Reflections on Engaged and Applied Buddhism

An Interview with Sister Chân Đức

PV Newsletter: What do Engaged Buddhism and Applied Buddhism mean to you?

Sr. Chan Duc: Until the early years of this millennium, Thay used the words “Engaged Buddhism.” When we thought about Plum Village, we thought about Engaged Buddhism. Thay became famous in the West because of Engaged Buddhism.

In the West, Japanese Buddhism was the first kind of Buddhism that came to the United States and it concentrated on sitting meditation. In the 1960s, Thay came to the West to call called for peace in Vietnam. The idea that we needed to bring the practice of Buddhism into the world of peace activism was new. Many peace activists were very angry.

In 2008, at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) Thay first started talking about “Applied Buddhism”, more than Engaged Buddhism. There may have been a slight dualism in people’s minds, thinking that you are either engaged or not, and while you are engaged, you may not be applying Buddhism. That is, you go out for social or peace work, and you come back later to do sitting meditation. This is not what Thay meant by “Engaged Buddhism” though. Thay’s experience from leading retreats in many parts of the world was that we need to apply Buddhism in all fields of life, not just in the field of activism or in times of war, but in businesses, politics, the police force, and particularly in education. Thay also used the words “Applied Ethics.” One French president wanted to reintroduce civics classes, where students learnt how to be good citizens. Some politicians were asking, “What will be taught in those classes?” and thought of taking excerpts from philosophers.

Thay responded that Applied Ethics should contain four elements: the first element was relaxation. You would not think relaxation was ethics, but Thay considered knowing how to relax very important, both for the individual and for any organization. The second element was taking care of feelings and strong emotions, in order to handle suffering and to nourish happiness and joy. The third element was communication, that is to learn to resolve conflicts, begin anew in the family and so on. And the last element was non-fear. At the end of all retreats Thay would give a talk about no-birth and no-death to help people lessen their fear, even if they were just beginners. Applied Buddhism means applying Buddhism in all walks of life. In all our teaching and retreats we make sure these four elements are present and we help people to apply them. We do not expect people to be socially engaged or do relief work.

PV Newsletter: Some people ask if Plum Village is engaged enough or not. How would you respond to these questions?

Sr. Chan Duc: I feel very grateful that Thay introduced Applied Buddhism, because when we say Engaged Buddhism instead, you may think you are expected to be doing something in a certain area or direction. Whereas in fact, we are already applying Buddhism when we can walk peacefully on the earth and when we can have a place like Plum Village where people can come and learn how to put down their suffering. Yesterday a retreatant who works in conflict resolution came to me and said she is completely depleted. Since the mediators do not take sides in a conflict situation, they get a great deal of hatred coming toward them. I told her to stay in Plum Village until her batteries were recharged again. That is very important. Sister Chan Khong and other members of the School of Youth for Social Service had to have a place to come to every week in order to recharge themselves. To me, it is enough to offer this place. I am not aware of any pressure to be doing more than taking care of Plum Village such that it can be a refuge. I do think it is necessary to look at ourselves and ask, “Am I doing all I can?” And if somebody says you are not, listen to them and then ask yourself, “Is there something I can be doing more?” Please be honest. What we can offer also depends on our health. Many people say that they are very grateful to us. Please remind yourself of that gratitude.

PV Newsletter: What impact have you seen the practice has had on the climate crisis or situations of war?

Sr. Chan Duc: There cannot be an immediate impact. Wars and climate change have causes and conditions that have been laid down for many years. Now we have to make sure not to do things that lead to more wars in the future. When we were protesting in Greenham Common (in the early 1980s) by surrounding the nuclear weapon base, I do not know if it had any impact, but in the end the Americans left. I do not know if it had anything to do with us or not. You cannot really know. As far as reducing our carbon footprint - there is of course more that we can do. We need to share our ideas and make positive steps in this direction.

PV Newsletter: When we are designing our retreats and what practices we offer, we try to respond to the needs of the people who come to us. Sometimes it is not simple for young monastics to choose where to focus our energy. How do you choose?

Sr. Chan Duc: First of all, we all have different talents and capacities. We really have to make the most of our capacity. When I was in the EIAB, I used to concentrate more on retreats for teachers because I myself had been a teacher and sympathized with them. We do what we can based on our own experience and capacity. Everyone has something to offer. It is not only leading retreats that is important. We also need people to take care of Plum Village, or look after the younger brothers or sisters. If everyone was going out to lead retreats and no one took care of the young buffaloes, then they might fall into the river, rather than cross safely over. Therefore we have to find a balance when we reflect on what to offer.

Still, I think education is very important to prepare the younger generation for what they will have to face. Thay always used to say, “Happy teachers will change the world.” Young people need to be informed about applied ethics, especially relaxation, taking care of emotions and communication.

PV Newsletter: Thay taught us about bodhicitta - the great aspiration, but at the same time also taught us about aimlessness, no expectation, letting go, nothing to do, nowhere to go. How do these fit together?

