Faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration, insight: these are faculties found within us all. It’s up to us, of course, to develop and bring them out. In this conversation with Buddhadharma, author, medical doctor, and Plum Village monastic Sister Dang Nghiem (a.k.a. “Sister D”) talks about how her teacher Thich Nhat Hanh taught the “five strengths,” and how we can transform and harness them into powers that drive and deepen our dharma practice.
Buddhadharma: Sister Dang Nghiem, thanks for speaking with us. Let’s lay the ground about how you came to the dharma and how you first encountered the five strengths.
Sister Dang Nghiem: I came to the dharma in a desperate situation. I was born Buddhist. I took Grandma to the temple, that was the most I did. And when I came to the United States, I invested most of my time and energy in high school, college, and medical school, and then residency. So I really did not invest at all in the dharma.
But my partner was a Buddhist practitioner. And on his bookshelf there was Peace Is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh. That’s how I actually met Thay [an affectionate epithet; “teacher” in Vietnamese], through his book, but I never ventured more than that. Somebody told me about this Vietnamese master who had a retreat in California, and I recognized his name, so I went to a retreat in Santa Barbara in 1999. Three weeks later, my partner, John, died suddenly in a drowning accident. And so I came to the dharma out of desperation. I went to Plum Village three months after he died, after I took care of all the affairs. I let go of medicine. I just wanted peace at that moment.
In mindfulness, there is concentration and insight, there’s diligence, there’s faith. If you practice one strength, you are practicing all five.
Nothing really meant anything anymore to me. I was so desperate. In my life, I’d suffered a lot of abuse, a lot of trauma. So John’s death plunged me into this despair, but also woke me up. All my efforts to become successful, to seek love, to seek all these things I thought would heal and bring me forward into the future, I accomplished all of that, but I was still drowning in my suffering. I really had to choose between death and practice. And, thankfully, I had met Thay three weeks before that, and had seen a glimmer of hope. So I chose to go to France to follow Thay and practice with the community.
I slowly gained faith and confidence through the practice of mindfulness. Little by little, I touched more calmness and peace. I was able to embrace the suffering in me, and gained trust that the practice could help me. Slowly, I gained trust that I could take care of myself because, even as a doctor, I didn’t take very good care of myself. I didn’t eat regularly. I couldn’t take care of my strong emotions. I was often stressed and went into bouts of depression. But the practice helped. Through mindfulness, I gained a little more concentration, a little more insight into my suffering, and I became more diligent because of that.
And then I gained a little more faith, not just in the practice, but in my capacity to embrace the suffering.
Faith, diligence, mindfulness, concentration, and insight—these are, of course, the five faculties (Sanskrit and Pali, indriya). Let’s speak about them.
These five faculties are our capacities. We were born with them. And as we practice them, they become five powers (bala). With our use, they become strengthened.
And they have practical application in our lives, and how we relate to suffering.
We can have a stressful event happen in our daily lives, but if we know how to care for that, the stress passes. And we become more resilient, more experienced in taking care of the situation. But when a challenging, stressful event takes place and we’re not able to process it, to integrate it into our daily lives, it can become a traumatic experience and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
To me, the term trauma is a modern term for suffering, which the Buddha taught about. Trauma means we are not able to integrate it into our being, in our body, in our mind. And there’s this schism, this separation. Most of us suffer from some sort of trauma because our bodies are here, but our minds are somewhere else, and we are still rehashing or regretting the past. We’re not really able to be present in body and mind.
That’s not really true integration of the events in our lives in the past or in the present. We’re not truly here. The five faculties can help all of us on the spectrum of suffering or trauma, so we can empower ourselves with the faith that we can care for ourselves and transform and heal and confront whatever challenge comes our way.
To what degree do the five faculties work together, and to what degree do they work in sequence?
True to the teaching of interbeing, this is in that, and that is in this. And this is because that is, and this is not because that is not. Everything is in each other. True to that spirit, the five faculties, the five powers, are in each other and empower each other. In mindfulness, there is concentration and insight, there’s diligence, there’s faith. If you practice one, you are practicing all five.
Let’s talk about each of them, starting with faith, which you’ve talked about as being interchangeable with trust. What do we mean when we say faith?
Having studied medicine, as I deepened my practice in my monastic life, I recognized that the Buddha was a great scientist and psychologist, because he understood that, like in Erickson’s stages of development, stage one is trust versus mistrust.
As a newborn comes into the world, the first thing the newborn does is to develop trust in the caregiver. This initial stage in our lives is very important. Many of us grow up with a sense of loss, loneliness, and trauma because, in our infancy or childhood, our caregivers, whether they were our parents or whoever cared for us, were not able to be there for or protect us. Perhaps they caused harm to us, or verbally or physically abused us. And if trust is not built in the primary stage of our life, the rest of our life is affected.
When we suffer, we actually run away from ourselves; we’re not really there to care for ourselves, for our wounded inner child. So we depend on drugs, we depend on work, on sex, on medications, on external situations to soothe ourselves, to give ourselves a sense of security.
