By the Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh
Dear community, today is the last day of the Vietnamese retreat. There was a Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings transmission ceremony yesterday. Most of the people here are practitioners who have already received the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Regrettably, there was no time for Sister Chan Khong and Brother Phap Dang to share the meanings of the Fourteen Precepts. I only heard Sister Chan Khong talk about a couple of things, due to time constraints. Thus, I would like to contribute a few ideas. I think that there will be an opportunity for you to inquire of Sister Chan Khong to be more informed about the scope of the history of the Order of Interbeing.
In reality, things are not as simple as we may perceive. For the majority of practitioners who have just gotten to know Thay, they think that to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and wear the Order of Interbeing jacket is a simple matter. They do not know that the Order of Interbeing began in the 1960s. Presently, it seems that only a few of the elders— those who are long-standing OI veterans—remain with us. One of the people remaining, whom we need to treasure, is Sister Chan Khong. Once I heard Thay mention that during a retreat in Europe, nobody had brought the text of the Fourteen Precepts. Therefore, Sister Chan Khong had to retype it. And from where did she retype it? It flowed out from her own heart. She had learned the text by heart very accurately, as if it had been meticulously stored in the museum of consciousness.
The text of the Fourteen Precepts is not a text to be recited every two weeks. It is a text that we must learn by heart. Every single word is an attainment that has been conscientiously selected and that flows eloquently from the insights of a spiritual teacher who is deeply imbued with both the Pali canon and the Chinese Buddhist canon. In the Kalama Sutta from the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha said: “Do not believe the words just because they come from the teacher that you respect. Do not believe the words just because they come from spiritual literature that has been there for thousands of years. Do not believe the words just because they are transmitted down from tradition.” There are ten phrases with similar content in that sutra.
As we read in the First Mindfulness Training, Thay says that we need to be aware of fanaticism due to intolerance for doctrines, which has caused suffering in mankind. Therefore, for OI members, the First Precept tells us not to be bound to any ideology, even if it is a Buddhist ideology. This proves that the OI text is crystallized from the insights of a great spiritual teacher who has integrated and merged the substratum of both the Agama scriptures (e.g., Nikaya Sutra) and the Mahayana scriptures in order to create the Fourteen Precepts. OI practitioners and Buddhists who have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings should learn the text by heart because each word embodies Thay’s selfless vow to apply wisdom and compassion to bring the Buddha’s teachings into everyday life, and serves as a fundamental principle for our practice.
Secondly, we should have some knowledge about the history of the Order of Interbeing. In the harrowing and agonizing years of the Vietnam War, the School of Youth for Social Service was born as a heartwarming home, nurturing the youth with altruistic ideals. To be a worker for this school, young people followed Thay to receive the OI precepts, bringing their fiery, fearless, loving hearts to a war-torn nation and hoping to relieve the suffering and pain of the people. They tried to heal the wounds created by the anguish and horror of the Vietnam War. The first OI generation sacrificed greatly because both sides of the war hardly had sympathy for Thay’s revolutionary concept of Engaged Buddhism. These people fell down due to the hatred, the cruelty, the insanity of mankind. Nhat Chi Mai immolated herself in the name of peace; Phuong Lien and Vui were hit by grenades at Phap Van temple while helping people in need. On the path of the Order of Interbeing, blood from the early generation spilled on the ground to form a foundation for us to walk on and continue the work of the bodhisattvas. For the Order of Interbeing to be sustained until the present time, it had to withstand the intensely violent period of the Vietnam War and the loathing and envy of many people.
Tracing far back to its origin, we can see that the Order of Interbeing was germinated very early. Its silhouette could be seen in books like The Novice and was reflected boldly in Thay’s books about Engaged Buddhism during the 1960s. It gave shape to a Vietnamese Buddhism embodying a steadfast, unwavering, vibrant vitality, plus a profound energy to survive and to be of benefit to the life of mankind in the present and in the future.
The words Tiep Hien have a multi-faceted connotation. The Order of Interbeing is not just a regular organization. I would like to offer a few explanations so we can see that these two words contain very profound insights. At the ordinary level, the role of OI members carries the form of a connection between monastics, laypeople, and people from all backgrounds. They have the responsibility of bringing the Dharma into real life, in other words, applying Buddhism in everyday life to relieve suffering and to beautify the world. However, this is only a very shallow meaning of the phrase.
The second definition of these words is to acquire and continue the bodhisattva vows from the past, manifesting the virtues of wisdom and compassion in this world. At the third level, a much more in-depth connotation is to fully realize the Buddha nature within ourselves, meaning to be able to live with the energy of no-birth, no-death, or to live with the energy of true awareness already inherent in us. Then we will dwell peacefully in this true presence to properly conduct ourselves in life, turning the Dharma wheels to contribute the fundamental truth of the ultimate reality to this world.
Thus, the true connotation of Tiep Hien is very profound. It is to realize and sustain the Buddha nature already existing in everyone. Expressed in a different way, we have always carried within ourselves the enlightened essence, the awakened bodhi nature. And from this formless presence, we have the power to manifest it into differentiated forms for the well- being of the world. We have the power to manifest it on our spiritual path of Engaged Buddhism in order to help others with the same capabilities to attain enlightenment like us. Now, that is the true connotation of Tiep Hien.
