“The Buddha in Jail” - An interview with Cuong Lu

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Cuong Lu is a Plum Village monk currently teaching with his Sangha in Holland. His new book - ‘The Buddha in Jail’ - contains Cuong’s recollections of his time as a Prison Chaplain. Cuong spoke at Sunday Morning Zen, which can be found on our YouTube channel.

Ok, let’s get right into it.

Through technology we can communicate from Holland to the United States. 

Yes, it’s amazing! You live in Amsterdam currently?

I live in Gouda. You know Gouda Cheese?

Yes, it’s delicious. Is that where Gouda cheese is from?

Yes, we make lots of cheese here. Every weekend we have a cheese market where we sell all the cheese the traditional way.

You grew up in Vietnam?

Yes.

What were your parents like?

My father passed away in 1983, and my mother passed away in 2004. My father almost lost everything in the Vietnam War, so we moved to a new country. It was quite hard for him. He became sick and passed away very quickly, one week after we discovered he was sick. It was quite a difficult time for me, very difficult. I was 14 or 15 years old, and I lost someone who guided me through life. I couldn’t accept that. I kept looking for my father. When I saw Thich Naht Hahn, I saw my father. I saw my teacher, and at the same time I saw my father. He told me ‘You are your father’, but I didn’t see that, I didn’t understand that. Something like that, you cannot understand by the clarity of your mind. You need to go deeper. I was too young, and I couldn’t understand my teacher, but now I do, now I do. If you asked where is your father now, I would say ‘I am my father.’ I can say ‘I am my mother’. It’s wonderful because it means I am much more than a man, I am also a woman. I am a man and at the same time I am a woman. Sometimes we cannot understand this with our consciousness, we need to go deeper. To our true nature. When we talk about true nature, we talk about the nature of everything. You cannot grasp this through an idea, through our consciousness.

It’s intuitive.

Yes, it’s a kind of connection. I make a distinction between contact and connection. When we make contact with something, there is subject and object, there is me and the other person. But when we make a connection, there is no subject and no object, there is no me and no other person. In that way, you make a deep connection with the other person, and there is no separation. In this way, I can make a connection with my father, and there is no son and no father, there is no separation between me and my father. I call that connection. We often don’t make connection, we only make contact. In contact there is separation, in connection there is no separation.

The connection that you are talking about, is that a part of Buddhist practice, or is that available to anybody? How do you practice it?

I don’t see that as a practice. When I see a prisoner as a chaplain, normally I see someone who doesn’t have any practice. But I can make connection with a prisoner, it means there is no separation between the chaplain and the prisoner. In this case, there is no separation between a prisoner and the Buddha. There is also no difference between an offender and a victim. You may think I am helping the offender, but in fact I am helping the victim. It is a very different way of looking at things. The prisoner, that moment, he can feel that connection. When you are connected, you don’t judge. The way we normally see things and judge each other is absent in real connection. What we then have is only love. Compassion. In this moment. Only compassion is there. In the West we often say, ‘I think therefore I am’. This is the way we develop our knowledge, our understanding. In connection we need to say ‘I love, therefore we are.’ That’s another dimension. “I love therefore we are.’ I love you, I have compassion for you, I can feel your pain, therefore your pain is also my pain. I love you in such a way that I can feel your pain. 

The word ‘Passion’ means suffering, and the word ‘Com’ is together, we suffer together, there is no separation, that’s compassion. I can see your pain as my pain, and in that way, pain is seen by me, but also by you. Suffering is only terrible when it is not visible. When it is visible, suffering becomes what we call in Buddhism the First Noble Truth. And then when I look at a prisoner, I can connect with the prisoner. This happened - we can see suffering together - ‘Wow, there is suffering’. For the prisoners, this is the first time he can see his own suffering. Because someone who has caused so much suffering to other people and to himself, he must know what it is? No! Normally a prisoner when you put him a prison, you say ‘You sit here because you have caused suffering’, but normally that is a person who does not know anything about suffering. So you understand it doesn’t work when you put him in this way. That doesn’t mean the law is incorrect, I always stand behind the law. Because when you have done something you need to go to prison, that’s correct. The problem is the prisoner doesn’t understand anything about suffering, so he doesn’t understand the punishment. Unless he can understand compassion. If you can’t show him love, he cannot understand the suffering he is causing to himself and causing to other people. That’s very funny. It means after being in prison, he will repeat the same mistake, he will cause the same suffering. So punishment has only value if we can show compassion.

If you could redesign the prison system to show more compassion, what would you change? 

