Thich Naht Hanh is Wrong

I follow Thich Nhat Hanh on Twitter. But, whereas I write my own Twitter posts, I doubt that Mr. Hanh sits in front of his Macbook and types his out for the world to see. My guess is that some minion of his scans his books for pithy statements that fit the Twitter mold and then uploads them. The Thichster probably never even sees them. I rarely see them either. But yesterday this one popped up:

“When you contemplate the big, full sunrise, the more mindful & concentrated you are, the more the beauty of the sunrise is revealed to you.”

So I Tweeted the following back at him:

“@thichnhathanh Sounds to me like mindfulness would get in the way of the sunrise.”

I’ve said here a few times how much I hate the word “mindfulness.” This quote seems to embody everything I don’t like about that word.

To be fair to Mr. Hanh, there are many ways to take this statement. There are a lot of things he might have meant by it. For example, he might have meant it as a sort of advertising for meditation. Yardley Aftershave Lotion might tell you, “You’ll get lots of chicks if you douse yourself with Yardley” as an incentive to get you to buy more Yardley Aftershave Lotion. Perhaps Mr. Hanh wants you to know that you’ll appreciate the sunrise lots more if you do meditation practice. Which is fine, I guess.

But there’s another way to take this statement. And I honestly believe it’s the way most people would take it. They’d look at it and say, “Gosh. I’m not mindful enough. I’m not concentrated enough. Because when I look at a sunrise, I just shade my eyes so that I can get through this traffic jam on West Market Street without running over any of the kids from Our Lady of the Elms. Sunrises kind of annoy me. They give me a headache. I better get more concentrated and more mindful so that I can be more like Thich Nhat Hanh and let the beauty of the sunrise be revealed to me.”

In other words, the concept of “mindfulness” gets in the way of the sunrise. It becomes a big obstacle between what we think of as our self and what we think of as the sunrise. And we make our efforts to try to overcome the obstacle we’ve placed in our own way. Most of the time I hear or read the word “mindfulness” it sounds to me like an obstacle.

Pretty much all of our religions and our various self-help practices are based on the idea that what we are right now is not good enough. We then envision what “good enough” must be like and we make efforts to transform what we are right now into this image of ourselves as “good enough.” We invent in our minds an imaginary “mindful me” and then try to make ourselves into that.

The problem with this kind of effort is right at its very root. We are setting up a habit of always judging ourselves as being not whatever it is we want to be. Whether you’re poor and want to be rich or whether you’re dull and want to be mindful, it’s pretty much the same thing. Of course we’d probably have a better world if more people were ambitious to be mindful than were ambitious to be rich. Probably. But maybe not. Because the effort to be something you’re not always seems to go wrong no matter what it is you want to be — even if you want to be super terrifically nice.

People who are working on fulfilling some image they have of a “nice person” are usually a pain in the ass. Their efforts to be like the “nice person” they’ve invented in their heads almost always get in the way of actually doing what needs to be done. Most of the time I’d rather be around someone who is honestly selfish than someone who is forever trying to be selfless. The kind of forced helpfulness such people engage in is almost never helpful at all. It’s annoying. Sometimes it’s even harmful.

But those of us who realize that we actually aren’t as good as we could be have a real dilemma. What do you do when you recognize that you really are greedy, envious, jealous, angry, pessimistic and so on and on and on?

To me, it seems like the recognition of such things is itself good enough. It’s not necessary to envision a better you and try to remake yourself in that image. Just notice yourself being greedy and very simply stop being greedy. Not for all time in all cases. Just in whatever instance you discover yourself being greedy. If you’re greedy on Tuesday for more ice cream, don’t envision a better you somewhere down the line who is never greedy for more ice cream. Just forgo that last scoop of ice cream right now. See how much better you feel. This kind of action, when repeated enough, becomes a new habit. Problem solved.

As far as mindfulness and concentration are concerned, it works the same way. At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back. You might start drifting off again a nanosecond later. But that’s OK. When you notice it again, come back again. Repeat as necessary.

