Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh explores how we can joyfully bring mindfulness into everyday activities like phone calls, driving, and walking.
This special episode of the Be Here Now Network Guest Podcast I hosted by Jackie Dobrinska, Love Serve Remember Foundation’s Director of Outreach and Education, and brought to you by the Ojai Foundation. We present the audio recording and full transcription of Thich Nhat Hanh’s luminous Dharma Talk ‘under the teaching tree.’ If you would like to follow along with onscreen captions, click below to watch this episode on Youtube:
“In my country, each village has a temple. It’s like a church, and there is a huge bell hanging in the tower, in the bell tower. And the bell is for the whole village to practice—not only for the monks and nuns. And every time the people hear the bell, they are supposed to practice – stop the talking, stop the thinking, and go back to the breathing.
It has been like that for 2000 years. But sometimes people forget. They think that the bell is to tell us time to go and cook, and do something like that. But if you practice the bell of mindfulness, to go back to yourself and breathing, you would like it because it taps you to to be yourself, to be alive, and as, in the west, there’s no Buddhist temple, you might like to use the church bell as a bell of mindfulness.
Or the wind can be a bell of mindfulness also. Four, five years ago I gave a talk to the Canadians, and during the talk the church nearby rang the bell, and the bell lasted very long. It was maybe five minutes, and I stopped and breathed, like that. And it turns out that these five minutes of non-talking is the best of the talk—not only to me, but to people who came and listened.
One year we had a retreat here in Ojai, and when we came, there was a fire all around, and there was a lot of smoke and noises because the helicopters, for five or six minutes, came up through the sky and produced that kind of noise which is not very pleasant; especially for us who have gone through the war, and helicopters mean rockets, bombs, and things like that.
So all of us were disturbed by the noise of the helicopters. And finally, in the afternoon, I asked everyone to make use of the noise. And everytime we hear the helicopters—whether we are in a Dharma Talk, or in walking meditation—we will stop, breathe, and say, “Listen, listen – this wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.”
A number of us did not believe that we could succeed, but after a few hours we all realized that it is possible, it was possible to practice with the helicopters. So from that time on, the noise did not bother us anymore.
And, I think, this practice of the bell of mindfulness can be used in your office every time the telephone rings. That is called ‘telephone meditation,’ that many people in Europe and in North America have already practiced, and they love it. Every time the phone rings, it creates a sort of vibration in our nervous systems.
We don’t know who is calling and what is the matter. So in order to find out, we rush to the telephone and pick it up. We cannot resist. So, telephone meditation consists in staying where you are and breathing, using the ring as a bell of mindfulness, and breathing in, breathing out, quietly. We know we can afford to do that because nobody hangs up after the first ring.
If they really have something important to tell us, then they would wait at least three or four. So you can practice. Breathing in, I calm my body; breathing out, I smile. And when it rings for the second time, you can still do that. And when you breathe and smile for the second time, your smile will be more solid.
Try and see.
And, when you breathe for the third time, in and out, you go slowly to the telephone and you pick it up. And there you are with the telephone, smiling and still breathing. And this is for the good for the other person. Not only for yourself, but for the good of the other person.
And I’m sure that the quality of the conversation will be better by that kind of practice. It’s very simple, but it is very effective. If you are the one who makes the phone call, and then you do like this, you stick on the phone.
The original Vietnamese has only 20 words, but this is the translation roughly. “Words can travel thousands of miles. And they are to give us more understanding and mutual acceptance. I vow that my words will be like gems. I vow that my words will be like embroideries.”
And you stick it to the phone. Every time you want to make a phone call, you put your right hand on it and you breathe. You breathe two times because each line is one breath – in, out; in, out. It means, you give yourself a chance to be more of yourself. And at the same time, you vow that you will practice right speech, loving speech. So we need to remind ourselves. And then you take that, pick it up, and you make the dial.
In France, there are eight numbers. So the people who breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, four more at a time. They do it slowly, they don’t have to rush. And then when they hear the first ring, they know that the other person is still breathing and smiling. So, they tell themselves, “He is breathing, why not me?” So they practice breathing at the same time, and we have the chance to do that three times, at least. And imagine the two people on the two ends of the line breathing and smiling. That is beautiful.
You cannot resist having a good conversation in that instance. In Plum Village, where I live, we practice telephone meditation very, very well. Every time the phone rings, everyone stands there and breathes. They enjoy it so much that nobody wants to come to the phone. So if you want to make a phone call to Plum Village, remember, and be patient, and breathe, until someone comes to the phone and answer you.
