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What a govt or nation can do is deep, compassionate listening: Thich Nhat Hanh said in 2005

From true happiness and Mahatma Gandhi to the ‘goodness of suffering’, Hanh spoke about his beliefs in this interview with Shekhar Gupta. The 95-yr-old Zen master died Friday.

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Author, poet, and Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh died Friday at the age of 95 in Vietnam.

This is the text of an NDTV Walk the Talk interview conducted by Shekhar Gupta in 2005, when Thich Nhat Hanh was visiting Delhi.

Shekhar Gupta (SG): As we stand in front of Gandhi Samadhi, I remember reading that when you corresponded with Martin Luther King, he invoked Gandhi’s way with you. How relevant is the Mahatma today?

Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH): He is still very relevant, if only you know how to continue, to help him continue. Whether he is relevant depends on our way of understanding and on whether we have enough desire to walk his talk, to walk his walk.

SG: And talk his talk, but that’s tough in today’s times.

TNH: The teaching of non-violence is to be applied to yourself first. You might realise that there is tension, stress and pain in your body. You might have done violence to your body, you suffer and that’s why you have to address it first with utmost non- violence. Do something in order to relieve the suffering of your body. Breathe in mindfully, deeply. Release the tension in your body and that is the practice of non-violence addressed to your body. And if you succeed, you might be able to do it with the violence in you, your anger, fear, despair, irritation.

SG: All the time…

TNH: Yes, and if you know the practice of non-violence, you’d be able to address that mass of suffering within yourself.

SG: Because we talk today on Gandhi Jayanti, you may have seen traffic was blocked, lots of security. We have become very cynical… our leaders come on Gandhi Jayanti for a few minutes, offer a few flowers, and then, we believe, forget all about him for the rest of the year.

TNH: We are not kind to the Mahatma. Because we want to only pay him lip service. We want to take him as our teacher, our companion on the path… (but) we are not really trying to walk the talk.

SG: Thay, if I may address you as your disciples do, ‘Thay’ for teacher. You are also the master of ‘walking meditation’. Tell us a bit about that.

TNH: Walking meditation is just mindful walking, where you enjoy every step you take. You concentrate on your in-breath, on your out-breath. You concentrate on the steps you take and you walk in such a way that you can release the past and the future. You may have sorrow or pain concerning the past and the past can be a prison, so you walk in such a way that you can be released from the past.

SG: From the prison of the past?

And also from the prison of the future because you may have fear, uncertainty and worries about the future that may make you unable to enjoy the present moment. Walking means you establish yourself fully in the present moment.

SG: So, what matters is this moment?

TNH: Yes, because life is available only in the present moment and if you can be in touch with the present moment, you can be in touch with the wonders of life. So simple.

SG: Can ordinary human beings do it? We know that a master like you can do it.

TNH: Everyone. Anyone who likes to train himself or herself will be able to do it.

SG: You don’t have to be a monk to be able to do it?

TNH: No. I have seen children who are able to do it. In fact, children have more capacity to be in the present moment, more than old people.

SG: Older people have too much muck in their heads.

TNH: Yeah, so walking like that you become free, you become solid and you can get in touch with the refreshing and healing elements of life within and around. You get healing transformation, nourishment by walking. And walking like that you see the Kingdom of God; the pure land of the Buddha available in the now. And you are so happy, you don’t want to run after your cravings like money, fame, sex and power.

SG: But you don’t have to renounce any of that?

You don’t have to renounce but you are happy enough not to be slaves of these things. You are free. And freedom is the foundation of true happiness.

SG: You can then find that happiness and joy in your walking meditation without any props? No music, no mantras, no chanting. No teacher at that moment.

TNH: You know what is wonderful about Mahatma Gandhi is that he was able to lead a simple life. He was not a victim of cravings for wealth, fame, power. If we consider ourselves to be a friend of his, a student of his, a continuation of him, we should also adopt that style of living.

SG: But he set too high a standard for us.

TNH: No.

SG: No?

TNH: I have many students, monastic as well as lay people, who lead simple lives and are much happier than those who have a lot of money and power. Because we believe we cannot be truly happy without a lot of money and power and fame, we cannot see the truth. Many of us who are capable of being happy in our daily lives have the time to take care of ourselves and to take care of our beloved ones. And thanks to their (students) capacity of living a simple life they can do so and the quality of their lives is much higher.

SG: Since not everybody can be a monk or a mahatma, is it possible for an ordinary human being to pursue money, pleasures of life, power, building economies, companies, markets, governments and yet lead a life of mindfulness as well. Can you have the best of both worlds?

TNH: I am not against having a lot of money or power or fame. If you are a free person, these things can be very helpful. I am against the cage where you become slaves, victims of these things. I have seen many people with plenty of money, power and fame who suffer very deeply. So, we should look around and recognise the fact that happiness is largely a matter of the mind. This is what Gandhiji said.

SG: We see today so many powerful CEOs in America suffering. They made money even though their companies have sunk and I can bet they are not the happiest of people.

TNH: Even after they have made a lot of money, they don’t think it is enough. There’s is no end to it and by running like that they don’t have the time to take care of themselves and to take care of their loved ones. Life without love, care and compassion cannot be a happy life.