Trying to be more mindful and concentrated is just gonna put you right back to where you were drifting away from the sunrise in the first place.

***

Here’s an interview I did on Digression Sessions. Completely unrelated to the above article, by the way.

143 Responses

Page 1 of 3
  1. Mumon
    Mumon March 6, 2012 at 7:32 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Mumon
    Mumon March 6, 2012 at 7:36 am | |

    But seriously…you're totally right, Brad…and it's odd, because I woke up feeling not at my best, and wrote about it…and found echoes of it in what Jake Adelstein (also a Soto-Zen guy, IINM) was writing…and now your writing.

    Yeah, there's attachment all over the place – that place being the universe.

  3. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 6, 2012 at 7:49 am | |

    Brad:

    Don't let mindfulness get in the way of anything. It's just a speed bump in the path. It only becomes an obstacle if you notice it.

    Let it pass… like gas.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 7:51 am | |

    and there goes another comment…

  5. Daiji
    Daiji March 6, 2012 at 7:52 am | |

    Perhaps, it was poorly articulated. When you suggest "Just notice yourself being greedy and very simply stop being greedy." Is that so different from "notice yourself not fully experiencing the sunset and very simply pay attention to the sunset". The Thich Naht Hanh quote could be a poorly articulated suggestion to do something like that. Mindfullness (yes, a word with all sorts of ridiculous baggage) seems to arise from awareness. It does not seem to be something we can make ourselves do, but there does seem a choice in there somewhere, at least for me. I don't exist in a continuous state of full attention. I do find myself with a habit of noticing when my attention has drifted and a habit of choosing to pay attention.

  6. uncanny234
    uncanny234 March 6, 2012 at 7:57 am | |

    IT's sad you feel such a way Brad, perhap's your glass is half empty?

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 7:58 am | |

    Brad, you forgot the part of the story where I called you a hater.

    Grant

  8. Joe
    Joe March 6, 2012 at 8:11 am | |

    Very simple…there is awareness and not awareness.

    It should have read, "When there is the big full sunrise, when there is full awareness/sanzen/samadhi, the full scope of the beauty of the sunrise is revealed."

  9. Bob
    Bob March 6, 2012 at 8:14 am | |

    Surprisingly insightful post.

  10. Ochlacratic Mentality
    Ochlacratic Mentality March 6, 2012 at 8:38 am | |

    I started following Thich Naht Hanh's twitter account after I started attending the Tam Bao temple (in his "network", I guess) here in Baton Rouge for meditation a few months ago. From what I have seen I really doubt he even knows he has a twitter account.

    Either way, if he does or doesn't, I don't see the benefit of having someone else give "insights" on your behalf anyway.

  11. Post Tribal Shaman
    Post Tribal Shaman March 6, 2012 at 8:45 am | |

    Mindfulness is, like any other practice, one step toward awakening. If you cling to the step, it becomes an anchor. But without the step, in its appropriate place, climbing the stair is more difficult.

    Also, good to remember: If your are jerking the leash, you are still on the leash.

  12. Ross
    Ross March 6, 2012 at 8:50 am | |

    He's just saying "Just see the sun as the sun, and leave it at that." He just words things in ways that appeal to new-agey people. I'm sure he understands the duality of word just as well as you. I'm sure he's well aware that when he uses the word "mindfulness" it also implies "non-mindfulness". Now, I'm sure his new-age audience might not get that, but thats not his fault. The word "mindful" is just the word he was introduced to use in place of a vietnamese word (that I can't remember at the time).

  13. Harry
    Harry March 6, 2012 at 8:52 am | |

    I agree that TNH's statement could easily be taken up the non-right way.

    That's why it seems so important to clarify the nature of 'effort' in Buddhist practice. Even to call it 'effort' can be a swerve ball as we might – or inevitably do – have all sorts of ideas about what generally constitutes 'effort'.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  14. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles March 6, 2012 at 9:09 am | |

    One night a darvish stood with al-Hallaj near a pool of water. The darvish pointed to the moon's reflection in the water and said, "look how beautiful the moon is!" al-Hallaj replied, "unless there's a boil on your neck, why not just look at it up in the sky?"