Naturally, an OI member’s task is to acquire and continue the vows of bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Samanta-bhadra, and Mahasthamaprapta, to engage in compassionate service for others. And the most imperative undertaking is to realize the true essence, the awakened nature inherent right within ourselves, to complete the spiritual path for ourselves and for others.
The Connection Between the Bodhisattva Vows and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings
There is a connection between the bodhisattva vows and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I just heard Sister Chan Khong encourage the OI members to follow a vegetarian diet. Of course, this has to happen if you are a member of the Order of Interbeing. I read a report about a Chinese boat carrying fins from sharks captured near Indonesia. These Chinese fishermen had cut 70,000 fins from white sharks for the sole reason of providing the wealthy class this unusual food to increase libido, a false but widespread belief transmitted by oral tradition. This is a type of food that Chinese people really want to have. The cruel act of brutally killing animals in such an irresponsible manner will create extreme danger, because it will consequently lead to not only the destruction of the environment but also the destruction of human morals and ethics in society.
The Order of Interbeing is a congregation whose primary purpose is to bring the Buddha’s teachings into real life, to manifest the bodhisattva vows of bringing compassion and wisdom to relieve suffering, and to be the connecting bridge so that teachings from the monastics can be widely spread to people. Therefore, the responsibility and role of an OI member is much more significant, challenging, and solemn compared to the lethargic and stagnant state of mind that we currently have. This planet is terror stricken from the unending violence, the extreme fanaticism, and the unbelievable human madness. Ironically, man has become more and more inhuman. Consequently, mankind has become more and more appalled about the fanaticism of religious doctrines, not political doctrines.
Fortunately, Buddhism is a religion that does not force the believers to be fanatical about the Buddha, nor does it force them to be fanatical about their faith. The foundation of Buddhism is wisdom and compassion. Therefore, the role of a religious advocate bringing the Buddha’s teachings to life is very important. We can share the words of the Buddha widely in this world. A person who embodies the true practice can build a Sangha. A Sangha can then build many Sanghas. Thus, the presence of the Order of Interbeing does not mean that we grow by the power of addition, but instead we grow by the power of multiplication. Only then can we awaken this planet. Only then can we save the human conditions that are falling more and more into a state of horrific fear and panic. These are my suggestions to emphasize the fact that understanding the true direction of the Order of Interbeing is very important in order to act accordingly.
In the tradition of Buddhist novice monks from China to Vietnam, there was a type of precept that they received besides the novice precepts and the great precepts of the fully ordained monks and nuns. In the transmission ceremony yesterday, the monastic Dharma teachers shared that the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing are created from the spirit of the bodhisattva vows to meet the needs of Westerners, adapting to engaged Buddhism in the West, and especially to bring a new and clarified written text that still conveys and embodies the profound essence of Mahayana Buddhism. I will explain the bodhisattva vows to compare with our practice and our way of engaged Buddhism so that you can see the similarities.
Bodhisattva vows contain Ten Major Precepts and Forty-eight Minor Precepts. They are revered in countries with Mahayana Buddhism, such as China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Actually, these precepts were not created by the Buddha or his monastic Sangha at that time, but were born from the development of Buddhism after the Buddha entered nirvana. In the beginning of the 5th century (401-412) in China, Kumarajiva had translated the Brahmajala Sutra (Brahma Net Sutra) and begun the process of transmitting the bodhisattva vows. But it was not until the year 519, when Emperor Wu of Liang prompted his people to receive these precepts, that they became a strong flow, as they are now.
If we condense the contents of the bodhisattva vows, we only need to discuss two components that will comprise everything in them. One is the Three Pure Precepts or the Three Root Precepts. The second is the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows.
The Three Pure Precepts are:
To comply and observe the precepts and ceremonies.
To practice wholesome Dharma.
To save all beings.
The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows are:
Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Afflictions are boundless; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are immeasurable; I vow to learn them.
The path of awakening is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.
Limitless sentient beings I vow to save, leaving no one behind. That is the first vow of a bodhisattva. The second vow—this world is overfilled with immense sufferings, and I vow to permanently end all afflictions, all agony, all sorrows within myself. The third vow—the immeasurable Dharma teachings of all Buddhas of the ten directions and three existences, of all spiritual masters, I vow to learn and practice. Lastly, the unsurpassable fruit of enlightenment, the stillness and serenity of nirvana, I vow to attain. These are the four great vows of the bodhisattvas.
You can condense this into two words. What are they? Wisdom and compassion. In every retreat that Thay held, we began by chanting Avalokiteshvara and ended with the Heart Sutra. Even just in the ceremony, we transmitted that spirit of love and understanding, or wisdom and compassion. All the practices, the great vows, come down to cultivating understanding and love. If you read the trainings that Thay has offered, they all embody these two words, understanding and love.
