For a Future to Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life
by Thich Nhat Hanh
For a Future to Be Possible
A review by Chris Faatz
I don't know about you, but in my circles the works of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to be much more in vogue than anything that bears even a faint touch of the spiritual. Dawkins and Harris make strong cases against religion, and particularly against fanaticism in religion, of whatever flavor -- and their readers are taking great joy in finally taking the battle to the enemy.
It's hard, I admit, to find a faith stance that stands up solidly to reason, that doesn't insist on the primacy of belief over evidence, or that has no hint of contamination by the forces of violence, bigotry, and intolerance. One faith tradition that comes close -- and there are none that wear virtuous white robes in this respect -- is Buddhism. And, outside of Tibet's Dalai Lama, there is no one more capable of speaking of the ethical life from a Buddhist perspective than the Vietnamese peace activist and spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thich Nhat Hanh has had a rich and productive life, and the exploration and practice of ethical responsibility has been at the core of it. Born in Vietnam, he was early ordained to the religious life, and has practiced and taught in that country and abroad for decades. During the Vietnam War, he took the controversial stand of not siding with either government, instead insisting on a path of peace and reconciliation through social service work. While in France attending peace talks, he was warned that his life was in danger should he return to his homeland. It has only been in the past few years that he has been able to return, with great fanfare, to Vietnam.
During the seventies, Nhat Hanh and his followers took to helping boat people who were escaping from Vietnam. He and his colleagues sailed the high seas, aiding and abetting the forces of compassion regardless of the cost.
Today, Nhat Hanh lives at Plum Village, a practice center in France. He teaches internationally, and his gentle words on the path of mindfulness and compassion have had great impact on a developing Buddhism in the west. His enunciation of an engaged Buddhism, one that is fully involved in the world, using Buddhist concepts in its engagement with contemporary problems, has been enormously influential.
This gentle avatar of a life of compassionate engagement and mindfulness, or simple awareness of our surroundings and the ramifications of our every action, has written dozens of books. None are more powerful, nor more central to his teachings, than For a Future to be Possible: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life. This exquisite little book clearly explains the heart of the Buddha's teachings on engagement and responsibility for the individual, and they are as relevant today as they were in the Buddha's time -- or, for that matter, as they were during the Vietnam War.
For a Future to be Possible is an exposition of the traditional five moral precepts taught by the Buddha. Nhat Hanh has rephrased them as "mindfulness trainings," aware of the negative moral connotations of the word "precept." The five mindfulness trainings, which he calls "a diet for a mindful society," are: to not kill; to not take that which is not freely given; to avoid sexual misconduct; to refrain from false speech; and to refrain from intoxicants to the point of heedlessness. Contrary to appearance, these are not "thou shalt nots." Rather, they are guidelines for an aware and compassionate life, providing a roadmap for a journey rather than an arrived at goal.
God has no role in these pages, nor does the mantle of an inherited faith. Indeed, in Nhat Hanh's school of Zen, the many deities of Buddhism simply don't exist, or are recognized as archetypes for mental states. Furthermore, questioning is central to the Buddha's teaching. Indeed, a whole Sutra, or scripture, is dedicated to the necessity to question and try things out for oneself rather than taking them simply on faith (the Kalama Sutra).
For a Future to be Possible is a handbook of the spirit, of the engaged life. It offers the five mindfulness trainings, and each is accompanied by a rich and absorbing commentary by Nhat Hanh. The book also includes an introduction by Joan Halifax and a stupendous afterword by Jack Kornfield. The nun Chan Khong, Nhat Hanh's closest associate, has contributed a "Frequently Asked Questions" section, and the remainder of the book consists of guidelines for ceremonies around the five mindfulness trainings.
Just for a taste, this is the first mindfulness training as put forth by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.
This mindfulness training, as an ethical guideline, invites us to be aware of our lives in relationship to all other beings, animate and inanimate. It is a guideline that could be practiced equally skillfully by theist and nontheist alike, and the implications of which are revolutionary for the individual, the community, and the planet.
Does this provide an answer to Richard Dawkins, or even to the fundamentalists of the religious right? Probably not. But, these mindfulness trainings, with their invitation to a life lived in compassionate openness, to a life seen as a journey of practice rather than of one lived as a closed book of set opinions and rigid positions, provide an alternative -- even an antidote -- to the assumed verities of all sides.
These mindfulness trainings claim no Truth. They are rather a whisper in the wind, an open invitation to people regardless of faith tradition to live a life of kindness and gentleness in recognition of our simple and beautiful interconnectedness. They can be seamlessly woven into your spiritual life, and they can enrich it immeasurably. One by one, individual by individual, community by community, they can help us to change the world. What more could we ask?