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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Dharma Talk: The Buddhist Understanding of Reality

By Thich Nhat Hanh

 Plum Village, France — 21 June 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the Path of the Buddha retreat, Thay focused on global ethics. A handout (see below) summarized four different approaches to ethical questions. Here is an excerpt from Thay’s last Dharma talk, in which he discussed the Buddhist approach.

 

We study this line: “Both subject and object of perception manifest from consciousness according to the principle of interbeing.” This expresses an understanding of deep Buddhism. The question of whether we continue to be after the disintegration of this body has been asked by so many people. And there are many ways to answer, according to our capacity to understand. There are at least two kinds of Buddhism. Those who practice popular Buddhism are practicing more devotion than meditation, so their understanding of rebirth is quite different. But to answer this question satisfactorily, you have to use the understanding given by deep Buddhism, the understanding that is in accord with science.

 

We usually believe that consciousness is something inside of us, and we go and look for the world outside. We think there is an objective world outside and there is a subjective world inside. Remember when we read from “Winnie the Pooh”? Winnie the Pooh thought he saw the footprints of a hostile animal, and he became afraid. But with the help of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh discovered that the footprints he found on the snow were his own footprints! The same thing is true with the object of our inquiry – the so-called objective reality of the world. We think it is something distinct from our consciousness, but in fact it is only the object of our consciousness. It is our consciousness. That’s the hardest thing to understand and a basic obstacle for us and for science. Now a number of scientists are beginning to understand this concept. The British astronomer, Sir Eddington, said that on the unknown shore we have discovered footprints of unknown people, and we want to know who has been there before us. We come, inquire and investigate, and we find that they are our own footprints.

The world outside is our consciousness, is us. It is not something separate and distinct. The object and the subject of perception inter-are. Without subject, there is no object; without object, there is no subject. They manifest at the same time. To see means to see something. The seer does not exist separately from the seen; they manifest at the same time. If you imagine that the seer is independent and goes out in order to see the seen, that is a mistaken perception.

The Nature of Consciousness

Consciousness is always consciousness of something, and consciousness only lasts a millisecond. Consciousness is like an elementary particle, like an electron; its nature is non-local. Nonlocality is a word used by scientists about time in quantum physics. An elementary particle can be everywhere at the same time. We think that one thing cannot be several places at once, but scientists have agreed that an elementary particle – an electron – can be both here and there at the same time. It can be both this and that at the same time. It can be you, it can be me.

Many philosophers and scientists have said that the nature of consciousness has a cinematographic nature. A film is made up of separate pictures that last only a fraction of a second. Consciousness is like that, it just lasts one millisecond. Then, because moments of consciousness succeed each other continuously, you have the impression that consciousness is something that lasts. But the notion of a permanent consciousness is illusion, not reality. Consciousness is only a flash.

It’s like a flame on the tip of a candle. You think there is one flame, but really there is a succession of millions of flames, one after the other, that give the impression that it is only one flame. The flame of this moment gives rise to the flame of the next moment, and the flame of the next moment gives rise to the flame of the next moment. Things exist only in one millisecond. And that is true not only with consciousness; it is also true with our bodies, because cells die to give rise to other cells. In a month, all our cells will be new cells. It’s like a river. We see a river and call it one name, but the water is not the same water, it’s always changing. You cannot swim twice in the same river, and it is not the same person who goes into the river. Tomorrow it will not be “you” who goes into that river. You will have changed, just like the river constantly changes.

Buddhism offers the example of someone holding a torch and drawing a circle in the dark. Since he moves the torch quickly, you have the impression that there is a circle of fire. But in fact there is only one dot of fire. Everything is fleeting and impermanent. Modern science acknowledges this.

No-Self and Samadhi

Science is now capable of demonstrating no-self. Neuroscience teaches that neurons communicate with each other very well, and they operate together without a leader or a boss. They are like an orchestra playing beautiful music without a conductor. Our bodies are made of many cells and there is coordination among the cells; they don’t need a president of all the cells in order to make decisions. There is no-self.

If a scientist knows how to maintain that insight on life, then that flash of insight will become a liberating factor. If you just accept that idea as a notion, that is not enough to liberate you from your fear, your desire, your despair. No-self and impermanence as notions are not very helpful. You need to maintain a long-lasting understanding in order to get liberation. That is why samadhi has been translated, “you maintain it like that.” You keep the insight alive and you make it last. In your daily life you are able to maintain the vision of impermanence, the vision of no-self as a living experience. Only that insight can liberate you from fear, from anger, from separation. It is like when you boil potatoes, you have to maintain the fire underneath them for at least twenty minutes for the potatoes to cook. If you light the burner and then you turn it off, you will never have cooked potatoes. Samadhi is like that. Samadhi is the concentration needed to maintain the steady presence of that insight. Scientists are capable of finding no-self and impermanence, but what they need is samadhi to maintain that understanding throughout the day. They need the tools of mindfulness, concentration, and samadhi, in order to discover more. It would be helpful to have practitioners of meditation and scientists to collaborate, in order to discover more about ourselves.