There is the practice of the Six Paramitas in Buddhism. One of the paramitas is practicing generosity. This morning, a lay friend asked me, “Does practicing the Six Paramitas lead to nirvana?” I answered, “The foundation of the other five paramitas is wisdom. Generosity without insights will only give merits to reincarnate as heavenly beings. However, with wisdom, these merits will build a solid substructure to attain Buddhahood.”
I will explain this part so that we can apply it in our practice. Otherwise, we only fleetingly skate through the subject with just words and definitions.
The First Bodhisattva Vow
The first vow says that there are countless beings and you vow to save them. The bodhisattva of great aspiration, Kshitigarbha, has that great vow. He vows that until he helps all people in darkness, in the realms of hell, he will not be willing to go to enlightenment. If there is one being left, he still doesn’t want to become enlightened. Some people tend to think that if they commit a sin and fall down to hell, they still have Kshitigarbha standing there to save them. He is residing in the 18th level of hell, always waiting, so why do they even care about wrongdoings? They can live recklessly because they still have Kshitigarbha. Why worry!
But please do not think like that, because it is very wrong. Why? Dear friends, there is no Buddha that does not keep this vow. However, has Kshitigarbha become Buddha yet? He definitely attained perfect enlightenment a long time ago. One might wonder what Kshitigarbha is teaching us through his vows. How can he become Buddha when there are still numerous destitute human beings with countless sufferings? That does not seem right at all!
If we took it with this kind of plain context, we would be doing injustice to Kshitigarbha and unknowingly putting ourselves at a great disadvantage. One must understand that there are not one but two kinds of sentient beings. One kind is the sentient beings outside, such as worms and ants, from the lower species to the higher species of animals to human species, then to the heavenly beings and to those in the formless realm. Nonetheless, even heavenly beings are still in the samsara circle.
But if we have to save all living beings outside before reaching Buddhahood, when will we actually become Buddha? In fact, the Diamond Sutra has this sentence: “One must liberate and lead all beings to nirvana before a bodhisattva can attain the fruit of no birth, no death.” Then, until when can we bring all beings to nirvana?
In truth, there are not only sentient beings outside but also sentient beings inside of us. What are the beings inside? At the most shallow level, how many beings are contained within our bodies of five skandhas? Take a look inside our intestines to see countless living beings swarming in there. Each living being is a cell of our body. Each cell has a life. Brain cells have a life; heart and liver have their own life, etc. This means that our whole body is a gathering of sentient beings in a kingdom.
Therefore, to save beings at the lowest level is to save this physical body. In what way can we liberate them? All living beings in this world, from humans to heavenly beings to holy individuals, all need food to live. Food is divided into two types. The first one is the negative food. It demolishes us. It destroys us. Then we do not know how to save living beings. We need to consume healthy foods that can nurture this body so that it will be in good health, making illness not even dare to approach us. That is a kind of saving of living beings.
Do not think that we have to sell our houses to get money to help other people. Definitely not! We must take care of our body first. We must love ourselves first. Love this body now, love this body in the next life, love this body in the many lives to come. If, because of this body, we kill numerous animals due to our desire to eat meat, then we have created and owe a blood debt with all living things. This is the way to the destruction of both our mind and body in this life and many subsequent lives. Of course, the act of killing humans or committing suicide is a mortal sin that is definitely not the act of a bodhisattva.
This body is a gathering of sentient beings. If we kill other beings outside us to feed this body, this is not an act of a bodhisattva with compassion and wisdom. In fact, when we try to sustain our body by taking away the lives of other beings, then the first thing to be considered here is that their animosity, their rage, their extreme fear will never be dissolved in their flesh that we consume. Consequently, the repercussions from this ill will are soaked up by our body, causing all kinds of diseases for the body and mind. The second factor to be mentioned here is that the influence from this way of nourishing the body will make our mind feel desolate, gloomy, melancholic, and it will be very hard to practice meditation. This is definitely true.
The mind has no form, yet it can cause a strong effect. When we have anger, hatred, or loathing toward other people, these negative energies will directly impact their state of mind. Animals from lower to higher species also have this kind of energy and they will have direct influence on the minds of humans. In a country where man is very cruel to man, where the act of merciless and abominable killing is excessive, where outrage and indignation have accumulated and escalated all the way up to the sky, then definitely sooner or later, the people of that country will suffer the consequences of their actions according to karmic law. If we do unkind deeds, then we will suffer the bad outcomes ourselves. If a family has unkind deeds, it will have to pay this collective debt as a family. If a people commits countless inhumane acts that spread across its nation, eventually they will suffer the atrocity and disaster of wars in their country. So in this life, at a very shallow level, we need to save the sentient beings within our bodies by doing kind acts and living with good hearts so that our bodies will become lighter and lighter. No blood debt is created if we skillfully take care of the body. This is the first step of practicing, “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.”
At a deeper level, there is a kind of formless being inside ourselves. What is it? Sadness is a being. Anger is a being. Affliction is a being. Distress is a being. Pain or despair is a being. Many conditions accumulate in order for a sadness, an anger, an affliction, a distress, a pain, or a despair to arise. The Diamond Sutra has said, “Bring all sentient beings into the ocean of nirvana.” That is the practice of a bodhisattva. Do not think about saving other human beings now. Instead, we need to do an intelligent act of saving the suffering beings existing right within our mind first.
