Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk born in 1926, is a well-known public figure and practitioner of mindfulness. For today’s Provision, I reprint excerpts from his 1994 essay on generosity. Given the depth and challenge of his reflections, connecting mindfulness and generosity, I encourage you to read the essay when you have the time to read it carefully and reflectively. It holds out the promise of redemptive transformation for one and all.
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
Exploitation, social injustice, and stealing come in many forms. Oppression is one form of stealing that causes much suffering in the world. The moment we vow to cultivate loving kindness, loving kindness is born in us, and we make every effort to stop exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression.
In the First Precept, we find the words “compassion” and “loving kindness.” Compassion and loving kindness are the two aspects of love taught by the Buddha. Compassion is the intention and capacity to relieve the suffering of another person or living being. Loving kindness is the intention and capacity to bring joy and happiness to another person or living being.
These two intentions and capacities seek to cultivate the energy of loving kindness and to learn ways to work for the well-being of all people, animals, plants and minerals. Doing so requires us to look deeply in order to find ways to express it fully. To promote the well-being of all people, animals, plants, and minerals, we have to come together as communities and examine our situations, exercising our intelligence and ability to look deeply so that we can discover appropriate ways to express way of doing so in the midst of real problems.
Suppose you want to help those who are suffering under a dictatorship. In the past you may have tried sending in troops to overthrow their government, but doing so causes the deaths of many innocent people, and may not even succeed in overthrowing the dictator.
Fortunately, there are better ways. If you look more deeply, with loving kindness, you can find a better way to help these people without causing suffering; you may realize that the best time to help is before the country falls into the hands of a dictator. You can then, for example, offer the young people of that country the opportunity to learn democratic ways of governing by giving them scholarships to countries and institutions where they can learn those ways. That would be a good investment for peace in the future.
This could, for example, facilitate democracy from within so as to avoid the “necessity” of bombing countries and sending in troops to “liberate” them. This is just one example of how looking deeply and learning can help us find ways to do things that are more in line with loving kindness. If we wait until the situation gets bad, it may be too late. If we practice the precepts together with politicians, soldiers, businessmen, lawyers, legislators, artists, writers, and teachers, we can find the best ways to practice compassion, loving kindness, and understanding.
It requires time, of course, to practice such generosity. We may want to help those who are hungry, but we are caught in the problems of our own daily lives. Sometimes, one pill or a little rice could save the life of a child, but we do not take the time to help, because we think we do not have the time. In Ho Chi Minh City, for example, there are street children who call themselves “the dust of life.” They are homeless, and they wander the streets by day and sleep under trees at night. They scavenge in garbage heaps to find things like plastic bags they can sell for one or two cents per pound. The nuns and monks in Ho Chi Minh City have opened their temples to these children, and if the children agree to stay four hours in the morning — learning to read and write and playing with the monks and nuns — they are offered a vegetarian lunch. Then they can go to the Buddha hall for a nap.
(In Vietnam, we always take naps after lunch; it is so hot. When the Americans came, they brought their practice of working eight hours, from nine to five. Many of us tried, but we could not do it. We desperately need our naps after lunch.)’
Then at two o’clock, there is more teaching and playing with the children who stay for the afternoon. We can provide them with dinner but the temple does not have a place for them to sleep overnight. It costs only twenty cents for a child to have both lunch and dinner, and it will keep him from being out on the streets, where he might steal cigarettes, smoke, use delinquent language, and learn the worst behavior. By encouraging the children to go to the temple, we help prevent them from becoming delinquent and entering prison later on. It takes time to help these children, not much money. There are so many simple things like this we can do to help people, but because we fail to free ourselves from our own situation and lifestyle, we do nothing at all.
We need to come together as a community, and, looking deeply, find ways to free ourselves so we can practice the Second Precept.: “I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.”“ This sentence is clear. The feeling of generosity and the capacity for being generous are not enough. We also need to express our generosity. We may feel that we don’t have the time to make people happy; we say, “Time is money,” but time is more than money. Life is for more than using time to make money. Time is for being alive, for sharing joy and happiness with others. The wealthy are often the least able to make others happy. Only those with time can do so.
“I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.”“ When you practice one precept deeply, you will discover that you are practicing all five. The First Precept is about taking life, which is a form of stealing — stealing undermines the most precious thing someone has, his or her life.
