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

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  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 9:43 am | |

    Mysterion, would you straighten out this mess please?

  2. Khru
    Khru March 7, 2012 at 10:09 am | |

    Korey said…

    "I agree completely with Brad guys. I'm on Brad's side and anyone who has a problem with it is gonna have to get through me! Do I make myself clear?"

    I'm glad you've seen the error of your ways.

    Keep up the good work. :)

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 12:24 pm | |

    Thich Naht Hanh is wrong.

  4. Tommi
    Tommi March 7, 2012 at 12:37 pm | |

    The quote appears in an article in a book called called "The Mindfulness Revolution – Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life". It's one sentence taken from a two page article.

    link to publisher

    You can find the whole article if you google the words of the quote. Here is a link, although I'm not sure if it will work:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=S12Ak0szpPYC&pg;=PA67&lpg;=PA67&dq;="the+more+the+beauty+of+the+sunrise"

    Now, about Brad's post, I think it is pure gold. I've probably read something similar from Brad before, but somehow in this post the idea was really well condensed, about having an image in your mind and trying to become like that image and the contrast with not trying to change everything for good but just this one thing this one time right now.

  5. ABC News Correspondent
    ABC News Correspondent March 7, 2012 at 3:07 pm | |

    Brad has now defamed Thich Nath Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Chgyam Trungpa, Robert Aitken, Jundo Cohen and several other major Buddhist figures.

    The guy's insane.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 3:14 pm | |

    ABC News Correspondent said…
    Brad has now defamed Thich Nath Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Chgyam Trungpa, Robert Aitken, Jundo Cohen and several other major Buddhist figures.

    The guy's insane.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't he think Hitler and Charles manson were enlightened?

  7. ABC News Correspondent
    ABC News Correspondent March 7, 2012 at 3:16 pm | |

    Yes!

    He tweeted that Hitler, Charles Manson and Gengis Khan were enlightened beings who embodied the "boddhisattva way" and ordered everyone to worship them.

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 3:43 pm | |

    ABC News Correspondent said…
    Yes!

    He tweeted that Hitler, Charles Manson and Gengis Khan were enlightened beings who embodied the "boddhisattva way" and ordered everyone to worship them.

    3:16 PM

    Do you have a link to that tweet?

  9. Cidercat
    Cidercat March 7, 2012 at 3:45 pm | |

    Brad, I know what you mean. I am fed up with these damn platitudes, and I just glaze over when I hear them. In fact, these days, when someone tries to tell me some 'inspirational' quote, I'm almost inclined to punch them in the face.

    Leave the sunrise be, patronising feckers!

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm | |

    That's inspiring!

  11. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner March 7, 2012 at 5:56 pm | |

    ABC News Correspondent said:
    Brad has now defamed Thich Nath Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Chgyam Trungpa, Robert Aitken, Jundo Cohen and several other major Buddhist figures.

    The guy's insane.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't he think Hitler and Charles Manson were enlightened?

    I don't believe I have defamed any of those people. In fact I can't even recall mentioning Robert Aitken, let alone defaming him.

    As for Hitler and Manson, I may have said that I suspect these men might have had the kinds of "transformative experiences" that certain people mislabel as "enlightenment experiences." But I certainly did not define them as enlightened.

    Posts like this are very curious things to me. Is this a joke that I'm not getting? Is it an attempt to make me angry? Is it an attempt to spread some kind of rumor? And if so, why?

  12. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 5:59 pm | |

    "Brad has now defamed Thich Nath Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Chgyam Trungpa, Robert Aitken, Jundo Cohen and several other major Buddhist figures."

    Jundo Cohen a major Buddhist figure?

    Put away the crack pipe.

  13. Mysterion
    Mysterion March 7, 2012 at 6:08 pm | |

    Cidercat said…
    "when someone tries to tell me some 'inspirational' quote…"

    I usually respond: "That's what the girl said at the picnic"

    or

    "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, and the next day it snowed"

    or

    "that's just what the red neck said after puking out his last beer."