Years ago, a person in America told me that he practiced breathing between phone calls. Because sometimes he had to make 10 more phone calls in a row. And he said that it helps very much.
On telephone calls, words can travel thousands of miles. They are to build up more understanding and mutual acceptance. I vow that words of mine will be like gems. I vow that words of mine will be like embroideries.
By the way, I also have a [practice] for driving.
Before I start the car, I know where I go. That’s two lines: before I start the car, I know where I go. If the car goes fast, I go fast. That’s the data. It’s simple, but this is what it means. Many times we don’t really need the car, but we still take it and use it, and that is very bad for our and environment.
We usually take our car in order to flee from ourselves, to go somewhere to escape our loneliness, our being alone – we cannot bear it. And therefore, I contribute to the destruction of our environment. Therefore, when you are about to start a car, you say, “Before I start a car, I know where I go.” If I’m mindful that this is not really important, then I shall not use the car. I put the key in my pocket and I go for a walking meditation. And this is the best.
Otherwise, I’m going to my own destruction, and the destruction of my own environment. Because a lot of forest land has been destroyed during the past five years because of the acid rain. And therefore, the practice is to remind me of the danger of being too much in my car. If the car goes fast, I go fast.
We usually think of ourselves as the master, and the car only as an instrument. We have a sovereignty over that instrument, but that is not the case in many instances. You know that with a gun, a person becomes much more dangerous.
But a person who came and shot the shot… he was a person, but with a gun, with an instrument. A person, an artist, with a musical instrument, becomes much more powerful also. And, we know that mankind has become very dangerous because they possess nuclear weapons. They can destroy life on earth.
And we are not sure at all that humans can control the situation now. We are very much subjected to fear, and therefore we may just destroy ourselves just because of fear. So if the car goes fast, I go fast to my destruction, the instrument.
That story, the Zen story, about someone riding on a horse, and who cannot control the horse. And when someone on the sidewalk, yelling at him, asking him where he’s going, he said, “I don’t know. You ask the horse.” It’s funny, but it is our situation now, because we have produced enough to destroy ten times our earth, but we still continue to, to make more. So it’s not funny. It’s the real situation.
And when you drive, and if you arrive at the cross section that has a red light, you might get irritated because the red light is an enemy that prevents you to go very quickly to the place you want to arrive. And if you know how to look at the red light and breathe, the red light becomes a bell of mindfulness.
And then, if you practice, you look at the red light as a friend, as a Buddha, as a teacher, to remind you that, well, you don’t have to go there to be alive – you are alive right now. And you relax. You breathe in and breathe out calmly and smiling, and you transform an irritating moment into a peaceful moment.
Because the destination sometimes is very boring, much more boring than the present moment, and we know what is our final destination—the graveyard, the cremation site—and therefore we should not hurry to go there. We do not want to go into the direction of death. We want to go to where life is; and where life is, is the present moment. So it’s the very moment when you drive. So drive peacefully, drive happily. And that is why practicing walking meditation makes you more able to drive. Because when you practice stepping on the beautiful earth like that, you learn to bring every moment to the present moment.
Every step brings you back to the present moment. And that is why walking like that is not really walking, it’s not really for arriving. Walking like that is stopping – stopping to be alive in the present moment. And therefore, walking meditation is one of the most effective ways of practice.
And if during the day you have moments of 5, of 10 minutes, you might like to practice walking meditation. Going from one building to another, you practice walking meditation. And slow walking will transform you, will help you to look at things in a different way.
And that is why yesterday I urged that you practice only walking meditation while going to the toilet, going to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to your tent – always walking meditation, nothing else. Because, if there is no working meditation, life is lost in these moments, in this moment.
For many of us, there’s no doubt that the correct practice will bring us joy and healing. And we do not have to wait for a long time to see the effect of the practice. Practice can bring you joy and peace, on this more or less level, right after the first hour of practice.
There are people who come to Plum Village to practice for one year. There are those who practice for a longer time. There are people who do not have any problem at all, but who come for practicing.
And I have been in retreats where people are practicing joyously. They don’t have problems, but they practice in order not to have problems, and to be more joyful in their daily life. In Plum Village, where I live, many families come during the season of summer to practice, and most of them are refugees. More than three-fourths of them are refugees; only one fourth are non-Vietnamese practitioners.
And, the refugees, they have wounds in themselves, they have left everything, they have suffered and death, many casualties within their families. But when they come to Plum Village, they come as family. And if you come and visit us during summer, you see that they are very joyful. Everything they do in the day is joyful – sitting, walking, singing, chanting, meditation, everything. You make it joyful and they practice joyfulness. That does not mean that they don’t have the seat of suffering in themselves, but because they practice like that, they reduce the suffering that is in themselves. So she was very correct right when she said last night that, “We can be joyful with the presence of our pain in ourself.” That’s true with the Vietnamese or refugees.
