Thich Nhat Hanh on discrimination and complexes

In this short teaching, which is available on the Plum Village App, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the wisdom of nondiscrimination, and three complexes which cause much suffering: the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, and the equality complex. This is an excerpt from a Dharma Talk from 2004.

[This transcript has been edited for readability.]

By allowing you to touch the wisdom of nondiscrimination which is within you, interbeing can help to set you free: there’s no more discrimination. There’s no more hatred. You no longer want to belong to just one geographical area or cultural identity.

Looking into yourself, you see a multitude of ethnic sources, a multitude of cultural sources. And you can see the presence of the whole cosmos within yourself. You may manifest as a lotus flower. You may manifest as a magnolia flower. You might manifest as an orange flower. But every kind of flower is beautiful, whether that flower is red or yellow or white or black.

Scientifically you know that a color has no self. A color is made only of elements of other colors. Looking deeply into one color, you see all other colors in it. The color white is made of non-white elements; that can be proved scientifically. The color brown is made of non-brown elements. The color black is made of non-black elements. 

In the same way, we inter-are. That is a fact. You are in me, and I am in you. It’s silly to discriminate against each other; this is ignorance. It is ignorance to discriminate, to think that you are superior to me, that I am superior to you, and so on.

In Europe and in America, many people have mental illnesses. And their psychotherapists tell them that they have low self-esteem and that’s why they suffer. And they try everything to help you feel that you are superior.

In this winter retreat, the monastics in Deer Park studied the rules of Benedictine monks, alongside the Buddhist Pratimokṣa: a comparative study of the two traditions. They found that the Benedictine tradition tried to combat the complex of superiority and arrogance using the complex of inferiority: “I am nothing. I’m not worth a worm…”

The superiority complex can bring about a lot of suffering; that is why they use the complex of inferiority to counter it. But that is also a complex; you are using a poison to neutralize another poison.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, there’s no self. So you cannot compare; there’s nothing to compare with. There’s no self to compare with. The right hand and the left hand have no separate self. That is why you cannot compare. And you should not compare. That is why you don’t suffer.

In Buddhism, all complexes are born from the notion of self. 

There are three complexes. Not two. The complex of superiority is called thang man in Vietnamese. And if you think that you are superior to him or her or to them, you are sick. And the basis of your sickness is your illusion of self, of a self that is ‘better’. And many of us have been struggling to prove that we are better; that we are more powerful than they; that we are cleverer than they.

We are trying to seek happiness by proving that we are superior. We behave like a hammer trying to drive the nail, in order to prove that everyone is a nail except me, the hammer. And all our lives we try to demonstrate one thing: “I am superior to you. Our nation is superior to yours. Our race is superior to yours.”

You want to prove that, in terms of military power, you are the number one power. That you can overpower every other nation. You want to prove that you can defeat any nation. And that gives you some satisfaction: “Oh, I’m superior to them. My nation is the mightiest nation.” 

And when the other side suffers, they want to respond in the same way. They want to say, “We are not nothing. We are something. If you can hit us that way, we can hit back another way. If you can bomb us, we can bring a bomb and blow ourselves up on a bus. We can make you sleepless. We can make your nation live in fear, day and night.”

So they retaliate to try to prove that they are something, that they are not nothing. Both sides try to prove that they can do something to punish; that they are superior. And that is happening with many groups: Palestinian or Israeli, Hindu or Muslim, anti-terrorists or terrorists. We want to prove that we are not nothing; that we are worth something, and you cannot look down on us. And all that striving is based on the illusion of self. 

In fact, we inter-are: if you suffer, we suffer also. If you are safe, we’d also be safe. Safety and peace are not individual matters. If the other person is not safe, you cannot be safe. If the other person is not happy, there’s no way you can be happy. Look at any couple: if the father is unhappy, the son has no chance to be happy. If the wife is not happy, it’s very difficult for the husband to be happy. That is why happiness is not an individual matter. You have to see the nature of interbeing.

When you make the other person happy, you have a chance to also be happy. And that is why the insight of interbeing is the ground for peace and happiness. You have to touch the ground of your interbeing. You have to help him or her to touch the ground of interbeing, and then discrimination will vanish.

So the complex of superiority brings a lot of suffering to both you and to others. Because when they suffer the complex of inferiority, they struggle and make you suffer.

According to the Buddha, the complex of superiority or high self-esteem is a sickness, because it is based on the illusion of self. Low self-esteem, inferiority, is another sickness. You go around the circle. Because the suffering that comes from the inferiority complex is also born from the illusion of a separate self. Three olive trees from the same root don’t have a separate existence. The two brothers, also. The two sisters, also. The two partners, also. 

And if you consider yourself ‘equal’ to him or her, that’s also a sickness. Because that assumes that there is a self, and creates comparison and competition: “I am as good as you are. I will prove it.” 

That will also cause you a lot of suffering. So psychotherapy in Buddhism is a little bit different; it is based on the wisdom of no-self, of interbeing. That is why, when you remove the notion of self, you are free from these three complexes. And there will be peace, reconciliation, and brotherhood and sisterhood. 

The Buddha is not a god. The Buddha is a human being like us. He suffered. He practiced. He was able to transform himself. And he was able to transmit the wisdom of interbeing, of nondiscrimination to us.

With that wisdom, we can liberate ourselves and help liberate the world with our practice. We live without any kind of complex – whether the complex of superiority, inferiority, or equality. Because there’s no self.

To be a lotus flower is wonderful. To be a magnolia flower is equally wonderful. In a lotus, there is a magnolia; in a magnolia, there is a lotus. The Buddha told us that man is made of non-man elements: animals, vegetables, and minerals. That is why you have to remove the notion of ‘man’ or ‘human being’.

If the human being is aware that he is made of non-human elements, namely animal elements, vegetable elements, and mineral elements, he would know how to protect the lives of animals, minerals, and vegetables.

And he would not exploit them, pollute them, and destroy them. Because protecting the realm of animals, protecting the realms of vegetables and minerals, is protecting the realm of humans. That is the teaching of the Diamond Sutra. 

The Diamond Sutra is the most ancient text on deep ecology. Looking into men, you have to see non-men elements, namely animals, vegetables, and minerals. The teaching is clear and simple enough for us to understand, to touch, and to practice.       

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