Listening deeply to Thich Nhat Hanh's response to a question

Image: Otter. A lost word. 
This is a photograph of a page in the spectacular book titled the lost words by Robert MacFarlane (author) and Jackie Morris (illustrator).

I learned an important lesson about what to do with anger from Zen Master, poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) while on retreat at Magnolia Monastery in 2013. It happened during a question and answer session.

This is my perspective about what I saw and heard.

Several questions were asked and answered. Then a person stood up and made an extended comment on some of the products used by the monastics to make our meals, and the companies they were from. The person then posed the question:

“So my question is about products. [Several statements are made wondering why the monastery was buying products like lettuce, apples, and oats from horrible this and terrible that company because they are cheaper.] Is the lack of money enough of a reason to purchase these unethical products?”

(As I listened to the question, I heard concern mixed with a hefty dose of criticism and blame. Though I also think about the what and the where of my purchases, I recalled peeking into the monastery kitchen window at 4:00 AM that morning on my way to get a cup of tea before our 5:00 AM meditation and noticing breakfast prep and cooking. In one area of the kitchen, one monastic was transforming chickpeas into hummus using an immersion blender. Little by little there would be a spoonful for every one of the 900 meditators.)

I turned my gaze from the questioner to Thay who paused a little longer than he had before answering other questions. I sat nearby, close enough to notice Thay’s breath get heavy and a slight movement in his chest as he breathed in and out. I counted 8 breaths. Then he spoke. I wrote the words he said in my journal. Speaking slowly, his tone was soft, his delivery clear and direct. He looked at the questioner and sometimes at us in the audience as he said:

“It’s not money, it’s the lack of understanding of love. Rather than demand and criticize and protest, we look at what we are doing that is positive. The biggest difficulty is to live happily as a society. Give your time and energy to build a happy community.”

That’s it.

The questioner sat down.

So, yeah, I could have asked that question about products with maybe even more messiness. There have been times when I was mad or discouraged and used my energy to criticize and blame someone, something (money), or some situation. 

Thay didn’t defend, explain, or justify the monastery's use of “unethical products.” He didn’t use the question to talk about the organic gardens at Magnolia and other monasteries. He didn’t talk about their “happy farms and farmers fostering sustainability” programs. Instead, he suggested that we look at what positive things are happening and let that inspire us to build happy [lives, families, and] communities.

This is what I think Thay was saying.

When he said, “It’s not money,” in this sentence it means the problem. The problem is not money. Thay wanted us to look at the cause of money problems. I think he wanted us to reflect on our personal response to questions such as, How can we be here for each other? How can I enjoy happiness and ease and freedoms when others aren’t? What is humankind’s highest aspiration? How am I contributing to a happy community and society?

When Thay said that the problem is “the lack of understanding of love,” I thought of his book True Love. In it he writes that “love is being here for another.” Another means all life including our planet. He encourages us to broaden our understanding about what love is and what love asks of us. Specific to this man's question to Thay, I believe we were all invited to appreciate our meals at Magnolia and home while figuring out how to respond to the questions in the last paragraph.