Five Kinds of Voices

Excerpt from “For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts”  by Thich Nhat Hanh

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is a person who has learned the art of listening and speaking deeply in order to help people let go of their fear, misery, and despair. He is the model of this practice, and the door he opens is called the “universal door.” If we practice listening and speaking according to Avalokitesvara, we too will be able to open the universal door and bring joy, peace, and happiness to many people and alleviate their suffering.

The universal door manifests itself
in the voice of the rolling tide.
Hearing and practicing it, we become a child,
born from the heart of a lotus,
fresh, pure, and happy,
capable of speaking and listening
in accord with the universal door.
With only one drop of the water of compassion
from the branch of the willow,
spring returns to the great Earth.

I learned this beautiful poem when I studied the Lotus Sutra at age sixteen. When you hear “the voice of the rolling tide,” which is Avalokitesvara’s practice, symbolizing the universal door, you are transformed into a child born in the heart of a lotus. With only one drop of the water of compassion from the willow branch of the bodhisattva, spring returns to our dry Earth. The dry Earth means the world of suffering and misery. The drop of
compassionate water is the practice of loving kindness, symbolized by the water on the willow branch.

Avalokitesvara is described by the Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese as the person holding the willow branch. He dips the branch into the water of compassion of his heart, and wherever he sprinkles that water, everything is reborn. When he sprinkles it on dry, dead branches, they turn green. Dead branches also symbolize suffering and despair, and green vegetation symbolizes the return of peace and happiness. With only one drop of
that water, spring returns to our great Earth.

In the “Universal Door” chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Avalokitesvara’s voice is described in five ways: the wondrous voice, the voice of the world regarded, the brahma voice, the voice of the rising tide, and the voice of world surpassing. We should always keep these five voices in mind.

First, there is the wondrous voice. This is the kind of speaking that will open the universal door and make everything possible again. This voice is pleasant to hear. It is refreshing and brings calm, comfort, and healing to our soul. Its essence is compassion.

Second, there is the voice of the world regarded. The meaning of the word Avalokitesvara is “the one who looks deeply into the world and hears the cries of the world.” This voice relieves our suffering and suppressed feelings, because it is the voice of someone who understands us deeply — our anguish, despair, and fear. When we feel understood, we suffer much less.

Third, here is the brahma voice. Brahma means noble — not just the ordinary voice of people, but the noble speech that springs forth from the willingness to bring happiness and remove suffering. Love, compassion, joy, and impartiality are the Four Brahmaviharas, noble dwellings of buddhas and bodhisattvas. If we want to live with buddhas and bodhisattvas, we can dwell in these mansions. During the time of the Buddha, the aim of the practice of many people was to be born and to live together with Brahma. It was similar to the Christian practice of wanting to go to Heaven to be with God. “In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” and you want to live in one of these mansions. For those who wanted to be with Brahma, the Buddha said, “Practice the four noble dwellings: love, compassion, joy, and impartiality.” If we want to share one teaching of the Buddha with our Christian friends, it would be the same: “God is love, compassion, joy, and impartiality.” If you want to be with God, practice these four dwellings. If you don’t
practice these four, no matter how much you pray or talk about being with God, going to Heaven will not be possible.

Fourth, the voice of the rising tide is the voice of the Buddhadharma. It is a powerful voice, the kind of voice that silences all wrong views and speculations. It is the lion’s roar that brings absolute silence to the mountain and brings about transformation and healing.

Fifth, the voice of the world surpassing is the voice with which nothing can be compared. This voice does not aim at fame, profit, or a competitive edge. It is the thundering silence that shatters all notions and concepts. The wondrous voice, the voice of the world regarded, the brahma voice, the voice of the rising tide, and the voice of the world surpassing are the voices we are to be mindful of.

If we contemplate these five kinds of voices, we assist Avalokitesvara in opening the universal door, the door of real listening and real speaking. Because he lives a mindful life, always contemplating the world, and because he is the world regarder, Avalokitesvara notices a lot of suffering. He knows that much suffering is born from unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others; therefore he practices mindful, loving speech and listening deeply.

Avalokitesvara can be described as the one who teaches us the best way to practice the Fourth Precept. “Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech, and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.” This is exactly the universal door practiced by Avalokitesvara.

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Seed and Plant ‘inter-are’

You don’t discriminate between the seed and the plant. You see that they ‘inter-are’ with each other, that they are the same thing. Looking deeply at the young cornstalk, you can see the seed of corn, still alive, but with a new appearance. The plant is the continuation of the seed.