The ground rule of following the path of a bodhisattva is that if one does not know how to swim but still jumps into the ocean to save a drowning person, then he will kill himself without being able to save the other. Likewise, if one is a beggar asking for food but says that he wants to donate money, this is a false statement. We do not have the mastery of a true practitioner but we want to teach others the way to heal their pains – then we only say it for fun and it does not mean much! There are many cases of psychologists and psychiatrists who develop mental illness after their patients are cured. This is because the patients have poured all their afflictions and agonies into these specialists every day, to the point that the heavy weight of suffering has drowned these health care professionals in the ocean of afflictions. This condition is similar to ours when we have not been able to save the beings inside our mind.
In short, the bodhisattva vow means that first of all, we need to save our own bodies by nourishing them with good deeds. This is the great compassion. Next, when there are formless beings arising inside our mind, like sorrow, hatred, anger, or fear, we must apply the practice of awareness taught by the Buddha to bring all these beings into nirvana. This is great wisdom. This is fulfilling the vows of a person practicing the bodhisattva way, equivalent to the spirit of the Diamond Sutra: “One must guide all beings into nirvana because only then will one attain Buddhahood.”
The Studies and the Practice of the Bodhisattva Path
We will divide into two methods the way to achieve the vows of a bodhisattva. The first one is from Dharma studies. The second is from Dharma practice.
The foundation of the practice or the path of a bodhisattva is built on Dharma studies. For example, if we have never gotten in touch with the Sangha, if we have never learned with Thay about the basic sutras such as The Four Establishments of Mindfulness, then we will not know the way to practice. Therefore, the framework for the bodhisattva’s vows is based on learning the Dharma. The rule for the members of the Order of Interbeing is that if the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are not recited within three months, that person will lose the forms of the precepts. The Order of Interbeing is neither the brown jacket that one is wearing nor the mindfulness trainings certificate that one has received. The true substance of an OI member is measured by whether he or she thoroughly understands the Dharma studies or not.
Then from the studies, we have a very solid foundation to apply to the practice. What is the practice? For example, sentient beings like misery, anxiety, fear, afflictions, despair, sufferings, etc., are arising turbulently like rapids within our mind. We can use the practice of dwelling in our breath to carry all those formless beings into the ocean of nirvana. We can also use the practice of walking meditation to relieve the strain and tension inside of us. Usually, we tend to think that these are the means to eventually achieve the true essence, to reach nirvana, to attain wisdom. This is not the case, however.
In truth, there has never been any practice from the Buddha that is a means to attain liberation or a means to an end. The tradition of Mahayana Buddhism often rationalizes that one must go through the gate of skillful means to reach nirvana, as mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, Chapter 7 – the magic city and the great treasure. We tend to favor the Greater Vehicle Buddhism and often disregard the very basic sutras containing the practice in the Nikaya literature, naming it the Lesser Vehicle.
Among Thay’s calligraphies, there is a very good quote: “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” There is no path leading to true peace and joy, but peace and joy are found right on the path. It is not that we have to walk until the end of the road in order to see the light, but as soon as we put our feet on the road, the light is present. Right here. Right now. Right within one step of the practice is the taste of the fragrance of true liberation.
From that, we now return to the practice of breathing meditation. “Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.” Sometimes, it can take one month for one to learn, “Breathe in, I know I am breathing in; breathe out, I know I am breathing out.” Vietnamese people who have grown up in traditional Buddhism often laugh when they hear about a retreat where one only learns how to breathe in and breathe out. They say, “I thought there would be something very new and different to learn at a retreat. Why do I have to come to a retreat just to learn something I already know, like breathing in and breathing out!” But please remember this. The Buddha said, “My teaching is perfect in the beginning, perfect in the middle, perfect in the end.” This saying applies in the way of the practice. When we step into breathing meditation, it means that this practice will bring about the attainment of true wisdom, the realization of true enlightenment. Knowing that “Birth has ended; the holy life has completed; what needs to be done has been done; there is no return to this body anymore.” The peak of wisdom is just by one practice of breathing in and out, and nothing else. The means is the end. The path is happiness.
For further explanation, in the first step of the practice, we see that the breath is going in and out – meaning that we are the observer, we are the energy that is observing, and the breath is the object being observed. We take refuge in our breath to calm down the sentient beings of unhappiness and anger inside of us. But do not think that the Buddha’s teachings stop at this level. There will be a time when the misery, the fear, and the suffering will quiet down and naturally disappear from the sky of our consciousness.
And what else is there? Next, there will be a subtle stage where the thoughts inside our head will flow rapidly, becoming the words printed on the wall in front of us. In fact, when we are aware of the in-breath and the out-breath, we are also aware of the emotions and feelings coming and going. And we are also aware of every single thought flowing fast through our mind. These two deeper levels will be recognized by us. The first thing that will arise is that we are the observers observing the afflictions, hatred, or unhappiness. The sentient beings emerging out from our mind will be the objects to be observed. They are not us. Right here, what will happen? Right here, the unhappiness, the anger, the fear will drop by themselves. They are simply the objects from outside, coming and going, living one moment and dying the next, whereas we are the ones who witness them. We are the ones who are aware of the in-breath and the out-breath. Subsequently, we will reach a deeper level of seeing every thought coming and going, and never identify ourselves with it.