You can be sure that the world is an object of mind. The sun, the moon, the earth, the cosmos, the galaxies – they are all objects of mind. And our body, also, is an object of our mind. And our mind, also, is an object of our mind. That is why we can investigate the object of our mind. When we understand the object of our mind, we understand our mind, because mind and object of our mind inter-are. One cannot be without the other.

When we believe that consciousness is permanent, and only the body perishes, that the soul continues and goes to heaven or hell, that is eternalism. A right view should transcend a view of eternalism. A permanent, immortal soul is something that cannot be accepted, either by good Buddhists or good scientists. But the opposite view – that after this body disintegrates, you disappear altogether, is another extreme, another wrong view, called nihilism. As a student of Buddhism, you are not caught in either of these views. There’s only continued manifestation in different kinds of forms; that is rebirth, continuation, in the context of impermanence and no-self. Good scientists see that nothing is born and nothing dies.

Being a Cloud

Suppose you are a cloud. You are made of tiny crystals of ice and water and you are so light, you can float. And maybe floating as a cloud, you encounter a block of hot air so you become drops of water and fall as rain. You go down, you come up again, you go down, and you come up again. Transmigration, reincarnation, rebirth is always taking place in a cloud. And yet a cloud does not need to become rain in order to have a new life. A cloud has a new life every moment. Rebirth, continuation takes place with us in the same way.

There is a lot of cloud in us, and we continue to drink cloud every day. Birth and death are taking place in every moment of our daily life. We should not say, “I will die in twenty years, in thirty years;” no, you are dying right in this moment and you are reborn right in this moment. Rebirth is happening in the here and the now – not in the future. So when someone asks you, “What will happen to me when I die?” Ask him or her, “What happens to you in the here and the now?” If you know what happens in the here and the now, you can answer the first question very easily. You are undergoing birth and death right now because mentally and physically you are of a cinematographic nature. You are renewed in every instant, and if you know how to do it, your renewal is beautiful.

In every moment we produce thought, we produce speech, and we produce action. That action will have an effect on us and on the world: that is our karma. If you know how to handle your thinking, your speech, and your action, you’ll be more beautiful. You don’t have to wait until you die to see what happens to you. Look in the present moment and you see that birth and death are going on in you at every moment, both in your body and in your consciousness. Every moment of our daily life there is input and there is output. You breathe in, you take food, you have new ideas, new feelings. And things go out from you, like urine, air, and water. So the cosmos is renewing you and you are releasing things to the cosmos. Birth and death does not wait; it is happening now, in the present moment.

Suppose one part of the cloud transforms itself into rain and the rain falls and becomes part of a river. The remaining part of the cloud is looking down from the sky and sees its continuation on the earth. It says to its rain part, “I enjoy floating up here but you’re part of me and I hope you enjoy it down there. To be floating up here is nice, but to be flowing down there is also nice.” The cloud is both floating in the sky and flowing as the rain.

As a human being, we can see that too. I see myself in my students and in my friends. I wish them good luck, because their good luck is my good luck. When my disciples and my friends carry me with them, I wish them the best. My happiness and suffering depend on them. So when I look, I don’t just see me here. I see me there, and there, and there. I wave and say, “Have a good time in there!” That is the way to look. You see yourself not just in this body, you see yourself everywhere, because every moment you produce thought, you produce speech, you produce action that continues you in the world.

One hundred years from now, if you come to Plum Village, you’ll still see me in different forms – and younger and more beautiful! [laughs] Because it is possible to be more beautiful in our way of thinking, in our way of speaking and acting if we know how to generate right view. With right view, we don’t suffer. We can produce thoughts of compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. A cloud can do the work of self-purification up there, so that when it becomes snow or river, it is beautiful. It is possible.

Karma 

We began our talk with the notion that both consciousness and object of consciousness are manifestations of consciousness. Consciousness is a dynamic force that is at the base of manifesting living beings and the world. In Buddhist insight, the world is a manifestation of consciousness. Many scientists have begun to agree that the cosmos is a manifestation of consciousness. As a scientist, you cannot stand outside as an observer; to really understand, you have to be a participant.