Most of all, we are prisoners too. We are prisoners of our thinking, of our consciousness. When you say ‘I think, therefore I am’ you must be very lonely in your thinking. What you can reach, you can be ‘I am’. We need each other to live a deeper life. So we need ‘I am’, but also, ‘You are’. When we are free, we are free from our consciousness, from our own thinking, we can let go of the truth. That’s what I often share with my own students, the dharma does not teach you the truth. The dharma helps you to be free from the truth. Normally we think the dharma helps teach us the truth, but the dharma helps us to let go of the truth. That’s why the first noble truth, is happiness. When people are able to get in touch with the truth, they can let go of the truth. When the prisoner is able to get in touch with suffering, he can let go of suffering. Nobody wants to hold on to suffering, there is only one reason why they can’t let go of suffering, they don’t see it. If I am in US, I want to share a practice, the practice where people can see the suffering of each other and let go of the judgement towards each other. So, in that way we can reduce the violence outside the prison and certainly inside the prison. And I can share that practice, and I don’t even call this a practice, it is a way of connecting. To Connect. A way to inter-be with each other. To be, and to inter-be. We are is a way of inter-being. When we talk about we are, it means ‘We Are’ with each other.

Every time I see on television about shooting at schools, I always cry. It’s terrible. There is too much violence. We can do something about that. We can stop judging each other. Because the prisoners often tell each other ‘You are a prisoner. You are!’  They are judging each other. And when I come in, I don’t judge. They say ‘Wow! It does exist. Someone who doesn’t judge you.’ There was a prisoner who came to me and said ‘I want to learn from you. I want to be your disciple.’ And I asked him, ‘Are you a buddhist?’ ‘No, I am not buddhist at all. But the way you look at me, at us, you really see us. You don’t judge. You don’t make any discrimination. The way you walk among us, it shows that you are free in your mind. And I want to be free, too.’ People are imprisoned and kept between the four walls, but most of all, they are imprisoned by their own mind, their own judgement.

How did you meet your wife, and how long have you known each other?

I decided to leave the monastery, I decided to leave that protected environment, and I decided to leave my teacher. Because I belonged to a different generation, and he belonged to a different generation. What he told me was amazing, the way he guided me is amazing. I am so grateful to my teacher, and I am still my teacher now, I am my teacher. But I am aware, I need to find the language for my own generation. I couldn’t do that in that environment. It was a very difficult decision for me. Very difficult. It looked like I didn’t want to be in the monastery - I loved to. It was a very protected environment, wonderful environment, but I left. I left with a lot of pain and suffering in me. And after I left that environment I had the feeling that I’ve lost everything. After 16 years as a monk, now you have nothing. And nobody believed in me anymore, because I left. But one person kept believing in me, and that person is my wife now. She said ‘Cuong, you will become a beautiful teacher. So I was not a very beautiful teacher yet, because I was a monk and in a certain way I didn’t complete my path yet, there was something I still didn’t understand. And in the midst of my deep suffering, one night in October, 2010, I woke up, and at that moment I experienced a deep silence, the complete absence of good and bad, right and wrong, you and me. Before, I thought as a monk you had to be good. And that was my obstacle. None of us are good or bad. Our nature is free from good or bad, you or me, right or wrong, our nature is complete - that’s our true root. Our true home. I left my home by my teacher, and after leaving that home I found my true home. I left my teacher and I found my teacher. Now, my teacher is me. My dear teacher is in me. My teacher is in there. Sometimes people say ‘Cuong, you are a continuation of your teacher’ and I say ‘No, I am not a continuation of my teacher, I am my teacher.  There is no separation, there is no subject or object anymore. I am my teacher. 

That is a lot of trust.

I was looking for my father, I was looking for my teacher, and I was looking for the Buddha, and I have found my father, my teacher, and I have found the Buddha. And in fact I found you. Yes? I found you and that is my trust. I trust you. I look at you and I know you are the image, your face, the face of the Buddha. Your voice is the voice of the Buddha. That is my trust. That’s why in my book I’ve said Buddhism is much more than a way of living, it is also a religion. Because I also believe. I believe in the Buddha in his wisdom, but I also believe in you. Because I have seen your nature, and your nature and the nature of the buddha is the same. Thats why I trust and believe and trust, and I’ve found you. It’s who I was looking for. I had an idea about the buddha, I was looking for the buddha, but I’ve found you. Since I’ve found you, I’ve found myself. Because there is no separation between you and me.

What were the challenges of transitioning from the life of a monastic to a lay teacher?

