I don’t think I would know about real happiness if it weren’t for Thich Nhat Hanh. By happiness, I mean being able to accept and enjoy life as it is, rather than wanting it to be different. Although this kind of happiness isn’t my constant state of being, I know it is available all the time, and I’m faithfully traveling the path of practice that makes happiness possible. I owe this understanding to Thich Nhat Hanh.
“Thây” (Vietnamese for teacher) was born in 1926 in Vietnam. He became a Buddhist monk at age sixteen. His years as a novice monk included studying the canon of Buddhist teachings and training in the practice of mindfulness. He explains in his book The Art of Power:
The practice of mindfulness requires only that whatever you do, you do with your whole being. You have to invest one hundred percent of yourself in doing even very simple things, like picking up a pen, opening a book, or lighting a stick of incense. As a novice monk, several times a day I had to light incense to offer on the altar of the meditation hall. I was taught to pick up the stick of incense with both hands, the left hand on top of the right hand, which picks up the stick of incense. A stick of incense is very light. Why do you have to use both hands? The idea is that you have to invest one hundred percent of yourself into this simple act of picking up an incense stick. When you strike the match and light the incense, or put the tip of the incense stick into the flame of a candle, you have to be with the act of lighting one hundred percent. This is the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice is the heart of waking up to life – being present in the rich, ever-changing present moment. Thây’s simple, elegant teachings are doorways to mindfulness practice for many people. He emphasizes compassion, understanding and love as both root and fruition of one’s practice.
As a monk in his homeland during the Vietnam War (known there as the American War), Thây built a sangha dedicated to mindful living and peace. He founded the Zen “Order of Interbeing,” a name that reflects the interdependence of all life, to describe how this order’s social activism goes hand in hand with spirituality.
Thây visited the United States in 1966 to represent his people’s wish to end the war. His government saw his peace work as suspicious and exiled him from his homeland. He finally returned to Vietnam in 2006, accompanied by hundreds of members of the Order of Interbeing. During those forty years in exile, he had built a monastic sangha of over 500 monks and nuns, as well as a worldwide network of laypersons’ sanghas too numerous to count. He also established three practice centers: Plum Village in France, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, and Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.
Deer Park Monastery
A peaceful oasis in the desert of southern California, Deer Park Monastery is home to monks and nuns ordained in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. Spread over forty acres of dry, oak-chaparral hills, Deer Park was previously inhabited by the California Conservation Corps, which built bungalows, dining halls and roads – the perfect raw materials for a monastery. With help from their lay friends, the monastics made the modest wooden structures suitable for religious life and visitors, and settled here in the early 2000s. They constructed the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall, a grand yet simple structure with a wavelike copper roof and two round, richly colored stained glass windows that mirror each other on the north and south walls.
The land is stunning, serene, vastly silent. From the monastery grounds you can climb dirt roads in several directions, surveying a panorama of lush hillsides (and, in the far distance, the bustling city of Escondido and speeding traffic of Highway 15). The peace-loving residents, thanks to their religious belief in reverence for all life, try to maintain harmonious – or at least non-intrusive – relations with their animal landmates. From coyotes to cottontail rabbits, crickets to rattlesnakes, the place is literally crawling with wildlife! One evening after dinner, we heard coyotes ow-ow-owing like dog pups at play on a nearby hill, and one of the nuns grinned, “Our friends are coming down!” Another sister, who once encountered a rattlesnake in a bamboo patch, described the community’s relationship with rattlers: “We try to put them in a trash can and then move them away, far away. We tell them: please come into this trash can because we want you to live, and if you stay here you might get killed accidentally.”
The “sisters” and “brothers” at Deer Park are the most gentle, nonaggressive humans I’ve ever met. The five precepts of Buddhism guide them to be compassionate, to communicate with “deep listening and loving speech,” and to seek out suffering in order to help transform it into compassion and happiness. Spending a week with them is like traveling to a land before civilization, or a fairy-tale future, where humans are not only decent but deeply kind to each other. It’s hard to believe people can behave like this, until you live with these brown-robed folks and find yourself doing good deeds for strangers without a moment’s thought.
In tandem with compassion, the monks and nuns diligently practice mindfulness – awareness of what is happening here and now. In every moment (as every moment is the only moment), they use the techniques of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful dishwashing, tooth-brushing, etc., to cultivate presence and appreciation in life as it is. This practice was taught by the Buddha more than 2,000 years ago, and has been reinvigorated by Thich Nhat Hanh and many other teachers in modern times, as an antidote to suffering. The Buddha taught that suffering comes from either ignorance, desire, or aversion – in other words, from wrong perceptions and the desire for life to be different than it is. We torture ourselves constantly by regretting or romanticizing the past, or scheming or fearing the future. Past and future are illusions. All we have is this moment. Training our minds and bodies to be awake in this moment can lead to real happiness – the kind of happiness that isn’t based on chasing pleasure or avoiding pain, but is grounded in appreciating life just as it is. This kind of happiness makes every cell of your body smile. This must be why all the monks and nuns at Deer Park have radiant, contagious smiles.