SG: Because as people become more successful and rich and older, they have to eat less, they have to drink less. They have to bring many other disciplines in their lives. And God or whoever gives it to them, also takes away something from them…

TNH: In fact, there is something called the goodness of suffering. If you know how to look deeply into the nature of your suffering, you get insight and understanding. You can find a way out, a way of transformation and healing but you don’t need more suffering, you have enough suffering. What is essential is that you are capable of learning from suffering.

SG: Any time you mention the word ‘suffering’, you laugh.

TNH: Suffering to happiness is like the mud and the lotus flower. Because the lotus cannot grow on marble, it has to grow on mud. And if we don’t suffer, how can we understand and be compassionate? How can we love?

SG: How can we understand someone else’s suffering?

TNH: Look in your own suffering and look into the suffering of other people and understand. And from that understanding, you accept, you are compassionate and that is the foundation of your happiness.

SG: If I can push the envelope, have you learnt from your suffering?

TNH: I have learnt from my suffering, I have learnt from the suffering of my country, my people, the world and I am thankful for that. My practice is not to run away from suffering, my practice is looking deeply into the nature of suffering and learning from it.

SG: Will you give us some examples of you learning from your suffering?

Suppose you work your body too hard and if you have the time to get in touch with your body you recognise that there is tension, stress, pain. And you know that you should conduct your daily life in a way that you do not accumulate more pain. So because you have suffered in your body, you can learn from your suffering.

SG: You can bring it down…

TNH: And you can change your way of life in order to not get more suffering into yourself and when you are able to do that, you can help other people to do the same.

SG: But your own life Thich, monkhood at 16, then exile for so long. That’s suffering, away from your country, your people.

TNH: We have gone through many wars and we have seen the suffering of the people. We have learnt that we have to do something to educate the people, the younger generation so that they know that they should not allow war to take hold of their country again. In the beginning (of being in exile) I longed to go back to my homeland but since they did not allow me I had to accept the hopelessness of trying to rush to that land.

SG: I read the conversations you had with Robert McNamara in the ’60s. Could you have said what you told him to Donald Rumsfeld in these times?

TNH: Of course. Before I could go back to Vietnam (in 2007), Senator John McCain wrote a letter to the Government of Vietnam, urging them to allow me to go home.

SG: Senator McCain wrote that?

TNH: Even though I did not ask him to. And when I met him again in his office in Washington DC, I said, ‘what you are doing in Iraq?’ And he said, ‘exactly what you have done in Vietnam’. It does not seem that America has learnt from the suffering in Vietnam. But I believe that from that time on he has reflected on that.

SG: Has he forgiven the Vietnamese for his experience in the POW camp or is he still bitter?

TNH: I think he is. He represents a portion of the American population and if he does not remember, his colleagues and his people can remind him. That’s how it is with collective consciousness. A leader is always conditioned by the desire, the thinking of the people that he leads and that is why collective thinking, the collective view of the people is very important.

SG: I remember you spoke in New York a couple of weeks after 9/11 and you were asked what you would tell Osama Bin Laden if you met him. You said you would listen to him first. Now we have a situation in India, where we are having this rash of bombings and people are scared and angry because they believe those who are carrying out the bombings are their brothers from their own country. Can these people be told to listen to those who are attacking them?

TNH: Terrorists are also victims. They are victims of the information they have got, they are victims of their own perceptions and that is why it’s very important that we try to understand them.

SG: They are angry…

TNH: Their perceptions are not helpful to them that is why they get angry, violent, they want to punish. And that is why they need to be helped and not to be punished. One way to help them is to allow them to speak out.

They are those who believe that they are victims of discrimination and injustice and based on that kind of belief they have tried to do something but, so far, have not succeeded. No one has listened to them, done something for them and that is why they have taken recourse to terrorism. So, what we can do as a government, as a nation is to organise a session of deep, compassionate listening and invite them to come and to tell us what is in their heart, their suffering, their frustration. You can organise it in such a way that the session of listening is televised for the whole nation to follow. And if we have enough attention and compassion, we bring about relief. They feel that they are now understood, and they suffer less.

SG: It will be like a pressure valve getting released?

TNH: Yes, and if we repeatedly organise sessions of deep listening then I think after a few months the level of violence and hate will go down and that is what we have experienced in our community.

SG: I know you have a very busy schedule in India, but I can’t let you go away without explaining to us complete illiterates the idea of mindfulness.

TNH: Mindfulness is a kind of energy that allows you to be aware of what is going on in the present moment — everyone has the seat of mindfulness, even if that seat is very small. But if we practise mindful breathing, walking and acting, every time we touch that seat of mindfulness we will have the energy that helps us to go home to the present moment, to be fully alive and to take care of what is happening in the field of our body, emotions, perceptions. And you can take care of what is going on around us, in our family, in our society and in the world. Mindfulness is the energy of being there in the present moment.

SG: And not either fantasising about the future or brooding about the past.

TNH: That is the opposite. So, mindfulness helps you to live deeply the present moment, to get the healing, the nourishment from the wonders of life. Mindfulness helps us to be fully present in order to take care of our own pain and sorrow and that of the people around us. So, mindfulness is the heart of the practice of meditation. I think any spiritual tradition has mindfulness as the core practice, only they may use other words.

SG: I think a lot of the teachers would give the same message but very few can give it in as simple a way as you do and that’s why your presence brings so much solace wherever you are. So, we are grateful you are in India. I hope you come again and to that extent I think it’s so much better that you are now a citizen of the world than just a citizen of your own country.

This transcript was originally published in The Indian Express in 2008.

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