  14. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner March 7, 2012 at 6:10 pm | |

    Kyle asked what I though of the following quotation:

    When writing a book or an article, we know that our words will affect many other people. We do not have the right just to express our own suffering if it brings suffering to others. Many books, poems, and songs take away our faith in life. Young people today curl up in bed with their walkmen and listen to unwholesome music, songs that water seeds of great sadness and agitation in them. When we practice Right View and Right Thinking, we will put all of our tapes and CDs that water only seeds of anguish into a box and not listen to them anymore. Filmmakers, musicians, and writers need to practice Right Speech to help our society move again in the direction of peace, joy, and faith in the future."

    – Thich Nhat Hanh, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching," pg. 91

    Thich Naht Hanh is confused.

    This might be part of his cultural background. I've met other Asian people who don't understand much of the kinds of artistic expression they encounter in the West.

    In my case, the supposedly "positive" and "uplifting" films, books and music I encountered in my youth made me feel lost, sad, and depressed. They made me feel like I lived in a world in which no one else understood that there were things that were terribly wrong.

    Up until I started encountering the supposedly "negative" messages of punk rock and some of the related movements in film and literature I felt like I might be completely alone in the world.

    When I heard other people expressing the same kind of "negativity" that I felt I suddenly recognized that I wasn't alone. It gave me hope and strength.

    It's possible that Thich Naht Hanh is too unfamiliar with these kinds of artistic expressions to be able to understand them. He's certainly known some pain and anguish in his life (the Vietnam war, for example). But perhaps the way Vietnamese artists respond to pain is very different from the way Western people respond.

    On the other hand, there really are young people (and not so young people) who use certain kinds of music and art as a way to wallow in despair. But not that many. I think most young people who listen to this kind of music do so because it makes them feel happy to know other people also share their pain.

  15. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner March 7, 2012 at 6:23 pm | |

    BillZ said:

    So my question to Brad or people in the know is "Do you know of Thay's actions that bring him into disrepute?"

    I haven't heard anything bad about Thich Naht Hanh. He seems OK as far as I can tell. No real scandals. Most of what I've read of his philosophy (which isn't much) seems pretty sound.

    In saying "Thich Naht Hanh is Wrong" I was trying to ask, "Who is Thich Naht Hanh?"

    I could have said "Brad Warner is Wrong." Because often the things people imagine they've heard or read me saying are nothing like what I actually said (see the comment above about Manson and Hitler being enlightened, for example).

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 6:52 pm | |

    I think Sometimes it's fun to mess with people like that.

    Let it go brad

  17. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 6:55 pm | |

    Brad Warner's on Bass!

    How could he be wrong?

  18. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 6:59 pm | |

    Brad said, "In saying "Thich Naht Hanh is Wrong" I was trying to ask, "Who is Thich Naht Hanh?"

    That smells like fresh bullshit.

    Just saying..

  19. gniz
    gniz March 7, 2012 at 7:04 pm | |

    Brad said: "As far as mindfulness and concentration are concerned, it works the same way. At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back."

    That's pretty much the standard definition of mindfulness as I understand it.

    So I don't see what you're objecting to when you object to mindfulness. I feel it's a bit of a straw man argument.

    Most people actively engaged in mindfulness practice understand that it's simply about gently coming back after you've drifted off.

    I'm not saying that it was expressed well by Hanh or that people don't misunderstand mindfulness and get it twisted–but you've often indicated that mindfulness practice itself is not very useful. And yet I think you're just kind of confused in believing that mindfulness practice is anything other than what I quoted from you above.

  20. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm | |

    Brad said, "As far as mindfulness and concentration are concerned, it works the same way. At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back."

    Come back? Come back to what? Gniz says back to breath. What do you come back to Brad..