So that every time we stop talking, we hear the birds, and the wind, the bell.
And the other members who come there, there are those who do not have big problems, but there are those who do have problems. But if in a community, there are many who have a balance within themselves; and he who can show joy and share joy with other people, that is healthy community, a community where people can profit the most. But if the community has most of the people who practice there are having big pains in themselves, that is difficult, and it looks more like a hospital than a practice center. And the best thing is to have the majority who practice to increase their joy and happiness, and just a very small minority to come for healing big pain within themselves.
So this is true with our retreats. There are many retreats where people are more joyful, like the one we just had in Santa Barbara. And I enjoy it very much.
It is exactly like medicine; that is, the practice to prevent pain and suffering to arise. And there is a purpose to heal the pain, the suffering that is already existing. And it is clear that when you have some balance in yourself, and that you are not so much dominated by your pain, your practice would be much easier.
That is why I always say that, don’t wait until the situation gets bad in order to begin the practice. Practice right away, when you do not have many problems. The practice of massage is the same. You don’t have problems, but if you practice massage to help your blood to circulate well, then you will prevent many diseases that can happen to you. So this is the same thing. The purpose of walking, of smiling, of thinking, the practice of relaxation, of being in touch with the wonders of life, is very important.
I’ll tell you an example. One day we lost a friend in Plum Village. He’s a very wonderful person. He’s one of the French men, one of the persons that I consider to be one of the best friends we had in France. He brings us a lot of joy. He taught us how to cultivate the land in the area. Every time he appeared, we found joy and confidence. He’s busy, but he always takes five minutes to come and have a cup of tea with us. And spending five minutes with him is a joy, a real joy. And one day we learned that he had died because of a heart attack. And that gave all of us a shock. All of us had already realized that he’s a precious gift to us, but all of us regretted that we did not profit the maximum from him. That is our common feeling when you lose a friend, someone that is near to us.
And that day we came together and discussed how to help his family. And then we chanted the Heart Sutra for him, and we all sit down, and think and speak of him as a gift. And then, I said that, “Well, we usually do not cherish what we have enough in a present moment. We wait until we lose them in order to cry to suffer. So we should learn a very hard lesson about the loss of our friend.” And that afternoon, many permanent residents in Plum Village asked permission to go back and see their father, mother, their family. I understood. So I urged them to go. Some went to Holland, some went to Switzerland.
And so, that night I could not sleep. It was painful to lose a friend like that. The pain was dripping out my heart, and I could not sleep. I said that I have to sleep because I have things to do tomorrow. So the way I did it is to invite the three trees that I had planted 10 years ago in my garden, to come with me. And I contemplated these trees, and I breathed.
Now, they are very high. And during my walking meditation, I used to stop and come and hug them with a lot of awareness – hugging a tree looking up at the green with mindfulness. And to me, they responded to my hugging and breathing.
And then after that I invited the Little Bamboo to come, Little Bamboo. She was only 6, 5, 6. She’s a very cute little girl who comes to Plum Village very often. She mastered Vietnamese and French. When she comes to Plum Village, she only speaks Vietnamese, and she behaves exactly like a Vietnamese little girl.
And, I did not know that she has another capacity of being with the French children. So one day, several French children came, and she found herself very at ease, like a fish in the water. She played with them, her friends, and she behaved exactly like a French girl. And, she came, she began to come to Plum Village at the age of two and a half. And she’s so cute that all the children all wanted to hold her. So she did not have much occasion to walk on on the soil of Plum Village.
And so, I invited her back to my consciousness. I was smiling with the image of Little Bamboo when I fell asleep. So the practice that night is to use an image that is refreshing, that is healing, in order to counterbalance the image of death, suffering. And I bowed formally on this new image and I practiced breathing and smiling on it. And the result is that I could sleep during that night. And that is what everyone can do, if you live mindfully, and if you could get in touch with the wonderful things in our daily life—like that tree, or that little girl, and many other things—and then we have a kind of reserve within ourselves for the sake of difficult moments.
And therefore, we practice in order to be in touch with life in each moment is very important. They counterbalance the suffering which is in us. The sky, the moon, the stars, the trees, the ocean, this now—they belong to all of us and we have equal opportunity to enjoy them.
But there are those who have more chance, because they have the capacity of getting in touch, and it needs a little bit of practice in order to not to overlook.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh