The Son’s Flesh Sutra

Translated by Sister Annabel Laity

The Son’s Flesh Sutra
(Puttamamsa Sutta) Samyutta Nikaya II, 97.

The discourse was heard at Savatthi.

The Buddha began speaking.

“Monks, there are four kinds of nourishment which maintain living beings and make possible the coming to be of living beings.

“What are the four

“There is the nourishment which we take by the mouth. It is edible food and can be course or fine. Secondly, there is the nourishment of sense impressions. Thirdly there id nourishment of volition or desire and fourthly there is nourishment of consciousness.

“How could we describe edible food?

“It is like this. Suppose two parents with their only child were to set out on a journey through the desert with a small amount of provisions. Their only son whom they take with them is very dear to them. On their journey they finish what provisions they have taken with them and the are completely exhausted by hunger. It seems that they will not complete their journey out of the desert alive.

“So they come to this conclusion: ‘What little food we has is exhausted and our difficult journey has not yet come to an end. Why do we not kill our only son who is so dear to us and when the flesh is dry we can salt it and eat it? Thus we shall have the strength to make our way out of the desert and all of us will not die.’

“Thus it was, monks, that the parents killed their only son who was so dear to them. They ate the dried flesh seasoned with salt and so managed to accomplish their journey, but when they had eaten the flesh they beat their chests and cried: ‘Where is our only son, our dear son?’

“What do you think, monks? Was it for amusement or enjoyment
that they took this food? Was it out of indulgence? Was it
to comfort themselves or escape from themselves?”

“No, respected teacher.”

“Did they take that food to help them make their way out of the desert?”

“Yes, respected teacher,”

“I suggest that you regard edible food in this way.

“When you have right understanding concerning the food
you eat you also have right understanding concerning the five
kinds of desire. When there is right understanding concerning
the five desires, there are no longer the internal formations, which
bind the practitioner and lead to rebirth in the desire realm.

“How could we describe the nourishment of sense impression?

“It can be described like this. Suppose there is a cow who has lost most of its hide. When the cow leans against an earthen wall, all the little creatures who inhabit the wall come and eat the flesh of the cow. The same happens when the cow leans against a tree. If the cow were to step into water, all the little creatures who lived in the water would come and suck the blood of the cow, and if the cow were exposed to the air all the creatures in the air would come and feed off the cow.

“This is way I propose you regard the food of sense impression. When you understand the food of sense impression. When you understand the three kinds of feeling correctly. When the noble practitioner understands the three kinds of feeling, there is nothing higher she needs to do.

“How would we describe the nourishment of volition?

“lt is like this, monks. Suppose there were a pit of burning charcoal as deep as a man is tall, filled with smokeless, red-hot charcoal. A man is standing near the pit. He is someone who wants to live and never wants to die. He longs for happiness and never wants to experience ill-being. There are two strong men take hold of his arms and drag him to the pit. At that time his greatest wish, his greatest intention and aspiration is to be far from the pit. He knows very well that if he were to fall into the pit it would mean death for him: there could only be death and pain.

“In this way, monks, I suggest you should regard the food of volition. When the nourishment of volition is rightly understood, . the three cravings are rightly understood. When the three cravings are rightly understood, there is nothing higher the noble practitioner needs to do.

“How could we describe the food of consciousness?

“It is like this. Suppose someone who is guilty of a serious crime is arrested and brought before the king. The people say: ‘This man is guilty of a very serious crime. Your majesty may inflict whatever punishment your majesty wishes.’

“Concerning the appropriate punishment the king replies: ‘In the morning take him out and stab him with one hundred knives.’

“In the morning they take him out and stab him with one
hundred knives. At noon the king may say: ‘What has happened
to that man?’

‘He is still alive, your majesty.’

‘Then you should stab him with one hundred knives in the middle of the day.’

“In the middle of the day they take him out and stab him with one hundred knives. In the evening the king asks: ‘What has happened to that man?’