  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 7, 2012 at 8:10 pm | |

    Khru you crack me up! :)

  22. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 7, 2012 at 8:20 pm | |

    Charles Manson, I watched a film on Neil Young made by the BBC the other night, and in it he mentioned that "Revolution Blues" from "On the Beach" is about Manson. Here's Neil on the subject. "The ugly side of Maharishee", did I hear that right?

  23. [IDOL Jundo 1000%]
    [IDOL Jundo 1000%] March 7, 2012 at 10:09 pm | |

    Did Brad defame THIS major Buddhist figure?

    Or is this one that he missed?

  24. biosphere_oli
    biosphere_oli March 7, 2012 at 11:18 pm | |

    In the quote by TNH, though, he doesn't cast or damn any music or media as harmful simply for expressing, superficially or textually, "negativity." Brad uses that word, when endeavouring to exculpate "these kinds of artistic expression" which TNH is possibly "not able to understand." – ie those which contain "supposedly "negative" messages". Similarly, Brad refers to songs with "people expressing the same kind of "negativity" that I felt" and emphasises a beneficial aspect of his engagement with that stuff, which he then contrasts with TNH being "too unfamiliar with these kinds of artistic expression to understand them" and therefore misunderstanding them as harmful

    It's not clear to me that TNH's quote supports a reading wherein he's actually condemning the same media that Brad then sets about exonerating. There's a conditionality in his phrase "to express our own suffering if it brings suffering to others" where he makes it explicit that he's focusing on the effects and not the content of media as the domain in which he's taking issue with it. Then he wails on media which "take away our faith in life", and "unwholesome music, songs which water seeds of great sadness and agitation". Again there's the focus on harmful effects, and not simply on the content itself as bad if it is "negative".

    I don't see at all where he's really condemning equivalent overtly-negative-but-actually-beneficial media as did the mainstream culture of Brad's experience in the 70's ? His final reference is to CDs "that water only seeds of anguish" – where the 'only' would seem to categorically exclude the kind of 'involves sadness but also a (transcendent) positive relation with it' stuff which Brad's speaking up for.

    To me TNH's paragraph reads as being about stuff having effects like, for instance, Clueless did on me as a 14 yr old – wanting to live in highly sexualised and exciting California as opposed to my marginalised, platonic situation, and actually trying to escape from where I was into something more like the hollywood fiction. Stuff which inculcates the belief that all the fun is happening elsewhere – watering seeds of "agitation" in TNH's words.

    Or take Dylan's many songs about "what's right and what's wrong, and about God and my goal and all that", to quote Syd Barrett, where he sets up proactive authority to judge his audience, which made me and a bunch of my teenage friends somewhat convinced we were inadequate and had to jump through moral hoops to get to Dylan Land / Desolation Row. Maybe that would be watering seeds of "Sadness", In TNH's account.

    Perhaps the Clueless film makers externalised their desparation to be successful by pimping a fictionalised paradise to teenagers, and Dylan salved his anxiety by projecting manichean moral parables out into the world. It seems something like a blithness to consequences, which TNH's taking issue with, rather than just including superficially negative content in your art.

  25. Steven
    Steven March 8, 2012 at 12:29 am | |

    Different words, same message. Awareness, mindfulness… both pretty words that mean shut up and pay attention. Thay would probably agree with most of what you wrote.

  26. Shezer Khandro
    Shezer Khandro March 8, 2012 at 1:33 am | |

    Thank you for the post Brad – I agree with the general point you have made. My teacher advises that when we have a neurotic habit that we wish to change then all we need to do is notice it. By continuing to notice it it will bug the hell out of us and over time it will lose it's hold on us and we will stop doing it. We can't make ourselves into something we are not and trying to do so will only make us miserable.

  27. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 4:33 am | |

    Brad wonders why he gets the response he does?

    Please. Zen master flash.

    Horse shit.

  28. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 5:12 am | |

    You spelled the man's name wrong in your headline.

  29. boubi
    boubi March 8, 2012 at 7:12 am | |

    yeah! let it flow!