  15. coyle
    coyle March 6, 2012 at 9:21 am | |

    "At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back. You might start drifting off again a nanosecond later. But that's OK. When you notice it again, come back again. Repeat as necessary."

    Brad, Am I missing something or is that not being mindful?
    You are just substituting "come back" for "be mindful".
    Six of one, half dozen of the other.

  16. ACE
    ACE March 6, 2012 at 9:50 am | |

    because criticizing an 85 year old man who has dedicated the entire course of his life to serving humanity in the name of peace, for "tweeting inauthentically", is a perfectly good premise for a blogpost. you are so hardcore!

  17. ACE
    ACE March 6, 2012 at 9:50 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Peter Thomson
    Peter Thomson March 6, 2012 at 10:10 am | |

    The sunrise is what it is. Your mindfulness (or lack thereof) is what it is. That is all.

  19. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner March 6, 2012 at 10:14 am | |

    ACE said:
    because criticizing an 85 year old man who has dedicated the entire course of his life to serving humanity in the name of peace, for "tweeting inauthentically", is a perfectly good premise for a blogpost. you are so hardcore!

    I'm sorry to have upset you, ACE. But I wouldn't worry too much about me hurting Thich Naht Hanh's feelings. I doubt he'll ever see my Twitter post, much less this blog.

    As I said in my blog posting, my guess is that Mr. Hanh's Twitter post is taken out of context from something much longer and more detailed. It might even be that in the wider context from which this excerpt was taken, he says pretty much the same thing as I'm saying in my article. I really have no way of knowing.

    I'm not criticizing Mr. Hanh for "tweeting inauthentically." I don't think he tweeted at all! I am criticizing the way the term "mindfulness" appears to be understood by most people I hear using it. Mr. Hanh's quote is just the kind of thing that is easily taken that way.

    I'm trying to point out why I avoid the word "mindfulness" even though, as someone pointed out, it is part of the traditional Buddhist teaching.

    But Buddhism has to constantly revise itself. It has to. Or else it's not Buddhism anymore. Once it becomes a fixed dogma it's useless.

  20. Manny Furious
    Manny Furious March 6, 2012 at 10:17 am | |

    "Just notice yourself being greedy and very simply stop being greedy. Not for all time in all cases. Just in whatever instance you discover yourself being greedy."

    As someone who likes the word "mindfulness" this quote is more in line with what I take that word to mean than most of the stuff spouted by other people.

    Again, "mindfulness" is just an idea, a word, a concept, and if we get too attached to any idea, it probably does more harm than good. At least, that's how I see it.

    Ok, I'm done being pedantic now….

  21. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 10:25 am | |

    But we must remember that looking at the sunset and wanting to be more mindful is the momentary situation and it is perfect as it is.

  22. ACE
    ACE March 6, 2012 at 10:36 am | |

    I'm not worried about you hurting Thich Nhat Hahn's feelings either – I doubt he has time to keep up with your social media efforts (being 85 and otherwise occupied with doing whatever he is doing at the moment). That is not my concern whatsoever. My concern is that you undermine a very valuable message, using your platform, by using a provocative (and totally pointless) header and introductory paragraph to pit, as it were, your experience of practicing mindfulness with that of an established and acknowledged teacher whom many (rightfully, in my opinion) hold dear. Personally, I find this post infuriating and detrimental, ultimately, to anyone looking for insight on the nature of being. Eliminate the initial setup and you have a whole different creature. And, I think co-opting "hardcore" to give oneself permission to be "disrespectful" is "lame".

  23. john e mumbles
    john e mumbles March 6, 2012 at 10:47 am | |

    Even conceptualizing this experience as "sunrise" robs it of something essential.