‘He is still alive, your majesty.’

‘Then you should stab him with one hundred knives in the evening.’

“So in the evening he is stabbed with one hundred knives.

“What do you think, monks? Would that man, who, in one day, was subject to being stabbed three times by one hundred knives, experience great pain and anguish?’

“Respected teacher, to be stabbed once by one hundred knives is ground enough for great suffering and anguish, not to speak of three times.”

“In this way I propose, monks, we should regard the food of consciousness. When the nourishment of consciousness is rightly understood, name and form are rightly understood. When name and form are rightly understood, there is nothing higher the noble disciple needs to do.”

At this time there may be no more pertinent Buddhist text for the people of the U.S. than the discourse on the son’s flesh. It is a sutra about what we consume every day and the consequences to ourselves and others of that consumption. Thay Nhat Hanh repeatedly referred to this sutra in talks given to the North American people after the disasters of September 11th. Thay has suggested that we compile a book from his teachings on this sutra.

The Buddha said that everything depends on food for its existence and if we can understand the nature of the food which nourishes a phenomenon, then we are already on the path of emancipation. The phenomena which we need to understand above all in our present situation are anger and violence. The four kinds of food , which the Buddha talks about here all have a part in feeding anger and violence.

The Son’s Flesh Sutra is found in both the Pali and the Chinese canons of Buddhist sacred texts. In the Pali canon it is found in the second volume of the Samyutta Nikaya in the Nidanavagga. This translation is of the text found in the Pali Canon. In some places where the references are not applicable to our own times, it has been updated.

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Sister Annabel Laity (Sister True Virtue) is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. She is also the senior editor of The Mindfulness Bell.

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Poem: Container of Compassion

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my teacher once asked me,
how can we package compassion,
wrap it up in a small parcel
to sell at the local grocery store?

carefully, I looked at the tree before me,
are you a package of compassion?
she stood silently,
leaving no room for doubt.

this morning, sitting,
the sky growing light,
i set my mind on compassion.
can my mind be a container of compassion?
a parcel of loving kindness?
can my breath be a solid, tangible
manifestation of compassion?

quietly i sat
allowing the mind of love and understanding
fill me, nourish me
the love of my teacher
the love of the air
the understanding that embraces a sister i struggle with,
an offering of peace.

my mind journeys to a recent day,
walking along the road leading to
the cliffs and ocean below.
with each person i pass,
i allow my heart to open lightly
some look easily, friendly
we say, “hi”
others caught in their thinking
not available to look each other
briefly in the face.

the dance of moving closer,
looking down, up, over
then allowing our eyes to meet
a warming of our faces, a half smile
sometimes a bow
and i pause, my two feet next to each other
giving space to our greeting
heads lowered, then a brief smile
eyes touch and we continue our paths.

can we walk all through the day,
the evening and the night
and allow our fresh hearts to greet each living being?

and as we greet the people, animals, plants and minerals
along our path, above and below
shall we also meet the subtle beings,
the mental beings –
our thoughts, our feelings,
our perceptions and our consciousness
with kindness, with warmth, and equanimity

and perhaps we may become containers of compassion,
parcels of light for each other.

sister steadiness, 2001

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Dharma Talk: The Horse Is Technology

By Thich Nhat Hanh

November 10, 2013
Plum Village

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Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is the 10th of November, 2013, and we are in the Still Water Meditation Hall of the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village. The Winter Retreat will start in five days and will last ninety days. The Winter Retreat is the most beautiful retreat in Plum Village because we can go deep into the teaching, and we have plenty of time to build brotherhood and sisterhood and transform ourselves.

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During this Winter Retreat we should stay in the compound of Plum Village, in the Sangha. We do not have permission to go out, even with the Internet. So there will be no individual email addresses and no Facebook. Facebook is neither good nor evil, but how you use it can bring more negative things than positive and can waste a lot of time. With Facebook, we are looking for something outside of us, and we do not have time to go back to ourselves and to take care of ourselves. So there will be absolutely no Facebook during this retreat. If you have anything that is not the Dharma, including iPod, iTouch, iTablet, films, and music, you have to throw it out.

