Thich Nhat Hanh rekindles Thailand's consciousness

by Thanong Khanthong, The Nation, May 29, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- As Thais stray from the true path of Buddhism, a Vietnamese monk sheds light on achieving peace and enlightenment

<< Thich Nhat Hanh serves many important lessons that Thai Buddhists take for granted

The message of the Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, world-famous Zen master, seems like a quiet whisper amid the current clamour for Jatukam Ramathep amulets among Thais.

But if you listen attentively, you'll find his teaching is very close to the Buddhist heart. He simply says that you too can become an enlightened person if you focus your mind on the present and become mindful or conscious of your daily activities.

To him, nirvana is not something that lies in the future or in the past but something you can experience right now, with every breath you take.

Ironically, the voices of the leaders of Buddhism in this country are nowhere to be heard. In fact, they have not raised any alarm over the spread, like wildfire, of the Jatukam Ramathep amulets, which have become a new source of hope, luck and protection for desperate Thais.

One estimate puts the number of Jatukam Ramathep amulets now on the market at four million, priced from several hundred baht to more than a million each. But soon the prices will burst like a stock-market bubble.

We have moved further and further away from the original Dharma teaching of the Buddha.

We probably needed an outsider like Hanh, who is a Mahayana monk, to remind us, as followers of Theravada Buddhism, how far we have deviated from true Buddhist doctrine.

Eighty-one-year-old Hanh's teaching is similar to the Most Venerable Buddhadasa Bikkhu, who went against the mainstream Buddhism of his time by directing us right to the heart of Dharma without the need for rituals cloaked by orthodox practices.

Buddhadasa said every one of us could attain enlightenment by looking at a flower and by experiencing eternity in the state of the present.

Hanh, who is participating in the Visakha Bucha celebrations as a guest of the Thai government, also tells us to experience Dharma directly by awakening our minds. To him, Buddhism is simply a vehicle to help us attain enlightenment. It is the means, not the goal.

This is similar to a situation when you want to travel to a destination, say, Chiang Mai. Once you have reached Chiang Mai, you forget your comfortable aircraft or your car.

Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk who now resides in France and has followers around the globe, further explains that you can apply this concept of mindfulness to all kinds of activities in your daily life such as driving or walking. Most of the time, you find that you allow your normal life to be guided by instinct rather than by consciousness or mindfulness.

Take driving to work as an example. Most often, you are surprised to find that you have arrived at the parking lot of your office without realising how you have done it. In this respect, you are driving your car by instinct, while your mind is wandering everywhere. An accident could occur at any time.

But if you drive with consciousness, you realise every moment, every second. You are thus in firm control of your driving.

More than 2,000 years have passed since the Lord Buddha propounded his concept of space and time. But the state of the present is very tricky. Once you realise it, it has already become the past. And you can't grasp the future because it has not arrived yet.

So what exactly is this very elusive state of the present? It is neither the past nor the future, and it exists in a fraction of a millionth of a second.

Buddhist Dharma explains that our soul exists in a state of the present, similar to the light of a candle, which comes into being and vanishes almost simultaneously. The light comes into being by the burning of the wax before disappearing as the wax burns out. But then new wax gives the light a new lease of life before vanishing again in this life-and-death cycle.

So the candlelight is simply an illusion of this alternate burning and vanishing process. If we understand this very nature of our mind, then we'll realise the way of the world and become enlightened.

Hanh's teaching has the power to motivate people from the West because they can apply it to their lives.

He wants you to focus on the present and then do your best, live your best and then think well, talk well and act well.

But if you are to observe the practice of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand now, you'll have a hard time understanding what Buddhism is all about. This has given rise to the misunderstanding that Buddhism is turning one's back on the world.

Thai monks are no longer role models as they are increasingly involved in worldly scandals.

Do we have to close our eyes to the world, close our ears to the sounds, avoid the taste of food, avoid smells and ignore our senses? This is not necessarily so.

For us, as lay Buddhists, we can live a normal life by simply being aware of our activities every single moment. We can let our conscious mind, instead of instinct, guide us. Then we will have compassion towards our fellow human beings. Then we can love peace, accept differences and have more understanding of others.

This is the essence of Hanh's teaching, which makes him one of the world's most popular Zen monks.