because that makes you angry.
This is not wishful thinking or deluded thinking. This is taking care of yourself. Only when you can do that — when you can be a good listener and be nonjudgmental — is a dialogue possible.
When I think I am right, I am on a course for a lot of conflict. Because I am stuck with my own views and not open to other people. So I suffer. When I see that in other people, I see they are suffering. Maybe kindness is there. Their viewpoints may not be correct, but their heart may be kind.
Your master had a stroke. Does he know about President-elect Trump?
Yes, one of our teachers shared it with him. I wasn’t there myself, but I heard that he took his left hand; he went like this (opens palm). You can interpret that all you want.
He is totally aware of it, but his mind is in trying to recover and heal and be present with his community than with political things. We are his continuation.
He was with us today. I had lunch with him, and it was very sweet. He took his teacup and he made sure we were all drinking tea, and he gestured, “Drink your tea.” One of the sisters, she was talking to another sister, and he looked over and gestured to us to tell her to stop talking and drink the tea. He is aware of the quality of what is happening in the moment in the room.
I know when things like this happen in one part of the planet, he puts more effort into our community to nourish people with trust, compassion, love. I have been around him when many things have happened around the world on a grand scale, and so we are continuing that. We just did that; we had a day of mindfulness with hundreds of people, [to] try to cultivate goodness in them.
I want to come back to the question of fear and the future. Why shouldn’t we fear it?
The future is built with the present moment and how we take care of it. If you are fearful, the future will be fearful. If you are uncooperative, the future will be divisive. This is very important.
The future is not something that will come to us; the future is built by us, by how we speak and what we do in the present moment.
Community practice is crucial at this time. It’s crucial not to be alone in front of the computer, reading media. That makes the world dark for you. Find flesh. There are still wonderful things happening.
— An essay by Baratunde Thurston on the need for empathy to go both ways.
— Vox’s German Lopez on the debate about whether or not to approach Trump voters with understanding and empathy.