Teaching at Google

On the 23rd of October, we spent the day at Google. We were in three groups at different locations, with Thay in one group and sixty monastics spread through the groups. Thay’s talk was seen and heard by everyone simultaneously.

We began with breakfast, and then at 8:30 we gave instructions on walking meditation. The people in the Google complex––they call it Googleplex––did walking meditation very seriously. At one point during the walking, we sat down, and Thay invited the small bell three times and had a cup of tea. Those who came late saw the calm atmosphere; it was very rare.

Then a Google representative delivered a welcome speech, and Thay gave a talk followed by a session of questions and answers. Thay offered a guided meditation that was used the next day at a plenary session broadcast worldwide. There were gifts exchanged, and at noon after sharing instructions on how to eat mindfully, Thay ate lunch with everyone. At 1:45, Sister Chan Khong led a session of total relaxation. At 3:00, Thay and some of the monastics met with senior Google executives, including a number of engineers. We had a long and deep discussion on how to make good use of technology in order to help people suffer less.

Google offered the theme, “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” They wanted to know the interplay between intention, insight, and innovation, not only in terms of work, but also in all aspects of life. The basic question was: How can technology become a force for integration rather than destruction? Because so far, it is a force of destruction; it’s pulling us away from each other.

Before we went to Google, a number of monastics wrote to Thay, describing the situation there and suggesting some questions to address. The first question was, “How can we innovate in order to take good care of ourselves?” Second, “How can we take care of the health of our workforce and take care of Mother Earth?” There is enlightenment in this question: it shows that they see the negative aspects of technology. They have found that emotional health is decreasing and distress is increasing in the Google workforce. They want some teaching and practice to deal with that situation.

Another question was, “Given the high rate of burnout, is there a way that we as a corporation can assist employees to create a better work-life balance?” Many Googlers are addicted to their work, they have a hard time detaching from it, and it can take over their lives. Maybe each of us feels that way also. We are being taken over by our work, and we do not have the time and the capacity to live our life deeply. Life is a gift, and we are not able to enjoy it, to make the best of that gift.

Strangely, there is an eagerness to find a technological solution to technology addiction. There is a disease called technology addiction, and yet you want to use technology to heal. Can we heal drug addiction with drugs? Can we heal anger with anger? Can we heal violence with violence? That is a contradiction.

So that is the First Noble Truth, not only for Buddhists, but for everyone. We have to contemplate the First Noble Truth of ill-being. Technology is destructive. Technology is taking our time away. We do not have the time to take care of ourselves, our families, and nature. Our civilization is going in a wrong direction.

This question is the beginning of a kind of awakening. We recognize the ill-being, and we want to transform it. We are looking for the way, the path, to heal that ill-being. That is the Fourth Noble Truth: the noble path leading to the transformation of ill-being.

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Where Are We Going?

There is a Zen story about a person sitting on a horse, galloping very quickly. At a crossroads, a friend of his shouts, “Where are you going?” The man says, “I don’t know, ask the horse!”

This is our situation. The horse is technology. It carries us and we cannot control it. So we have to begin with intention, asking ourselves, what do we want? The unofficial slogan of Google is “Don’t be evil.” Can you make a lot of money without being evil? That’s what they try to do, but so far, not very successfully. You want to be wealthy. You want to be Number One, but that costs you your life, because you are carried away by work.

Searching for information on your computer becomes a way to distract you from your problems. In this way we run away from ourselves, from our family, from our Mother Earth. As a civilization, we are going in the wrong direction. Even if you don’t kill or rob anyone, you are losing your life. If you do not have time to take care of your family and nature, making money that way costs you your life, your happiness, and the life and happiness of your beloved ones and Mother Earth. So that way of making money is evil. But is there a way to make money without being evil?

