Transcript of Thich Nhat Hanh’s talk to the OI members at Deer Park on February 5, 2004
This week many OI members chose to be here for the winter retreat and it’s been a great joy to be together with other OI members at this retreat. We just wanted to come and, if you were available, sit with you. If you have something you’d like to say to Order members, we’d love to hear it. If OI members have something to say, they can. If not, it will be a good time where we can sit and smile to each other.
INAUDIBLE, but Thay spoke about the importance of the OI starting a newsletter. Then he went on to talk about sangha building:
THAY: You don’t need to be a leader, but you must be an organizer, coordinator, a sangha builder. That’s the mission, the role, the duty of an OI member. There are those who have received the Five Trainings and those who have not received the Five Trainings. We have to bring them together in the community. If in that group there are good practitioners, we should inspire him or her to be a leader. We should avoid being the leader. That is the best way to do it. We should try to ask one or two to be leaders and those we select should embody the practice and lovingkindness.
When a person asks “This is the second training, have we made an effort to put it into practice during the last two weeks?” the one who asks the questions should be the one respected by the rest. Our speaker, our spokesperson, our OI member should be skillful. Just invite these people to do things. You can be a good sangha builder without being the leader. In the monastic sangha there are brothers and sisters who are very important they don’t have to be an abbot or abbess or dharma teacher. There are those who do not have the title of dharma teacher, but they do really well. I’m sure that this is an opportunity for learning the practice. We all make mistakes. We learn from them. The flourishing, the happiness of the sangha is a very obvious fruit of our practice. I think in our area there should be a day of happiness every two weeks. If you want to be a real element of the fourfold sangha, you must be honorable. If you have monks and nuns living nearby, that is good. If not, you must be honorable as a sangha. Essential for sangha is harmony. It’s easier with a group this size than with a monastic sangha of 250. When several hundred people stay together it is hard, but it is possible.
ASPIRANT: wanting an email connection with other members, was told that one was in place.
OI MEMBER: I think it’s important when people are starting a sangha, even when they are brand new, I have this idea, I think it would be cool if they could have a person who is paired with them because it can be very challenging. It can be done without that. It can build your strength. I know from personal experience.
THAY: It is most crucial. The sangha which meets every two weeks should have a very complete practice. The practice should be able to build brotherhood and sisterhood and joy. If there is some difficulty in a relationship between two members, we know how to help to resolve it before we can start our recitation. Before we start the recitation of the Five Trainings you ask the question, “Is there harmony in the community?” and if someone says, “No, there is not harmony,” you have no right to recite. That’s why the time and place for the recitation should be announced in advance. If a number of people decide without telling everyone, that is a transgression of the precepts. So it is very important that everyone knows where will be the place for the recitation and when. Then you can do sitting or walking first. When the time comes, after some chanting, the convener asks, “Has the sangha assembled?” Then the other person says, “Yes, the sangha has assembled.” Then the second question, “Is there harmony in the community?” The spokesperson should honestly say, “Yes, there is harmony in the community.” Then the third question, “Is anyone absent that has asked to be represented and has expressed that they have kept the Five Trainings?” Then they should allow the people to say “Yes, sangha member so and so could not come to the recitation. She has asked me, brother so and so to represent her. She has practiced the precepts well.” Then she will be represented. Those in the sangha can make some decisions and she cannot say “I wasn’t there, I do not like the decision.” She asked someone to represent her. That is the practice recommended by the Buddha two thousand five hundred years ago. It has been like that ever since. If you follow that kind of structure you can do it yourself. There are many things you can learn from the monastic tradition. During the old time, only the monastics would practice walking meditation and things like that. These practices now are being shared. So the monastic culture is being shared. This is a new step. The Buddha would be very happy.
This way of organizing the sangha is very important. Still in many other cultures, people have to come to the temple to have the monks recite the Trainings. But now we can be on our own. We can ask a sangha member to read the ceremony and preside over the recitation ceremony. Of course, from time to time we might like to invite the monastics to be with us especially if we have not mastered the techniques of the practice. But that is a way that can make the sangha strong and you’ll be contributing a lot to the fourfold sangha. Because if the lay community practices well and happily, the monastic sangha profits a lot. You know that in the Pratimoksha, the monastics are not supposed to go to the internet alone. It’s dangerous. It’s like going to the market alone. You have to go with a second body for your own protection. It does not limit our freedom. It protects our freedom, guards our freedom because it is safer.
We want to guard our freedom. That is why we practice. Now you can read and study the Pratimoksha, the monastic code. You can now recognize the difference between good monks and monks that are not so good. When you can look at monks with those kinds of eyes you will be better able to support them.
OI MEMBER: Dear Sangha, the sanghas in which I practice are all very new practitioners. No one has taken the Five Trainings. They know this sangha through me. I’m trying to grow them so can take that step. But they are so unaware of the larger sangha.. How can I introduce them in such a way so it is not my voice but the sangha speaking?
THAY: It is nice to create an opportunity where they can come to a retreat and be in touch with the larger sangha who have practiced many years. It will inspire them. There are those who are new to the practice who don’t have a lot of prejudices. That is a positive aspect of it. It is very easy to plant good seeds. If they already have ideas and prejudices it is very difficult. It is like new soil and new land and you can plant very good seeds. Although they have not received the Five Trainings they can understand, they can recite them. They have not formally received them, but they have received with their hearts and can practice as well as other people. You can bring videotapes to show them. Although the video cannot replace reality, it can be helpful.