The practice of meditation helps us to see things other people can’t see. We look deeply and we see that father and son, father and daughter, mother and son, mother and daughter, corn seed and cornstalk, have a very close relationship. That is why we should awaken to the fact, to the truth, that we inter-are. The suffering of one is the suffering of the other. [...] When we see that we and all living beings are made of the same nature, how can there be division between us? How can there be lack of harmony? When we realize our ‘interbeing nature’, we’ll stop blaming and exploiting and killing, because we know that we inter-are. That is the great awakening we must have in order for the Earth to be saved.

We human beings have always singled ourselves out from the rest of the natural world. We classify other animals and living beings as ‘Nature’, a thing apart from us, and act as if we’re somehow separate from it. Then we ask, “How should we deal with Nature?” We should deal with Nature the same way we should deal with ourselves: nonviolently. Human beings and Nature are inseparable. Just as we should not harm ourselves, we should not harm Nature.

Causing harm to other human beings causes harm to ourselves. Accumulating wealth and owning excessive portions of the world’s natural resources deprives fellow humans of the chance to live. Participating in oppressive and unjust social systems creates and deepens the gap between rich and poor, and aggravates the situation of social injustice. While the rest of the human family suffers and starves, the enjoyment of false security and wealth is a delusion.

It’s clear that the fate of each individual is inextricably linked to the fate of the whole human race. We must let others live if we ourselves want to live. The only alternative to coexistence is co-nonexistence. A civilization in which we must kill and exploit others in order to live is not a healthy civilization. [...] To bring about peace within the human family, we must work for harmonious co-existence. If we continue to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world, imprisoning ourselves in narrow concerns and immediate problems, we’re not likely to make peace or to survive. The human race is part of Nature. We need to have this insight before we can have harmony between people.

–Thich Nhat Hanh in “Nature and Nonviolence”

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Wonderful Moment

From The Plum Village Chanting & Recitation Book, Compiled by the Thich Nhat Hanh and Monks and Nuns of Plum Village

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.

Breathing out, I know

as the in-breath goes deep,

the out-breath grows slow.

Breathing in makes me calm.

Breathing out brings me ease.

With the in-breath, I smile.

With the out-breath, I release.

Breathing in, there is only the present moment.

Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.

In, Out.

Deep, Slow

Calm, Ease

Smile, Release

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Conversation is a Source of Nourishment

Excerpt from THE ART OF COMMUNICATING by Thich Nhat Hanh

Essential Food

Nothing can survive without food. Everything we consume acts either to heal us or to poison us. We tend to think of nourishment only as what we eat through our mouths; but what we consume with our eyes, our ears, our nose, our tongue, and our body is also food. The conversations going on around us, and those we participate in, are also food. Are we consuming and creating the kind of food that is healthy for us and helps us grow?

When we say something that nourishes ourselves and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion. When we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.

We often ingest toxic communication from those around us and from what we watch and read. Are we ingesting things that grow our understanding and compassion? If so, that’s good food. Often, we ingest communication that makes us feel bad or insecure about ourselves or judgmental and superior to others. We can think about all our communication in terms of nourishment and consumption. The Internet is an item of consumption, full of nutriments that are both healing and toxic. It’s so easy to ingest a lot in just a few minutes online. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the Internet. But you should be conscious of what you are reading and watching. When you work with your computer for three or four hours, you are totally lost. It’s like eating French fries.

You shouldn’t eat French fries all day, and you shouldn’t be on the computer all day. A few French fries, a few hours, are probably all most of us need.

What you read and write can help you heal, so be thoughtful about what you consume. When you write an email or a letter that is full of understanding and compassion, you are nourishing yourself during the time you write that letter. Even if it’s just a short note, everything you’re writing down can nourish you and the person you are writing.

Consuming with Mindfulness

How can you tell what communication is healthy and what is toxic? The energy of mindfulness is a necessary ingredient in healthy communication. Mindfulness requires letting go of judgment, returning to an awareness of the breath and the body, and bringing your full attention to what is in you and around you. This helps you to notice whether the thought you just produced is healthy or unhealthy, compassionate or unkind.

Conversation is a source of nourishment. We can all feel lonely and want to talk with someone. But when you have a conversation with another person, what that person says may be full of toxins, like hate, anger, and frustration.When you listen to what they say, you’re consuming those toxins. You’re bringing toxins into your consciousness and your body. That’s why mindfulness of speaking and mindfulness of listening are very important.

Toxic conversation can be difficult to avoid, especially at work. If it is going on around you, be aware. You have to have enough mindful awareness not to absorb all these kinds of suffering. You have to protect yourself with the energies of compassion so that when you listen, instead of consuming toxins, you’re actively producing more compassion in yourself. When you listen in this way, compassion protects you and the other person suffers less.

You absorb the thoughts, speech, and actions you produce and those contained in the communications of those around you. That is consumption. So when you read something, when you listen to someone, you should be careful not to allow the toxins to ruin your health and bring suffering to you and to the other person or group of people.

