Dear Still Water Friends
Years ago, when I was exploring meditation traditions, I was particularly attracted to what I now think of as the “practical wholism” of Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh). His understanding of our inextricable connection to all of life, what he called interbeing, was not only a philosophical or spiritual position, but also manifested as a mindful and grounded way of living. For Thay, everything mattered — our livelihoods, how we talk with those who disagree with us, how we heat or cool our homes, the type of bananas we purchase.
As Thay explained in “The Art of Living,” a 1994 article in The Mindfulness Bell:
Any look at right livelihood entails more than just examining the situation in which we earn our paycheck. Our whole life and our whole society are intimately involved. Everything we do contributes to our effort to practice right livelihood, and we can never succeed one hundred percent. But we can resolve to go in the direction of compassion, in the direction of reducing the suffering. And we can resolve to work for a society in which there is more right livelihood and less wrong livelihood.
However, for those of us who wish to live rightly, difficulties often arise. How do we balance competing values? How do we make good choices that nourish joy and reduce suffering?
As I was trying to come up with a nice cognitive understanding of how we can make good choices, something Thay wrote in Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism knocked over my stack of rational building blocks.
A newspaper reporter once asked me how we could prevent corporations from destroying the environment for the sake of making a profit. I said that giving them a Dharma talk about the harm they are doing would not address the root cause. The root of the problem is that making a profit is many people’s idea of happiness. We need to allow them to taste other kinds of happiness that don’t harm the environment, which is why we organize retreats for businesspeople, so that they can experience for themselves another kind of happiness, a deep and real happiness, which does not harm themselves, others, or our precious planet.
In Answers from the Heart, Thay expands on his understanding that there is a reciprocal relationship between our true happiness and actions that deeply nourish those around us and our environment.
Question: My desire for achievement has led to much suffering. No matter what I do, it never feels like it’s enough. How can I make peace with myself?
Answer: The quality of your action depends on the quality of your being. Suppose you’re eager to offer happiness, to make someone happy. That’s a good thing to do. But if you’re not happy, then you can’t do that. In order to make another person happy, you have to be happy yourself. So there’s a link between doing and being. If you don’t succeed in being, you can’t succeed in doing. If you don’t feel that you’re on the right path, happiness isn’t possible. This is true for everyone; if you don’t know where you’re going, you suffer. It’s very important to realize your path and see your true way.
Happiness means feeling you are on the right path every moment. You don’t need to arrive at the end of the path in order to be happy. The right path refers to the very concrete ways you live your life in every moment. In Buddhism, we speak of the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. It’s possible for us to live the Noble Eightfold Path every moment of our daily lives. That not only makes us happy, it makes people around us happy. If you practice the path, you become very pleasant, very fresh, and very compassionate.
Look at the tree in the front yard. The tree doesn’t seem to be doing anything. It stands there, vigorous, fresh, and beautiful, and everyone profits from it. That’s the miracle of being. If a tree were less than a tree, all of us would be in trouble. But if a tree is just a real tree, then there’s hope and joy. That’s why if you can be yourself, that is already action. Action is based on non-action; action is being.
There are people who do a lot, but who also cause a lot of trouble. The more they try to help, the more trouble they create even if they have the best intentions. They’re not peaceful, they’re not happy. It’s better not to try so hard but just to “be.” Then peace and compassion are possible in every moment. On that foundation, everything you say or do can only be helpful. If you can make someone suffer less, if you can make them smile, you’ll feel rewarded and you’ll receive a lot of happiness. To feel that you’re helpful, that you’re useful to society: that is happiness. When you have a path and you enjoy every step on your path, you are already someone; you don’t need to become someone else.
In Buddhism, we have the practice of apranihita, aimlessness. If you put an aim in front of you, you’ll be running all your life, and happiness will never be possible. Happiness is possible only when you stop running and cherish the present moment and who you are. You don’t need to be someone else; you’re already a wonder of life.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation, our Dharma sharing will explore the reciprocal relationship between our true happiness and actions that deeply nourish those around us and our environment.
You are invited to join us.