So what can the practice of breathing meditation do? Save all sentient beings and bring them to nirvana!
Once we are able to practice awareness of our breath, we will have the ability to see the never-ending thoughts going back and forth. When we see them, they will be outside of us. In this process, eventually, the object will drop by itself. Eventually, the thought will disappear by itself. It will extinguish. It will vaporize, leaving no trace behind. Then what will remain? Stillness. Only stillness. Only the energy of serenity, of vibrantly alive peace, remains in the here and now. Only simple recognition without any content to be known. It is simply the state of awareness with no place for content to adhere to. Right here, what can it be called? Right here, deep insight is attained, true wisdom is achieved. Right here, the practitioner vanishes into the still and silent ocean of nirvana.
As mentioned above, the teaching of the Buddha is complete in the beginning part, complete in the middle part, and complete in the last part. From that saying, referring back to the practice of breath awareness, do you think it is simple? No! We only need to observe our breath in order to realize that in a thousand breaths, there has never been one breath that is exactly the same as another breath. The practitioner has begun to achieve right concentration or samadhi. He will discover that from the breath, the bodhisattva path has unfolded. That is to save all beings inside our mind. Distress, anger, sufferings have no conditions to arise. Even if they arise, we will carry them to the ocean of true liberation. This is, “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.”
In fact, is there anything that is so hard about practicing the bodhisattva vows? Nothing hard at all! It is a very normal and simple act, like eating food and drinking water. If we have some eager enthusiasm to practice, then it will happen very easily. There will be a time when all the desires of life, such as for money, fame, and material possessions, will drop by themselves. In our youth, we can run back and forth, chasing desire after desire. We want this; we want that. But when one reaches the ripening level of consciousness, he is longing to know more about life, feeling the gloominess and desolation of the sunset, so he wants to begin the spiritual path. To start down this road means to walk on the path of the bodhisattva. We long to achieve enlightenment in ourselves, and once it is attained, this energy will naturally find its own way to spread and permeate to others. Therefore, saving oneself is saving others. This is the first vow of the bodhisattva.
The Second Bodhisattva Vow
The second vow is: “Afflictions are boundless, I vow to end them.” On what ground of human nature are all sufferings based? On the ground of your concept of the self, your personality, your vanity, your arrogance, etc. However, if we thoroughly comprehend the way of the practice and dwell peacefully in breathing meditation, meaning we are always the ones that are observing our breath going in and out, are always the witnesses seeing afflictions coming and going, are always the observers watching every single thought racing back and forth, then sufferings will have no place to attach to. Nor there is any condition for a thought or an affliction to arise. Why? Because all sufferings are knitted by our thoughts, our unconsciousness, our fear, anger, and desires.
A strange thing worth mentioning here is that our consciousness has the ability to feed the self. But the self is extremely sly, deceitful, and devious. And how is it deceitful? The self will try all means to establish its existence. First of all, it wants everybody to pay attention to it, to recognize it, to love it. This is very true. We are human beings. At the evolutionary level, a human is a social animal and cannot live alone. When we live in society, we often want others to pay attention to us, to take care of us, and to love us. This is very normal. We leave the loving arms of our parents just to find another person to lean on. It seems that this principle is permanent. Finding someone to be dependent on, to rely on, so we feel proud that at least there is a person in this world who loves us.
What is the other side of the self? We need someone to be the force of resistance so the ego can establish itself according to its principle. One has to follow the ego’s desires, or if another person has opposing ideas, then the ego will regard this as the resisting and opposing force that it looks for to establish its existence. The self either needs to be loved or it needs to be hated. These two aspects are always a swaying and wobbling boat. There has never been a family life that is not shaking. Happiness is something that is always rocking and unstable. Friendship is always a clash, a conflict. The relationships between parents and their children always struggle with instability and imbalance. It seems that the ego really requires a tug of war contest. And one must pull back and forth all the time. This is the way that the self tries to construct and make itself known to the world.
Once the practice reaches a deeper level, we will realize that every kind of suffering arises from the consciousness of the ego longing to establish itself. The self demands that we nourish it every day in order for it to survive. The Buddha has taught us about the four nutriments of life. Our feelings and emotions need to be fed each day to live. Our eyesight also needs to be fed each day to recognize colors. Our afflictions and pain also need to be fed each day to sustain themselves. Our thoughts also require nourishment each day so that they can form unending strings of incessant thoughts as the voice in our heads.
First of all, the basic feature of the ego is that it always needs conflict and the substance of suffering to feed itself. Secondly, its true nature is emptiness because it needs nutriments in order to survive. If it is not nourished, then it will die. That is its principle. If there is no conflict, it will create conflict. If there is no one to love it, then it will create a lover. If there is no one to hate it, then it will create an enemy. However, if we practice by cutting the source of nutriments for anger and unhappiness step by step, then we are only cutting the branches and we are not digging all the way to the roots. Consequently, the tree of suffering will regrow again, sometimes even faster and bigger. This is an indirect practice that uses a lot of different means to transform suffering and not the direct path of true wisdom that the Buddha pointed to.
What is the path of true wisdom? When we see the self, then the self is the object to be seen. It is outside of us and not the inside. We are the energy that sees the self manifest. If we go into details, then what is the energy that is seeing? It is the observer who is observing the streams of thoughts, the whispering strings of words, the pain and suffering, etc. The murmurs from the self-dialogue of judging and blaming others are all the nutriments that feed the ego. If we can separate ourselves by just being the observers, then all afflictions will naturally drop by themselves; the ego will leave us by itself. Right here, we have succeeded in one thing: slashing all sufferings at the roots! Not trimming branches and offshoots, not plucking leaves and twigs but excavating all the way to the roots, terminating all afflictions immediately in one finger snap!
From this, we refer back to one sentence in the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra that we just heard. “When the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara shines light and sees that the five skandhas are empty, he immediately ends all ills and sufferings.” One only needs to shine the light of insight onto the five skandhas, and then these five skandhas will become empty. Nothing else needs to be done. This is the direct meditation practice by the path of insight, meaning that when the practitioner uses the eye of true mind, the eye of wisdom to look at the five skandhas, then they will be objects to be seen outside of himself. For example, I can see everyone in the meditation hall whether there are one thousand or five hundred or just three people. Consequently, when I look, all friends in the community will become people to be seen, and I am the only one who is aware of the presence of everyone here. If I turn that awareness around and look inside myself and see the skandhas of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, then what are they when I can see them? They are but the objects outside of me and I am the one who is observing them. And even though people try to explain that the body is made from thousands and thousands of small parts combined; even though the feelings are composed of hundreds of different levels of unhappiness, anger, sorrows, anguish; even though people dissect the five skandhas into millions and millions of bits and pieces; they are still the objects to be observed and they are not who we are.
Then what are we? We are the true essence of pure awareness with no thoughts, shining light onto the five skandhas; we are the persons who are observing. We only use the term, “a person who is observing,” to illustrate this notion, but in reality, there is no person at all. It simply is what? It simply is the pure awareness, simply is the knowing, simply is the seeing. We are aware of the five skandhas in the exact same way as we are aware of the breath going in and out. The in-breath and the out-breath are only the objects of our awareness but we are not the in-breath and the out-breath. We are the energy of mindfulness seeing the breath coming in and out. At a deeper level, we are never the feelings of happiness and sorrow, but we are the energy of mindfulness seeing every single feeling of happiness and sorrow coming and going within ourselves. Then at a much deeper level, we are not the stream of thoughts, but we are the energy of mindfulness seeing the stream of thoughts passing back and forth.
By applying this practice of looking deeply into the five skandhas, we will be truly the deepest insight, truly the perfect wisdom, truly the energy of pure awareness. The five skandhas will be outside of us; they will be objects to be seen. Then are they still there or do they disappear? They are still walking back and forth, still eating, still drinking, still behaving as usual, but our mind will not be attached to these skandhas. We are always the seers who are seeing the five skandhas manifesting on the face of this Earth. Furthermore, anger and contentment, sadness and happiness, these emotions can arise inside of us but we are always the seer, the knower. Then obviously, nothing can attach to us! However, it does not mean that at this level of practice, we will disappear and vanish or become cold hearted and unloving. No! That is never the case! We still function as normal human beings, but the afflictions will not muddle or disturb us as they used to before. In short, when we do not identify ourselves with the five skandhas, then the five skandhas are empty in the here and now, in the present moment, although they still appear right in front of us.
This is the second part. When we thoroughly comprehend the true practice, then the roots of suffering will be terminated. Otherwise, we only do an unskillful act in which we clean this unhappiness and another unhappiness comes into existence. We stop one fear and another fear starts. We eliminate this unmindful thought and another unmindful thought turbulently rushes in like rapids of a river. On the other hand, if we realize the true Dharma, walk on the path of the true practice, then all negative emotions in the mind, all bustling thoughts in the head, all birth and death, and all impermanence have nothing to do with us! We are the persons who are sitting on top of the mountain, looking at the streams of people walking, seeing the endless flow of cars driving by, but we never climb into those cars and never let them take us to some far, far away place. Never!
Therefore, by understanding in depth the practice of breathing meditation, we can end all sufferings and save all sentient beings inside us. The important thing is whether we practice it or not! Because terminating all afflictions is not really a hard thing to do at all.
The Third Bodhisattva Vow
Dharma teachings are immeasurable; I vow to learn them. The path of awakening is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it. These are the last two steps of the bodhisattva vows.
How can we learn all the Dharma teachings if they are immeasurable? In nature, even in the strongest and most destructive hurricane, the eye of the storm is still very calm. It always moves along with the hurricane itself. Wherever the storm goes, the eye of the storm will follow. A tornado in the Mideast of America is a violent vortex that can lift an eighteen- wheeler up in the sky. Yet, right in the middle of the vortex, there is no wind. Everything is calm, with light and clear skies.
