Interview with Tho Ha Vinh
Conducted by Inessa Guseva
Dr. Ha Vinh Tho has a Vietnamese and French background, he is a trained Eurythmist and curative eurythmist, and has earned a PhD in Psychology and Education from Geneva University. He is also a Buddhist teacher ordained by the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. He is currently the Program Director of the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan.
How did you start meditating? Who was the first person you've met that you knew that he/she was meditating?
I started meditating in 1969. I was 18 years old at the time, so that tells you how old I am now. In 1968, I was a student in Paris and I was involved in the May 1968 student’s revolution. That was a very special time for young people questioning society all over the world. I was also in Prague, it was at the time of The Prague Spring of 1968 and the Paris’ protests.
So, I was more politically involved, although I come from a Buddhist family. My father was a Buddhist, but he was not a practising Buddhist — it didn't really have a strong impact on my upbringing or life. My father was a diplomat and we were traveling around the world. I didn't spend much time in Vietnam as a young man or as a kid. I was more involved in the political action and not so interested in spiritual things. A little bit, perhaps, but the focus for me was more social and political engagement.
In 1969 I was going to go back to Vietnam with my family, but the war — basically, it was the worst time of the war in Vietnam. I was a Vietnamese citizen, so my father said that if I came to Vietnam I was going to be drafted. I was against the wars - I didn’t want to get drafted, so I didn't go to Vietnam. I went to Thailand and then instead of going to Vietnam, went back to India and then to Nepal.
When I was in Nepal, I went for a trek in the mountains, in the Himalayas. In those days, there were no trekking agencies and no tourists. The country had just opened a few years before. It was just wilderness all around. To make a long story short, what happened was that I got lost.
I really thought I was going to die. I was lost in the Himalayas. It’s a very, very big place. On that day, when I actually got lost, I went through some very intense experiences. From despair to self-pity; everything, really. I was really afraid, was almost sure I was going to die.
And then, at a certain point it was as if it had been going through layers of my soul or something like that. I came to an inner place, it was completely peaceful and quiet, full of confidence. Suddenly, there was a shift inwardly, and I felt that Nature was not threatening but was some kind of home. I suddenly felt, a deep connection with the earth as if it was my true home. An experience of unity, of oneness and of complete peace and surrender. At that point I felt that whatever happens, it's going to be okay. Then, sure enough, a while later, an hour, maybe two hours, it was hard to tell (I didn’t have a watch), an old man walked by. He was an old lama, that went village to village, to make rituals for the farmers and when he saw me he started laughing, because it was so funny to see this young foreigner in middle of nowhere. So he brought me to the next village, that wasn't even that far, it was maybe an hour’s walk away. I just had no idea in which direction I should go.
I was rescued, so to say, and I went back to Kathmandu, and then I really thought that something had happened and I had no concept to understand what had happened. I wanted to understand what I had experienced. I started meeting with Tibetan lamas, at that time they were fleeing from Tibet, because of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Many high lamas were fleeing Tibet.
That's how I met my first teacher who was a Tibetan lama. I told him of my experience. He told me that it is possible to have this kind of experience consciously, not only in this sort of exceptional situation. That’s what my first encounter with meditation was. From then on I started meditating regularly and at that point I thought maybe I would become a monk, a Buddhist monk.
But there were a few things preventing me from this. I was politically involved and I did not want to give up this kind of social work. It was the noble reasoning. The other reason was that I had a girlfriend in the West, in Austria and I wanted to see her again. So I went back, ultimately. Actually, it was a good reason, because the girl who was my girlfriend then is still my wife today. We just celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary.
So then I came back to Europe. I had finished high school, I was supposed to start university, I didn't really know what to study. I was very critical of the normal academic system, so I was not so enthusiastic about going to university. I didn’t really know what to do.
At that point I met a lady in Vienna. She had an antique shop. She was an elderly lady and somehow a group of young people used to go regularly to her shop, because she had a lot to say. I went there a couple of times and when I told her that I didn't really know what to do, she told me that I should visit the Goetheanum.
She gave me a book by Steiner — she was an elderly anthroposophist. She was also a curative eurythmist and a speech artist. I respected her, so I went to the Goetheanum. On the train going there I read my first Steiner book, which was “The Apocalypse of Saint John”. The book is quite heavy reading, but I was 18 at the time, maybe 19. I read the book and the way it happened, you know, when one is young and naive, I had the feeling that I understood it all.