I feel like I am still a monk. I am a modern monk. I am a married monk. And that’s possible too. Having a wife is not an obstacle for you to be a monk. I am very happy to be able to have a normal life. So I have a wife, I have children, I have work. So I also share your difficulty of someone who has a family, who has children, and I share the same difficulty and the same happiness. As a monk I didn’t have that. For example, in the last interview for a Dutch magazine, I share about my experience of having sex with my wife. And in that moment we both share the same happiness. In that moment, it is my happiness and your happiness, so sex is a way we come together in body, feeling, in everything. And it’s a wonderful moment that we experience each other in this way. We become one. And that experience I didn’t have as a monk. And now I’m a married monk, I do have this experience. And people who do have some problem with this, they can come to me and I can listen, I understand. Because I live exactly the same life you do, therefore I know in your conditions, maybe you are married, you have children, you work, in your condition, you can be an enlightened person, you can be the Buddha.

If you are a monk, it’s harder to connect with lay people? So when you are a monk, you are practicing pure buddhism? You are not concerned with how ordinary people are living their lives? As a monk, what are you doing?

As a monk you have more time to read the sutras. As a monk you are in this protected environment, you have a teacher, you read the sutra, you listen more often to the dharma talks of your teacher. You have more time to do sitting meditation. And you, you can practice to make every step in peace. You have better conditions as a monk. I did have these conditions. I read, I studied a lot during my monkhood.  I deeply practiced with my teacher. I noticed that I have discovered that a lay person can do everything a monk can do.  That’s my discovery.  Now I could do everything I could do before.  I also read sutras, I read books, also practiced sitting meditation, can do everything, just in another way.  I don’t have to sit in a meditation hall, practice meditation, but outside in a park, and sit, I’m there connected with everybody, everything, and that’s the true essence of sitting meditation.  Connection, making connection.  And I see that it is possible, and of course I appreciate the monastery, being with the monks, it has a very powerful energy.  And we should have monasteries, we should have monks who can support us to a place we can go to get the support from people who have deep wisdom. In our early life, in our lay life, we can also live a deep life.  Deep as a monk.  We can and I see I can do that.  That’s why I am a monk.  A married monk.

So you are teaching right now, you have a Sangha in Holland.  How did you become a chaplain?  How did you decide to work with prisons?

Now, when I left the monastery, it was my girlfriend at the time.  She encouraged me to help prisoners.  I asked her why.  And she said, because they suffer.  They need the teaching and you have the teaching so you need to go there and help them.  So I applied to come there, to work as a chaplain, and at first they said no, you cannot.  We have enough people.  I said, “Well then, I’ll volunteer to come and you don’t have to pay me, I’ll just come to help other people, the prisoners there.”  And they were impressed by my energy so they said “Well, Cuong, we can accept you as the chaplain but you need to study for that and to get a Master’s degree to do this work.”  I went to do that so I could do everything possible to help the prisoners, and they accepted me.  And after a few months, the director of the prison said to me, “Cuong, I think the reduction of the violence in our prison has to do with your practice.”  I said “Wow, that’s wonderful”.  That was my feeling, that I think your work and your practice has to do with the reduction of violence in our prison.

And just by meditating with the prisoners, they opened up to you? Do you do interviews with them or just sit down and talk?

The first thing you need to do is to take out the separation between you and the prisoner.  There’s no me, there’s no them.  That’s the first thing.  I think that’s the most easiest thing to do but the most difficult thing to do also.  It’s a kind of non-fear because if you are judging them, and you have fear, they can feel that.  You have to have the non-fear energy.  A non-fear energy is an energy of compassion and of understanding.  An energy of stability.  And it is not my compassion, it is not my stability, it is not my non-fear.  It is their compassion, their stability, their non-fear.  They just don’t recognize it yet.  No one has shown them that they have that energy.  And when you come in and you can show them that you have this energy, along with your happiness.  And what you receive from them is “Wow, I do feel that my own happiness”. And they believe you and trust you and they trust themselves.  There was one prisoner that said to me “It’s funny you’re among us and the prisoners accept you, and can share everything with you, like their friend.  And I know them, they are killers, they are hard criminals.  They accept you, I have never seen this before.   Just accept you, and you are a chaplain, and they are hard criminals and I don’t see any separation between them and you.  You can say that is the secret if you want to help.  If you really need to help, you have to be free from the role of being the helper.  Otherwise you cannot help.  If you think I am the helper, I am helping you, and you are helped by me, you cannot help.  The only way you can help is to be free of being a helper.  And that is what I did.  I didn’t help, I came and I received a lot.  