From that example, we go back to the third vow. In fact, the Dharma teachings are immeasurable. So if we have to study all the different ways to deal with all the suffering, if we have to do this to manage our worries, or do that to control our anger, or practice this to achieve wisdom, or practice that to reach certain stages of meditation, then there are millions of Dharma teachings to be learned. However, if we realize and understand clearly the true Dharma, dwelling peacefully in just one practice of full awareness of breathing or full awareness of the body—in other words, we are always the observer—then all sufferings and afflictions will be burned. In short, we only need the practice of simple observation to manage and get through every problem. Then the immeasurable sufferings will disappear, nowhere to be seen.
Nevertheless, one thing needs to be mentioned here. As practitioners in Buddhism, we cannot reject any practice, nor should we refuse to read the sutras of the Buddha. Besides attaining wisdom and enlightenment for oneself, following the path of a bodhisattva means that the members of the Order of Interbeing have the responsibility of bringing the Buddha’s teachings to application in real life. OI members are the bridge that connects the monastics with the laypeople. Moreover, Vietnamese OI members are also the bridge that connects the Vietnamese community with the Western community and have the mission and the responsibility to contribute the insights of Buddhism for Westerners.
Hence, the path of a bodhisattva is not to refrain from learning from the society that we live in. It is also not to refrain from learning all the teachings of the Buddha. The bodhisattvas who reincarnate have to relearn the schooling from this world. In order to apply Buddhism to everyday life, one must acquire sufficient knowledge both in life and in Buddhist studies. As a matter of fact, one needs to gain knowledge in culture, arts, languages, and different professions. At a standard level of bringing engaged Buddhism to life, besides the practice and the studies of Buddhist sutras, we also need to be proficient and have a clear understanding of the vast information of the world we live in. Only then can we bring the light of the Dharma to contribute to the world. If we are poor in these skills, then when we speak to others, it is just like a person standing at the bottom of a deep, dark valley, trying to lift his head up to speak and hoping people on the top will hear. This will be in vain. And it is not the work of a bodhisattva.
Being a Buddhist and receiving the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings also means that the pathway to study Buddhism cannot stop. Do not allow your level of education to be deficient. Every day, we have to eat food; every day, our knowledge has to mature. The Buddhists who receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings or the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings should have, at their bedside, a compilation of Buddhist scriptures such as the Nikaya (from Pali), the Agama (from Sanskrit), the Heart Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, etc. One should have these as bedside books. Before going to sleep, one should read a few chapters. Right after waking up, one should read a few chapters. We should read the Nikaya literature being translated into English or Vietnamese or other languages.
One word of advice here—we are not yet real bodhisattvas who reincarnate again to save sentient beings. We learn so that we can help ourselves in this life and also help others who come in contact with us. We study so that in the future when we are reborn into this world again, we will have a rich knowledge of Buddhism and will be ready to take part in engaged Buddhism. Imagine the Fourteenth Dalai Lama—what does he do first, every time he reincarnates? After he is found and brought back to Llasa, the first thing to be done is that four or five highly respected Tibetan monks teach the Dalai Lama about Buddhism day and night, following an intense and rigorous curriculum. Even though he has reincarnated fourteen times, he still has to learn Buddhist studies and the normal education and knowledge of this world.
Therefore, please do not think that just learning Buddhist studies is enough. Definitely not! We can use a simple example to illustrate this. If a person with a level of knowledge in various domains is extensive enough, he will present Buddhism without restricting himself in Buddhist terms only. His language will carry the rhythm of poetry with depth. With a type of language that is multifaceted and flexible for many different levels of understanding in the audience, it will be easier to go straight to the minds of the listeners than if he presents Buddhism in only one type of language that is monotonous, with just Buddhist terms.
Therefore, the sentence, “Dharma teachings are immeasurable; I vow to learn them,” means that we need to learn knowledge both from Buddhist scriptures for spiritual life and from worldly studies of ordinary life. There is only one moment when we will not be learning anymore. What moment is that? The moment of not breathing in and out anymore! Only then can we rest! That is the principle.
In fact, when we are still breathing in and out, every day, we must nourish ourselves with wisdom. If we have not achieved wisdom in ourselves, then we will have to take refuge in the wisdom of Buddha. The Buddha is the Enlightened One in this world and his words are completely filled with wisdom. Twenty-six centuries ago, his scriptures prompted his disciples to attain the fruit of Arhat. Now in the present time, the words of Buddha still shine brightly and still lead mankind to attain enlightenment.
Then why don’t we read every single sentence, every single word of the Buddha every morning, every afternoon, and every night? Learning to sing a song can drown our mind in sadness, agony, and bustling noise. Learning a sutra will never bring about this effect. We may not be used to reading sutras, so we might fall asleep, or we will feel very peaceful and vibrantly alive. There is no other effect besides these two. Hence, the third vow means that there are two areas that we need to study. If food can nourish our life, then the path of practice needs many nutriments from studies of the sutras and the education of the world that we live in.
