Dharma Talk: No Birth, No Death, Only Transformation

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh

Upper Hamlet, Plum Village July 24, 2012

 Thich Nhat Hanh

Thay: Today is the 24th of July, 2012, and we are in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village during our third week of the Summer Opening. We are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Plum Village.

Today we have a session of questions and answers. We know that a good question will help many people. A good question has to do with our practice, with our difficulties, with our suffering, with our happiness, with our experience. That is why we should ask a question of our heart, a question that has been there for a long time.

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Child: If you just moved into a new school, and you’re finding it hard to make new friends, how can you make new friends?

Thay: If you’ve just moved to a new school, that is very exciting. Many things will happen and you will have to be ready to encounter new events and new friends. Don’t worry. Just allow things to happen. New friends will come to you if you are ready. Just practice pebble meditation, breathing in and out, to help yourself relax. It’s like when you go to the mountains for a vacation and there are many beautiful trees and flowers that you have not seen before. You will be happy to see them. You cannot predict what you will see, but you know that you will see many beautiful things, animals, vegetables, and minerals. Going to a new school is like that. There will be many new things that can make us happy. So don’t worry. Prepare yourself. Tell yourself, “I am going to have new friends. And I allow it to happen. I don’t have to choose.”

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That girl that you will meet will be a good friend of yours, or not a good friend of yours: that depends on you. She might be very lovable. The way you look at her, the way you talk to her, can make her even more lovable. If that person is not very lovable, your way of looking and smiling can make her more lovable. So it depends on us also, not only on them.

We wish you a lot of luck and success, and maybe next year you will come to Plum Village and report to us how things are with the new school, okay? Remember. Thank you.

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Adult: If there is no such thing as death, then why is it wrong to kill?

Thay: Very good question! When you want to kill, when you think that you can kill, you have wrong perceptions. Suppose you want to kill a cloud, because you don’t know that a cloud can never die. A cloud can only become snow or rain. So the willingness to kill is a kind of energy characterized by ignorance, wrong perception, anger, and violence. That is why the act of killing is wrong. It is wrong because it does not have intelligence, wisdom. It has a lot of violence and suffering. Even the idea before the act of trying to kill is already wrong. What is wrong can bring a lot of suffering. Not to the other person, but to ourselves.

The person who killed Martin Luther King, the person who killed Mahatma Gandhi, the person who killed John F. Kennedy, the person who killed Jesus Christ, they were people who suffered a lot. They had a lot of anger, of fear, of violence, because they had a lot of ignorance and wrong perceptions. They thought they could kill. You cannot kill Martin Luther King. He becomes very strong after your attempt to kill him. Martin Luther King is now stronger than before.

Suppose you want to kill a cloud. How can you kill a cloud? Your attempt to kill someone, to destroy someone, will only lead to your suffering. That is why we have to touch the true nature of no-birth and no-death.

Someone who commits suicide brings a lot of suffering. He thinks that he can kill himself, but the fact is that he cannot. His attempt to kill himself makes him suffer more and makes people around him suffer more. You cannot die and you cannot kill someone. Mahatma Gandhi is still alive and is very strong now. He is in every one of us. Martin Luther King, also; Jesus Christ, also; the Buddha, also.

The willingness to kill is suffering because it has ignorance, anger, and violence in it. Modern science agrees with the Buddha that you cannot kill anything; you cannot make anything disappear. Nothing can die. Rien ne se crée; rien ne se perd, tout se transforme.* There is only transformation; there is no death. It appears that there is death and birth, but if you go deeply, you see that it’s not true. If you study science, chemistry, or biology deeply, you will touch the truth of no-birth and no-death.

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Teenager: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I suffer a lot from my father. It’s difficult for me to see him, and it’s almost become dangerous. I don’t want to see him anymore. I’ve given him several chances to change. I have forced myself to go see him. Now I can’t. My question is, do I still have to try and change him, and try to go to him? Even though it is making me very tired?

Thay: This is a very important question, and many of us have that question in our heart. The other person does not seem to change after many of our attempts to help change him or her. Should we continue or not? In order to find the right answer, we have to look more deeply to see the relationship between us and the other person. Whether we are son and father, or daughter and mother, or partner and partner, if we have difficulty with the other person and if we want to change him or her, the first thing we should do is to look deeply into ourselves and into that person, to see the relationship, the connection.