When we meditate on the Second Precept, we see that stealing, in the forms of exploitation, social injustice, and oppression, are acts of killing — killing slowly by exploitation, by maintaining social injustice, and by political and economic oppression. Therefore, the Second Precept has much to do with the precept of not killing. We see the “inter-being” nature of the first two precepts. This is true of all Five Precepts. Some people formally receive just one or two precepts. I don’t mind, because if you practice one or two precepts deeply, all Five Precepts will be observed.
In 1991, I visited a friend in New York who was dying, Alfred Hassler. We had worked together in the peace movement for almost thirty years. Alfred looked as though he had been waiting for me to come before dying, and he died only a few hours after our visit. I went with my closest colleague, Sister Chan Khong which stands for True Emptiness.
Alfred was not awake when we arrived. His daughter Laura tried to wake him up, but she couldn’t. So I asked Sister Chan Khong to sing Alfred the “Song of No Coming and No Going:” “These eyes are not me, I am not caught by these eyes. This body is not me, I am not caught by this body. I am life without boundaries. I have never been born, I will never die.” The idea is taken from the “Samyutta Nikaya”. She sang so beautifully, and I saw streams of tears running down the faces of Alfred’s wife and children. They were tears of understanding, and they were very healing.
Suddenly, Alfred came back to himself. Sister Chan Khong began to practice what she had learned from studying the sutra “The Teaching Given to the Sick.” She said, “Alfred, do you remember the times we worked together?” She evoked many happy memories we had shared together, and Alfred was able to remember each of them. Although he was obviously in pain, he smiled. This practice brought results right away. When a person is suffering from so much pain, we sometimes can alleviate his suffering by watering the seeds of happiness that are in him. A kind of balance is restored and the pain diminishes.
Throughout our visit, I was practicing massage on his feet, and at one point I asked him whether he felt my hand on his body. When you are dying, areas of your body become numb, and you feel as if you have lost those parts of your body. Doing massage in mindfulness, gently, gives the dying person the feeling that he is alive and being cared for. He knows that love is there. Alfred nodded, and his eyes seemed to say, “Yes, I feel your hands. I know my foot is there.” At one point, he opened his mouth and said, “Wonderful, wonderful.” Then, he sank back to sleep.
Before we left, we encouraged the family to continue to be with Alfred mindfully. The next day I learned that Alfred passed away just five hours after our visit. This was a kind of gift that belongs to the third category. If you can help people feel safe, less afraid of life, people, and death, you are practicing the third kind of gift.
One might compare the course of human life to the shape of a wave, its beginning and its end. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive the wave, and when conditions are no longer sufficient, we do not perceive the wave. Waves are only made of water. We cannot label the wave as existing or not existing. After what we call the death of the wave, nothing is gone, nothing is lost. The wave has been absorbed into other waves, and somehow, time will bring the wave back again. There is no increasing, decreasing, birth, or death.
When we are dying, if we think that everyone else is alive and we are the only person dying, our feeling of loneliness may be unbearable. But if we are able to visualize hundreds of thousands of people dying with us, our dying may become serene and even joyful. “I am dying in community. Millions of living beings are also dying in this very moment. The energy is one and the same. A millions of living beings die millions of others come to life. All of us are doing this together. Such is mystery of life. When we approach that mystery without fear, sorrow, and pain, we are transformed.
The Second Precept, although it sounds simple, is actually a deep practice. We speak of time, energy, and material resources, but time is not only for energy and material resources. Time is for being with others — being with a dying person or with someone who is suffering. Being really present for even five minutes can be a very important gift. Time is not just to make money. It is to produce the gift of true character and the gift of non-fear.
Coaching Inquiries: How have mindfulness and generosity been connected in your life? What things have you noticed? What in life has noticed you? How have those things evoked generosity so as to make things better for one and all?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
Your last Provision was wonderful, Bob! We enjoyed reading what you made of the time you spent with our boys and the fire. I told Callum what you thought of the fire and we had a nice time remembering the experience together.
At the moment Callum and Ethan are captured by a family of cardinals that nested in a bush in front of our house, maybe 3 feet from a window where we can watch them. Three eggs recently hatched and we watch both parents deliver meals and fuss over tiny open beaks. They are beautiful creatures and we are enjoying this birds-eye view into their world.
Thank you for remembering Callum and the fire. We hope and pray that each day brings you healing and blessing in the midst of all the challenges.
In light of your last Provision, you might enjoy the keynote I did last week for 3,000 surgeons which presents mindfulness as part of a suite of 12 commonly used brain states: Keynote Video on Organizing Your Mind. Hang in there!
May you be filled with goodness, peace, joy, and health.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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