Could you talk a little bit more of the freedom and of the freedom that you mentioned?  As a prisoner, how that may look.  My concept of freedom is being able to go anywhere you want but obviously a prisoner, that’s not part of their understanding.  As a prisoner, how can you be free?

Being free means being free of your consciousness.  Because we are all prisoners of our consciousness.  And consciousness here is a very small part of life.  We don’t look deep enough into our consciousness.  Consciousness is a very small part of yourself.  You are much more than your consciousness.  And right in the consciousness, you judge.  You make discrimination, because the nature of consciousness is that it helps you be able to make discrimination in order to survive.  To make distinction, you discriminate so you can survive.  To find who is your friend and who is your enemy.  That’s discrimination.  That’s me, that’s you.  Good & bad.  And your consciousness helps you recognize, understand, you have knowledge. But at the same time, it is your prison.  And the prisoners, they are prisoners of their consciousness.  Of their pain, suffering, their hopelessness.  And suffering because they have caused many suffering.  Sometime during the night, it all comes back to them.  And I help them to be free, which means I help them to be free from their consciousness.  So that they can get in touch with their true nature.  And true nature is not a kind of consciousness.  True nature is much more than consciousness.   The root of everything, the root of all of us is much more than consciousness.  And when I can get in touch with my roots, I can get in touch with their roots.  And in that way, I can help them get in touch with something deeper than only consciousness.  And thanks to that connection, they can get rooted again.  They can make peace with their parents, their ancestors, and with society.  Society is also their roots.  You know, you cannot fight against society.  You need to make peace with society because society is your roots.  You cannot be angry with yourself because you are your own roots.  So I help them to be free to get in touch with their true roots.  Home, true home.  And I can feel that.  And when they make peace with their true home, they can make peace with their wife and children.  When they come out of the prison and they come home as a new person, a person who has found themselves.  Who no longer is running, who no longer is suffering, and run away from suffering and who is looking for suffering.  Someone who has found himself.  That is freedom.  Freedom means when you have found yourself.  Freedom is when you have found yourself.  No matter where you are you are, you have found yourself and you are free.  

You talk about reframing the first Noble Truth - instead of life is suffering, or the truth of suffering, it’s the truth of happiness.  And seeing suffering as maybe not as bad but as happiness, it’s a good thing to be able to see your suffering. What did you mean by that?

You know, the Buddha said suffering is the first Noble Truth. And when we listen to him, we hear him say ‘suffering’. But we forget that suffering is the first Noble Truth. Suffering as a noble truth is not exactly the same as suffering as an idea. Happiness, too. Happiness as the Noble Truth is not the same thing as happiness as an idea. You may look for happiness, I will be happy if I get what I want. That’s an idea. Suffering people might have an idea that they suffer, like the prisoners. ‘I suffer because you have done that,’ that’s an idea. I suffer because of you. That’s an idea. Suffering as a truth is not exactly the same. When you are able to get in touch with suffering as a truth you say ’Wow,  this is suffering’ and you don’t even think this is my suffering or your suffering. Just see suffering as it is, as a truth. And you don’t recognize it with your consciousness anymore. You get in touch with it so deeply, that you are so happy to see it. Because it’s wonderful to be able to see your suffering. The moment you can see you’re suffering, you are free. That’s the noble truth, the Buddha said that. The person who understands suffering as the first truth, he will understand the second truth, the cause of suffering, the root of suffering, and he can understand the third truth is the cessation of suffering, and the fourth truth is the path. The one who sees the first truth will see the whole thing, the whole teaching about suffering, roots of suffering, ending of suffering, and the path. So suffering as a Noble Truth is something beautiful. Suffering is not the problem. Suffering is something to get in touch deeply with, and you are free. In a certain way, if you understand suffering deep enough as a reality and as a truth, you are touching happiness at the same. You are so happy that we all have that experience. You are angry and you can come back to that anger. We are carried away by our anger. And you can come back to it and say ‘Oh Hello, my anger’. And that is the moment of enlightenment, the moment of freedom, the moment of happiness. That’s why instead of saying suffering as the first Noble Truth, you can say happiness as the first Noble Truth. It’s not two different things. It’s one thing. You are talking about the level of roots of nature, but we often touch suffering and happiness on the level of concept. Conceptual level. And when suffering is being touched at the level of its nature, it is so wonderful. So wonderful that you can see ‘This is suffering’ and you understand that. If you don’t understand suffering, you cannot understand each other. If you can understand each other, you can be happy. If you are able to get in touch with happiness, as in the case with the prisoners, I come with the energy of happiness, the energy of non-judgement, the energy of no discrimination, and I bring the energy of happiness to them and thanks to that energy they can recognize suffering as a truth, not an idea. And they can stop it. ‘Oh this is suffering. So painful. I don’t want to do this to my self or other people. I can stop.’ And that is happiness. Suffering, the moment of discovering suffering, is always the moment of discovering happiness. So why don’t we call the first noble truth the truth of happiness?