To start trusting ourselves is most challenging and essential. As a child, you are told to use soap. It’s drilled into you: wash your hands after you use the restroom. With time, you’re like, Oh, it actually works. And then you wash your hands diligently every single time.
It’s like that when we come to practice: We don’t have trust in the practice, or in ourselves. Out of desperation, or curiosity or something, we begin to practice. Slowly, we see that the practice helps: it helps me calm down, helps me be there for my sadness, for my pain. And then we can say, oh, I am being there for myself, for the wounds of my past that I had run away from. So the practice slowly helps to instill that hope, that faith, in us.
It’s not that I come to trust the Buddha as an entity outside of me. I actually gain, first and foremost, trust in the practice and in myself. And then, slowly, I begin to see that’s my buddhanature. I have the capacity to be awake, aware, and to care for myself and others.
What if we’ve been practicing a long time and we find our faith flagging or dissipating? How can we get our faith and our confidence back on track?
If we practice right diligence, right faith, and right mindfulness, we won’t lose the path. We won’t come to think that we’re not confident in the practice anymore, or that we should seek traditions, other diversions. We have to reflect on our practice: On what have we focused our energy, time, and attention? Has it been in the spirit of being awake, aware, of stopping and deep looking? Because if faith is fading, it means the other four factors have not been exercised properly.
That brings us to the second of the faculties, diligence.
Diligence means how we invest our daily time and energy in our way of thinking, speaking, and in our way of behaving. The three karmas, the three actions of body, speech, and mind; how we use all that, how we exercise that, how we manifest that. All of us are very diligent. I see teenagers nowadays, they can be playing games for eight hours a day. They can check their iPhone every other minute. That’s very diligent.
That’s diligence, not avoidance or escapism?
It’s diligence, but it’s wrong diligence. That kind of diligence is to escape, but it’s still diligence because it’s how you’re spending your energy and time and effort. Whatever we put our effort in consistently, that’s diligence.
We have to ask, what is the fruit of that investment of our energy and time? And that goes into teachings on the four kinds of diligence our teacher expounded on frequently, to deal with positive seeds and negative seeds.
Let’s talk about those, starting with positive seeds and how to nurture them.
Such seeds help us to have more peace, more joy, more understanding, more love. There are two ways to care for them.
First, if they have not arisen, we invite them to come up. For example, say your generosity has not been manifesting lately. You invite that seed to come up by saying to somebody Hello, or You look well; how are you doing today? You offer a hug or your umbrella to somebody. You invite the seed of generosity to come up.
The second way is that, once a positive seed has come up from your store consciousness, you practice to keep it there on the level of your mind consciousness. It is like inviting a good friend to stay longer. You may even pray for the rain so your friend will stay.
So if you are happy in a situation, you give rise to awareness: This is a happy moment. I’m with my loved ones. At this moment, I don’t have a toothache; how wonderful that is! You water the seed of joy in you so that it’s stronger and stays strong with your awareness.
And with negative seeds?
We do the opposite. If it has not arisen, don’t invite it to come up. For example, avoid watching movies or following news that water the seeds of violence, discrimination, or hatred. Don’t do things that will trigger jealousy or insecurity in you or in your partner. And if it’s already up, practice not to water it further, but to help it to go back to a latent state. And examine your daily diligence: Am I watering the good seeds or the negative seeds? Am I inviting them up and keeping them up? Is that beneficial?
How can we feel somewhat confident that by not watering our negative seeds we’re not also suppressing something that shouldn’t be suppressed, or engaging in avoidance?
That’s what meditation is for. As we learn to quiet our minds, we look into the difficulties of our lives. And we can only do that with the energy of mindfulness and with some stability in ourselves to be able to breathe with whatever is arising, and to relax our body as the difficult, painful sensations arise in our bodies and our minds.
As practitioners, we do that daily, and slowly take it off the cushion. For example, if I’m walking or I’m sitting somewhere and, say, a thought of discrimination arises, the strength of my mindfulness helps me to recognize that thought right away, and I can call it by its true name: this is a thought of discrimination. And I breathe, I smile, I relax, and I quiet that thought so I don’t water it further and it becomes a whole big story in my mind: “Oh, that person is like that.” When we are aware and spacious, whatever arises in our minds, we know and we take care of it as it arises.
If we practice right diligence, right faith, and right mindfulness, we won’t lose the path. If faith is fading, it means the other four factors have not been exercised properly.
I appreciate the practice of mindfulness because we learn to be aware in the here and the now. But we also see that the here and now contains an element of the past: I cannot change the past, but if I take good care of the here and the now, I will change the way I have been thinking. If, in this moment, I stop a negative thought—Oh, that’s judgment, that’s discrimination, that’s jealousy, that’s insecurity—I don’t cause another incident of negativity in my own life. I don’t perpetuate that pain in my life.
Mindfulness helps us see the pattern, and change it. In the present moment, I can learn not to behave as a victim or to cause more suffering to myself and others. Mindfulness helps you deal honestly and openly with whatever is arising, with stability and clarity.
Which brings us to concentration. How are mindfulness and concentration related?
