By Life Positive April 1999 France-based Vietnamese Zen master and proponent of mindfulness meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh, sheds new light on the correlation between psychotherapy and Buddhism, and how Buddhist psychology can be applied to life through elegantly simple ways Buddhism is usually described as a philosophy, a religion. But it is also a kind of psychotherapy, which Buddhists who are not sick practice so that they don’t become sick. Those who are ill practice to be healed. The first practice is easier. When you do not suffer much, it’s easy to get in touch with the wonderful things in life. I believe that Buddhism and psychotherapy can learn from and help each other. Sometimes Buddhists practicing in a zendo deal with remote issues such as enlightenment. They think you should deal with jealousy, anger and hatred before you practice meditation. This is wrong. Buddhist practice has to do with daily problems that psychotherapy can help address. On the other hand, psychotherapists can learn from Buddhist psychology, which is 2,500 years old. Buddhism is based on how the mind works. In Buddhism, we have a treasure of literature called the Abhidharma and a sophisticated teaching on mind called Vijnanavada (The School That Teaches Knowing). Vijnana means consciousness. A deep level of consciousness is called alaya-vijnana, the storehouse. eelings, perceptions, suffering and happiness exist in two forms. The first form is that of a seed. Suppose you learned to smile when you were five years old. You may not have smiled in the last 20 years, but the seed of smiling is still there. Because you have not manifested this seed on the conscious level, mano-vijnana, your seed of smiling becomes weak. When someone says something to you, it enters your mano-vijnana. Everything manifested here engenders a similar seed in alaya-vijnana, which makes the original seed stronger. If you allow the seeds of sorrow to monopolize your mano-vijnana, you continue to plant new seeds of the same nature in your alaya-vijnana. Seeds influence and transform each other. Practice allows the seeds of peace, joy and happiness to come up and be strong. One day, I lost a close friend, who was gracious and gave me a lot of joy. He had a heart attack and died during the night. I could not sleep the following night because the loss was so painful. So I practiced breathing. I lay on my bed visualizing the beautiful cedar trees I had planted in our yard. During walking meditation, I used to stop and bow to these cedars. I hugged them, breathing in and out. It seemed that these cedars always responded to my hugging and breathing. That night I invited these images up. I just breathed in and out. I became only the trees and the breath. It was very helpful. Each of us has moments of difficulty. When we are not able to deal with them, we have to ask our seeds of joy to come up. In this way, we counterbalance the suffering. When I was in Vietnam, the war was intense. People outside the country did not know the war’s true nature. I accepted an invitation to speak about the war at Cornell University in the USA and then made a tour of North America, Europe and Asia, telling people that the Vietnamese didn’t want the war. Sometimes our voices were lost in the sound of bombs and mortar, and we had to burn ourselves alive to draw attention. But people thought our actions were political.After the tour, I was not allowed to go back to Vietnam. I was not popular with either the anti-Communist or the Communist government. During that first year of exile, I frequently dreamt of going home. The image I have of my childhood is a beautiful green hill with trees, flowers and small cottages. I dreamt of going back, but as soon as I arrived at the foot of the hill, some obstacle was there and I could not climb up. Then I would wake up. At that time, I was also practicing mindful living, recognizing what is beautiful, peaceful and good in Europe and America. There were trees, flowers and fruits that do not exist in Vietnam, and I practiced being in touch with them.After some time, the dream stopped. I did not have to analyze it. The new seeds I had planted took good care of the bad seeds, which were the feeling of being in exile, the feeling of not being with my friends in Vietnam who were in difficulty. Also, as I worked and supported the peace work back home, I planted seeds that helped transform the seeds of suffering.Most of us ask the question: ‘What is wrong?’ We forget to ask: ‘What is right?’ Many things are not wrong. When you focus your attention only on what is wrong, you can make the situation worse. It is wise to meditate on your capacity to enjoy peace, happiness and joy, your capacity to be in touch with what is refreshing, healing and wonderful in the present moment.During the war, we were so busy helping the wounded that we sometimes forgot to smell the flowers. Night has a pleasant smell, especially in the country. But we would forget the smells of mint, coriander, thyme and sage. I would mention these herbs to the peace workers so they could be in touch with them.Southeast Asian refugees have a lot of pain within themselves. Many have lost their fathers, mothers or children. But when they come to Plum Village, our monastery near Paris, they don’t show any of this. They are advised to practice breathing, smiling, looking at children. We tell people to make the children happy. By doing so, they get happiness. Last year, a 16-year-old girl came from England. We did not know she was mentally disturbed, that she had been seeing a therapist. In Plum Village, she lived among other young people without any special attention. After a month, she went back to England where she was staying with other children cared for by British social workers. In their view she was transformed. She showed no signs of maladaptation and also tried to help the other children around her. COMMUNITY IS THE KEYThe existence of healthy, joyful communities is important, and psychotherapists need to take the lead in organizing such communities. Then we can send people who need help there. Community members will become helpers. First, they will help without knowing about it. That’s the best kind of help. Then you can identify people who need special care and select people to help them. The people who need care will not know they are being helped. They will suddenly find that someone is spending time caring for them. That’s the way we do it in Plum Village. This model is deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha is important because he is the teacher. The dharma is the way shown by the Buddha, but without the sangha (community) it is difficult to practice. It might be a Catholic or Jewish sangha, but it must be a mindful and happy one. In Buddhist circles, there are teachers and students of the dharma. But the dharma is not just a theory. One cannot give students a theory. One has to give them the fruit of one’s practice and experience. Therefore, teachers have to practice. The same is true of western psychotherapy. If therapists do not practice what they are trying to achieve for their clients, their therapy is not good. A therapist’s practice should be directed to herself first because if she’s not happy, she cannot help people. If I needed therapy, I would look for a therapist who is happy. As a teacher, I have to practice. That means I am also a student. This illustrates the principle of non-duality. By looking deeply, I can see the student in the teacher and vice versa. If there is no teacher within the student, the student has no future. A good teacher tries her best to give birth to the teacher in the student. In this way, the student is not dependent on the teacher. We have to practice in such a way that the person we help can soon be on his own. The way to do this is to give birth to the therapist in the client. A therapist should be able to share everything with her clients because if something has worked for the therapist, it will work for her clients. Some therapists say they have learned a lot by practicing meditation, but hate to share it with their clients. I don’t understand that. If you cannot use your insights to help your clients, it means you have not been able to integrate those insights into your life and understanding. INTERBEING I hear from Buddhist psychotherapists that the Buddhist teachings about non-self cannot be applied in therapy. They think that for people to recover their mental health, they have to recover their healthy self. Talking about non-self will confuse them. Some people think that psychotherapy deals with the ‘self’ and Buddhist practices dissolve it. Others say before we can dissolve the self, we have to have a healthy self. I don’t think that is so. You cannot dissolve something that is not there. What have to be dissolved are our wrong views concerning the self. It’s important that when we look at a person, we know that he or she does not exist alone. No self exists independently of other beings. Buddhists, in their practice, are working for a healthy self, a true self, understanding that this self is made only of non-self elements. Suppose we look at a leaf. There are many leaves on a tree, but each leaf is individual. When we look deeper, we see the leaf cannot exist without non-leaf elements like sunshine, earth, roots, trunk, branches and so on. Non-leaf elements maintain the leaf. In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, there’s a term I translate as interbeing. Interbeing means that you cannot be a separate entity. You can only interbe with other people and elements. You could also call it true self, the awareness that you are made wholly of non-self elements. When we look at a flower deeply enough, we see non-flower elements in it, like sunshine. Sunshine is not a flower, but you cannot ha
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