Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is often referred to as Thay (pronounced Tie) by his students. Thay means teacher in Vietnamese. Searching for a magazine earlier in the week to bring with me to read on my lunch break at work I came across an old edition of Shambhala Sun from January of 2012 featuring Thay on the cover. It in there’s an interview with Thay and a personal account from the magazine’s deputy editor on having attended one of Thay’s large retreats. As I re-read the interview I was reminded once again of how much I appreciate Thay and his teachings and how grateful I am to be one of his students.
A word for word transcription from the magazine interview with Thay by Andrea Miller of Shambhala Sun follows here:
AM: What would you say to someone who finds sitting meditation painful and difficult and they struggle to do it?
Thay: Don’t do it anymore.
Thay: Yes, yes. If you don’t find it pleasant to sit, don’t sit. You have to learn the correct spirit of sitting. If you make a lot of effort when you sit, you become tense and that creates pain all over your body. Sitting should be pleasant. When you turn on the television in your living room, you can sit for hours without suffering. Yet when you sit for meditation, you suffer. Why? Because you struggle. You want to succeed in your meditation, and so you fight. When you are watching television you don’t fight. You have to learn how to sit without fighting. If you know how to sit like that, sitting is very pleasant.
When Nelson Mandela visited France once, a journalist asked him what he liked to do the most. He said that because he was so busy, what he liked to do the most was just to sit and do nothing. Because to sit and do nothing is a pleasure – you restore yourself. That’s why the Buddha described it as like sitting on a lotus flower. When you’re sitting, you feel light, you feel fresh, you feel free. And if you don’t feel that when you sit, then sitting has become a kind of hard labor.
Sometimes if you don’t have enough sleep or you have a cold or something, maybe sitting is not as pleasant as you’d wish. But if you are feeling normal, experiencing the pleasure of sitting is always possible. The problem isn’t to sit or not to sit, but how to sit. How to sit so that you can make the most of it – otherwise you’re wasting your time.
AM: You put a lot of emphasis on enjoyment – on enjoying breathing, sitting, walking, enjoying life altogether – than many other Buddhist teachers do.
Thay: In the teachings of the Buddha, ease and joy are elements of enlightenment. In life, there’s a lot of suffering. Why do you have to suffer more practicing Buddhism? You practice Buddhism in order to suffer less right?
The Buddha is a happy person. When the Buddha sits, he sits happily, and when he walks, he walks happily. Why do I want to do it differently from the Buddha? Maybe people are afraid that others might say, “You are not very serious in your practice. You smile, you laugh, you are having a good time. To practice seriously you have to be very grim, very serious.” Maybe the people who want to get more donations put it like that – to leave the impression they practice more seriously than other people.
Take the practice of sitting all night. You aren’t allowed to rest and you think that is intensive practice, but you suffer all night and drink coffee in order to stay awake. That’s nonsense. It’s the quality of the sitting that can help you transform, not sitting a lot and suffering while you do. Sitting and walking meditation are for enjoying, also for looking deeply and developing insight. That insight can liberate us from fear, anger, and despair.
I laugh every time I read Thay’s simple, direct response to her question about what people should do if sitting meditation is difficult: Don’t do it anymore! Of course then he goes into more explanation and provides a clearer picture about what he means by that. He’s not saying we should necessarily stop sitting, he’s saying we should change our attitude around the sitting and stop fighting against it so that we can sit with joy and ease. And if we’re not able to do that then the sitting is a waste of time.
I also like how he addresses the outward display of a happy person and how someone might worry that others view them as not being as serious of a practitioner if they laugh and smile and have a good time. I can relate to having once felt that way myself, especially when I began to put diligent effort into cultivating more joy in my life. But now I’m over it! I hardly ever worry about what others think anymore and it’s incredibly liberating :)
Thank you dearest Thay for showing me the way towards being more mindful, joyful, and free. And for sharing your insights, practice, and humor. I am a part of your continuation and I see clearly that I carry your teachings within me.