To illustrate this truth, the Buddha used the graphic image of a cow that has a skin disease.The cow is attacked by all kinds of insects and microorganisms coming from the soil, coming from the trees, coming from the water. Without a skin a cow can’t protect herself.Mindfulness is our skin. Without mindfulness, we may take in items we don’t want to consume, items that can attack us.

Even when you simply drive your car through the city, you consume. The advertisements hit your eyes, and you’re forced to consume them.You hear sounds; you may even say things that are the product of too much toxic consumption. We have to protect ourselves. Mindful communication is the way. We can communicate in such a way as to solidify the peace and compassion in ourselves, and bring joy to others.

Relationships Won’t Survive Without the Right Food

Many of us suffer because of difficult communication. We feel misunderstood, especially by those we love. In a relationship, we are nourishment for each other. So we have to select the kind of food that we offer the other person, the kind of food that can help our relationships thrive. Everything needs food in order to continue—including love, hate, or suffering. If suffering continues, it’s because we keep feeding our suffering. Every time we speak without mindful awareness, we are feeding our suffering.

With mindful awareness, we can look into the nature of our suffering and find out what kind of food we have been supplying to keep it alive.When we find out the source of nourishment for our suffering, we can cut off that supply, and our suffering will fade.

Often a romantic relationship begins very beautifully, but then because we don’t know how to nourish our love,it begins to die. Communication nourishes the relationship. Every thought you produce in your head, in your heart—in China they say in your belly—feeds that relationship. When you produce a thought that carries suspicion, anger, fear, irritation, that thought is not nourishing to you or to the other person. If the relationship has become difficult, it’s because we’ve nourished our judgment and our anger and we haven’t nourished our compassion.

We should refrain from saying or writing words that aren’t nourishing and healing. Sometimes one cruel utterance can make a person suffer for many years, and you will suffer for many years, too. In a state of anger or hate, you may say something that can be poisonous and destructive. We have to be very careful.

So we have to learn to feed our relationships with healthy communication. Love, respect, and friendship all need food in order to survive. With mindfulness we can produce thoughts, speech, and actions that can feed our relationships and help them to grow.

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The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore

On September 11th, 2014 Thay completed a profound and beautiful new English translation of the Heart Sutra, one of the most important sutras in Mahayana Buddhism.

>>Download a print-friendly one-page pdf

The Insight That Brings Us to the Other Shore

Avalokiteshvara
while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.

“Listen Shariputra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.

“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Immaculacy,
no Increasing no Decreasing.

“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.

The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena
which are the six Sense Organs,
the six Sense Objects,
and the six Consciousnesses
are also not separate self entities.

The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising
and their Extinction
are also not separate self entities.
Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,
the End of Ill-being, the Path,
insight and attainment,
are also not separate self entities.

Whoever can see this
no longer needs anything to attain.

Bodhisattvas who practice
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
see no more obstacles in their mind,
and because there
are no more obstacles in their mind,
they can overcome all fear,
destroy all wrong perceptions
and realize Perfect Nirvana.

“All Buddhas in the past, present and future
by practicing
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
are all capable of attaining
Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.

“Therefore Sariputra,
it should be known that
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
is a Great Mantra,
the most illuminating mantra,
the highest mantra,
a mantra beyond compare,
the True Wisdom that has the power
to put an end to all kinds of suffering.
Therefore let us proclaim
a mantra to praise
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

This new English translation is based on the new Vietnamese translation that Thay made three weeks ago at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

Thay’s full explanation of why he made this new translation.

“The problem begins with the line: ‘Listen Shariputra, because in emptiness, there is no form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness’. How funny! It was previously stated that emptiness is form, and form is emptiness, but now you say the opposite: there is only emptiness, there is no body. This line of the sutra can lead to many damaging misunderstandings. It removes all phenomena from the category ‘being’ and places them into the category of ‘non-being’ (no form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or consciousness…). Yet the true nature of all phenomena is the nature of no being nor non-being, no birth and no death. The view of ‘being’ is one extreme view and the view of ‘non-being’ is another extreme view..

The Buddha has taught in the Kātyāyana sutra that most people in the world are caught either in the view of being and non-being. Therefore, the sentence ‘in emptiness there is no form, feelings…’ is obviously still caught in the view of non-being. That is why this sentence does not correspond to the Ultimate Truth. Emptiness of self only means the emptiness of self, not the non-being of self, just as a balloon that is empty inside does not mean that the balloon does not exist. The same is true with the emptiness of dharma: it only means the emptiness of all phenomena and not the non-existence of phenomena. It is like a flower that is made only of non-flower elements. The flower is empty of a separate existence, but that doesn’t mean that the flower is not there.