    Being inside the experience as it happens, at the same time it co-occurs with your perception of it, without moving into superimposed thoughts about it…

    If you stop to think "am I being mindful of this sunrise?" It's lost. You might as well be reading about a sunrise, or hearing an anecdote or description of one.

  24. Blake
    Blake March 6, 2012 at 11:12 am | |

    This!

  25. Moni
    Moni March 6, 2012 at 11:16 am | |

    "People who are working on fulfilling some image they have of a "nice person" are usually a pain in the ass. Their efforts to be like the "nice person" they've invented in their heads almost always get in the way of actually doing what needs to be done. "

    This is very true also in my opinion. Although I think Thich Nhath Hahn seems to be really a "good person". Not all the people who are good are also fake at the same time. People have different personalities, also those people can be good who are at the first sight too impulsive, harsh, conflict-seeking (just like me haha).

    I do not like the word "mindfulness" either. Using expressions like "being present where you are" sounds much more ok to me.

  26. Harry
    Harry March 6, 2012 at 11:21 am | |

    Heard TNH is opening a retirement complex for older folks: Prune Village.

    Sorry, ACE, just havin a laugh, but Brad's 'shock and awe' attention seeking efforts get on a lot of people's nerves from time to time. He's really not as tough as his language tho.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  27. nanuq
    nanuq March 6, 2012 at 11:28 am | |

    not mindfulness, not mindlessness

  28. Misha
    Misha March 6, 2012 at 12:15 pm | |

    My sense of what is at issue here is branding. Thay publishes books, and his brand, or image, is fairly well known. Brad writes books, and his "hardcore Zen" brand is something he is promoting. I think most folks that have a rudimentary grounding in Buddhism understand what Thay means by mindfulness, and what Brad means when he is dissing Thay's approach.

    "But Buddhism has to constantly revise itself. It has to. Or else it's not Buddhism anymore. Once it becomes a fixed dogma it's useless."

    The danger with the above is that there are many attempting to revise Buddhism. Because there is no central authority of committee in Buddhism, the field is open for anyone, including Genpo, to spin Dharma into dogpoo.

    My view is that attention has to be paid to the original teachings, and then responsible individuals can weigh in on the application of dhamma/dharma to modern life. It's not Buddha's teachings that need revision, it's the way the teachers of dharma teach that is of concern.

  29. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi March 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm | |

    Brad, this post seems rather confused and seems to project upon Thich notions that he probably neither intended nor would agree with.

    The primary confusion seems to come from your presumption that this statement is somehow going to make people feel bad about themselves that they dont appreciate sunsets enough. Well, tough shit, even if that? true. Why are you so concerned about people possibly feeling bad about themselves. It? not as if in the absence of these kinds of statements they are just going to feel good about themselves. Buddhism is not about protecting people from feeling bad about themselves. That? impossible in any case.

    Buddhism teaches that people feel bad about themselves because they crave feeling good about themselves. It is the craving which produces their suffering, not the poor self'image. Oddly enough, if you stop craving good feelings, and simply be mindful of what you do feel and experience, you really will feel better for the most part, and be able to appreciate the nuances of life, regardless of the pleasure or pain of the moment? experience. ?hy does this happen. Because mindfulness really just means the surrender of our cravings in simple awareness of our real nature and condition. When our craving is relaxed even a bit, even momentarily, we experience relief and a basic sense of simple sobriety that allows us to notice the most basic beauties of every moment.

    When Thich is referring to mindfulness, I think he is just using the term as shorthand for simple awareness without craving imposing itself upon our experience. If that makes someone feel bad that they are not experiencing life in this way, that is probably a good thing, if it motivates them to understand what they are doing wrong. If it motivates them to take up mindfulness as a way of fulfilling their cravings for satisfaction, this will of course produce more pain as a result. But within that pain is the possibility for insight, which is also a good thing. Doing mindfulness half'assed and backwards as a form of craving is actually one of the best ways to see how destructive craving is, that it can even ruin so simple a practice as mindfulness. Learning that kind of lesson is invaluable. Either way, one comes out with real intelligence about the process.