In Buddhism we speak of karma as the threefold aspect of action; thinking, speaking and acting. When we produce a thought, that thought can change us and can change the world in a good way or in a bad way. If it is right thought, if that thought is produced in line with right thinking, then it will have a healing, nourishing effect on our body and on the world. Just by producing right thinking you can change the world. You can make the world a better place to live, or you can transform the world into hell. That is karma, action; this is not something abstract. For example, the economic crisis is born from our thinking. There is a lot of craving and fear, and the value of the dollar, of the euro is largely created by the mind. Everything comes from the mind. That is why thinking is action and speaking is action. Speaking can release tension and reconcile, or speaking can break relationships. Speaking can destroy someone’s hope and cause that person to commit suicide. Physical action is also energy.

There is individual karma that has an effect on everyone. Everything that happened to you happened to the world. You produce that thought, you are affected by that thought, and the world is also affected by that thought. There is also collective karma. During this twenty-one-day retreat, the friendship, the joy, the healing, the transformation is the work of everyone. Each one of us contributes through our practice, through our insight, through our speech. In Buddhism, we do not believe in a God that arranges everything, but we don’t believe in coincidence either. We believe that the fate of the planet depends on our karma, on our action. It does not depend on a God, it does not depend on chance, it depends on our true action. Karma is the dynamic force that underlies everything. I think that scientists will have no difficulty accepting this.

Man is present in all things and all things are present in man. Man just arrived yesterday in the history of life on earth. Looking into a human being, we can see our non-human elements, namely our animal ancestors, our vegetable ancestors, and our mineral ancestors. In our past life we were a cloud, and we were a rock. Even in this moment, we continue to be a cloud, we continue to be a rock. There is a mountain in us, do you see? There are many clouds in us, do you see?

In a former time, we were fish, we were birds, we were reptiles. And our ancestors are fully present in us, in the here, in the now. We continue as a reptile. We have many reactions that belong to the reptile species. We want to say that we are created by a God in his image. But in fact, we have many ancestors. When a fish swims happily in the water, it is very proud of its talent for swimming. And a fish has the right to say that God must be the most wonderful swimmer in the world. And a rose can say, “God is the most beautiful rose in the world, because he has created me like this.” If you are a mathematician, you tend to think God must be the best mathematician in the world. Your notions of God are anthropocentric. If you are a gay person, you may think that God is the best gay person in the world. Why not? The fish has that right, the rose has that right, so we all inter-are. We continue our ancestors in us now. We are human, but we are at the same time a rock, a cloud, a rabbit, a rose, a gay, a lesbian. We are everything. Let us not discriminate or push away anything, because we are everything. Everything is in us. That’s the right view.

If we see that everything is in man and man is in everything, we know that to preserve other species is to preserve ourselves. That is deep ecology, that is interbeing. That is the teaching of the Diamond Sutra. A good Buddhist should be an ecologist, trying her best to preserve the environment, because to preserve the environment is to preserve yourself. Man contains the whole cosmos.

On the phenomenal level there seem to be birth, death, being and non-being, but ontologically, these notions cannot be applied to reality. Birth and death are just notions. The true nature of a cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. The scientist Lavoisier says that nothing is born, nothing dies. He agrees completely with this teaching. A cloud manifests as a cloud. There is no birth of a cloud, because before being a cloud, the cloud has been the tree, the ocean, the heat generated by the sun. To appear as a cloud is only a moment of continuation. And when a cloud becomes a river, that is not death, that is also a continuation. We know that there is a way to continue beautifully, and that is to take care of our three aspects of karma – thinking, speaking and acting.

Being and non-being are more wrong views. Non-being is a wrong view, but being is also a wrong view. The absolute reality transcends both being and non-being. Before you are born, you did not belong to the realm of non-being, because from non-being, you cannot pass into being. And when you die, you cannot pass from being into non-being. It’s impossible. To be, or not to be – both are wrong views. To inter-be is better.

The dynamic consciousness is called karma energy. Karma energy is not abstract. It determines our state of being, whether we are happy or unhappy. Whether you continue beautifully or not so beautifully depends on karma. It’s possible to take care of our action so that we don’t suffer much now and we will continue to do better in the future. There is the hope, the joy.