Mindfulness, I see this way: when you practice, you have a “bead” here and there, a moment you are aware. During the next five minutes, maybe you just do things on autopilot. Minutes later, you’re again aware of something that you are thinking or doing. So those are beads of mindfulness, dispersed and scattered. But if we cultivate more and more mindfulness beads, more consistently, then they’re strung into a necklace of concentration.
You wrote in your wonderful book Flowers in the Dark: Reclaiming Your Power to Heal from Trauma with Mindfulness that concentration as a strength allows us to look deeply into the roots of our consciousness and resolve the suffering there. How so?
In our society, we water the seeds of a dispersed mind: people now have such short attention spans. Everything needs to be concise, packaged to get our attention. Our dispersed minds don’t allow us to care of ourselves, or whatever is arising, because a dispersed mind is not a mind that is present in the moment.
That’s why and when we practice: to learn to be here for whatever is arising, and to be able to sit still to embrace that. We discover that whatever we feel is actually not as bad as we think. We can sit through it. We can start with one minute and then five minutes and thirty minutes with our strong emotions. And then we gain that capacity, the faith that we can be there for what is and take care of it.
Key to our concentration, and practice as a whole, is a sense of security.
Our nervous system always scans the environment: Am I safe? Are those people safe to me? Are they accepting me? But through my practice and life experience, I’ve realized that most, if not all, of the time, my environment is very safe. Thankfully. Not all people can say that.
But if I’m not skillful, I’m not safe to myself. Many of us are not safe to ourselves when we think destructive or self-denigrating thoughts, suspicious or judgmental or critical of ourselves and others. So we have to retrain our autonomic nervous systems by being more settled in our bodies. We slowly gain that trust and confidence and that safety from deep within.
And I’ve learned that we feel and react to each other’s feelings. So, as we become safer to ourselves and we have trust in ourselves, we become safer to others and we trust others. And vice versa: they will benefit from our energy and it will bring out the better part of them.
The last of the five faculties is wisdom or insight. In Flowers in the Dark, you characterized the insight of interbeing as being both profound and practical, and key to right view. Are there other insights we are cultivating, or are they all contained in interbeing?
They’re all contained in interbeing. Interbeing can explain emptiness. Interbeing can explain signlessness, aimlessness, nonself, impermanence. Interbeing is an umbrella for all the teachings.
Here’s the Chinese character for wisdom or insight: 慧
Thay often translated wisdom as insight or understanding. The top two characters mean “two brooms,” to sweep. The middle one is the “snout,” what’s protruding from your face. On the bottom is the character for mind or heart.
I love this character. Wisdom means you use two brooms—to sweep what’s on your face, and what’s in your heart. What’s “on your face” is what’s most salient—the daily habits, thoughts, views, and feelings that are obvious. But as you practice more and more, you also take care of what’s more subtle, what’s “in your heart”—perceptions, thoughts, feelings, biases, etc. In practice, we sweep day by day, learning to see what is and to change wrong view to right view, wrong mindfulness to right mindfulness, wrong diligence to right diligence, wrong faith to right faith, and so on.
If you have a negative thought, a negative seed arising, just sweep it—take care of it as it comes up so you can have wisdom. This is actually the practice of right diligence, the daily moment-to-moment work we do. Which brings us full circle to mindfulness. This is why Thay dedicated his life to the teaching and practice of mindfulness.
In mindfulness, from moment to moment, we see what’s arising. And if we know that it’s unbeneficial, it’s unwholesome, we sweep it with a smile, a mindful breath, and relaxation of the body so that we don’t bring drama or trauma or tension into our body and mind. And it has to be right mindfulness, because there’s wrong mindfulness, too: when we pay attention to things that are unbeneficial. Let’s look at the Chinese characters for right mindfulness: 正念
In the character for “right,” the top horizontal line means “one,” and the rest is the character for stopping. So in right effort or practice, there’s oneness and there’s stopping. Meditation has two wings, stopping, and deep looking. Samatha (calm abiding) is stopping and Vispassana (insight into impermanence, suffering, and no self, known as the three “seals” or “doors of liberation”) is deep looking.
Nowadays, people use mindfulness in the military and in business. If we use mindfulness to run after some goal, some ambition, to achieve more, then it’s not right mindfulness. There’s no stopping, no oneness in that. It just waters the seed of grasping. That’s wrong mindfulness, or abuse of mindfulness.
But if we use right mindfulness?
If we use right mindfulness, it will always bring us back to ourselves, to concentration, insight, healing, transformation of our suffering, peace, reconciliation, and harmony in our own bodies and in our relationship with the world.
You’ve been a monastic now for twenty-three years. Thank you so much for your time and teaching.
You’re welcome. But all of this is not mine. It’s the wisdom from the Buddha, from Thay, from the practice. It is with the guidance of Thay, of the sangha, and with the blessings of time and energy of all this time that I’ve been able to realize this. But definitely I feel it’s very personal: I came to the practice out of desperation, but now I practice because it’s a way of life, a way of being. I wouldn’t want to be another way. I wouldn’t want to live another life.