Attaining The Original Vow
Lastly, the path to attain true wisdom is not too hard. It is not far beyond our reach. Why? Because Buddha nature is already inherent inside of us. Our true essence is the bright, alive energy of awareness. It has never adhered to any defilements. It has never adhered to feelings like anger or unhappiness. As a matter of fact, sorrows will come and go. Happiness will come and go. Fear and misery will come and go. Suffering and anxiety will come and go. If we have a little patience, then depression will also come and go. In a human life span of sixty or seventy years, we have touched countless agonies, countless angers, countless afflictions. There have been times when we fell deep into depression. But with patience, everything passed by in its natural course. And we are still alive.
One fact is very clear. Everything comes and goes. But only one thing has never come and gone. What is it? It is our essential nature. It is also the person who is observing sufferings come and go. This state of mind has never been absent in us. What is the correct term for this true essence watching all the objects of affliction? It is the Buddha inside of us. Our own Buddha nature. The enlightenment already inherent in us.
The term, Tiep Hien, has a very deep and broad connotation. One time I heard Thay explain that this phrase means to receive and continue the true essence of all Buddhas manifesting in this life. First of all, it manifests into an impermanent body. Secondly, it manifests into countless actions of compassion and wisdom to save sentient beings. Let us not talk about the extraordinary compassionate deeds of all those great spiritual teachers, but let us talk about the ordinary things in our everyday life. The true essence inside of us is the Buddha nature that has no birth, no death, and is perfectly in stillness. We should take upon ourselves this true essence. We should dwell in the state of being aware of the awareness that is shining vibrantly in the here and now.
And doing this is for what? It is for the realization of true wisdom in an instant, for the realization of the essential nature inherent in us. To live fully in this state of pure consciousness is to complete the path of a member of the Order of Interbeing. Completing this is equivalent to a bodhisattva stepping into life to do compassionate deeds.
We carry a great vow inside of us. At the first level, we are committed to help all laypeople to come to Buddhism through our practice and our conduct. At the next level, we carry and continue the vows of the bodhisattvas of the ten directions and three existences present in this universe, bringing the light of the Dharma to life. And the last level is to complete the path of enlightenment within ourselves, attaining the essence of nirvana already present in us. Consequently, we will be the persons who actually inherit the unshakable suchness and the serenity of our own Buddha nature, returning to the true source of no birth, no death. Such a person is one who has achieved Buddhahood.
How many years has the Order of Interbeing existed? Half a century! Imagine—in this long course of history, it was born from a highly respected spiritual teacher who has tasted the Dharma flavor of both traditions of Buddhism—Theravada and Mahayana. In addition, Thay has a very clear vision about ways to spread the Dharma in the West. Thay’s writings are very appropriate and well suited to the minds of Westerners. Every word brightly shines! Guiding the minds of humans living in modern society to the bodhisattva’s path, skillfully using very simple ways so most people can understand. This is the first aspect.
Secondly, the Order of Interbeing has undergone countless challenges and difficulties. Those who have long been OI members should have tea meditation with Sister Chan Khong to collect facts to write about the history of creating and building the Order of Interbeing. If we do not do this, we will lose much information that is as precious as diamonds. There is no way we can foresee what will happen tomorrow. Consequently, the important thing to be mentioned here is that we still have a chance right now.
Thirdly, if possible, we should compare and contrast the bodhisattva precepts and the Order of Interbeing precepts. This is just a suggestion so everyone can study these precepts and distinguish the depth of similarities and differences between the two traditions. Every word is a unique masterpiece of insight that we have not had the chance to explore and develop.
The fourth aspect here is that completely achieving the virtue of a bodhisattva is not something too far to reach. It is not hard at all. As humans living in this world, up to a certain point, up to a certain age, up to a certain level of consciousness, people will feel that all materialistic needs are insipid and tasteless. Happiness is not achieved by the way of material possessions, nor greed and desire, nor fame and power. True happiness is touching the pure land of no birth, no death, right within oneself. That is called a practitioner who is walking on the bodhisattva path.
And lastly, do not think that this practice carries an individual characteristic. Never! If one achieves the true virtues of peace and joy, then the path of wisdom and compassion will naturally open up, and one will know what needs to be done. One will contribute to the well-being of mankind in two ways. The first way is to do it quietly, and the second is to actively engage in real life. For those who already know the way to practice, they have the wisdom to determine the direction of their actions. These are the five aspects to be suggested here. Thank you very much, dear friends of the community.
The Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh was born in 1947 in Vietnam. He received full ordination in 1980 and became abbot at the Temple of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Quan The Am) in Da Lat in 1993. In 2001, he was invited by Thich Nhat Hanh to live at Deer Park Monastery, where he continues to reside. Collections of his talks in English are presented in Be Like A Tree: Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh and The Ten Oxherding Paintings: Zen Talk by Thich Phuoc Tinh. He is also the author of three books in Vietnamese, one on the Forty-Two Chapters Sutra and two of Dharma talks sharing wisdom for everyday life.
This Dharma talk was given on November 8, 2015, during a Vietnamese retreat at Deer Park Monastery. The talk was translated from Vietnamese into English by Monglan Ho and edited by Natascha Bruckner. An excerpt of this talk appeared in the Mindfulness Bell #71 (Winter/Spring 2016).