Free Will is Mindfulness

Everything evolves according to the principle of interdependence, but there is free will and the possibility to transform. Free will is mindfulness. When mindfulness intervenes, we are aware of what is going on. If we like our action, we allow it to continue; if we don’t like our action, there are methods to change it with concentration and insight. We don’t want to take a path leading to ill-being; we want to take the path leading to the cessation of ill-being, to well-being. Free will is possible in Buddhism, because we know that we can handle our thinking, we can handle our speech and we can handle our action. We are responsible for our action and it is possible to assure a good continuation. Freedom begins with mindfulness, concentration and insight. With insight, with right view we can practice right thinking. We can change ourselves; we can change the world. Everything is the fruit of action.

The one affects the all. The all affects the one. Interbeing means impermanence, non-self, emptiness, and karma. In the teaching of Buddha, every teaching inter-is with every other teaching, so impermanence should be understood as no-self and no-self should be understood as interdependence. No-self and interdependence are not two different things. If you understand interdependence, you understand no-self. If you understand impermanence, you understand interdependence. They are different words, but they are just the same thing.

Right view allows right action, leading to the reduction of suffering and the increase of happiness. This is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the active aspect of the teaching is the Noble Eightfold Path.

Happiness and Suffering

Happiness and suffering inter-are. You should not try to run away from suffering because you know that a deep understanding of suffering can bring about insight, compassion, and understanding. And that is the foundation of happiness. We do not think that there is a place where there is no suffering. The Pure Land, the kingdom of God is right here. If we are free, then we can recognize the kingdom of God in the here and the now. We need only a flash of awakening to realize that what we are looking for is already here – the kingdom of God. No birth and no death.

Please remember that without the mud, the lotus cannot grow. We should not be afraid of suffering. We know how to handle suffering. We know how to handle the garbage in order to make compost and nourish the flowers. That’s why we can accept this world with all our heart. We don’t need to go anywhere else. This is our home. We want to manifest again and again and again in order to make this home more beautiful with good action. The ultimate reality transcends notions of good and evil, right and wrong. That is the absolute criterion for Buddhist ethics.

Transcribed by Nancy Mendenhall, edited by Barbara Casey, Natascha Bruckner, and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

 

Four Views of Ethics 

I. Theistic Traditions  

Judaism and Christianity teach that the world was created by a loving, all-powerful God to provide a home for us. We, in turn, were created in his image, to be his children. Thus, the world is not devoid of meaning and purpose. It is, instead, the arena in which God’s plans and purposes are realized. What could be more natural, then, than to think that “morality” is a part of the religious view of the world, whereas the atheist’s world has no place for values? 

In the major theistic traditions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — God is conceived as a lawgiver who has laid down rules that we are to obey. He does not compel us to obey them. We were created as free agents, so we may choose to accept or to reject his commandments. But if we are to live as we should, we must follow God’s laws. This conception has been elaborated by some theologians into a theory about the nature of right and wrong known as the Divine Command Theory. Essentially, this theory says that “morally right” is a matter of being commanded by God and “morally wrong” is a matter of being forbidden by God. 

II. Bertrand Russell’s “Scientific” Approach  

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” 1902). 

III. Recent Scientific Approach  

The universe is some 15 billion years old — that is the time elapsed since the “big bang” — and the earth itself was formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The evolution of life on the planet was a slow process, guided largely by natural selection. The first humans appeared quite recently. The extinction of the great dinosaurs 65 million years ago (possibly as the result of a catastrophic collision between the earth and an asteroid) left ecological room for the evolution of the few little mammals that were about, and after 63 or 64 million more years, one line of that evolution finally produced us. In geological time, we arrived only yesterday. 

But no sooner did our ancestors arrive than they began to think of themselves as the most important things in all creation. Some of them even imagined that the whole universe had been made for their benefit. Thus, when they began to develop theories of right and wrong, they held that the protection of their own interests had a kind of ultimate and objective value. The rest of creation, they reasoned, was intended for their use. We now know better. We now know that we exist by evolutionary accident, as one species among many, on a small and insignificant world in one little corner of the cosmos. The details of this picture are revised each year, as more is discovered; but the main outlines seem well established. (James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, McGraw Hill, 2007). 

IV. Buddhist Approach  

Both subject and object of perception manifest from consciousness according to the principle of interbeing. Man is present in all things and all things are present in man. On the phenomenal level, there seems to be birth, death, being and non-being, but ontologically, these notions cannot be applied to reality. The dynamic consciousness is called karma energy. Everything evolves according to the principle of interdependence, but there is free will and the possibility to transform; there is probability. The one affects the all, the all affects the one. Interbeing also means impermanence, non-self, emptiness, karma, and countless world systems.

Right view allows right action, leading to the reduction of suffering and the increase of happiness. Happiness and suffering inter-are. The ultimate reality transcends notions of good and evil, right and wrong. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Winter Retreat of 2008).