Usually we think that the other person is outside of us. That is not right view. In this case, we think that our father is outside of us, and we need only to change the outside and not the inside. We need to see that our father is in us; our father is present in every cell of our body. We are the continuation of our father. It may be easier for us to change our father inside first, and we can do that twenty-four hours a day. You don’t need to go and see him, talk to him, in order to change. The way we breathe, the way we walk, can change him in ourselves. Invite him to walk with us, to sit with us, to smile with us, and the father inside of us will change. Otherwise we will grow up and behave exactly like him.

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There are many children who hate their father, who promise that when they grow up they will not act and say things like their father. But when they grow up they will act exactly like their father, and they will say things exactly like their father. That has happened many times. You hate it, you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to say it. And yet you will do exactly that, and you will speak exactly like that. In Buddhism, that is what we call samsara, going around. You continue your father, not only with your body, but with your way of life. That is why when you encounter the Buddhadharma, you have a chance to change your father in you first. When you have been able to change your father inside of you, he will not go to samsara again. And you will not transmit that kind of habit to your children. So you end the round of samsara going around, recycling. When the father inside has been transformed, the transformation of the father outside will be much easier. That is my experience.

I have fellow monks who are difficult. They are dignitaries in the Buddhist church. They are very conservative. They do not allow transformation to take place in the community. You know that in order to serve society, you have to renew your community, whether your community is Christian, or Buddhist, or Muslim, or Jewish. Many of us are eager to renew our tradition to serve our society and human beings, right? But there are so many conservative elements in the church or religious institution. That is true in my case also. I noticed this very early. I said, “They are in us. We have to change ourselves first.”

So if you are a partner, and your partner does not change, don’t think your partner is only outside of you. Your partner is inside of you, even if you have divorced him or her. Yesterday I received a question, “Can we reconcile, can we begin anew with the one whom we have divorced?” This is exactly the question we have to answer. In the beginning you believe that after divorce you can be yourself entirely and you can take him out of you completely. That’s wrong! You can never remove him from you. You can never remove her from you. No way. Before you attempt to do something with the other person outside of you, try to help him transform inside of you, try to help her transform inside of you.

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With this practice, we can succeed in transforming ourselves and become a model. We become fresh. Our way of being is exactly the way we want him to be. So by speaking, by acting, by living, you begin to change him. You don’t change him by talking alone. Maybe talking cannot change him. But your way of acting, your way of responding instead of reacting, will help change that person. And because he also has intelligence, he can notice that.

You know that to succeed in the work of changing yourself and changing the other person, you also need a Sangha, you also need friends to support you. That is why you have to take refuge in the Sangha. You have to know how to make good use of the collective energy of the Sangha to support your transformation and healing and to help us transform the other person.

Don’t be too eager to transform him right away. You have to accept him as he is first. You have to accept her as she is first. After acceptance, you feel much better already, and you begin to change him inside of you. This is a very deep practice.

Since our friend has come to Plum Village every year and practiced with us since he was a small child, I believe he can do it. And we’ll try to support him to do it. We never lose our hope. The way not to lose our hope is to make progress every day by the practice, daily practice. Thank you for asking the question; it was very good.

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Child: How do you become a monk?

Thay: In Plum Village, we have a program of five years of monastic training and service. If you want to, you can take five years and live as a monk or a nun. If you are young, from sixteen to thirty-six, you may try living with us as a monk for five years. You will practice three years as a novice and two years as a fully ordained monk. During that time you learn more of the Dharma, you learn to apply the practice in your daily life, you live in community, you practice monks’ or nuns’ precepts, and you help your monastic brothers and sisters organize retreats for other people. You can train and serve at the same time. Your way of walking, sitting, organizing, can already inspire people. Every time we have a retreat, you have a chance to practice, and you can see the transformation and healing of the people who come to the retreat. That makes you very happy because the Dharma works, the Dharma is effective. After five or six days of practice, people change; people restore their joy and their peace, they reconcile with each other. That helps you believe that your life can be useful, your life has meaning. You can help make people happy.

In Plum Village this year, at the Summer Opening, four thousand, five thousand people came and practiced with us. Among them were many children. You can see their transformation, their healing, their joy. That is something that can nourish you very much.

After five years of monastic training and practice, you can go back to lay life or you can continue as a monk. Ninety percent of us monastics here, we are monks or nuns for our whole life. Less than five percent are five-year monastics. After five years as a monastic, you can either continue as a monk or a nun, or you may go back to lay life and become a lay Dharma teacher, because after the fifth year, you become an apprentice Dharma teacher for one year. After that year of practicing as an apprentice Dharma teacher, you’ll be transmitted the lamp and become a Dharma teacher.

So on this occasion I would like to invite the young people to think about it. Is it possible to live as a monastic for five years? To directly experience the joys of brotherhood, sisterhood, generated by the practice, and to have a chance to serve also?

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Adult: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I have two questions. My first question is: I am the last child from the lineage of my ancestors, and so there is a lot of suffering to transform. But also I was very lucky to have enough conditions to encounter the Dharma and not to be running after survival, so I could practice. Now I just came back from a long journey, and I can see very clearly how the suffering was built up in our family, generation after generation, through historical conditions. So I am trying to share with my elders so that they might also find relief, but some of them are very hardened. They have a lot of anger. They have become very mean and very desperate. Even though I have some understanding, I know I am also not stable enough in certain situations. I don’t know what to do anymore to help them. I’m very worried, because I have seen some from my parents’ generation, who escaped from the war, become completely insane and really destroy themselves. So this is my first question.

And my second question is: Why is it, in the Buddhist tradition, that even today there is still so much discrimination against women?

Thay: Do you think that in Plum Village we discriminate against women? The nuns and some laywomen practitioners in Plum Village play a very important role in organizing the lives and the practice of the Sangha here and the practice of the larger Sangha.

The tradition of bhikshunis** still exists in many countries. There are countries that have lost the bhikshuni Sangha. That’s not because of Buddhism, but Buddhist practitioners. They allow that kind of discrimination from society to penetrate into their community. In Thailand and in Sri Lanka, they don’t have bhikshunis anymore, and many of the people in these countries are trying to restore the order of bhikshunis. So Buddhists are not practicing well enough. That is why you have to do better than the former generations.

Thay is one of those who tries to restore the spirit in each order, the original spirit of Buddhism, because the Buddha removed all kinds of discrimination. He received all kinds of people, all races, all castes into his community. He welcomed women to become bhikshunis. He was a real revolutionary in his time. It was very difficult, but he was able to do it. So we who are the continuation of the Buddha should practice well enough in order to maintain his heritage, to preserve his heritage of no discrimination.

Suffering is overwhelming. There are those of us who came out of the Vietnam War full of wounds. We have seen our brother, our father, our mother, our sister killed, destroyed, maimed during the war. We have seen many of them imprisoned and tortured during the war. The foreign ideologies and the foreign weapons had been brought in from all over the world to destroy us, to kill us, and we were forced into a situation like that for a long time. Each of us, each Vietnamese of the new generation, carries within himself or herself that kind of suffering.

And Thay, after forty years of exile, has been able to go home a few times, organizing retreats in order to help heal the wounds of the war in people, in the younger generation. He tried to do his best. He tried to do it as a Sangha, not as a person. Thay went back to Vietnam not as an individual, but as a community. Three hundred practitioners went back to Vietnam with Thay for the first time after forty years of exile. That was in 2005. Our practice was very solid.

Imagine the hotel in Hanoi where we stayed. Secret police came and observed us because they were afraid of us. Everywhere we went they followed us. They wanted to know what we were telling people, what we were doing. They were forced to allow Thay to come home, but they were afraid that we might say something, we might urge the people in Vietnam to say something against them. Several hundred of us practiced with solidity. The way we walked, we way we breathed, the way we ate our breakfast, the way we encountered the people in the hotel and those who came to see us, including the secret policemen, reflected our practice.

The hotel where we lived looked like a practice center. There was mindfulness, there was peace, brotherhood, sisterhood, and they were very impressed. One time we did walking meditation around Hoan Kiem Lake, and for the first time people of the city saw such a large number of people walking with peace, joy, and happiness. They were struck by the sight. That had a big impact on the population. They saw solid practitioners, and we were able to share the practice with so many people in our public talks and in our retreats.

After that, we organized ceremonies of prayers. We prayed for the millions of people who died during the war, and thousands of people came and practiced with us and prayed together. We promised, each of us, that never again would we accept such a war of ideology and kill each other with foreign weapons and foreign ideologies. That was possible. We practiced to help with the healing of the whole country.

So my answer here is that in order to succeed in our attempt to help, we have to do it with a Sangha. We have to belong to a Sangha. We have to be powerful enough to be able to handle the suffering. There’s a lot of garbage, and since many of us do not know how to transform garbage into flowers, making good use of suffering in order to create peace and healing, we need a Sangha to support us.

When we practice alone, self-transformation is already difficult, not to say transformation of others. That is why we have to try to build a Sangha, to be with a Sangha. Without Sangha, you cannot do much of the work of transformation and healing. Without the Sangha, even the Buddha cannot do much. That is why after enlightenment, the first thing he thought of was to go and identify elements of his Sangha.

You have to do the same. Thay is very aware of that. Thay knew that if he went home alone, he would not be able to do anything. So he put forth a condition: I will come back only if you allow me to come with my Sangha. With Sangha we will have the collective energy powerful enough to take care of our suffering, to transform our suffering.

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Adult: Is there life after death?

Thay: Life is always with death at the same time, not only before. Life cannot be separated by death. Where there is life, there is death; and where there is death, there is life. This needs some meditation to understand. In Buddhism we speak of interbeing, which means that you cannot be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with the other side. It’s like the left and the right. If the right is not there, the left cannot be. If the left is not there, the right cannot be. It’s not possible to take the left away from the right. It’s not possible to take the right away from the left.

Suppose I ask one of you to bring the left to the Lower Hamlet, and one of you to bring the right to the New Hamlet. It’s impossible. The right and the left want to be together, because without the other you cannot be. It’s very clear. Like the above and the below. The above cannot be there if there’s no below. That is what, in Buddhism, we call interbeing. They have to be there at the same time.

So when God said, “Let the light be,” the light said, “I have to wait, my God, I have to wait.” God asked, “Why are you waiting?” And light replied, “I am waiting for darkness to manifest together with me.” Because light and darkness inter-are. Then God said, “Darkness is already there.” And light said, “In that case, I’m already there.”

That is true of good and evil, before and after, here and there, you and I. I cannot be there without you. The lotus flower cannot be there without the mud. Without the mud, a lotus is not possible. There is no happiness without suffering. There is no life without death.

When biologists observe the body of a human being, they see that life and death happen at the same time. In this very moment, thousands of cells are dying. When you scratch your skin like this, many dry cells fall down. They have died. Many cells die every moment of our daily life. Because you are so busy, you don’t notice that you are dying. If they die, you are dying. You think that you don’t die yet. You think that you have fifty or seventy years more before you die: that’s not true. Death is not down the road. Death is right here and right now.

Death is happening right here and now, at each moment. Because of the dying of a number of cells, the birth of other cells is possible. So many cells are being born in the present moment, and we don’t have the time to organize a happy birthday for them. The fact is that, scientifically speaking, you can already see birth and death happening in the present moment. Because of the dying of cells, the birth of cells is possible. Because the birth of cells is possible, the dying of cells is possible. They lean on each other to be. So you are experiencing dying and being born in every moment. Don’t think you were only born in that moment written on your birth certificate. That was not your first moment. Before that moment, there were moments you were already there. Before you were conceived in the womb of your mother, you had already been there in your father and your mother in another form. So there is no birth, no real beginning. And there’s no ending.

When we know that birth and death are together always, we are no longer afraid of dying. Because at the moment of dying, there is birth also. La vie est avec la mort. They cannot be separated. This is a very deep meditation. You should not meditate with your brain alone. You have to observe life throughout your day, so you see birth and death inter-are in everything—trees, animals, weather, matter, energy. Scientists have already pronounced that there is no birth and no death. There is only transformation. So transformation is possible, is real, and birth and death are not real. What you call birth and death are only transformation.

When you perform a chemical reaction, you bring a number of substances together. When the substances meet each other, there is a transformation. And sometimes you think that a substance is no longer there; it has vanished. But in fact, looking deeply, you see that the substance is still there in another form.

When you look at the blue sky, you don’t see your cloud anymore. You think your cloud has died, but in fact your cloud continues always in the form of the rain and so on. Birth and death are seen only on the surface. If you go down, deep down, there is no birth and no death. There is only continuation. When you touch the continuation, the nature of no birth and no death, you are no longer afraid of dying. Not only the Buddhists speak of no birth and no death, but science also speaks of no birth and no death. They can exchange their findings. It’s very interesting. It’s an invitation for us to live our life more deeply so that we can touch our true nature of no birth and no death.

Thay’s answer, I know, is only an invitation to practice. We have to live our life more mindfully, with concentration, so that we can be deeply in touch with what is happening. And then we have a chance to touch the true nature of reality, no birth and no death. We describe it in Buddhism with the term nirvana. Nirvana is no birth and no death. In Christianity you may call it the Ultimate, God. God is our true nature of no birth and no death. We don’t have to go to find God. God is our true nature.

It’s like a wave who believes that she is subjected to birth and death. Every time she comes up and then begins to go down, she’s afraid of dying. But if the wave realizes that she is water, she’s no longer afraid. Before going up she is water, before going down she is water, and after going down, she continues to be water. There’s no death. So it’s very important that the wave does some meditation and realizes that she is wave, but she is at the same time water. And when she knows she is water, she is no longer afraid of dying. She feels wonderful going up; she feels wonderful going down. She’s free from fear.

Our clouds are also like that. They are not afraid of dying. They know that if they are not a cloud, they can be something else equally beautiful, like the rain or the snow.

So the wave does not go and look for water. She doesn’t have to go and search for water, because she is water in the here and the now. The same thing is true with God. We don’t have to look for God. We are God. God is our true nature. You don’t have to go and look for nirvana. Nirvana is our ground. That is the teaching of the Buddha. A number of us have been able to realize that. We enjoy the present moment. We know that it isn’t possible for us to die.

The earth is the most beautiful thing in the whole solar system. We should be able to enjoy walking on this beautiful planet, which is our mother, the mother of all Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and saints. The mother of Mahatma Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, of Jesus Christ, of the Buddhas, our own mother. And we enjoy being with our mother. Our mother is outside of us, and she is inside of us. Walking down the hill, we can enjoy every step, enjoy ourselves, enjoy the presence of our beautiful mother, the earth. We should walk in such a way that with each step, we can touch our mother deeply for our healing and also for the healing of our mother.

* “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, all is transformed,” a maxim attributed to the father of modern chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, 1743–1794

** bhikshunis – Buddhist nuns who have received the full ordination

Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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One thought on “Dharma Talk: No Birth, No Death, Only Transformation

  1. Ok, this is gonna be long but I really want point this out and I really want to know. I’m very open minded and don’t believe or disbelieve something that I agree or disagree with. I usually like to look at different points of view of one thing and then compare and try to come to some sort conclusion of what is right or what is wrong. But talking about death if you are so wise and be able to understand what life and death realy is then you should also be able to understand and maybe know what we as a physical being transform into or become and whether no matter whatever or whoever we become are able to remember the knowledge we have gained and experince of life in this body. Because that is what we are afraid of loosing in the first place. This is what we value! We are really afraid of loosing what we have lived for! Imagine that you have worked hard on somehing for so long and all of a sudden you can just lose it all in a matter of second because our phisical body is so fragile. I can bring an analogy like imagine that you have worked hard on some big project or something it is a part of your life and what you’ve been living for but then somebody comes and destroys it all in one moment. That is very sad and dissapoiting isn’t it?! You would have some sort of fear of loosing that wouldn’t you? I remember reading an article where an author was saying that you should not fear death as there is no death and you as a soul kind of leaving the current pysical body because of inability to function any further and reincarnate in another phisical body. So he was trying to say that you are not a body but a soul rather that never dies. Ok, it might be true but the thing is if my soul or I’m as a soul is unble to remember my past life, knowledge and accomplishments and experience life again from blank than why should I care??? Why should I not be afraid??? Fear is a natural emotion it must be there for a reason, don’t you think? Do you get what I’m trying to say? We are afraid of losing all what we lived for! On the other hand a person that has a very sad and dull kind of life is not so scared but rather even thinking about death so as to end all that suffering. So in conclusion I still don’t know what happens after you die and what you transform into but what I actually care about is whether I carry on as a conscious being and be able to remember what I have experienced and learned in this phisical body in this 3 dimentional reality and If I don’t than again WHY SHOULD I CARE? WHY SHOULD I NOT BE AFRAID? That is the question!
    P.S what pisses me off a little after reading such articles is how some wise men talks about life and death but doesn’t say anything about what is really happening after death who do you become and so on. I just bet they don’t know. Then everything they say are just assumptions, arguments and personal opinions nothing else.

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