  30. boubi
    boubi March 8, 2012 at 7:19 am | |

    I don't know if this is positive or not but, it raise the hell of kundalini, from crotch to head top.

    It reminds me of a bunch of naked "lunatics" (in the very good meaning) shouting their head off while reciting the Ramayana, completely whatever the f*** it's called!

    Nearly scaring :)

  31. Old Boy
    Old Boy March 8, 2012 at 7:28 am | |

    Brad is a wannabe Zen master who is envious of the big boys in the Buddhist world. It's so obvious: His passive-aggressive sleight-of-hand barbs at Dalai and Thich betrays a desire to be the "bad boy of Buddhism". Grow up, Brad.

  32. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 8, 2012 at 7:45 am | |

    Gotta love it, Brad's World!

    Regarding mindfulness and concentration, the Gautamid did mention somewhere (could dig a reference up if anyone is interested) that after he spoke, he always returned to that sign of concentration in which he ever abided.

    An interesting statement, since it indicates that when he spoke, he was not abiding in his usual concentration. Combined with his rule that no vow of silence should be taken at retreats, which is somewhere in the first book of Vinaya, we have a man who was not attached to states of concentration, nor to the mindfulness presumably required to induce them. What a surprise!

    So that sign of concentration in which he ever abided is not named, yet I feel certain it was single-pointedness of mind. Now the interesting thing about single-pointedness of mind is that it's not attention focused somewhere, or on something. That's the practice of mindfulness, perhaps (which can be distinguished from mindfulness set up and the mind withdrawn from thought applied and sustained). No, single-pointedness of mind consists of a sense of the location of mind from one instant to the next, as in "sesshin" (touching mind). This is actually the practice I describe as waking up and falling asleep.

    With regard to the sunrise, which is beating in on my right temple as I compose these words, if we are fortunate enough to have concentration and mindfulness, then we are certainly experiencing that happiness which is associated with the meditative states, but if we open our mouths we are no longer in these states (yet we should take no vow of silence). Maybe we can teach people how to wake up and fall asleep, and leave it at that? Oh, wait, they already know how to do that! Hmmm, I'm out of a living, darn!

  33. boubi
    boubi March 8, 2012 at 8:04 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  34. Not so sweet
    Not so sweet March 8, 2012 at 10:47 am | |

    I am amazed, once again, by the completeness of your insights. For me it's a little bit hard to read you when you're so in one's face. I read that young folks today want to be approached with indirection and poise. So much for us direct speaking old ones. But do keep it up, Brad. Maybe you can slip in a gentler beginning? I don't know.
    Sincere admiration,
    Judith

  35. ashok
    ashok March 8, 2012 at 11:40 am | |

    This is a tricky topic, as what you are pointing out is definitely a problem. The nice character, the spiritual character etc. And when one has the 'idea' of mindfulness, they often do set up the dynamic you're referring to.

    I don't have a problem with the tweet per se, if it is a little quote taken from something Thich wrote somewhere, he's likely to be speaking from an experiential perspective. I'm not really a follower of his writing, but I do 'feel' that he's not just a dharma-parrot.

    However, one of the things about genuine experiential spiritual insight is that it doesn't suddenly provide you with a fully-formed and perfect vocabulary to express it.

    Also, I feel that, despite whatever depth of experience he has (and I don't doubt that he has genuine experiential knowing), it seems a bit as if the conceptual frameworks he has to express it through with regard to our life in the world comes from the older, traditional, renunciation-style way. It's fine for village life in Vietnam, but for the vagaries and complexities of modern living, it's much more difficult to apply.

    Giving up the walkman (iPod), for example is just not going to happen in any absolute way, even if the insight behind such advice is sound; that sometimes the messages we surround ourselves with in pop-culture sow more seeds of confusion. Better for us to develop the perception, and notice the 'quality' and 'feeling' of the confusion when it's happening, than to try to rid our immediate environment of its influence, which can be a futile struggle, and throws the baby out with the bath water in many cases.