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Dharma Talk: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing

Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talk

at Stonehill College, Massachusetts
August 16, 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh

Today is the last day of our five-day retreat. We will speak about the sixteen exercises proposed by the Buddha on mindful breathing.

The first four exercises are about practicing with the body. The second set of four are practicing with feelings. The third set of four are practicing with the mind. And the last four are about practicing with the objects of mind.

 Body-Centered Practice

The first exercise is to identify the in-breath and out-breath. Breathing in, I know this is my in-breath. Breathing out, I know this is my out-breath. To recognize my in-breath as in-breath.

The second is to follow my in-breath all the way through. By doing so, I keep my mindfulness and concentration strong. I preserve my mindfulness and concentration during the whole time of my in-breath and my out-breath.

The third exercise is: Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. This exercise will bring mind and body together. With mind and body together, we are truly established in the here and the now, and we can live our life deeply in each moment.

The fourth exercise is to release tension in our body. These four exercises help the body to be peaceful. They help us to take care of our body.

Practicing with Feelings

With the fifth exercise we come to the realm of feelings. We bring in a feeling of joy. We cultivate and recognize joy within us.

With the sixth exercise we bring in happiness. The practitioner knows that mindfulness is a source of happiness. Mindfulness helps us to recognize the many conditions of happiness we already have. So to bring in a feeling of joy, to bring in a feeling of happiness, is easy. You can do it any time.

There is a little difference between joy and happiness. In joy there is still some excitement. But in happiness you are calmer. In the Buddhist literature there is the image of someone very thirsty walking in the desert, and suddenly he sees an oasis, trees encircling a pond. So he experiences joy. He has not drunk the water yet. He is still thirsty, but he is joyful because he needs only to walk a few more minutes to arrive at the pond. That is joy. There is some excitement and hope in him. And when that traveler comes to the oasis, kneels down and cups his hands, and drinks the water, he feels the happiness of drinking water, quenching his thirst. That is happiness, very fulfilling.

The practitioner should be able to make use of mindfulness, concentration, in order to bring himself or herself a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness, for his own nourishment and healing. Just with mindful breathing, mindful walking, we can bring in moments of happiness and joy, because the conditions of happiness are already sufficient inside of you and around you.

The seventh exercise is to be aware of painful feelings. When a painful feeling or emotion manifests, the practitioner should be able to be present in order to take care of it. With mindfulness, she will know how to recognize and embrace the pain, the sorrow, to get relief. She can go further with other exercises in order to transform, but now she’s only recognizing and embracing. Recognizing and embracing tenderly the feeling of pain and sorrow can already bring relief.

The eighth exercise is to release the tension, to calm the feeling. So the second set of four exercises is to deal with feelings. The practitioner should know how to recognize her feelings, and know how to embrace and deal with her feelings, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.

Practicing with Other Mental Formations

With the ninth exercise, we come to the other mental formations. Feeling is just one category of mental formations. In Buddhist psychology we speak of fifty-one categories of mental formations. Formation—samskara— is a technical term. This pen [Thay holds up a pen] is a formation, because many conditions have come together in order for it to manifest as a pen. It is a physical formation. My hand is a formation, a physiological formation. My anger is a formation, a mental formation. We have fifty-one categories of mental formations, the good ones and the not-so-good ones.

The ninth exercise is to become aware of any mental formation that has manifested. There is a river of consciousness that’s flowing day and night. Anger, hate, despair, joy, jealousy, compassion, all continue to take turns manifesting. As a practitioner, you are always present so you can recognize them. You don’t need to fight or to grasp; you just recognize them as they arise, as they stay for some time, and as they go away. There is a river of mind in which every mental formation is a drop of water, and you observe the manifestation and the going away of that mental formation. Don’t try to grasp, don’t try to fight. Just calmly recognize them, smile to them, whether they are pleasant ones or unpleasant ones.

The tenth exercise is to gladden the mind, to make the mind glad, to bring vigor to the mind. There are so many good seeds in us, like the seed of mindfulness, the seed of concentration, the seed of insight, the seed of joy, the seed of peace. We should know how to touch the seeds in our store consciousness, and how to invite them to come up. Then the landscape becomes very pleasant.

It’s as if you have some films on DVDs, and many are very uplifting. As a practitioner, you know how to select a movie that will bring joy and happiness. Suppose you are watching a film that contains violence, hate, and fear. You know that it is not good for you to watch, but you don’t have the courage to turn it off, because you feel that if you turn it off, then you will have to confront the fear, the anger, the loneliness inside you. You are using the film to cover up your afflictions.

