Dharma Talk: The Fourth Establishment of Mindfulness and the Three Doors of Liberation

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Dharma Talk at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom

August 17, 2010

Thich Nhat HanhGood morning, dear Sangha. Here we are in the University of Nottingham, at our retreat, “Living Mindfully, Living Peacefully.” The other day, we spoke about the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the four domains of mindfulness. The first is the body, the second is the feelings, and the third is the mind. The fourth foundation of mindfulness is the objects of mind, which we will talk about today.

There are also four exercises of mindful breathing to recognize and look deeply into every mental formation. Mind here is a river, and the drops of water that make up the river are mental formations. Mental formations are born, stay for a while, and die. There is hate, anger, fear, despair; there is mindfulness, concentration, love, and so on. We sit on the bank of the river of the mind and recognize, contemplate, and look deeply into each mental formation as it manifests.

The first exercise is to recognize the mental formation. The second exercise is to gladden your mind. If we know how to recognize the good seeds in the bottom of our consciousness and help them to manifest, then we can create joy. When our nourishment and healing are strong, we will be able to handle the afflictions, the despair, the suffering in us. The third exercise is concentrating the mind. With mindfulness, we begin to focus our attention on a particular object. That object might be our joy or our unhappiness, or our pain. That object might be a cloud or a pebble. Using the strength of mindfulness and concentration, we look deeply into the object of our meditation with the power of concentration. The fourth exercise of mindful breathing is to liberate the mind. Salvation, liberation comes not by grace, but by mindfulness and concentration. So with the power of concentration, we can burn away the afflictions that are in us, like a lens concentrates the power of the sun to start a fire.

Four Exercises with Perception

When we work with the object of mind, we deal with the problem of perception. We believe that there is a mind that’s trying to perceive an objective reality. Many scientists of our time still believe that our consciousness is something in here, trying to reach out, to understand the objective reality out there. But in fact, the object of perception and subject of perception cannot be separate. They manifest at the same time. So the object our perception in Buddhism is called the object of mind.

The first exercise that the Buddha proposed in working with perception is contemplating impermanence. Breathing in, I contemplate impermanence. I see everything is changing. Nothing stays the same in two consecutive moments, including my body, my feelings, my perceptions, all my mental formations, and my consciousness. Everything is moving, is changing.

Intellectually that is not difficult to understand, but impermanence should not only be a concept. It should be an insight. Many of us accept the truth of impermanence, but we still behave as if things are permanent. We think of ourselves, our beloved ones, our institutions of society as permanent. And when things are impermanent, and we believe them to be permanent, we suffer. We have to cultivate the insight of impermanence in order to liberate ourselves.

Impermanence is a kind of medicine that can help cure the disease of permanence, but if you get that disease of permanence, it’s very difficult to heal. Suppose the notion of impermanence is like this match, that you must use to produce the flame. It is the flame that we need, and not the match. But without the match, we cannot produce a flame. When the flame is born, it begins to consume the match. So when the insight of impermanence is born, it begins to free you from the notion of impermanence. And that is why in the First Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, it says not to be idolatrous about any doctrine and teaching, including Buddhist teaching. You have to free yourself from ideologies and doctrines and teachings.

The second exercise is to contemplate non-craving, nonlonging. When we long for something very strongly, when we crave something very strongly, we lose the present moment, we lose ourselves, and all the wonders of life available in the present moment. We lose life. And we know that happiness is not possible when you are sucked into the future, always desiring something. We practice: breathing in, I release my longing, I release my craving for something in the future; breathing out, I contemplate no longing, no craving.

The third exercise is the contemplation of nirvana. Nirvana is our true nature of no birth and no death, no coming, no going, no being, no non-being. Nirvana is the extinction of all notions. In fact, the word nirvana means extinction. This is a very deep, very strong practice of concentration to touch our true nature, the nature of no birth and no death, nirvana.

And the fourth exercise is to release all notions and ideas. The Sanskrit word means to throw away, very strongly; to throw away ideas, notions, concepts.

These four exercises help us to look deeply into the nature of our perception of reality and scientists are trying to do the same thing. They use the language of mathematics, splitting atoms and particles. In the field of meditation, we use the instruments of mindfulness and concentration. Today we are focusing on the exercises using concentration in order to break through to the heart of reality.

Three Doors of Liberation

The teaching on the three doors of liberation is available in every Buddhist tradition. Also called the three concentrations, they help us to touch the nature of impermanence, of non-longing, of nirvana, and of throwing away.

Emptiness

The first door is called emptiness. Emptiness is a profound teaching. It would be helpful to answer the question: empty of what? This glass is empty of tea, but it’s full of air. So empty is always empty of what? It’s like consciousness is always consciousness of something.

When we look into this beautiful chrysanthemum, we get the impression that this flower is full of the cosmos. Everything in the cosmos is there in the flower, including the cloud, the sunshine, the soil, minerals, time, and space, everything. It looks like the whole cosmos has come together to manifest the flower. The one contains the all.

There is only one thing that is not there: that is a separate entity, a separate existence. The flower is full of the cosmos, of everything else, but the flower is empty of a separate self. No separate self, that is the first meaning of emptiness. You cannot be by yourself. You have to inter-be with the cosmos. And we are all in you. If you look deeply into yourself, you see all of us in you. That is the beginning of the contemplation of interbeing, focusing on the teaching of emptiness.

How do we apply that teaching to our daily life, so it has value for us? When a father looks deeply into his son, he sees that his son is his continuation, that he is fully present in every cell of his son, and making his son suffer is to make himself suffer. He begins to see the truth of interbeing: the father is in the son, and the son is in the father. Thanks to the father, the son can connect with and feel that all the ancestors are in him. When the son walks, all the ancestors walk too. And if the son makes a peaceful, joyful, happy step, all the ancestors in him enjoy that. It’s so kind of you to walk for your ancestors, for your parents. Maybe your parents did not have a chance to learn about walking meditation. And now you walk for your parents, you walk for your ancestors, you walk like a free person on this beautiful planet. So every breath, every step, everything you do can be done with the insight of interbeing, with emptiness.

The nature of the Buddha is also the nature of interbeing. A Buddha is made only of non-Buddha elements. So when you look into the Buddha, you don’t see him as a separate entity, outside of you. You see his nature of interbeing. And when you look at you, you see the same. And that is why you know that the Buddha is not someone out there. The Buddha is right here in you. And because the Buddha is empty of a separate self, and because you are empty of a separate self, that is why communication is very deep. So interbeing is right view. Right view, according to Buddhism, is the abolishment of all views, the absence of all views, so that the insight of impermanence, the insight of emptiness, the insight of interbeing can manifest.

In a relationship of teacher and students, I have always seen that everything I do for myself, I do for my disciples, and the happiness and the suffering of my disciples have to do with my happiness and suffering. We know that we inter-are, and with that kind of awareness, we help each other, we belong to one body, the Sangha. When you have the insight of emptiness, interbeing, you don’t suffer anymore from separation, hate, anger, or despair. And that is the fruit of the contemplation on emptiness.

Signlessness

The second door of liberation is the door of signlessness. “Sign” means the appearance, the form. You might be fooled by an appearance, you might be fooled by the form, and that is why we have to train ourselves to see beyond the forms, beyond the signs.

Suppose you have a particular sympathy with a certain cloud. I wrote a poem about a river that was chasing a cloud all day long, and he suffered because clouds are impermanent. When your cloud is no longer there in the sky, you cry, “Oh my beloved cloud, where are you now? I miss you. You have passed from being into nonbeing. I cannot see you anymore.” That’s what we feel when we lose someone who is close to us. Just yesterday, he was still alive, she talked, he walked, she smiled, and today nothing. She looks like she has passed from being into non-being.

But in fact, our cloud is still there. In the beginning, maybe half the cloud has become rain and the other half has become snow. We should train ourselves to see the continuation of our cloud, for it is impossible for a cloud to die. Because to die means from something, you suddenly become nothing. From someone, you suddenly become no one. Looking deeply into the heart of reality, you don’t see anything like that at all. Nothing can be reduced to nothingness. It is impossible to pass from being into non-being. Your beloved one is still somewhere, and if you have the eyes of the bodhisattva, you can still recognize your beloved one in her new appearances, in her new signs. So you have to look beyond the sign, and that is the wisdom of signlessness. In order to remove our grief, to remove our despair and our fear, we should get behind the signs. The Buddha said where there is a sign, there is a delusion, and that is why we should not count on signs. You have to learn how to see things in the light of signlessness.

Thought, speech, and actions: everything you produce in these three aspects continues, and that is your continuation. The Buddhist term is called karma, which means action. If we know how to practice according to the recommendation of the Buddha, with right thinking, right speech, and right action, we are sure to be a beautiful continuation, a happy continuation. And if you don’t know how to do that, if you produce thoughts of anger and fear and hatred, if you speak in a way that destroys, that is not a beautiful continuation.

Nothing is lost, in terms of action. When this body disintegrates, our actions continue us, like a cloud. So to say that you don’t exist after the disintegration of this body, that is not the truth. In the morning, if I have a cup of tea, it will help to make my Dharma talk a little bit more beautiful. So if you look into the Dharma talk, you can see the tea in it. So the tea is not just in the pot; it has a journey, it travels, it has many forms. When you produce thought, speech, and action, your actions continue. We continue always, even after the disintegration of this body.

Aimlessness

The third concentration is called aimlessness. The meditation on aimlessness helps us to see that everything is there already. You don’t need to run anymore, and you can let go of your longing, your craving, your desire. When a flower practices aimlessness, she feels that it is wonderful to be herself. This form is a wonderful manifestation of the cosmos. She does not have to be something else. She does not want to become a daffodil or a lotus flower; she is beautiful as she is.

You are already what you want to become. You don’t need to be another person or to run anymore. You are the manifestation of the cosmos. Thanks to the practice of aimlessness, there is no longer any complex, any longing, any desire; there is complete satisfaction, complete fulfillment. What you want to achieve is already there.

Every bodhisattva tradition has the teaching of the three doors of liberation. Practicing these three concentrations, we are able to touch nirvana, our true nature of no birth and no death. We can throw away all notions, like the notions of birth and death, coming and going, and so on.

Suppose we draw a line from left to right, representing the course of time. We pick up one point here, and we call it B, birth. Someone is born in this moment, and they make a birth certificate for him. They forget that that child has been nine months in the womb of his mother. They think that person exists only on point B, but in fact, before B, the child was there. And even before the moment of conception nine months before, the child was in the father and the mother somehow. So this is a moment of continuation. There is no beginning.

And yet we believe that before we were born, we did not exist, and we call this segment non-being. So we think that there will be a moment when we stop being, and we call that D, death. We believe we have passed from non-being into being, and we will pass from being into non-being. So birth and death are two notions that go together. The fourth exercise recommends that you throw away the notion of birth and death, because your true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Before your cloud appears in the form of a cloud, she had been the water in the ocean, and the heat produced by the sun. A cloud has not passed from non-being into being. So there is no birth; there is only a continuation. Maybe for your next birthday, you will sing, instead of “happy birthday,” “happy continuation day to me.”

Looking into the nature of the notion of being and non-being, you see that being and non-being are just notions; they cannot be applied to reality. You cannot describe a cloud in terms of being and non-being. You cannot describe your beloved one in terms of being and non-being. And you cannot describe God in terms of being and non-being.

When you look at the family album, you can see yourself as a five-year-old boy, or a five-year-old girl. Ask yourself: am I the same person as that little boy? Or I am a different person? You look so different from the little boy, the little girl. Your form, your feelings, your perceptions are quite different. You cannot say that you are identical to that little girl or little boy. Because of impermanence, you have changed into an adult, and if you compare the two persons, you cannot say that you are exactly the same person. Maybe your name remains the same, but in reality, the five skandhas have changed a lot.

You are a continuation of that little boy, or little girl, and the question is: if you are not the same person as that little boy, are you a totally different person? No, you are not a totally different person. You are a continuation of that little boy. It’s like the child is a continuation of his father and mother. The word continuation is good. And that is why the answer cannot be either “the same” or “different.” So there is a pair of notions that should be removed, so that freedom can be possible. After you have removed the notion of birth and death, being and non-being, you remove the notion of sameness and otherness. You are not exactly the same as your father, as the little boy, but you are not entirely another person. So this is the middle way. Transcending both notions, sameness and otherness.

Living mindfully and with concentration, we witness impermanence and we touch the truth of no sameness, no otherness. And it will reduce greatly the suffering and fear in us.

In order to touch the ground of your being, in order to touch your true nature, nirvana, in order to touch God, it is important to learn how to remove these pairs of notions. Because the absence of all these notions means the manifestation of God, of nirvana, of true nature. And classically, there is another pair to consider, that is the pair of coming and going. Where have I come from, and where shall I go? You ask that question for yourself. And you ask that question for your beloved one. “Darling, where have you come from? Why have you left me?”

So the exercises of the practice of the fourth establishment include: contemplating impermanence in order to touch non-self, interbeing; releasing the longing, the craving for something, which cultivates aimlessness; contemplating the ultimate, nirvana, no birth, no death, which releases us from being caught in the appearance, the forms of things. It is with instruments such as the three doors of liberation that you can touch directly your true nature. And then you will be able to throw away all the notions that are at the foundation of your fear and despair and separation.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Sangha News

The Sciences of the Buddha
A Twenty-one Day Retreat for Buddhists and Scientists

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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In Buddhism there are two kinds of truth: conventional truth (samvrti-satya) and absolute truth (paramartha-satya). In the framework of the conventional truth, Buddhists speak of being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going, inside and outside, one and many, etc. The Buddhist teaching and practice based on this framework helps reduce suffering and bring more harmony and happiness. In the framework of absolute truth, the teaching transcends notions of being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going, inside and outside, one and many, etc. The teaching and practice based on this insight help practitioners liberate themselves from discrimination and fear, and touch nirvana, the ultimate reality. Buddhists see no conflict between the two kinds of truth and are free to make good use of both frameworks.

Classical science, as seen in Newton’s theories, is built upon a framework reflecting everyday experience, in which material objects have an individual existence and can be located in time and space. Quantum physics provides a framework for understanding how nature operates on subatomic scales, but differs completely from classical science, because in this framework, there is no such thing as empty space, and the position of an object and its momentum cannot simultaneously be precisely determined. Elementary particles fluctuate in and out of existence, and do not really exist but have only a “tendency to exist.”

Classical science seems to reflect the conventional truth and quantum physics seems to be on its way to discover the absolute truth, trying very hard to discard notions such as being and non-being, inside and outside, sameness and otherness, etc. At the same time, scientists are trying to find out the relationship between the two kinds of truth represented by the two kinds of science, because both can be tested and applied in life.

In science, a theory should be tested in several ways before it can be accepted by the scientific community. The Buddha also recommended, in the Kalama Sutra, that any teaching and insight given by any teacher should be tested by our own experience before it can be accepted as the truth. Real insight, or right view, has the capacity to liberate and to bring peace and happiness. The findings of science are also insight; they can be applied in technology, but can be applied also to our daily behavior to improve the quality of our life and happiness. Buddhists and scientists can share with each other their ways of studying and practice and can profit from each other’s insights and experience.

The practice of mindfulness and concentration always brings insight. It can help both Buddhists and scientists. Insights transmitted by realized practitioners like the Buddhas and bodhisattvas can be a source of inspiration and support for both Buddhist practitioners and scientists, and scientific tests can help Buddhist practitioners understand better and have more confidence in the insight they receive from their ancestral teachers. It is our belief that in this twenty-first century, Buddhism and science can go hand in hand to promote more insight for us all and bring more liberation, reducing discrimination, separation, fear, anger, and despair in the world.

In the beautiful setting of Plum Village, from June 1-21, 2012, scientists and Buddhists will practice sitting together, walking together, and sharing their experience and insight with each other. The practices of mindfulness and concentration can help scientists to be better scientists and in this way, Buddhism can act as a source of inspiration, suggesting directions for future investigation and discovery. Conversely, we will explore how insights from science can be useful, not only to develop technology and improve our material comfort, but to reduce the suffering of individuals, families, and society. This retreat will bring a lot of joy and confidence in both traditions as we find out that good science and good Buddhism can be much and do much for the well-being of the world.

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Thirty Years of Plum Village

On June 16, 2011, during lunchtime in the Assembly of Stars Meditation Hall in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, Thay called the brothers and sisters who were twenty-nine years of age, including the lay friends, to come up in front of the Sangha. Thay shared that the year they were born, Plum Village was also born—that they were the same age as Plum Village. Next year, they will be celebrating their birthday along with the 30th Anniversary of our beloved Plum Village community. Thay invited this group, and the whole community of the Plum Village tradition in France and the world, to help contribute to an anniversary celebration. Let us come together to nourish our brotherhood and sisterhood and to deepen our practice. Let us look into how we can celebrate Plum Village in a meaningful and deep way. Let us find ways to record and share the history of the Plum Village manifestation as a gift for our beloved teacher, Thay. To contribute your ideas and energy, please contact Brother Phap Dung at phapdung@dpmail.net.

Love Resounds
Remembering Nathaniel (Nacho) Cordova, True Mountain of Compassion

By Jerry Braza

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On July 16, 2011, our brother Nacho Cordova died in a motorcycle accident near the Oregon coast. Nacho continues to ripple like a wave through the hearts of his family, the worldwide academic community, and the Sangha. At his memorial service, one word resounded like a bell of mindfulness: LOVE.

Nacho clearly wanted the best for every person, as demonstrated by his deep, mindful presence and practice of loving-kindness. His Dharma name, True Mountain of Compassion, exemplify his ability to be there for others, especially when they were suffering. Despite his busy schedule, he found time to listen deeply and often followed the listening with compassionate action. His warm smile was a reflection of his open and loving heart. Nacho had the unique ability to bring joy and water the seeds of love in every person he met, and he left everyone feeling that they were his best friend. Through his practice he found a refuge within, and he had the ability to see all perspectives clearly, which allowed him to be centered and available with a clear mind and loving presence.

Nacho’s favorite quote was by Basho: “The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming out of the flowers.” Nacho continues in all that is beautiful in our world as well as in the hearts and spirits of his wife, Michelle, and his children, Alex, Phoenix, and Terra.

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In remembrance of Nacho, please consider honoring the family with a comment or reflection on the beautiful blog that began the day he died: http://nacho-cordova.blogspot.com/

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Dharma Talk: Free from Notions

The Diamond Sutra

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall
Deer Park Monastery
Sunday, September 25, 2001

Thich Nhat Hanh

Right view is the foundation of the Noble Eightfold Path presented by the Buddha. Right view helps us to think correctly. It helps us to say things correctly, and to do things correctly, so we don’t create suffering and despair for ourselves and for others. When we practice mindfulness, we produce thoughts in alignment with right thinking, full of understanding and compassion. Then we only create happiness; we do not create suffering. With the practice of right speech, we say things that move us in the direction of understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. With the practice of right action, our physical action will only protect, save, help, and rescue. That is why the practice of mindfulness based on right view can help heal ourselves and help heal the world. We can start right away if we have a friend or a community of practice supporting us.

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We have to cultivate right view. If you listen to a Dharma talk or read a book, you’ll get some ideas about right view. But right view is something you experience directly, not through concepts and ideas. Right view is the kind of insight, the kind of under-standing, that can transcend the notion of being and non-being. It is not easy to understand.

When we speak of the birth of something, the creation of something, we are already caught in the notion of being and non-being. To be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. And to die means from the realm of being you pass into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. That’s how we think, but that is not right thinking.

So if you are caught in the notion of being and non-being, you are caught also in the notion of birth and death. When you observe reality as it is, you can touch the truth that reality is free from the notion of birth and death, being and non-being.

Can we speak about the birth of a cloud? According to our thinking, to be born means from nothing you become something. But looking deeply, you know the cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from the water in the ocean, the heat gener­ated by the sun, many things like that. So it is very clear that our cloud has not come from the realm of non-being.

The moment you see the cloud, that is a new manifestation. Before that, it was there in another form. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth. The cloud has never been born. It has not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being.

When you look up into the sky and you do not see your be­loved cloud anymore, you think your cloud has died, has passed from the realm of being into non-being, and you cry. But the fact is that your cloud has not died. It is impossible for a cloud to die. A cloud can become rain or snow or ice, but it is impossible for a cloud to become nothing. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. And the same thing is true of everything else, including ourselves, including our grandfather, our great-grandmother. They have not passed into the realm of non-being. If we look deeply, we can still see them around very close, in their new manifestations.

[Thay pours a cup of tea.] I’m pouring my cloud into the glass mindfully. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness, you can see the cloud in the tea. Your cloud has not died; it has just become the tea. The tea is the continuation of the cloud. When you drink your tea mindfully, you know that you are drinking your cloud. You already have a lot of cloud inside. This is only another cloud coming in to nourish you.

You are like a cloud. Your nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Being afraid of dying is not right thinking, because nothing can pass from being into non-being. Nothing can pass from non-being into being. If you cannot see the cloud in this tea, you have not really seen the tea. Mindfulness and concentration bring insight, which allows you to look at the tea and see the cloud.

In the Diamond Sutra, a very famous sutra in the Zen tradi­tion, we learn that there are four notions that you have to remove if you don’t want to suffer. These four notions are the crown of discrimination and fear and hate.

Tmb59-dharma1-3he Notion of Self

First is the notion of self. You separate reality into two parts. You distinguish between self and non-self. One part is yourself, the other part is the non-self. But looking into what we call a self, we see only non-self elements.

As a practitioner of mindfulness, you look deeply into this flower and you see that it is made only of non-flower elements. There’s a cloud inside also, because if there’s no cloud, there’s no rain and no flower can grow. So you don’t see the form of a cloud, but the cloud is there. And that is the practice of what we call signlessness. You don’t need a sign, a certain form of appear­ance in order to see it. There’s the sunshine inside. We know that if there is no sunshine, no flower can grow. There is the topsoil inside. Many things are inside: light, minerals, the gardener. It seems that everything in the cosmos has come together to help produce this flower. If we have enough concentration we can see that the whole cosmos is in the flower, that one is made by the all. We can say that the flower is made only of non-flower elements. If we return the cloud to the sky, return the light to the sun, the soil to the earth, there is no flower left. So it’s very clear that a flower is made only of non-flower elements.

What we call “me,” “myself,” is like that, too. We are also a flower. Each of us is a flower in the garden of humanity, and each flower is beautiful. But we have to look into ourselves and recognize the fact that we are made only of non-us elements. If we remove all the non-us elements, we cannot continue. We are made of parents, teachers, food, culture, everything. If we remove all of that, there is no us left.

When a young man looks into himself, he can see that he is made of non-self elements. If he looks into every cell of his body, he will see his father. His father is not only outside; his father is inside of him, fully present in every cell of his body. Suppose he tries to remove his father; there’s no son left. If we remove the father, remove the mother, the grandfather, the grandmother, if we remove our education, our culture, the food we eat, then there’s no us left. So the young man can see that his father is in him. He is the continuation of his father. He is his father.

It’s like the tea is a continuation of the cloud. Suppose the tea hates the cloud. The tea says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with the cloud!” That’s nonsense. And yet there are young men who are so angry at their fathers, they dare to say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that person.” Because they have not looked deeply, they do not see that they are the continuation of their father. They cannot remove their father from themselves; they are their father. So to get angry at your father is to get angry at yourself. That is the insight you get from the practice of mind­fulness and concentration. If you have that insight, you are no longer angry at your father. You know that if your father suffers, you suffer. If you are happy, your father is happy also. No more discrimination between father and son, because father is made of non-father elements and son is made of non-son elements. Everything is like that.

So the first notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of self. If you can see, in the light of interbeing, that you are in me and I am in you, you’ve got the insight. Anger and the desire to punish are no longer there. Removing the notion of self is the basic action for peace.

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If the Palestinians look deeply, they see that the suffering of the Israelis is their own suffering, and that their happiness is also the happiness of the Israelis. If they can recognize that they inter-are, that their happiness and suffering depend on each other’s, then they will release their anger, their fear, and their discrimination, and they can make peace easily. If the Hindus and the Muslims look deeply and see they are in each other, then there will be no conflict, no war.

So the removal of the notion of self is crucial for peace. If we can do that, we can be free from discrimination, separation, fear, hate, anger, and violence. With mindfulness and concentra­tion, you can discover the truth of no self, the truth of interbeing.

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The Notion of Being Human

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to re­move is the notion of man, human. Man is made only of non-man elements. Man, we know, is a very young species on earth. We are made of minerals, vegetables, and animals. Humans have human ancestors, but we also have animal ancestors, vegetable ancestors, and mineral ancestors. They are still in us. We are the continuation of our ancestors. We still carry the minerals, the vegetables, and the animals within us. If you have the insight that man is made only of non-man elements, you will protect the ecosystem. You will not destroy this planet. That is why the Diamond Sutra can be seen as the most ancient text on the teaching of deep ecology. In order to protect man, you have to protect minerals, vegetables, and animals.

The Notion of Living Beings

The third notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of living beings. When I was ordained as a novice monk at the age of sixteen, my teacher showed me how to bow to the Buddha. “My child, before you bow to the Buddha, you have to meditate.” He gave me a short verse to memorize: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to, the nature of both is empty.” That means that I am made of non-self elements. I am empty of a separate self. And you, the Buddha, you are also made of non-you elements. That means that you are in me, and I am in you. There is non-discrimination between the Buddha and a living being.

If you do not have that kind of insight, communication is impossible. You have to see the true relationship between you and Buddha. You must see that the Buddha is made only of non-Buddha elements. And you must see that you are made of non-you ele­ments. You must see that you are in the Buddha and the Buddha is in you. Before you have that understanding, you should not bow, because you think that you and the Buddha are two separate enti­ties. So there is a discrimination between Buddha, the enlightened one, and living beings; a discrimination between the creator and the creature. You have to see God in yourself, and you have to see yourself in God, in order for true communication to be possible.

Looking into a buddha, what do you see? You see a lot of afflictions, sickness, and despair that has been transformed. So a buddha is made of non-buddha elements. Before that person became a buddha, she suffered from anger, fear, hatred, and wrong perceptions. But because she knew how to practice mindfulness and she got insight, she became free. She became a buddha.

So looking into a buddha, you see non-Buddha elements. If you do not see non-Buddha elements in the Buddha, you have not seen the Buddha. Don’t imagine that the Buddha is an entity that is separate from us human beings. The safest place to look for a Buddha is in yourself.

If you know how to grow lotus flowers, you know that a lotus flower is made only of non-lotus elements. Among the non-lotus elements is the mud. The mud does not smell very good; it is not very clean. But without mud you can never grow a lotus flower. So if you look into a lotus flower, and you have not seen the mud in it, you have not seen the lotus flower. It is only with mud that you can grow a lotus flower. It is with the suffering, afflictions, fear, and anger that you can make the compost in order to nourish the flower of Buddha within ourselves.

That is why in the Lin-chi Zen tradition, when you look into the living being, you see the Buddha. When you look into the Buddha, you see the living being, because you are made of non-you elements and the Buddha is made of non-Buddha elements. If you have that insight, communication between you and the Buddha will be very deep. Otherwise, you will be worshipping an idea that is not reality.

You are the Buddha. You have Buddha nature, and if you practice mindfulness and concentration, you can transform afflictions. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove the notion of living beings.

The Notion of Life Span

The fourth notion is the notion of life span. Suppose we draw a line from left to right, representing time. And suppose we pick one point here and call it B, representing birth, and another point, we call it D, representing death. Usually we think that birth is the point where we start to exist, to be. So the segment from birth, from B on, is being. Before we are born, we did not exist. So the segment starting with D represents non-being.

When we come to D—we are very afraid of coming to this point. [laughter] It’s not pleasant to think of D. But if you can remove your notions, your wrong thinking about D, you are saved by right understanding and you are no longer afraid of D; not by a god, but by right understanding.

We believe that to be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. To die means from the realm of being you pass again into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. You are caught in the notion of birth and death; in the notion of being and non-being.

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Many of us believe that the cosmos has come from the realm of non-being into being. That is how we understand creation. Both believers and scientists believe that the cosmos has a beginning. Scientists speak about how the cosmos has come to be, with theo­ries like the Big Bang. It means before that, there was no cosmos; there was no universe. The Big Bang, and then later on, the Big Crunch. [laughter]

We need the practice of mindfulness and concentration to get the insight that liberates us from these notions. The notion of birth and death. The notion of being and non-being.

A well-known theologian named Paul Tillich described God as “the ground of being.” But if God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of non-being? You cannot conceive of God in terms of being and non-being. God, the ultimate, must transcend both notions. So to describe God in terms of being is to reduce God to something much less than God.

Many of us try to have life and to eliminate death. But how is life possible without death? Death is the very foundation of life. Life is the foundation of death. They always go together. Do not believe that death is something that waits for us down the road. No. Because life is here, death is also here at the same time. You cannot say that now is birth, now is life, and death is for later. That is not right thinking.

Science can help us understand this. We know that at every moment, many cells in our body die, right? And every day new cells are born. So many cells are dying in one second and we are too busy to organize funerals for them. [laughter] Birth and death happen in the here and the now, in every moment, in every mil­lisecond. Why are we afraid of death? We are experiencing death in every moment, because where there is life, there is death.

The same is true of happiness and suffering. Many of us think that happiness alone is enough; we don’t need suffering. But suf­fering is something that helps create happiness. If we look deeply into the suffering of the other person, we will come to understand the root of their suffering. Understanding suffering gives rise to compassion and love. Understanding and love are the foundation of happiness. If you do not have understanding and compassion, you are not a happy person. Compassion is born from understand­ing. If you understand your own suffering and if you understand his or her suffering, then love and compassion will be possible.

It is the mud that helps to produce the lotus. It is the suffering that helps produce the flower of happiness. Let us not discriminate against the suffering. Let us learn how to make good use of the suffering in order to create happiness. Let us learn how to make good use of the mud in order to produce lotus flowers.

If you believe that you are born at one point and you will die at another point, after which nothing remains, you are caught in the notion of life span. It is impossible for you to die. It is impos­sible for the cloud to pass into the realm of non-being. Right view transcends the notion of being and non-being, birth and death. That is why this insight can help produce right thinking, right speech, and right action. It has the power to heal and to nourish.

Many of us think that happiness is made of power, fame, sex, and wealth; but many people running after these objects suffer deeply. Those of us who practice mindfulness and concentration know that every moment can be a happy moment, because a mo­ment of happiness is a moment when you are truly in the here and the now, and you notice that so many wonders are in you and around you. You can be happy right here and right now.

That is the teaching of the Buddha. It is possible to be happy and joyful in the here and the now. Every in-breath, every step can help you touch the wonders of life. Recognize that you are luckier than so many people. And if you are happy, you have an opportunity to help other people.

Edited by Barbara Casey, Sister Annabel (True Virtue), Alan Armstrong, and Natascha Bruckner

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact The Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Dharma Talk: A New Teaching on the Twelve Nidanas

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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Editors’ note: This is Part II of the Dharma talk from November 29, 2012.

We know that there is a dimension of reality called the historical dimension. We live in our time; we live in history. Therefore, in the historical dimension, we recognize birth and death, being and nonbeing, you and I, as different things. The father is not the son. The father has one passport, the son has another passport.You cannot mix them. The left is not the right, the above is not the below. That is what happens in the historical dimension.

In the historical dimension, we see things as separate; they exist outside of each other. Father is outside of son. A cloud is outside a flower. That is what we call the conventional truth. The conventional truth is helpful; it works in the historical dimension. It’s like classical science represented by Newton. We can apply that kind of science in technology and so on.

But now we have another kind of science, quantum physics, that goes deeper, and we begin to discover another kind of truth. In quantum physics, things are quite different. In classical physics, a wave can only be a wave; it cannot be a particle. But in quantum physics, a wave can be a particle and a particle can be a wave. And a particle can be everywhere at the same time, not just in one place. Its nature is non-local. So this other kind of science seems to contradict the truth seen in the historical dimension.

In meditation, we also see two kinds of truth. We see the conventional truth, but if we look deeper, we can see differently. We see that the cloud is not outside of the flower and the father is not outside of the son. Looking deeply into the son, you see the father. There is a way of practice that leads us from the historical dimension to the ultimate dimension.

In the ultimate dimension, we touch the ultimate truth, where you cannot take the left out of the right, where you cannot take the father out of the son, because things inter-are. In order to understand, to touch this ultimate dimension, we have to learn how to release the notions that we use in conventional truth.

What the Buddha said concerning the genesis of the world is very simple. He did not say that the world is created by God. He said that the world comes into being because of the interconnection between things. He said: This is because that is. So simple. This is the teaching of genesis in Buddhism.

In Plum Village we have a simple image to illustrate this: the left and the right sides of a sheet of paper. The left cannot be by itself alone. The left has to lean on the right in order to be. The right has to lean on the left in order to be. They are connected. Without the left, there is no right; without the right, there is no left. This is because that is. The same is true with above and below, father and son, and flower and cloud. Everything.

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The Buddha taught that in the historical dimension, we follow the principle of identity: “A” is only “A,” it cannot be “B.” He used the notions of the historical dimension to lead us slowly into the ultimate dimension. That is skillful means. We begin by believing this is not that. But the Buddha slowly shows us that this is in that. He uses the notion of this and that to lead us to a dimension where this and that are one, are inside of each other. The notion of being and nonbeing can be removed. This is the teaching of conditioned genesis, the teaching of inter-arising, of co-arising.

This teaching uses notions and concepts to help us release notions and concepts. It has the power to connect us with ultimate truth. The teaching has to be careful, leading us slowly to the ultimate dimension. In this way it can connect us with the ultimate truth.

Interbeing

In the ultimate truth, we use words like “emptiness.” “Emptiness” is an expression that is equivalent to “God.” God is the ultimate, emptiness is the ultimate. Emptiness is the absence of notions and concepts. You cannot describe God with notions and concepts. You cannot say that God is or is not. To say that God exists is nonsense, to say that God doesn’t exist is nonsense, because notions of being and nonbeing cannot be applied to the ultimate. The notion of being and nonbeing can be used in the historical dimension, but not in the ultimate dimension. We need some skillfulness to move from the historical to the ultimate. The term “interbeing” is skillful, because it still uses the word “being,” but it helps us to get out of the notion of being.

To get out of the notion of being and nonbeing, you use the insight of interbeing. Nothing can be by itself alone. Everything has to inter-be with everything else. So the notion of interbeing, although it is a notion, helps to lead you to the ultimate truth. It helps you to be connected with emptiness. Interbeing means you cannot be by yourself alone; this is because that is. You can only inter-be. Interbeing is a kind of notion that can help you get the insight that will free you from the notion of being and nonbeing. Interbeing can connect the conventional truth to the ultimate truth, so it can lead you to emptiness.

Sunyatapratisamyukta. Pratisamyukta is “connected with.” Sunyata is “emptiness.” Connected with emptiness. There is a kind of wisdom called wisdom of adaptation, or wisdom of conformity, that helps you to connect with emptiness. This wisdom is the insight into interbeing or conditioned genesis. With this insight, you are on the way that can lead you to the ultimate truth. You need the wisdom of adaptation because this teaching can help you conform and be connected with the ultimate truth. So the Buddha and the patriarchs deliver the teaching on interbeing that can adapt and connect you with the ultimate truth represented by emptiness.

Restoring the Meaning of the Nidanas

The teachings of the twelve nidanas, or twelve links, presented in many sutras do not seem to help us connect with the ultimate truth. They belong to the category of conventional truth. They aim more at explaining samsara, reincarnation. That is why we have to restore the nidanas so they will lead us to the ultimate truth. Instead of twelve nidanas, we can use five nidanas; that is enough.

The twelve nidanas begin with avidya, which is ignorance, delusion. Delusion is the better word. According to this teaching, avidya gives rise to samskara, which has been translated as “impulses,” “action,” or “disposition.” Action, here, is like karma. With karma, there are three kinds of action: action by the body, action by the mouth, and action by the mind. So avidya, delusion, gives rise to wrong action, wrong impulses, the kind of energy that is blind and that will bring suffering.

Then because of samskara, there is vijnana, consciousness. Based on consciousness, there will be body and mind, nama-rupa: name-form. Name means mind, form means body. Because we have body and mind, we have six sense organs and their objects. Sadayatana, sense organ and object. Mental consciousness is one of the six. Because we have the sense organs and their objects, we have contact, sparsa. Contact, touch.

Because of contact, there will be feeling, vedana. Because there is feeling, there is attachment, trsna. Craving. Because you have craving, you are caught. Upadana. Grasping. Because there is grasping, there is existence. Bhava. Being. Because there is being, you have to be born, jati. And to suffer samsara, reincarnation. Because you are born, you have to grow old and die, jaramarana.

So that is the classical way of presenting the nidanas. But as we study Buddhism, we hear the Buddha speaking of nidanas in different ways. Sometimes he says there are only three, sometimes four, sometimes five, sometimes six. Twelve is only one of the ways to explain co-arising, interconnection.

When Thay was a student in the Buddhist Institute, he learned that these twelve links represent three times and two layers of cause and effect. The first two links, the first two nidanas, belong to the past. For example, in a former life I became deluded and did many actions, so I had to be reborn into this life. This life is represented by eight nidanas: consciousness, name-form, sense organs, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, being. After this body disintegrates, I will continue with the next life; I will be born again and die again. It’s very clear that the twelve nidanas, when taught in this way, aim to explain reincarnation, rebirth, but are not aiming to help us touch the ultimate dimension.

As a student, I also learned that there are two layers of cause and effect. What I have done in the past is the cause: the effect of those actions is this consciousness, this body and mind, these six organs, this contact, and these feelings. Because of the deluded actions in the past, I had to inherit all this. This is the first layer of cause and effect. Because I produce craving and grasping, and create being, these three nidanas serve as cause again, which will lead to the effect of birth and death in the future. This is the second layer.

This is the teaching of three times and two layers of cause and effect. As a student, I believed my teacher and I accepted the teaching, but as I continued to learn and to practice, I found that this teaching can be used only on the level of conventional truth. It is not Buddhism at its best, because its aim is not to lead us to ultimate truth, but only to explain the mechanism of rebirth.

Correcting Misinterpretations of the Buddha’s Teachings

Thay has found many problems with the traditional interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. The first problem is that we have to understand the word “samskara” differently. The basic meaning is “formation.” “Samskara” means phenomena, things. A flower is a samskara. A tree is a samskara. A body is a samskara. Anger is a samskara. Anything that relies on everything else to express itself is a samskara. That is why the word “formation” is a very good English translation of “samskara.”

We know that all formations are impermanent. The flower is a formation because it is made only of non-flower elements. The non-flower elements have come together and produced the flower. The flower has no private essence, no nature of its own. Its existence depends entirely on non-flower elements, and if you remove any of the non-flower elements, the flower cannot be. A flower is a formation. The same thing is true with a cloud, with a human being, with a tree, with everything. Everything we see is a formation. That is the actual meaning of the word “samskara.”

Because of our ignorance, we see formations as having a separate existence, as having their own nature. We see formations as existing outside of each other, independently. The world we are observing in us and around us is the world of our mental construction rather than the world of reality itself. We don’t see samskara as they truly are. So samskara are formations, understood as selves and dharmas, as things that exist by themselves, having their own true nature, and they exist outside of each other. We see things that way because of delusion.

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In the case of an enlightened being, a buddha or a bodhisattva, delusion is transformed, and when the darkness is removed, the light is there. So in the case of the Buddha, instead of having avidya, he has vidya—wisdom, or insight. He still sees samskara, formation, but when he looks at a flower, he sees the flower in the light of interconnection, inter-arising, co-arising. He sees the flower not as its own self, or as something that can exist by itself. He can see all things, all formations, as they are: namely, without self, without permanence.

We also see samskara, but we see a formation as permanent, as having a self which exists separately from other formations. So there are two ways of looking at samskara, the enlightened way and the deluded way.

Because we see samskara as having true nature, we solidify our delusion; and because of our delusion, we see formations as having separate existence, self, and permanence. Samskara, for us, is having a self and an own nature; samskara, for the Buddha, does not have self or its own separate nature. That is the difference between delusion and wisdom.

The Five Skandhas Are Not of Themselves Suffering

The second weakness of this presentation is that if we have craving, grasping, and attachment to being, we blame our five skandhas as the cause. It is taught that because we have a consciousness, a body and mind, six sense organs, contact, and feelings, we have craving and gasping and being. This is the second set of cause and effect.

But look at a Buddha. He also has consciousness, he also has body and mind. He also has six sense organs, contact, and feeling. But why doesn’t he have craving? We have craving and aversion, like and dislike. When you like this world, you want to survive. When you hate this life, you want to commit suicide. So you crave for being or you crave for nonbeing. Those who suffer so much, who do not like to be alive, they also have a craving—craving for nonbeing, very tempting sometimes.

A buddha has all these links, but he can produce freedom, non-attachment, compassion, loving kindness. So you cannot blame your body and mind for your afflictions. That is the second shortcoming of the teaching.

When I see the suffering all around me, if I have mindfulness and concentration, I allow myself to get in touch with the suffering, and I allow compassion and loving kindness to be born. These are very good things to allow to develop. That is why to say that contact and feelings can only bring craving and grasping is not true. It can bring enlightenment, it can bring understanding, it can bring love. That is why the traditional teaching on the twelve nidanas aims only at explaining reincarnation, samsara, transmigration, and can be used only on the level of the conventional truth. It does not belong to the set of teachings and practice that can be adaptive and connected with the ultimate truth.

So you have delusion. You look at a formation and you don’t see its true nature. You see formations as having a self, as being permanent, as existing outside of each other. When you see formations in that way, as things that exist outside of each other, you think that they have a beginning and end, that there is birth and death. However, when you contemplate a cloud, you see that it is not possible for a cloud to die. To die means that from something you become nothing, and that is not the case of the cloud. A cloud cannot become nothing. A cloud can become snow or rain, or ice, but it’s impossible for a cloud to die.

With wisdom, the Buddha looked at formations and saw that their true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. If you touch the nature of no-birth and no-death in a formation, you are truly seeing that formation as it is. Science is capable of finding no-birth and no-death. The first law of thermodynamics, the law of the conservation of matter and energy, tells us that the nature of matter and energy is no-birth and no-death. You cannot create matter; you cannot destroy matter. You cannot create energy; you cannot destroy energy. You can only transfer matter into energy, energy into another kind of energy, or energy into matter. But you do not have the power to create new matter, or to destroy energy. In this way, physicists, chemists, scientists can understand the nature of no-birth and no-death.

In the realm of meditation, if we look deeply with mindfulness and concentration, we can see the nature of no-birth and no-death of a cloud. A cloud hasn’t come from nothing, from nonbeing; a cloud has come from steam or from water.

The notion of birth and death always goes along with the notion of being and nonbeing. The shortcoming of this presentation is to blame suffering on being. But how can being be possible without nonbeing? So being, here, should be understood as being and nonbeing. In fact, we suffer not because of being, but because of the notion of being and the notion of nonbeing. Contact and feelings can bring either craving or aversion, or compassion or freedom. It depends on how we use the sense organs and contact.

So the traditional presentation is not complete. Contact and feeling can give rise to grasping, but also to releasing and freedom. We suffer because we cling to the notion of being and nonbeing; either we are afraid of being or we are afraid of nonbeing. But with wisdom, not only are you free from the notion of birth and death, you are also free from the notion of being and nonbeing. No being, no nonbeing.

In the historical dimension, to be or not to be is the question, but in the ultimate dimension, to be or not to be is no longer the question. You are free from both notions, and there is no fear anymore. You are not drowned in the waves of birth and death, being and nonbeing. You are free, and that is nirvana. Nirvana is perfect freedom, because you see formations as they truly are. And the true nature of these formations is no-birth and no-death, no being and nonbeing. With that kind of insight you enjoy nirvana, without fear, without craving.

But with delusion, you see formations as self and as permanent. You see them in the light of birth and death, being and nonbeing. That is why you navigate always in the realm of samsara.

So we need only five nidanas:

  1. delusion/wisdom
  2. formations
  3. birth–death/no birth–no death
  4. being–nonbeing/no being–no nonbeing
  5. samsara/nirvana

Five nidanas. If you don’t have delusion, then you see formations as they really are, and then you don’t see birth and death anymore. You are not caught in the notion of being and nonbeing anymore, and you get out of samsara: you are in nirvana. You don’t have to go to nirvana, nirvana is right there. Nirvana is already, since the non-beginning.

With some skillfulness, we can always begin here on the level of the conventional truth. With that skillfulness, we slowly get out of the conventional realm of truth. We use the wisdom of adaptation, we use the wisdom of conformity, to see the nature of reality, and to help people to slowly get out of these notions and concepts using the Middle Way. The Middle Way helps you to be free from pairs of opposites, birth and death, being and nonbeing, inside and outside, object and subject, and so on.

It will be very interesting if scientists of our time learn how to go the Middle Way, because many of them are still asking questions like, “What is the cause of the universe, the cosmos? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why?” So they are still caught in these notions of beginning, ending, being, and nonbeing. The wisdom of adaptation, the wisdom of conformity, help us to practice and to offer the practice in a way that helps us to be con- nected with the ultimate dimension presented by emptiness.

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Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.