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

Image: Otter. A lost word. 
This is a page in a 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.

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 said,

“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?”

I turned my gaze from the questioner to Thay. 

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:

“The problem is 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 living happily as a society. Give your time and energy to build a happy community.”

That’s it.

The questioner sat down.

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 and communities. 

Things like this. At 4:00 AM that morning on my way to get a cup of tea before our 5:00 AM meditation, I noticed one monastic transforming chickpeas into hummus using an immersion blender. Little by little there would be a spoonful for every one of us. Yes, all 900 meditators.

This is how I interpreted Thay.

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 responses to questions such as, 

How can we be here for each other? 
How can I enjoy happiness and ease and freedoms when others suffer? 
What is humankind’s highest aspiration? 
How am I contributing to a happy community and society?

Thay said that the problem is “the lack of understanding of love.” 

In his book True Love, he writes that love is being here for another. Another includes all sentient beings and our planet. He encourages us to broaden our understanding of 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 while figuring out how we can together make choices for the greater good.