In the current political climate, I sometimes feel overwhelmed and powerless.  So, in preparing for this Sangha on the President’s Day holiday, which was originally established to honor George Washington but now is viewed as a day to honor and celebrate all of our past and current Presidents – people we often view as very powerful – I became curious about Thich Nhat Hanh’s views on “power.”  

The following is an excerpt from Thay called “The Three Forms of Power”:

Many of us think that if we had a lot of power we could do whatever we wanted, and that this would make us very happy.  Indeed, many of us have some kind of power but because we don’t know how to handle the power, we misuse it and we create suffering for ourselves and for the people around us.  Money is a kind of power.  Fame is a kind of power.  Weapons are a kind of power.  A strong army is a kind of power.  A lot of suffering is caused in the world because people misuse their power.  They do this because they don’t have the power to be themselves.

In the Buddhist tradition, we speak of three powers. These are quite different than the power of fame, wealth, and competition.  These three kinds of power can make a person happy.  If you have these three kinds of power, then the other kinds of power like having money, fame, an army or weapons will never become destructive.

The First Power: Understanding

The first kind of power is the power of understanding.  We should be able to cultivate the power to understand our own suffering and the suffering of others.  This kind of understanding will bring about compassion that will reduce our own suffering.  When you understand, you are no longer angry; you no longer want to punish anyone. Understanding is a great power. It gives rise to compassion.

When you have sufficient understanding, you release all of your fear, anger and despair.  Understanding means understanding the roots of suffering in yourself, in others, and in the world.  We use the energy of mindfulness and concentration to look deeply into the nature of our suffering in order to gain understanding.  In Buddhism, we don’t speak of salvation in terms of grace.  We speak of salvation in terms of understanding. Understanding is like a sword that can cut through the afflictions of anger, fear, and despair.

The Second Power: Love

If you put a handful of salt into a bowl of water and stir it, the water will be too salty to drink.  But if you throw the same amount of salt into an immense river, the handful of salt can’t make the river salty.  The power of love is like the river.  If your heart grows, your heart has room for everyone.  When your heart is full of love, little irritations become like the handful of salt in the river.  They don’t bother you, and you don’t suffer anymore.

The energy of love can free you and also help free the people around you who suffer.  There are two ways to respond to difficulties you have with others.  In the first way, you have the desire to punish the person you believe has made you suffer.  You believe that you are a victim of someone else and you have the tendency to want to punish that person because he or she has dared to make you suffer.  You may feel tempted to retaliate and to punish them. But of course when the other person is punished, he or she suffers and wants to retaliate and punish you back. This is how the situation escalates. Yet, there is another way to respond. You can respond to suffering with the power of love.  When you look deeply, you realize that the person who has made you suffer also suffers very deeply.  He suffers a lot from his wrong perceptions, his anger, or his fear.  He doesn’t know how to handle the suffering in himself. If no one offers love and understanding, he becomes the victim of his own suffering.  If you look deeply with the eyes of love and see this, compassion will be born in your heart.  When compassion is born in your heart, you don’t suffer anymore, and you ease the suffering of others.

The Third Power:  Letting Go

The third power is the power to be able to detach and let go of our afflictions, such as craving, anger, fear, and despair.  When you have the power to cut away all these kinds of afflictions, you become a free person and there is no greater power than that. When you’re free, you can help so many people to suffer less.

We all have the energy of craving within us, but we can cultivate the power of being able to cut through this kind of energy.  We know that the object of our craving has brought us a lot of suffering and has brought other people around us a lot of suffering, too.  Mindfulness, concentration, and understanding, give us the power to overcome our attachment to our afflictions.

In the beginning, you believe that the objects of your craving are essential for your well-being and happiness.  You let your cravings have power over you.  But if you look deeply, you will recognize that these objects of craving are not true conditions for your happiness.  If you can see this, and you can cultivate the powers of love and understanding, then you’ll be truly powerful.

-Thich Nhat Hanh, Work, How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day

The above is a lot to take in!  If it’s too much all at once, just focus on one of the three forms of power that Thay discusses that resonates most with you right now.  Some things to think about are:  When do I feel most and least powerful?  Have I ever experienced one or more of the three types of power that Thay discusses?  How might I incorporate those forms of power into my own life and relationships?

I look forward to seeing you on Monday night and hearing your thoughts!