People have suffering within themselves: loneliness, despair, anger, fear. Most people are afraid of going home to take care of themselves, because they think they will be overwhelmed by the suffering inside. Instead, we try to run away from ourselves or to cover up the suffering inside by consuming. Technology is helping us to do this, so in this way technology is evil.

The horse is supposed to carry us to a good destination, as is technology. But, so far, technology has mostly helped us to run away from ourselves at the cost of our own life and happiness, and the happiness of our beloved ones and the beauty of Mother Earth. So you cannot say that we are not evil, because while realizing your dream of being wealthy, you sacrifice your life, you sacrifice the happiness of your beloved ones, and you cause damage to Mother Earth. So it’s not so easy not to be evil.

But if technology can help you to go home to yourself and take care of your anger, take care of your despair, take care of your loneliness, if technology helps you to create joyful feelings, happy feelings for yourself and for your beloved ones, it’s going in a good way and you can make good use of technology. When you are happy, when you have time for yourself and your beloved ones, maybe you can be more successful in your business. Perhaps you will make more money if you are really happy, if you have good emotional health, if you reduce the amount of stress and despair within yourself.

The Four Nutriments

During his talk at Google, Thay spoke about the four nutriments. In Buddhist psychology there are five universal mental formations: contact, sparsa; attention, manaskara; feelings, vedana; perception, samjna; volition, cetana. They are always present, expressing themselves in our consciousness. The first one is contact, and the last one is volition. These two mental formations are considered to be the kind of food we don’t consume with our mouth.

Some of us use technology to consume in order to forget the suffering in us, in the same way that we sometimes use edible food. When we are lonely or fearful, we search in the refrigerator for something to eat, not because we need it, but we want to forget the suffering in us. Many of us are addicted to eating and become fat and suffer from many kinds of diseases, just because of this kind of consuming. Edible food is the first of the four nutriments.

The second nutriment the Buddha taught was sensory impressions. We pick up a book to read, hoping to have a sensation. We go to the Internet, looking for pictures and songs and music to have a certain feeling. When you listen to music or read a book or newspaper out of routine, you are doing it so you won’t encounter yourself. Many of us are afraid of going home to ourselves, because we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside of us. So we look for sensory impressions to consume. Technology, the Internet, is helping us to do this.

Many young people do this. A teenager confessed to us in a retreat that he spends at least eight hours each day with electronic games, and he cannot stop. At first he was playing games to forget, and now he’s addicted to it. In real life he does not feel any love or understanding in his family, school, or society. Many young people are trying to fill up the loneliness, the emptiness inside, by looking for sensory impressions. That is the second source of nutriment.

Now, as a Buddhist monk or nun, are we doing the same? If you go to the Internet and download a film and a song to enjoy, then you are doing the same. You have to do what the Buddha taught you to do: learn to go home to yourself without fear. Breathe and walk to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and insight, and go home and take care of the loneliness inside. We do not have time to look for sensory impressions to fill up the vacuum in us. If we do that, we are not really monastics, we are acting just like the people in the world. That is why in this Winter Retreat, we have to practice letting go from our own choice, not because Thay tells us to do it. We do it because there is an enlightenment, there is an awakening in this way of living, and you can help people in the world by choosing to live differently. We have to learn to go home to ourselves and take care of the suffering inside and get the peace, the joy that we need, so that we can help people.

That is why having no email address, no Internet, no Facebook, is not something that makes you suffer, but helps you to become a real practitioner. If you do it, if you wake up to that kind of truth, you will do it with joy, not with a sense of deprivation. There are many people who check their email several times a day and find nothing new. Because you are empty inside, you are looking for something new. You have to learn to generate something really new: a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness. That is possible with the practice of mindfulness.

What Is Your Intention?

Volition is the third nutriment, another source of food. Volition is intention. What do you want to do with your life? That is the question. Of course, you have the right to look for material and affective comforts, but that is not your deepest desire. Do you have an ultimate concern? Do you know the meaning of your life? That can be a tremendous source of energy.