The Buddha advises us that there are many good DVDs available, and you have to choose good DVDs in order to watch the fine films that are available. The DVDs of Buddhahood, of understanding, compassion, forgiveness, joy, and peace are always there. So to select DVDs that can bring joy, encouragement, strength, aspiration, compassion, is the object of the tenth exercise. We can practice that together. We can help another person to touch the good things in her, so that she will have the energy and strength to succeed in her practice.

The eleventh exercise proposed by the Buddha is to bring the mind into concentration. The Buddha has proposed many topics of concentration for us to use, to concentrate the mind.

The twelfth exercise is to liberate the mind. The mind is tied up, caught by the afflictions of sorrow, of fear, of anger, of discrimination. That is why we need the sword of concentration in order to cut away all these binding forces.

Impermanence: Notion or Insight?

Suppose we speak about the concentration on impermanence. We have a notion of impermanence and we are ready to accept that things are impermanent. You are impermanent, I am impermanent. But that notion of impermanence does not help us, because although you know intellectually that your beloved one is impermanent, you believe she will be here for a long time, and that she will be always the same. Everything is changing every moment, like a river, and yet you still think of her as she was twenty years ago. If you are unable to touch her in the present moment, you are not in touch with the truth of impermanence.

Using mind consciousness, you need to meditate to touch the true nature of impermanence. You need the concentration, the insight of impermanence rather than the notion of impermanence to liberate you.

The notion of impermanence may be an instrument which can help bring about an insight into impermanence. In the same way, a match is not a flame, but a match can bring about a flame. When you have the flame, it will consume the match. What you need is the flame and not the match. What you need for your liberation is the insight of impermanence and not the notion of impermanence. But in the beginning the notion, the teaching of impermanence can help to bring the insight of impermanence. When the insight of impermanence is there, it burns up the notion of impermanence.

Most of us get caught in notions when we learn Buddhism. We don’t know how to make skillful use of these teachings in order to bring about insight. We have to practice. While sitting, walking, reading, drinking, we are concentrating on the nature of impermanence. That is the only way to touch the insight of impermanence. Concentration means to keep that awareness alive, moment after moment, to maintain it for a long time. Only concentration can bring insight and liberate you.

Suppose you and your husband disagree about something. You are angry and are about to have a fight. Suffering is in you, suffering is in him, and the mind is not free. To free yourselves from anger, you need concentration. Let us try the concentration on impermanence. You close your eyes. “Breathing in, I visualize my beloved one 300 years from now. What will he become in 300 years? What will I become in 300 years?” You can touch the reality of impermanence. “We have a limited time together, and we are wasting it with our anger, with our discrimination. That’s not very intelligent.”

When you visualize both of you 300 years from now, you touch the nature of impermanence and you see how unwise you are to hold on to your anger. It may take only one in-breath or one out-breath to touch the nature of impermanence in you and in him. With that insight of impermanence you are free from your anger. “Breathing in, I know I am still alive and he is still alive.” When you open your eyes, the only thing you want to do is to take him into your arms.

That is liberating with the insight of impermanence. If you are inhabited by the insight of impermanence, you will deal with him or with her very wisely. Whatever you can do to make him happy today, you do it. You don’t wait for tomorrow, because tomorrow may be too late. There are those who cry so much, who beat their chests, who throw themselves on the floor when the other person dies. That is because they remember that when the other person was alive, they did not treat him or her well; and it is the complex of guilt in them that causes them to suffer. They did not have the insight of impermanence.

Impermanence is one concentration. In Buddhism, impermanence is not a doctrine, a theory, a notion. It is an instrument, it is a concentration, a samadhi. The Buddha proposed many concentrations; for example, the concentration on no-self. When the father looks into his son and sees himself in his son, his son is his continuation. His son is not a separate person. So he can see the nature of no-self in him and in his son. He sees that the suffering of his son is his own suffering. When he sees that, he is free from his anger.

Investigating Objects of Mind

In Buddhism the world is considered the object of mind. Our mind, our consciousness, our perception, may be described as having two components: the knower and the knowable. In Buddhism when you write the word “Dharma” with a capital letter, it means the teaching, the law. When you write the word “dharma” with a small letter, it means the object of your mind. The pen is the object of my mind. The flower is the object of my mind. The mountain, the river, the sky are the objects of my mind. They are not objective reality; they are objects of my mind.