  30. Andreas
    Andreas March 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm | |

    Hello Mr. Warner (or Brad),

    "Trying to be more mindful and concentrated is just gonna put you right back to where you were drifting away from the sunrise in the first place."

    But isn't at least a bit pre-planned mindfullness necessary to meditate and to bring the meditative state into everday life? And doesn't that involve at least a tiny bit of the decision/wish/intention to change (i.e. become more mindfull)?

    You zen masters (LOL, I hope that does not offend you) always talk about letting go intention and not trying to achieve anything. But isn't intention and the desire to become more mindful some kind of necessary greenhorn mistake even you had to make before coming to your conclusion?

    "It's not necessary to envision a better you and try to remake yourself in that image. Just notice yourself being greedy and very simply stop being greedy. Not for all time in all cases. Just in whatever instance you discover yourself being greedy."

    How does that relate to mindfullness? How can you stop being mindless in whatever instance you discover yourself being mindless without setting the intention to do so and without wanting to change your situation in that very moment?

    I am really confused, Mr. Warner. I would really appreciate your help.

    Kind regards from Germany
    Andreas

  31. A-Bob
    A-Bob March 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm | |

    Lighten up Ace..

    Brad wanted to get your attention and to provoke some thought. I don't think he was trying to piss you off or make you sad, he wants you to buy his books right? You also might have to consider that you over-reacted a tad to the post.

    CAPTCHA : teducate reek : I kid you not

  32. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 12:36 pm | |

    !!! MINDFULNESS !!!

  33. Geoff
    Geoff March 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm | |

    As far as mindfulness and concentration are concerned, it works the same way. At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back. You might start drifting off again a nanosecond later. But that's OK. When you notice it again, come back again. Repeat as necessary.

    THIS! SO THIS.

  34. ACE
    ACE March 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm | |

    I continue to be surprised that in the context of "mindfulness" or "awareness of the present moment" or whatever you call it, some people keep feeling the need to comfort me or moderate my reaction in some way – when indeed, I am very comfortable in a sense of being aware of my irritation with the title and onset of this post – and comfortable with expressing it in this area of commentary –

    I am not worried about changing anything or anyone's feelings being hurt by my annoyance with Bradster's wry approach to "killing the Buddha" – which is what I assume is being illustrated here. I won't lighten up or react less for anyone else's comfort on this matter, thank you very much, I will feel exactly as I do in this moment and you (A-Bob et al.) can choose to feel however you would like to about it. I am fine with feeling pissed off, and unnecessary rudeness (for whatever purpose) really gets me going. If there was a point to it that I could understand, perhaps I would feel differently (not that anyone should care). Seriously! Tweeting! You have got to be kidding me – such a first-world issue, Thich Nhat Hahn does not Tweet his own tweets GAH

  35. Jamal
    Jamal March 6, 2012 at 1:20 pm | |

    The Earth is being drawn slowly towards the Sun and some day will be sucked in and engulfed in flame..

    So what is so beautiful about a sunrise if every time you look at it you think about that?

    I'm with Brad. Thich Naht Hanh is Wrong

  36. ACE
    ACE March 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm | |

    wonderful – see how you are reaching people

  37. Uncle Willie
    Uncle Willie March 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm | |

    I am currently experiencing stomachfulness.

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm | |

    !!! YOUR REACTION TO READING THESE WORDS !!!

  39. NellaLou
    NellaLou March 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm | |

    "the idea that what we are right now is not good enough. We then envision what "good enough" must be like and we make efforts to transform what we are right now into this image of ourselves as "good enough." We invent in our minds an imaginary "mindful me" and then try to make ourselves into that."

    It's the main reason The Secret makes millions. Magic thinking, wanting easy answers and feelings of inadequacy. Maybe even the main reason why religions even exist on a psychological level. Soteriological fantasies.