Your experience as a chaplain, has that changed how you view the world at all? Has it confirmed what you learned as a monk?

You know, I have seen people who have caused so much suffering in their lives, to themselves and to other people. And I have discovered that in a very short time, these people can discover their true selves. They can be free, they can be happy, they can make use of the wisdom of the Buddha. They can be the Buddha. That is such a big gift for myself. To be able to witness that. I come to help, but I got so much out of it. Because I have seen and witnessed it not one time, two times, ten times, twenty times, every time, every day I’ve witnessed that. That is a big gift. And I never forget that anymore. No matter how deep you are falling, you can stand up, you can start again. You always do have that chance. And that is what I have seen.

That’s difficult. Especially around angry, hurt people. How do you maintain that sort of compassion? It’s hard not to be afraid. How does one not be afraid in the face of such suffering?

These people who are angry, who are suffering, if you look deeply in them you see that they have the best conditions to be enlightened. And I was always happy that I could see that, that they could express their anger to me, because they had trust. If you don’t have trust, you cannot express your anger, your suffering, your violence. And they could show that, the violence in their mind, the anger in their mind, the frustration, I was always happy to see that, I’d say “Wow, you trust me. You believe I can help you, and yes I can do it, I will help.” I was afraid to witness anger or frustration or fear, but I was quite happy. And I encourage people to show that, to show that to me, ‘It’s ok darling, it’s ok.’ It’s ok to suffer. Because someone who loves you will allow you to suffer. If you don’t love someone, you say ‘Your suffering, I don’t like it’, then you look for someone else who is happier. You have too much anger, too much suffering. Thats not true love. In true love there is always space for suffering. That’s why the prisoner’s suffering didn’t scare me. I wasn’t afraid of their suffering. I was happy that I could see that and I can see that, the way I received their suffering, I don’t judge. I am quite happy to, happiness is not an enemy of suffering, and suffering is not an enemy of happiness. If you suppress suffering, you never experience happiness in your life. So suffering, you do have a condition to be happy, and that is the suffering.

What are some of your passions?

I love to renew the Dharma. You can say, our consciousness is in fact like a program, it is programmed in a certain way. And the Dharma is to deprogram you. To help you to be free from the program that you think is the truth. Your consciousness does not contain the truth. It contains the programming and the dharma is a kind of deprogramming program. It is also a program that helps you be free of your programmed consciousness so that you can get in touch with a deeper reality of yourself. You can understand yourself in a much deeper way. And the Buddha did that. He offered a kind of program to deprogram your consciousness. And every time a teacher offers some renewing of the dharma, to help people of his time to be free from their consciousness, from the misunderstanding of themselves. And my teacher did that in a beautiful way, with mindfulness. When you talk about Thich Naht Hahn you talk about mindfulness. And I also wanted to renew the Dharma, to fuel my task a teacher to renew, so I want to, every day I think about how to help people tp have more freedom, more happiness in their life. Thats why I talk about happiness as the first noble truth. The concept of, the teaching of suffering as the first Noble Truth, I renew that, and I offer happiness as the first Noble Truth, and I love to do that. And I do that in my teaching, so every time I give a talk, I give a teaching, there is always something new I am sharing. You cannot repeat the Dharma, you need to renew the Dharma. That is what we call the living Dharma.

Do you have any final words as we leave the interview, would you like to share anything about the book, or that we haven’t touched on?

I am very happy that the book is published in the US. Next month in July I will come to the US, and I want to make friends. I don’t come for my book. The book is a condition to come and make friends. And I believe together we can do something. Please come to me, hold my hand. And we can do something. There is too much violence. We need to do something. And we can do something. We have the path, we have the wisdom. We have the buddha in each of us. We need to do something. And that is what I want to share with everybody. I want to say ‘Let’s just be friends.’ It’s beautiful if we have 7 billion people who are friends with each other. So I come to US with that deep wish, I want to make friends. Come and hold my hand, and let’s do something together. To reduce the violence of our society.

The Buddha in Jail  is available now in bookstores and for ordering online.

The Buddha in Jail is available now in bookstores and for ordering online.