On “Happiness” by Thích Nhất Hạnh

In her 1938 essay, Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf cautioned women to think critically about joining the professions men have created. She writes, “Those opinions cause us to doubt and criticize and question the value of professional life – not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value. They make us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion – the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Moneymaking becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes. And so competitive do they become that they will not share their work with others though they have more than they can do themselves. What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound, and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave.”

In a recent book, Happiness, Vietnamese Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh offers practices and teachings to regain this sense of proportion and to return us to our senses.The foundation of happiness, Nhất Hạnh suggests, is nothing other than the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness, adapted to the exigencies and opportunities of modern life.

In his classic work, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Nhất Hạnh wrote about his youthful monastic days and how he was instructed by his teachers to use gathas, or mindfulness verses, to stay rooted in the present moment. In Happiness, he offers many gathas to enable us to live in the here and now.

For example, as you hear your cell phone ring, you can use this gatha in sync with breathing calmly in and out: “Words can travel thousands of miles. May my words create mutual understanding and love. May they be as beautiful as gems, as lovely as flowers.”

Or, when walking on a beautiful autumn day, you can remember to look up and recite this gatha: “Breathing in, I recognize the blue sky. Breathing out, I smile to the blue sky.”

And when someone ignores us or talks down to us, we can call to mind this gatha: “Breathing in, I see anger in me. Breathing out, I smile at my anger.” He also mentions this Vietnamese proverb, which emphasizes the need to let go of such negative states of mind: “Be angry, sad, or annoyed for five minutes.”

Gathas are indispensable but so is a Sangha, or community that offers support for this practice. Sometimes, we think in grandiose terms of all we want to accomplish—at work, in school, or in social change movements. Evoking the spirit of the Dao De Jing, about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with one simple step, Nhất Hạnh writes, “If even just two people create a Sangha and an atmosphere of mindfulness, the peace and harmony around you will grow and soon your Sangha will grow too.”

The Second Body System is a method he encourages people to use at home, work, school, and community groups: Your own body is your first Body, and someone in your class is your Second Body, that is you look after someone, and that someone looks after someone, and someone will stay in touch with you, too.

I’ve cited several specific practices here, but in the book there are scores of trainings and exercises developed over some sixty years of experience. One can experiment with a couple and gradually integrate these, and more, into daily life.

Like many of his works, Nhất Hạnh’s Happiness seems simple (some might say simplistic), but the emphasis throughout is on practice. Yesterday, Sandra Tamari sent me a challenge by a Palestinian, Jawad Siyan, who said, “[International solidarity activists are] very weak. These people who want change, they are weak. Palestine is not for them a subject that they take to the heart. It’s volunteer work. They do it when they have time. If you want to solve this problem, you have to take it on as a job, not as a hobby.”

Likewise, the practice of mindfulness is not something we do when we have time, or as a hobby we take up here and there. Like solidarity with people facing oppression, it is a subject we need to take to the depths of our hearts. And it begins with the breath and this moment.

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