So I went to the Goetheanum. I had never known about anthroposophy before that. And when I enquired what can I study, they told me that I can study pedagogy, painting or speech and drama or eurythmy or sculpture and that was about it. None of it really felt so interesting. I didn’t want to become a teacher. I didn’t feel like I was a painter or sculptor or anything like that.
And then I went through this leaflet and there was something about eurythmy. I thought that eurythmy sounded good, because I had been doing yoga. There was a sentence in this leaflet saying: “God makes eurythmy, and as the result of his eurythmy there arises the form of the human being”. It was about etheric forces that created the human form. I was really impressed by the sentence: I thought, that is what I'm gonna do.
There were two eurythmy schools at the time. I called the first one (Lea van der Pals), she was not at home, I called the second one – Elena Zuccoli – she was home. It was at the end of September, I spent the afternoon with her chatting and I really liked her. She was about 75. She was one of those “grandes dames”, very impressive, very cultivated and very open minded.
At the time I had long hair and I looked wild. She didn’t mind. She was not the kind of person who would care about the way you look. I was very impressed with her. And then at the end of our conversation I said okay, I’ll start the eurythmy school, I had never done eurythmy before and never seen it before either.
The school started in September, it had started two weeks before I had that talk with her. I could still join them. So, I went back to Vienna, I went to my girlfriend and told her that we were going to Dornach, that she was going to study eurythmy with me. She agreed. So we went there. I stayed in Dornach for four years.
So that's how I met with anthroposophy.
Then I started being involved with anthroposophic meditation as well. I also continued my own Buddhist practice. It was not always easy, because in Dornach there were prejudices against Buddhism, the idea that it belonged to the past. I didn’t really care. Even by blood, I'm half Asian, half European, my father’s Vietnamese, my mother’s French. I'm used to living between cultures. I was just surprised, because people kept on saying that anthroposophy is not a religion, but then if you said you were practicing Buddhism, people seemed to find it a problem. So I kept asking: is anthroposophy a religion or not? It was not very clear. Do I have to convert to Christianity to become an anthroposophist or can I be a Buddhist? Most religions were not religions in the beginning. Jesus Christ was not a Christian, Buddha was not a Buddhist. It’s only later, when it became institutions. It's what people make out of it.
Why did you choose anthroposophy as the basis?
The reason why I decided to come to Dornach… There were several reasons. A very strong one was that I decided not to become a monk. I really had this question, how can you combine a spiritual life with social engagement. There were very few opportunities to do that, but something that really impressed me with anthroposophy was that were both a spiritual path and also social engagement. So that was one reason.
Then, when I started reading a lot of books by Rudolf Steiner, and as a young man, I was really impressed with all this incredible knowledge and wisdom. It answered many of my questions. I really studied it very intensely and seriously. I spent a significant part of my life in an anthroposophical institution, because after Dornach I went to Germany as a Waldorf teacher and then later on I spent many years in a Camphill community in Switzerland.
And I was very engaged in anthroposophy, and in anthroposophical activities. I was in Camphill for over 20 years, I was teaching in the seminar there, training special educators; curative education and social therapy. I was also teaching anthroposophy for many years.
On the other hand, for my own personal spiritual life, I've always had these two practices, my Buddhist meditation practice as well as the anthroposophical practice. I became a “First Class” member in 1974. But for me, it was never a dilemma. It was just the feeling that my own spiritual life has its own laws, or that I have my own destiny, with my own practice, that belongs to me.
I'm not so much defining myself by saying that I am this or that: I am an anthroposophist or I am a Buddhist. I don't feel identified with institutions. In all the institutions, in all the spiritual streams there are things that I really value and adhere to and are things that I actually don’t feel comfortable with, and I let go of it.
Why do you meditate?
As I told you, in the introduction, I had an experience, an inner experience that opened up a different reality that I had not been aware of before, and I was trying to figure out how I can get there consciously. I wanted to find out if what had happened to me spontaneously could be cultivated consciously. Was it possible to access this different level of reality in a more conscious and intentional way? That was really the starting point and that's one reason.
The second reason is that ever since 1969, meditation has been a daily practice for me, very regularly. I'm very disciplined in my practice. I find that there are different levels of practice: I get up in the morning and meditate; it is something as natural as getting up in the morning and taking a shower. It's not something I think of, should I do it or not? It's part of my day, that's the way every day starts.
In the same way as if I didn't shower in the morning I would feel a bit embarrassed, because I would be worried that maybe I don't smell good, I wouldn’t feel really clean. For me, it's really the same with the mind. If I don't like clean my mind in the morning then it's a bit embarrassing, because the mind has to be taken care of in the same way that the body has to be taken care of. So, on one level, it’s some kind of hygiene of the mind.
Then on another level, I observe that it makes a big difference in my life in terms of the way I react to daily situations. The way I deal with challenges or with problems, or with suffering, or with difficult moments in my life. I really observed very early on, that having a meditative practice gives me a very strong foundation of inner calm, and the ability to deal with many different situations in a way that is more helpful.
Then again, another dimension is more the cognitive dimension, so for me it’s a way to understand myself and the world, it’s a path to deeper knowledge and self-knowledge.
It's also a way to cultivate my inner life. In the sense that I believe that ethical qualities, such as compassion, altruism, kindness, or generosity, are - on one hand, given, they are part of our human nature - but on the other hand, they need to be cultivated. I observed that through meditation, I can cultivate positive qualities that I value, that I think are important in life, being more compassionate, being kind, being more generous, more altruistic, things like that.
So there are many different levels and ways in which meditation is important in my life.
What is the uniqueness of the anthroposophical meditation?
Anthroposophical meditation focuses a lot on mantras, many mantras were given by Rudolf Steiner, either in the Esoteric School, in the First Class and in many books and lectures. Of course, there are some other practices like the meditation on the Rose Cross, which is more a meditation with an image, a symbol; but the vast majority of meditations in the anthroposophical context are based on mantras.
In my view the anthroposophic meditation is mainly focusing on the cognitive dimension of meditation. Anthroposophy sees itself as an occult way of knowledge, as a path to higher knowledge. I think this cognitive dimension and the striving for spiritual knowledge are very central in the anthroposophical approach.
What is the basic anthroposophical meditation and exercise to you?
Of course, you have the so-called six subsidiary exercises, but I consider them to be more of a preparation; the actual meditation itself, as Steiner describes it in his book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment, is very much centred around the attempt of developing inner organs of perception to perceive the spiritual world. I think that's the strong focus of anthroposophical meditation, focus on mantras, and the focus on attaining spiritual knowledge.
As for the exercises, one that is a very typical or specific example is the so-called “Rückschau” in the evening. Another one is meditating on the verses of the Calendar of the soul. You have every week a different verses and it's leads you through a cycle through the year, to experience the connection between what happens inside of you, what happens in nature and what happens in the cosmos. This three-fold connection of inner life, natural world and cosmic world, I think are some very typical kind of examples of anthroposophic meditations available publicly. There are of course also some practices that are more specific either within the “First Class”, and also meditations given to specific groups such as medical doctors, teachers, eurythmists and so on.
Where do you see your focus within the anthroposophical meditation? What is your topic? What are you enthusiastic about?
I do some daily practices that come from anthroposophy, from Steiner’s indications. It's about one third of my practice.
I don’t know if you are aware of work of Dr. Tania Singer, who is a neuroscientist in Germany. She has done a lot of very interesting scientific research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig on the effect of meditation, on both physical and psychological dimensions. This research has been funded by the EU and was recently completed. It was a very thorough research with very strict scientific protocol, with a control group, more than 100 participants in the meditation practice.
Most of the relevant scientific research on meditation before, was mainly saying that it has some positive effect on body and mind, but it was all very vague. It's a bit like saying like exercising is good. But then, playing tennis, football, skiing or rock climbing have completely different effects on the body; so saying that exercising is good is very vague, similarly saying that meditation is good is very imprecise.
Dr. Tania Singer has done her research on three different types of meditation, one is on mindfulness practices, the second one is meditations that work with emotions, like compassion meditation, loving-kindness meditation, and the third one is on cognitive meditations.
For me anthroposophic meditation is mainly focused on the cognitive dimension. There are some indications on mindfulness practices, but not very detailed, there is a little bit on emotional dimensions, but not very elaborate, contrary, for instance to Buddhist practices, where we have very elaborate practices on mindfulness and have specific protocols to transform emotional states.
For me, anthroposophic meditation is the part of my meditation mostly related with cognitive practices. Using particular contents, specific mantras that are connected to explicit cognitive dimensions or spiritual insights.
But I always also do mindfulness practices that are phenomenological observation of the functioning of consciousness without any given content, so it's really pure observation.
It starts by learning, and practising to stabilise the awareness, because when one starts meditating, the first thing one notices is that the awareness is all over the place. We cannot really decide where our attention is focused. So introduction to mindfulness practices is learning to focus the attention and learning to control the ability to lead one's awareness.
That’s the entry part of the mindfulness practice. That then leads to the ability to observe the processes in consciousness, without adding any specific contents. If you meditate a mantra, you are focusing the attention on a particular content.
However, when you do mindfulness practice, you don't put anything in the centre of your attention, you just observe and you see what happens. So it's a pure phenomenological observation of the functioning of the mind, of consciousness.
I do quite a lot of that, because to me that's the most efficient or the most powerful way to understand the functioning of my own consciousness, rather than putting in specific contents, that focuses my attention on something that is external to me, like mantras. But really observing how thoughts arise, how emotions arise, how our thoughts and emotions are connected, and so on and so forth — it's the observation of the consciousness processes without any given content.
The other part of the practice, that I also do daily is cultivating intentionally certain emotions or certain states of mind. Like, for instance, compassion.
In Buddhist traditions, there are a lot of exercises, not mantras, but exercises that help develop certain states of mind or certain qualities. For instance, you focus on visualising someone you love. If you know that this person is suffering, either physically or mentally, you focus your attention on this person and send love, healing, and kindness to this person.
Then you continue from there, doing the same thing with someone that you don't know very well. To give you an example, I'm a father and I am a grandfather, so when I think of my children or grandchildren, it is very easy to generate loving-kindness and warm feelings; I want them to be happy and safe. Once you know how it feels when you concentrate on someone you love, then you switch your attention to someone you don't know very well, like a neighbour or a colleague, or somebody you don’t really care about. Then you try to generate the same kind of feelings that you have, naturally for someone that you love, for someone who you do not know very well.
When you continue the exercise, you visualise somebody that you have problems with, maybe a difficult colleague at your workplace or a relative, that is really annoying or somebody who made you suffer. You can even practice thinking of somebody famous, like a politician, whom you think is really terrible. Holding this person in your mind, visualising this person who normally inspires strong antipathy, you practice developing loving-kindness and compassion towards this person, reminding yourself that, although I perceived this person as really unfriendly, bothersome or mean, he or she is a human being just like me and like those that I love. He or she also wants to be happy, wants to avoid suffering, he or she also has the potential to develop as a higher being.
So these are the kind of exercises, loving-kindness and compassion exercises, that I do daily. Three kinds of exercises, anthroposophic, mantric, meditation, mindfulness exercises and loving-kindness, compassion exercises.
For me, they are quite different, and what Dr. Tania Singer has found out is that if you scan the brain, while the person is doing these different practices, you see that different parts of the brain are being stimulated.
What role do people who practice anthroposophical meditation play for each other? What are opportunities and challenges of shared meditation? How is the situation now for you and how should it be?
When I was in Dornach as a young man many years ago speaking of meditation was almost a taboo. Steiner speaks about meditation all the time, but we were not really told how to meditate. There was very little conversation about it and very little guidance, it was not easy.
In my Buddhist practice, I have a teacher, and we have or had many conversations on meditation, sharing experiences, getting feedback and getting advice. As a Eurythmy student, I had very good teachers who helped me a lot with my Eurythmy practice and gave me advice and everyone thought that this was fine. But if I mentioned the same concerning meditation, the response would be that as a modern human being, I don’t need a teacher, that this is a thing of the past, mentioning the word “Guru” almost like a bad word. But actually “Guru” is the Sanskrit word for “teacher”, nothing more, nothing less. So I did not understand why I needed teachers to learn Eurythmy, but I should not have one to learn meditation that is, in a way, the ultimate art form.
At the same time in anthroposophical context there was a taboo about meditating in a group. I never really understood why. Meditation, I was told, is something that you do alone in your room, if you do it in a group, it’s not really Anthroposophy.
While I’m used from my Buddhist practice that, at least twice a year, I go to a retreat where we meditate a lot more, many hours every day, all together. What I observe is that these times of intense meditation with other people allow for a tremendous deepening of the practice, that I cannot attain alone. Doing it with others, and then sharing and discussing, sharing problems that you face is a great source of insight.
Now, in the anthroposophical world, things have changed, and I am grateful that my dear friend Arthur Zajonc, the former President of the Mind & Life Institute, has really contributed to bringing up these questions around meditation in a much more open way. But it's relatively new and I think it's been a problem, because it created a feeling, as if meditation was something very occult and secret reserved for the happy few. While, if you look around in the world, meditation has become mainstream and many people from all walks of life practice it.
You have mindfulness in business, in the health sector, in schools. Behaving, as if that was something secret and only for a few initiates, is completely out dated. One of the reasons why anthroposophic meditation is not more well-known is because people can’t find out about it.
At the same time, Buddhist meditation and many other meditation practices such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction - to mention just one type of practice - have become very well known and are very easy to access. You can very easily find places, workshops and retreats where you can learn it.
The other aspect of it is that the spiritual path is not only something individual, it also has to do with communities. It’s always been like that. All spiritual traditions have elements of community and it's also what brings communities together.
And so, I think practising together, sharing experiences and supporting each other is not only possible, it's absolutely necessary. Therefore, it's good that the Anthroposophical Society has more openness towards practicing together and sharing experiences in an accessible way.
Where are we now as an anthroposophic community and what future wishes do you have?
As I told you before, I don't identify only with anthroposophy. It's one of the sources of inspiration for me, but it’s not the only one. I believe that we are in a time, where we need to overcome our sectarian differences, like separation based on creed. We live in an intercultural, and interreligious time, communities are not separated anymore. All the countries in the West are mixed, you have Muslims and Jews, Buddhists, and Christians, Hindus, and all the rest, living together. We need to learn how to speak with one another, support each other, not only speak to the converted.
Let me give you an example: I was in Copenhagen in 2009, when there was the big climate change conference and everybody was there. All the governments, all the NGOs and the spiritual movements were contributing, but the Anthroposophical Society was not represented. I was there not because I was an anthroposophist. I was there because of my humanitarian work and my work in Engaged Buddhism.
After the conference, I went to Dornach and I asked to meet with the Vorstand. I asked them why they were not present, because I believe that Anthroposophy has an important contribution to make in such a context.
In my view, the contribution of Anthroposophy will only be fruitful if Anthroposophy steps out of its niche, its enclosed situation. In order for that to happen several things are, in my view, necessary:
Firstly, we need a lot of humility. So if as an anthroposophist I think that I have all the answers for everything because I read it in the books of Rudolf Steiner, of course, I can’t speak with anyone, because I know and the others don't. That's not a basis for an open dialogue and conversation, it’s like being a missionary. We need to be very modest and humble.
The second thing is that nobody is interested in what I have read. People are interested in what I have experienced. If I speak by quoting Steiner, nobody is going to be interested. If they are interested, they can just read it themselves. However, if I share my experience, what I have experienced really and honestly, people would become interested. That’s why people really like Arthur Zajonc or Otto Scharmer, or others who really manage to speak out of their own experience. They are absolutely accepted, they can be in any open forum, their voices will be heard.
I think that if we want anthroposophy to give its contribution, we have to overcome the illusion that “We have the answers and we are going to tell it to others” - that won’t work. As anthroposophists we have to stop quoting all the time and start speaking from inside, from what we have really experienced. That touches people and Anthroposophy has so much to offer.
I'm very involved in education. I strongly believe that Waldorf education is still one of the best systems that exists around the world. But if it’s only for a very limited group, that's fine as a laboratory, but it will not make a big difference. What happens in the lab has to go out in the world. We are speaking about hundreds of millions of kids who desperately need a better education system that meets the real need of our time, not just a few selected Waldorf students.
How can we take what is the essence of Waldorf pedagogy and infuse it into overall educational systems of the world, because that's where the changes are needed?
Or consider biodynamic agriculture. Now organic food is the big fad, everybody speaks of organic food. However, biodynamic agriculture was the first one. And it's not that well known. Permaculture is much better known now. Permaculture is really not at all as complete as biodynamic agriculture.
But if there is too much ideological build up, then it’s too complicated, it's too difficult. If you first have to accept the idea of the Akasha Chronic or the Ancient Saturn, before you can start planting a garden, then it won’t work. I think there needs to be a change in the discourse and then the incredibly valuable contribution that Anthroposophy can make to society can really be fruitful. As long as anthroposophists speak to anthroposophists, not much happens, we are preaching to the choir.
I have nothing against it, but that's not enough to meet the great challenges of the world, because after more than a hundred years, there are about 50,000 anthroposophists and what is that? It’s a village. I know that quantity is not all, but still, the reality is that we are 7 billion humans on this planet with a common responsibility and facing common challenges.
Do we honestly think that the whole world will become anthroposophists? Of course that will never happen, but it doesn't mean that Anthroposophy doesn't have something really important and valuable to contribute. It has, but it has to find the right language, the humility, and the openness to enter a real dialogue, letting go of the underlying idea that we actually know better. Only then can Anthroposophy make the contribution that is urgently needed. I think that the challenges of our time are so serious and so crucial, that all the people who honestly want to bring a spiritual renewal in our society have to work together. We cannot do that in isolation.
Do you have advice for someone who would like to begin to meditate?
First of all, meditation has to become a habit. We are beings of habit, you can’t meditate once in a while, but really long and deep. It is much more important to start very modestly, 10 minutes a day, for example. But you have to do it daily, so it really has to be a regular practice. It's a bit like exercising your body. You know you cannot start by running a marathon. You start by running 5-15 minutes and then gradually your muscles and your body, and your breathing improve and you can run longer. Meditation is very much the same. Attention is like a muscle, it’s capacity has to be trained. Training is all about regularity.
The other thing is not to jump from one thing to the other. Trying one thing and then another, that wouldn’t really work. You have to try to find an exercise or a mantra or whatever it is that you do, that you feel somehow relates to you. And then you do it, for a long time, without changing, because it's really by deepening that you find out how it works, rather than jumping from one thing to the other.
And the third thing is that it's good to have moments in your life, where you do in depth practice, not just 10 minutes in the morning. I personally do a retreat two or three times each year, when I really have time, when I practice a lot.
You don't really come to very deep experiences meditating 20 or 30 minutes a day. Therefore, one can come to a certain disenchantment: I have been practicing a long time, but nothing much happens. However, if once in a while, you have a very in-depth meditation, then you come to deeper layers of consciousness, and then you have experiences that also strengthen your enthusiasm or your will to practice. That's important. For example, every summer I organise a retreat in Switzerland in the mountains, for the past 15 or 16 years, and we have about a hundred people joining, many of them young people, and we practice together in an intense way, this strengthens the practice tremendously.
Lastly, it's helpful to have a place dedicated to your practice. If you can afford to have a room dedicated to the practice, that's great. If not, you can have at least a corner, even if it's just a small corner in your bedroom or in your living room, where you have something beautiful, a picture that you love, a flower. So when you go to this place you are already in a different state of mind. If you really have a dedicated place, it's just creates an atmosphere. This is something external, but it’s really supportive. Ever since I was 19 I have always had a place dedicated to the practice. Even when we were students in Dornach, and we were sharing an apartment with friends, we didn’t have much space but still, I always had a meditation corner or a meditation room. It's always been a priority for me. Now I'm lucky to have a house, so I have a whole room for meditation.
Would you like to add something?
My main activity now is in Bhutan with the Gross National Happiness Center. We are working on an alternative development paradigm, and on holistic indicators to measure development, not in financial terms, but in terms of happiness and wellbeing. This includes mindfulness practice and meditation practice, because we believe that happiness has two components. One is about creating a conducive environment for people to flourish and develop, and that’s a social responsibility. But, on the other hand, there is what we call “happiness skills”, which is our inner state of mind that nobody but ourselves can develop and that’s, for instance, where mindfulness and meditation comes in. We do that in schools and universities, in businesses. That's the short version, because it's a long theme in itself.