    [On the sociological level---note the tone trolls above---social control is the name of the game]

  40. Grasshopper
    Grasshopper March 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm | |

    Hey Brad,

    I heard a story that you were a writer or and a advisor for the television series "Life" . Just wanted to confirm. I couldn't find your name credited or on IMDB. TRue?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_(NBC_TV_series)

  41. Seagal Rinpoche
    Seagal Rinpoche March 6, 2012 at 3:01 pm | |

    All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

  42. grasshopper
    grasshopper March 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm | |

    Yea Seagull that's his line. Cool . Brad write that?

  43. Juno
    Juno March 6, 2012 at 3:40 pm | |

    ''When you contemplate the big, full sunrise, the more mindful & concentrated you are, the more the beauty of the sunrise is revealed to you.''

    The first question which comes to mind is, when will there be a nice sunrise and what is a full sunrise. If you realize the sunrise, you#ll probably not think about the sun, nor will you think about being mindful. But logically thinking it makes sens to watch, but how can you watch mindfully? I'm aware of the sunrise, oh shit I should not think about it, I should watch the sunrise.
    I'm kind of happy if the sun shines anyway. Most of the times I would probably miss the rise of the sun, because I can not get out of bed. The thing is this morning the sun was shining as well but, it was not at all helping me to stop my morning thought circle and get just the first feed out to go further to the cushion. Oh, work, oh another day – I have to be mindful, I have to be happy with a glimlach (dutch word for smile). But sometimes it works and I don't know. It is nice to see a sunrise, it doesn't have to be big and also not full.

    Living in the Netherlands where 'happiness' let's say stonedness! get's sold in coffeeshops, I think it will not really solve anything. The cycle of problems will only get bigger. I'm not a fan of drugs I can tell you, I have seen enough people suffering of them. They don't solve your problems, so being honest is sometimes the only thing which stays.

    Have I told you I got a pretty extreme electro-shock when I was listening to Nirvana. Maybe I'll write a blog post about that another time.

    Happy delayed birthday, Brad!

  44. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm | |

    Happy Bday brad!!!

    Older and wiser,well at least older.

    Just kidding!

    Yo Bro "LiFE" ? Too cool loved that show

  45. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 3:58 pm | |

    Congrats, guys. You've successfully hacked and parsed a throwaway tweet by some well-meaning underling. That's hard as fuck!

  46. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 6, 2012 at 4:02 pm | |

    When Brad tires of attacking Genpo and the troops tire of the tirades , Brad takes on a new Target. The one and only "Thich" Anyone see a pattern here? Brad appears to be a addicted to war fare. Read between the lines not what he actually writes.

  47. Fred
    Fred March 6, 2012 at 4:13 pm | |

    There is no one to be mindful, but
    in the beginning an ego observes
    itself, the thoughts arising and
    falling away, the sensations
    occuring in the body, the cultural
    fiction engaging in games with others.

    Mindfulness is a name given to the
    technique of vipassana meditation.

    But in reality, there is no one to
    experience the sunrise other than
    the ineffable experiencing itself.
    If you are the sunrise, no
    technique is necessary to do
    something to someone.

  48. Not Thich Hanh
    Not Thich Hanh March 6, 2012 at 4:22 pm | |

    Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant, and teapot are all sacred.

  49. tattoozen
    tattoozen March 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm | |

    "Th?y" just got his fucking world rocked, hardcore American style!

    Fuck yeah!

  50. Danny
    Danny March 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm | |

    "At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back. You might start drifting off again a nanosecond later. But that's OK. When you notice it again, come back again. Repeat as necessary."

    Well that's what most guys understand as the practice of mindfulness. You could also have said "be mindful". Now the interesting question is come back to what/be mindful of what?

    Whenever I read your stuff about mindfulness/meditation etc it looks to me like you soto guys try VERY hard to distinguish from the other meditators out there. But look just a little bit deeper and you notice it's all the same just with different clothes. And that's kinda weird…and just causes tons of confusion I think. Because most guys completely missunderstand "just sit" from what I see/hear/read…

    Anyway, nice try! :)

    Danny

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.