The last four exercises investigate the nature of the objects of our mind. Many scientists are still caught in the notion that there is a consciousness in here, and there is an objective world out there. That is the most difficult obstacle for a scientist to overcome.

In Buddhism we call it “double grasping,” when you believe that there is a consciousness inside, trying to reach out, to understand the objective world out there. Buddhism explains that subject and object cannot exist separately, like the left and the right. You cannot imagine the existence of the left without the right.

Consciousness is made of the knower and the knowable. These two manifest at the same time. It’s like up and down, left and right. An object of mind is the business of perception. You perceive something, whether that something is a pen, or a flower. The object of perception always manifests at the same time as the subject of perception. To be conscious is always to be conscious of something. To be mindful is to be mindful of something. You cannot be mindful of nothing. To think is to think about something. So the object and the subject manifest at the same time, like the above and the below, the left and the right. If you don’t see it like that, you are still caught in double grasping.

The thirteenth exercise is contemplating impermanence. Impermanence is just one concentration. But if you do it well, you also succeed in the contemplation of no-self, because going deeply into impermanence, we discover no-self. We discover emptiness, we discover interbeing. So impermanence represents all concentrations.

While breathing in, you keep your concentration on impermanence alive. And while breathing out, you keep your concentration on impermanence alive, until you make a breakthrough into the heart of reality. The object of your observation may be a cloud, a pebble, a flower, a person you love, a person you hate, it may be your self, it may be your pain, your sorrow. Anything can serve as the object of our meditation.

Contemplating Non-Desire 

The fourteenth exercise is contemplating non-desire, noncraving. It has to do with manas, that level of our consciousness that always runs toward pleasure. If you look deeply into the object of your craving, you will see it’s not worth running after. Instead, being in the present moment, you can be truly happy and safe with all the conditions of happiness that are already available. Because manas ignores the dangers of pleasure-seeking, this exercise is to help manas to enlighten, to see that pleasure-seeking is dangerous and you risk damaging your body and your mind. If you know how to be in the present moment, happiness can be obtained right away.

No Birth, No Death

The fifteenth exercise is contemplating nirvana. This is real concentration. This concentration can help us touch the deep wisdom, the nature of reality that will be able to liberate us from fear and anger and despair.

In Buddhism the word nirvana means extinction. Nirvana is not a place you can go. Nirvana is not in the future. Nirvana is the nature of reality as it is. Nirvana is available in the here and the now. You are in nirvana. It’s like a wave arising on the surface of the ocean. A wave is made of water, but sometimes she forgets. A wave is supposed to have a beginning, an end. A coming up, a going down. A wave can be higher or lower than other waves, more beautiful or less beautiful than other waves. And if the wave is caught by these notions—beginning, ending, coming up, going down, more or less beautiful—she will suffer a lot.

But if the wave realizes she is water, she enjoys going up, and she enjoys going down. She enjoys being this wave, and she enjoys being the other wave. No discrimination, no fear at all. And she doesn’t have to go and look for water; she is water in the present moment.

Our true nature is the nature of no beginning, no end, no birth, no death. If we know how to touch our true nature of no birth and no death, there is no fear. There is no anger, there is no despair. Because our true nature is the nature of nirvana. We have been nirvanas from the non-beginning.

The other day we talked to the children about a cloud. We said it’s impossible for a cloud to die, because in our mind, to die means from something you suddenly become nothing. From someone you suddenly become no one. And grief is the outcome of that kind of outlook. It is possible for a cloud to become rain or snow or hail, or river, or tea, or juice. But it is impossible for the cloud to die. The true nature of the cloud is the nature of no death.

So if you have someone close to you who just passed away, be sure to look for her or him in her new manifestation. It’s impossible for her to die. She is continued in many ways, and with the eyes of the Buddha you can recognize him, you can recognize her, around you and inside of you. And you can continue to talk to him, talk to her. “Darling, I know you are still there in your new forms. It’s impossible for you to die.”

The nature of the cloud is also the nature of no birth. To be born, in our mind, means from nothing you suddenly become something. From no one you suddenly become someone. That is why you need a birth certificate. We seem to believe that from non-being we have passed into being. And when we die, from being we pass into non-being again. That is our way of thinking, which is erroneous. Before becoming a cloud, the cloud has been the ocean water, the heat generated from the sun. The cloud has not come from nothing. Her nature is the nature of no birth and no death. So this meditation helps us to remove all notions, including the notions of beginning, ending, being, and non-being.