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Right Diligence

Excerpt from a Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, June 11, 2009.

I prefer the term right diligence rather than right effort. Making efforts can make you tired, but when you are diligent, you don’t need to be tired.

I don’t want intensive practice, I want regular practice, diligent practice. There are those of us who practice very intensively for a few weeks and then after that abandon the practice. But there are those of us who practice regularly, not intensive but continuously, that will bring good results. That is why I prefer the word diligence.

Why do you continue to do it? Because I like it. That is a good answer. Because I enjoy doing that. That applies to the practice. If you don’t enjoy the practice you have to make an effort, you get tired, and finally you abandon the practice.

You continue to do it because you like it. It is not because you have to do it. Why did you practice sitting meditation. The best answer is: because I like it. Why do you practice walking meditation? Because I like it. . . .

That is true diligence, right diligence. We know that right diligence brings well-being. The practices of mindful walking, mindful breathing, smiling, bring well-being, happiness.

The Buddha after his enlightenment continued to practice. So practicing is not to become a Buddha. The Buddha is already a Buddha, why does he have to practice? Because he likes it. He likes breathing like that, he likes walking like that, he likes sitting like that, he likes eating like that, because it brings him well being, not because he wants to become a buddha.

So when you ask the Buddha: Dear Buddha, why do you continue to practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, because you are already a Buddha. Because I like it, not because I want to become a Buddha. So that is the best answer: Because I like it.

But there are those of us who do not practice right diligence. They are very diligent, but their diligence is wrong diligence. Wrong diligence can bring ill-being. They are caught in their work. They become workaholic. They don’t have time to take care of themselves. They don’t have time to take care of their beloved ones. They are sucked into the work. They are caught in their work. They cannot leave their computer.

[Someone like that is] always reading the Wall Street Journal instead of looking at his children. At breakfast, instead of looking and smiling at his children, he holds the Wall Street Journal and hides himself from his family. He is totally caught and sucked into his work. He is very diligent. He wants success as a businessman. He always thinks of the value of his stocks. He goes up and down with his stocks. He is very diligent, but that is not right diligence.

He is working so hard. He is making a lot of effort. He is very diligent in his work. But there is no happiness.

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Nourishing Happiness

Excerpt from “Chanting from the Heart” by Thich Nhat Hanh

Sitting here in this moment, protected by the Sangha,
my happiness is clear and alive.
What a great fortune to have been born a human,
to encounter the Dharma,
to be in harmony of others,
and to water the Mind of Love
in this beautiful garden of practice.
[bell]

The energies of the Sangha and mindfulness trainings
are protecting and helping me not make mistakes
or be swept along in darkness by unwholesome seeds.
With kind spiritual friends, I am on the path of goodness,
illuminated by the light of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Although seeds of suffering are still in me
in the form of afflictions and habit energies,
mindfulness is also there, helping me touch
what is most wonderful within and around me.

I can still enjoy mindfulness of the six senses:
my eyes look peacefully upon the clear blue sky,
my ears listen with wonder to the songs of birds,
my nose smells the rich scent of sandalwood,
my tongue tastes the nectar of the Dharma,
my posture is upright, stable and relaxed,
and my mind is one with my body.

If there were not a World-Honored One,
if there were not the wonderful Dharma,
if there were not a harmonious Sangha,
I would not be so fortunate
to enjoy this Dharma happiness today.

My resources for practice are my own peace and joy.
I vow to cultivate and nourish them with daily mindfulness.
For my ancestors, family, future generations,
and the whole of humanity, I vow to practice well.

In my society I know that there are countless people suffering,
drowned in sensual pleasure, jealousy, and hatred.
I am determined to take care of my own mental formations,
to learn the art of deep listening and using loving speech
in order to encourage communication and understanding
and to be able to accept and love.

Practicing the actions of a bodhisattva,
I vow to look with eyes of love and a heart of understanding.
I vow to listen with a clear mind and ears of compassion,
bringing peace and joy unto the lives of others,
to lighten and alleviate the suffering of living beings.

I am aware that ignorance and wrong perceptions
can turn this world into a fiery hell.I vow to walk always upon the path of transformation,
producing understanding and loving kindness.
I will be able to cultivate a garden of awakening.

Although there are birth, sickness, old age, and death,
now I have a path of practice, I have nothing more to fear.
It is a great happiness to be alive in the Sangha
with the practice of mindfulness trainings and concentration,
to live every moment in stability and freedom
to take part in the work of relieving others’ suffering,
the career of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

In each precious moment, I am filled with deep gratitude.
I bow before the World-Honored One.
Please bear witness to my wholehearted gratitude,
embracing all beings with arms of great compassion.
[bell, bell]

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