Listening deeply to a question and response about use of unethical products because they are cheaper




Image: Otter. A lost word. 
This is a photograph of a page in the spectacular book 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 sentences are spoken in an incredulous manner about why this place was buying products like lettuce, apples, and oats from horrible this and that terrible 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 am also thoughtful about the what and the where of my purchases, I recalled peeking into the 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 was sitting 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.

So, yeah, I could have asked that question about products with maybe even more messiness. I recall 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 community’s “happy farms and farmers fostering sustainability” programs. Instead, he suggested that we look at what positive things are happening and to let that inspire us to build happy [lives, families, and] communities.

This is what I think Thay is saying.

When he says, “it’s not money,” in this sentence it means the problem. The problem is not money. For me, Thay wants us to look at the cause of money problems. I think he is bringing forward other questions like, 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 this aspiration of a happy community and society?

When Thay says that the problem is “the lack of understanding of love,” I think of his book titled True Love. In it, he says “love is being here for another.” Another means all life including our planet. If we do not understand what love is, we are not able to be here for others with kindness and joy.