Suppose I draw a line representing the flow of time, from left to right. And I pick up one point as the point of birth. They say that I was born on that moment, “B”. It means that the segment before “B” is characterized by my non-being. No being. And suddenly from point “B” I begin to be. And I might last, maybe 120 years [laughter], and suddenly I will come to the point “D”. And from being I pass into non-being again. That is the way we think. We think in terms of being and non-being.

To the children we said that before the date of their birth, they already existed in the womb of their mother. They spent about nine months in the womb of their mother. So it’s not true to say that they began to exist on the day of their birth. The birth certificate is not correct. But did you begin to exist at the moment of conception? Before your conception, you already existed at least half in your father and half in your mother. You have not come from nothing, from non-being. You have always been there in one form or another. So your nature is the nature of no birth.

Extinction, nirvana, means the extinction of all notions, including the notion of birth and death, the notion of being and non-being. We remove all views, all notions. That is the job of the fifteenth exercise.

There are theologians who say that God is the ground of being. But if God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of nonbeing? God transcends both notions of being and non-being. The fifteenth exercise is to remove, to transcend all kinds of notions. True happiness, non-fear, is possible only when all these notions are removed.

Imagine our beautiful wave. She now recognizes that she is water, and knowing that she is water she is no longer afraid of beginning, ending, coming up, going down. She enjoys every moment. She doesn’t have to go and look for water; she is water. Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death, no being and no non-being.

The sixteenth exercise is to throw away, to release all these notions, and to be completely free.

The Sutra on Mindful Breathing offers sixteen exercises on mindful breathing that cover four areas of life: body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind. We can use the sutra as a manual to practice meditation. Together with the sutra called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Sutra on Mindful Breathing is very precious. A real gift from the Buddha. In the Plum Village Chanting Book, you can read both the Sutra on Mindful Breathing and the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, which are common in every school of Buddhism.

Dear friends, as I told the children, the Sangha is always there. It is a joy when you see the Sangha manifesting like this. Please continue with your practice. Please share the practice with your friends and help bring joy and peace and hope to our society. Continue to be a torch. Each of you is a continuation of the Buddha. We should keep the Buddha alive, the Dharma alive, the Sangha alive in every moment of our daily lives.

When you go home, please do your best to set up a group of practitioners in order to have a refuge for many people who live in your area.

Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing

“O bhikkhus, the full awareness of breathing, if developed and practiced continuously, will be rewarding and bring great advantages. It will lead to success in practicing the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. If the method of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness is developed and practiced continuously, it will lead to success in the practice of the Seven Factors of Awakening. The Seven Factors of Awakening, if developed and practiced continuously, will give rise to understanding and liberation of the mind. 

“What is the way to develop and practice continuously the method of Full Awareness of Breathing so that the practice will be rewarding and offer great benefit? 

“It is like this, bhikkhus: the practitioner goes into the forest or to the foot of a tree, or to any deserted place, sits stably in the lotus position, holding his or her body quite straight, and practices like this: ‘Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.’ 

  1. ‘Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.
  2. ‘Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.
  3. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.
  4. ‘Breathing in, I calm my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.
  5. ‘Breathing in, I feel joyful. Breathing out, I feel joyful.’ He or she practices like this.
  6. ‘Breathing in, I feel happy. Breathing out, I feel happy.’ He or she practices like this.
  7. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations. Breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations.’ He or she practices like this.
  8. ‘Breathing in, I calm my mental formations. Breathing out, I calm my mental formations.’ He or she practices like this.
  9. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my mind. Breathing out, I am aware of my mind.’ He or she practices like this.
  10. ‘Breathing in, I make my mind happy. Breathing out, I make my mind happy.’ He or she practices like this.
  11. ‘Breathing in, I concentrate my mind. Breathing out, I concentrate my mind.’ He or she practices like this.
  12. ‘Breathing in, I liberate my mind. Breathing out, I liberate my mind.’ He or she practices like this.
  13. ‘Breathing in, I observe the impermanent nature of all dharmas. Breathing out, I observe the impermanent nature of all dharmas.’ He or she practices like this.
  14. ‘Breathing in, I observe the disappearance of desire. Breathing out, I observe the disappearance of desire.’ He or she practices like this.
  15. ‘Breathing in, I observe the no-birth, nodeath nature of all phenomena. Breathing out, I observe the no-birth, no-death nature of all phenomena.’ He or she practices like this.
  16. ‘Breathing in, I observe letting go. Breathing out, I observe letting go.’ He or she practices like this.

“The Full Awareness of Breathing, if developed and practiced continuously according to these instructions, will be rewarding and of great benefit.”

Excerpted from Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing,” Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, compiled by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Monks and Nuns of Plum Village, Parallax Press.

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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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