OI MEMBER: Dear Thay, We’re trying to strengthen our sangha. We have a lot of skilled people in social activism. I wonder how you and the monastics make a decision as to how to initiate that practice and stay within the boundaries of the Fourteen Trainings? How, for example, is information shared about some injustice that is in the community that we could, as the sangha, address in someway. How does that decision get made or how do you decide where to go with the issues before you that one or two monks feel very heartfelt about?
THAY:I think the basic thing is to have a solid sangha first. If there is not love and understanding in the sangha you should not engage in work outside. If you have something solid, you can share. But before you have something, you have to practice. On the ground of a happy and solid community you can do many things. If we engage in too much work outside, we will lose ourselves. If there is no harmony or happiness in the sangha, the work is not meaningful anymore, and we are very aware of that. That is why we focus on sangha building first. Because when you are solid and you are happy, people begin to be happy already. Even if you have not done much, anything you say or do will have an effect. Even if you do little or say little it will have a more of an effect than f you do a lot but have no happiness inside.
OI MEMBER Dear Thay, we know that the circumstances that brought you to us, to work with us in the West were not pleasant. We just want you to know that we are very, very grateful. We love you, Thay.
THAY: You know that many Vietnamese had become boat people and many of them died. I intended to go to the West for only three months to call for peace. Before I left the chief of police said, “When you go there, don’t call for peace.” I was silent because that was exactly what I wanted to do. I did not say yes, but I stayed silent. It has been 38 years. It was not my intention to come and share Buddhism in the West. It is like the Buddha and the Patriarchs arranged it. I had to obey.
Every time I touch the earth I open my two hands and I say, “ Dear Buddha and dear Patriarchs, I have nothing at all in my hands. The little wisdom I have, you gave me. I am only your instrument.” And I feel very light and very free. I am not caught in pride and arrogance. I am very free a lot of light. I always do that when I touch the earth. That is why I can keep my humility, my freedom, my lightness. I think my friends would like to do that also. That way you can help the Buddha and the Patriarchs to help many people. I think my students, many of them, know that.
Without the Patriarchs and the Sangha, we cannot do much. It’s like Deer Park. It was not my intention to have the Deer Park at all. In fact, when I first heard of it, I was not happy. I did not want to come and look at the land here. I was not interested. But, finally, I came. I think I had to obey the decision made by our ancestors. And when you surrender to that kind of arrangement, you don’t have to struggle. You don’t have to fight to succeed. If conditions are sufficient that is realized. If conditions are not sufficient you are not unhappy about it. You can keep your heart calm. You don’t have to fight; you don’t have to be in despair. When I heard that the area around here was burning, I was in France. They said Deer Park could burn also. I said, “Well, it depends on the Patriarchs also. If they take care of it, they take care of it. If it burns, we practice elsewhere.” We shouldn’t make it a cow.
SISTER: One last question. We need to go to dinner.
THAY: We want to stay until midnight. (laughing)
OI MEMBER: As we go back to our Sanghas is there any message you want us to take back?
THAY: Yes. A happy sangha is the greatest gift you can give Thay for the Buddha also. Sangha building is wonderful. If you are free and happy you can build a sangha.
OI MEMBER: I have been sharing practice with some women in a prison in Connecticut. This weekend they are having a retreat. I just wanted to ask you to send them metta and support. They know where I am. It’s the first time it’s ever been done.
THAY: I often think of the administrators of the prison because they also suffer. If they suffer less, the people inside suffer less. That’s why it’s important to find a way to help them suffer less. If they have more compassion in themselves then the people inside will profit. There must be ways to do so.
OI MEMBER: The man who is the head of this program who works inside the prison, wants to do that.
THAY: Imagine prison guards teaching prisoners to do walking meditation. It would make the Buddha very happy. That would make that a house of love and transformation. Are we allowed to hope like that? It’s possible. Write an article. Speak to them and you are a bodhisattva taking care of those people who suffer there. Give them a chance to suffer less and transform.
THAY: We had a difficult retreat in Madison for police officers. It was wonderful. We learned a lot. Imagine police officers doing like this(bowing), doing walking meditation, breathing in and out. They received the Five Trainings and the Three Refuges in a nonsectarian way. We offered them without Buddhist terms. The text is available. We asked them to put it in the Mindfulness Bell. The form is universal.
OI MEMBER: I wanted to add A City University law school, working with public interest attorneys has started a contemplative program and had asked me to start the meditation program there. We started on Sept. 10,2001, the week of September 11 in New York City. So it was very powerful and I felt that many causes and conditions had come together to bring us there. To work with the people who are choosing to go in with very deep intention and commitment. There are people of color. Many are adult learners. Many are formerly homeless or even illegal immigrants and have chosen to go in and learn the law so they can go back to their communities and serve them. So their intention is very strong. Their compassion is very strong. They need a great deal of support and what you just shared, Thay, about finding ways to bring the practice in a nonsectarian way is so crucial. They are very hungry for the practice. They love the precepts. They love the practice. They are struggling with a great deal of facing suffering each day. So building the strength of that sangha is a great hope. It has given me a great deal of nourishment. I think it also demonstrates the causes and conditions that are beginning to come together in many areas in the law and justice in this country.
THAY: I will see you for the walking meditation. We’ll walk in the full moon.