The Manhattan Center in New York City is known for hosting a variety of events, including music concerts with artists such as Jay-Z, Bob Dylan and Lenny Kravitz. But on Friday night, Oct. 14, 2011, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
On the stage, Buddhist monks and nuns sat in meditation, and behind them a banner hung with the words “Open Mind, Open Heart,” as the audience awaited the arrival of Buddhist monk, teacher, poet and best-selling author Thich Nhat Hanh, who spoke about global ethics for the future to kickoff a weekend event by the Omega Institute, which included a Dharma Talk on Friday night and a full Day of Mindfulness on Saturday.
“Our suffering inside reflects the suffering of the world,” Hanh said addressing the audience at the beginning of the evening. “Many of us don’t want to go home with ourselves because we don’t want to get in touch with stuff inside of us. We block it with music, magazines and television so we can’t get in touch with the nature of our suffering to understand it. But with understanding, compassion will arise, and compassion has the power to heal and transform.”
After the audience relaxed and practiced mindful breathing while listening to the monks and nuns on stage as they chanted, Hanh spoke of their work teaching parents and school teachers techniques of Applied Ethics, as well as how to breath mindfully and release the tension in the body to remove pain and generate a feeling of joy and happiness; how to handle a painful feeling coming from the body; how to handle strong emotions; and how to practice loving compassion, and kind and loving speech.
“Young people don’t know how to handle strong emotions,” Hanh noted. “You hear of them killing themselves. Why do we have to die because of one emotion? There is a practice that can help us handle strong emotions.”
Hanh spoke about the 5 Mindfulness Trainings, which he believes can help us heal and transform ourselves and our society. They can be practiced whether someone is a Buddhist or non-Buddhist (for the full list and explanations visit the Plum Village Web site here):
- Reverence for Life
- True Happiness
- True Love
- Loving Speech and Deep Listening
- Nourishment and Healing
Additionally, Hanh explained the Diamond Sutra, a popular text in the Zen tradition, to communicate the essence of Buddhist ethics. “It advises us to remove four ideas or notions from our lives,” he said. “Then we can be free of discrimination, and without discrimination there is no longer any fear or violence.”
First Notion – Remove the notion of ‘self.’ Hanh explained that many of us believe we have a separate self, but if we look deeply enough, we realize we are actually made up of non-self elements, and are all inter-connected.
“To believe we can exist by ourselves is not true,” he said. “We have to inter-be with everything in the cosmos. To be is actually to inter-be. When a father looks at his son, he can see the nature of inter-be. When you look at the son, you also see the father and the mother. The son is made up of non-son elements. The suffering of the father is the suffering of the son, and the happiness of the father is the happiness of the son.”
Hanh also used the example of the flower to illustrate this concept. “Without a cloud to produce the rain, a flower cannot grow. You can’t see the cloud or even the sunshine when you look at a flower, but we know these non-flower elements are there,” he said.
Second Notion – Remove the notion of ‘man.’ “When you look into the creature of man, you see only non-man elements. We have human ancestors but also animal and mineral. In order to protect man, we have to learn how to protect non-man elements,” Hanh said.
Third Notion – Remove the notion of living being. We need to remove the notion of mortals versus God or Buddha, or whatever we refer to as our higher power, Hanh explained. We have a tendency to compare ourselves to God or Buddha, thinking we are suffering beings, and they have no suffering in them.
“We think we are nothing, and God or Buddha is everything, but this notion should be removed,” he told the audience, relaying a story from when he was a 16-year-old monk. “My teacher gave me a verse to memorize and say before bowing to the Buddha. ‘The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty,’” he said. “Before you bow to the Buddha, you have to look inside him and see he is made of non-Buddha elements, including suffering despair, anger and hate. A Buddha is someone who is able to handle the suffering. When you look at a Buddha and don’t see the suffering in him, you
have not seen a true Buddha.”
Fourth Notion – Remove the notion of lifespan. We believe we are on earth for a short time, but this notion should be removed, said Hanh. Our true nature is of no birth
and no death. “To die according to our thinking is to pass from being to non-being, but science says you cannot create or destroy energy,” Hanh noted. “You can transfer it, but nothing is born and nothing dies. There is only continuation into another form.”
Return to the Present
Before ending the night, Hanh spoke about the importance of bringing the mind home to the body through mindfulness and mindful breathing. In fact, throughout the talk, one of the nuns on stage, Sister Pine, would ring a bell periodically to signal the audience to take a few silent, mindful breaths.
“By concentrating on your breath, in three or four seconds you can bring your mind home to your body in the present moment,” said Hanh. Our civilization is organized where the mind spends more time in the past and future then the present moment. We think we will finally find happiness at some point in the future, but we can be happy in the here and now, he said.
“Establish yourself in the here and now with mindfulness,” Hanh explained. “If we were to write down all of the conditions we need for happiness, we will soon find that one, two, three pages and more are not enough to fit them. But mindfulness helps us realize what there is to be happy about in the now.”
Something as small as focusing on our eyes and being grateful for our ability to open them and see all the colors of the paradise surrounding us can bring happiness, he said. Many do not have this ability.
“There are many conditions of happiness around us, yet many of us believe there are no conditions to be happy about in the now. We run away from the present moment, but that is all there is.”