    Traditional renunciation, as valid as it can be in the right context, is way too prone to making a modern person very conflicted, rather than ripe for realisation.

    But, I too have a problem with the word 'mindfulness' or 'mindful' in that it has become such a broad catch-all phrase, getting co-opted if you like, into the minds penchant for its 'ideas'. The experiential juice getting sucked out.

    I have used it somewhat reluctantly, only because it's become part of the global meditation lexicon, as has much of buddha dharma words and concepts. To express things without these words and concepts means that sometimes you're speaking a foreign language, fortunately or unfortunately.

    The down-side is the language sometimes suits rational presentation at the expense of genuine experiential insight. People mistake the appeal of its rationality for the actual experience, and live in its ideas rather than its reality.

  36. ACE
    ACE March 9, 2012 at 7:23 am | |

    "Posts like this are very curious things to me. Is this a joke that I'm not getting? Is it an attempt to make me angry? Is it an attempt to spread some kind of rumor? And if so, why?"

    ah HA! Now *you* are expressing precisely how the introduction to your post made *me* feel.

    I now forgive you (for what that's worth).

  37. Maria de Fatima Machado
    Maria de Fatima Machado March 12, 2012 at 2:19 am | |

    Now herein, Bhikshus, certain misguided ones learn the Dhamma by heart, to with: the discourses, the songs, the exposition, the verses, the solemn sayings, the words of the Master, the birth-tales, the marvels, the miscellanies. Thus learning them by heart they do not by wisdom investigate their meaning; they do not take interest therein; just for the sake of being free from reproach they learn the Dhamma by heart; just for the profit of pouring out a flood of gossip. But as to the essence of the Doctrine which thus they learn by heart, they have no part nor lot in that. Why so? Because of wrongly grasping the teachings, Bhikshus.

    Just as, Bhikshus, a man in need of water-snakes, searching for water-snakes, going about in quest of them, sees a big water-snake and grasps it by the body or by the tail: and that water-snake turns back on him and bites him in the hand or arm or some other limb, and owing to that he comes by his death or suffering that ends in death. And why? Because he wrongly grasped the snake, Bhikshus.

    Even so, Bhikshus, in this case some misguided ones learn the Buddha Dharma by heart, and come to suffering because they grasp it wrongly.

    May this Buddha Dhamma go on for the benefit, for the welfare, for the salvation of those who, searching for the Buddha Dhamma with sincerity in their hearts, may have been ensnared in floods of gossip.

    May this Buddha Dhamma instantaneously act on whom try to destroy it.

    Arhat Aryashakya
    [Maria de Fatima Machado]

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 13, 2012 at 5:57 am | |

    Brad; the Sarah Palin of Zen

  39. lubob
    lubob March 21, 2012 at 5:04 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  40. lubob
    lubob March 21, 2012 at 5:23 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  41. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 21, 2012 at 9:33 am | |

    You're not the bossa me.

  42. Alan Gregory Wonderwheel
    Alan Gregory Wonderwheel March 21, 2012 at 11:56 am | |

    As I see it, criticism of others is inappropriate, criticism of false views is appropriate. Unfortunately Brad Warner's post titled "Thich Naht Hahn is Wrong" seems to miss this distinction completely, at least the title certainly becomes an attack on TNH, an it is no justificatin to just say this is Brad's way of being a provocateur. Warner's pose is in fact a good example of how criticism of the person as being "wrong" gets totally confused with criticism of wrong views. Warner goes off on his preconceived notions of mindfulness and his post misses the Zen of THN's tweet. In other words, THN's tweet did not mention "mindfulness" and instead mentioned being "mindful and concentrated," in other words, dhyana and samadhi, which as any Zen teacher from Bodhidharma, to Huineng, to Hakuin will attest that zen-samadhi (dhyana and samadhi, being mindful and concentrated) is the essence of Zen practice.

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