Sr. Chan Duc: It is quite right not to have expectations. We do our best. We cannot know the future. To have an aim that we project onto the future is an idea in the intellect rather than the reality. To have a deep aspiration - bodhichitta - is very important, but it does not have anything to do with an aim, with attainment. The aspiration is there in the present moment. When we kneel down and vow, “I will do everything that I can,” we are cultivating that deep aspiration. Aspiration is a seed in store consciousness which sustains us in doing what we can in our daily life. But it is not an aim. Everyone has the seed of bodhichitta, but it may not have the right causes and conditions to manifest. However, in the monastery we have many favorable causes and conditions. Every day we can strengthen our vow. For instance, you may make a vow for all beings to come in and go out in freedom. This is not exactly an aim, but a deep aspiration in the present moment. When you wash your hands and see Mother Earth’s suffering, you want to have hands that will help Mother Earth and wish for others to have helping hands as well.

PV Newsletter: Is there a contradiction between a peaceful, secluded life and an engaged life?

Sr. Chan Duc: It is true that you have to be at peace, as is described in the Discourse on Knowing The Better Way To Live Alone. You may like to be by yourself alone because you feel at peace, but we also need peace in meetings and when we are trying to resolve difficult matters in the sangha. It is true that we do need to develop our peace in our sitting meditation. But we sit with the sangha not just to nourish ourselves, but to nourish the whole sangha. My peace and your peace are not separate. Some say they need more silence, but do they have inner silence? If the chatter goes on in our mind then it is not really silent. I did not become a nun to be able to practice sitting meditation and retire from the world. My contact was with Thay and Sister Chan Khong who were two big Bodhisattvas engaged in the world, and I aspired to follow in their footsteps.

PV Newsletter: In the sangha in the early days, how have you practiced in physically and mentally demanding situations?

Sr. Chan Duc: In the early times, when it was only the four of us, Sr. Chan Khong, Sr. Chan Vi, Thay and myself, it was not easy to lead retreats because the retreatants were all very new. For instance, some retreatants would say, “Why should I stop when I hear the bell? It takes away my freedom!” But as their experience grew over the years, we noticed the practice energy becoming much stronger. Returning long term practitioners gave us faith in the practice. Now there is a huge monastic and lay sangha and retreats flow easily. In the early years we were quite disorganized. Communication between the hamlets was not always good. Lower Hamlet did not know the schedule of Upper Hamlet and Upper Hamlet came down expecting a Dharma Talk and Lower Hamlet was doing something else. Thay used to say, organization is not our talent in Plum Village. There are lay people who do it much better than us.

PV Newsletter: When you felt very tired and needed a spiritual boost, what are the practices that have been very supportive through the years?

Sr. Chan Duc: Walking was very important. When I am not able to go outside, I just walk up and down in my room. I walk very slowly. I can take one step for every two breaths. To be able to sit in a good position is also very helpful. I try not to do anything but just to breathe, keeping my eyes open. I may look out of the window. At that moment if I make myself meditate on something I may become too tired. Then I just sit and breathe, and whatever happens is okay.

The times when I have real insight is when I cannot sleep at night. It is completely dark and I lie there, following my breathing, taking care of some physical pain. I suddenly see that this body is not me. I am simply lying there and not really trying to have any insight.

PV Newsletter: When you witness a very difficult situation like deforestation, wars or pollution that is ongoing, how do you maintain a heart that is able to act from a place of compassion?

Sr. Chan Duc: If I need to cry, I have to cry. That is the first thing. I am very much aware of the destructive effects of modern agriculture. Sometimes I do not feel very happy with farmers. Recently when I see them driving with big tanks of pesticides, I think they are the first people who will suffer from the poison because they are sitting right next to it. I recognize that they are forced into this position. The farmers are only responsible to a certain extent. Those of us who have looked deeply and seen the effects have to help the farmers. The government has to help the farmers be able to make a livelihood without having to destroy the planet.

The worst thing I saw was when we were on a journey south of San Francisco. We passed farms that had thousands of beef cattle all squished together, without any grass, only fed by soybeans. There was a terrible stench from the methane gas. That was really painful. Sometimes I feel helpless. And all I can do is send my compassion to the cows and hope that they do not suffer too much. That when they go to the abattoir, they do not have to be shot several times in order to die. What can I do? I can continue my practice of being vegan.

PV Newsletter: When we see people who are causing harm, is it helpful to be angry? And if not, how do we take care of that?

Sr. Chan Duc: When we are angry, we think that the person we are angry with is causing harm. That is our first problem. We identified that person as the one who is doing the harm. But if we look into what that person is doing and the causes and conditions and everyone else who is involved in it, then we will see that it is not an individual who is doing harm, like President Bush or President Trump. They have a whole lot of things backing them up, like the people who vote for them, the people who advise them. Therefore to blame the individual is silly. If we look deeply, we see they are also victims. We can say that global warming is caused by fossil fuels, by agriculture, etc. But what lies behind? It is ignorance and greed. The human species have mental formations like greed and ignorance, which lead to suffering when we do not know how to transform them. This is why it is very important to be able to come back to ourselves and take care of our mental formations, in order not to contribute to another war, to more harm and destruction.