If your volition is only to make money, to become the number one corporation, that’s not enough, because there are those who have a lot of money, a lot of power, and yet they are not happy. They feel quite lonely and they don’t have time to live their life. Nobody understands them and they don’t understand anyone. Happiness is not there because there is no understanding or love.

So your volition is not to have a lot of money, to have social recognition, to have a lot of power or fame. What you really want may be something more. Maybe you want to reverse the direction of civilization. You want to help people know how to handle the suffering in themselves, how to heal and transform, how to generate joy and happiness, how to live deeply every moment of their life, so that they can help their beloved ones to do the same and help the Earth to restore her beauty. That is a good desire, a good nutriment. As a corporate leader, if you have that kind of energy, you will become very strong. That is the first item they wanted Thay to speak about at Google: the intention, the motivation that pushes us to do what we are doing.

The Buddha had a strong desire to transform himself, to have the freedom and compassion to help people suffer less. That is a good desire; that is good food. Animated by that kind of energy, he spent forty-five years teaching and helping all kinds of people. He had very strong energy.

So those of us who have a good source of the nutriment of volition can be very happy. To generate understanding and compassion, to be truly happy and to be able to help many people: that is good volition, good intention. If a corporate leader has that kind of bodhicitta, he can reverse the trend of civilization. He can be himself, he can control the horse, and he can make good use of technology.

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With a knife, you can chop vegetables and peel potatoes. The knife is a helpful tool. But a terrorist can use a knife to kill people also. Technology is like that. If you have compassion and insight, you can come up with innovations that make good use of technology, that will help you and others go home to themselves, take care of themselves and their beloved ones.

The fourth nutriment is consciousness. Your individual consciousness is a source of food. There are many good things in your consciousness: you have the capacity to love, to forgive, to understand, to be compassionate. You need to know how to cultivate these elements in your consciousness. We all have the seed of compassion in us. If we know how to water the seed of compassion every day, it will grow. Every time we touch the seed of compassion, it becomes a mental formation, and with compassion alive in you, you don’t suffer anymore. That is good food.

But compassion is not the only good food you have. You have the seeds of joy, of happiness, of tenderness, of forgiveness, of nondiscrimination––many good things in yourself. You have to learn to cultivate more of these elements so that you have good food to nourish you and make the people you love happy. In you, there are also negative seeds, like a seed of anger, a seed of despair, a seed of loneliness. If you consume in a way that waters these negative seeds, then when you read a newspaper or play an electronic game or have a conversation, anger, despair, jealousy may arise in you, and you cultivate food that is not healthy for you.

As a gardener, you grow things that are good for you to consume. We know that there are plants that can make us sick, like poison oak, so we don’t cultivate those. That is true with anger, despair, violence, discrimination. These are not good food.

All of us have the seeds of these negative things in us. The collective consciousness is also food. There are neighborhoods now full of violence, fear, anger, and despair. If you happen to live in that neighborhood, you consume the collective energy of anger and fear. You don’t want to be angry and fearful and violent like them, but if you continue to stay there for a few years, you consume that collective energy and you become like them. That is not good food.

When you come to a retreat, you see hundreds of people who know how to breathe, how to concentrate, how to release tension, how to generate compassion. They generate a powerful collective energy of mindfulness and compassion, and you consume it. You feel the peace, you feel the joy, you feel brotherhood, and you consume it. That is good food. Collective consciousness can be good food or can be poisonous. The collective consciousness nutriment is very important.

But at Google, we spoke more about volition, because understanding volition was the most direct response to their inquiry about intention. A corporate leader should have a clear volition, a desire to help people suffer less. If you have that kind of good food, you become a happy person and you can be a good leader. A corporate leader needs to learn how to go home to himself first, to listen and understand his own suffering, to have compassion and take care of himself. Then he can help people in his family to do that and his family will be his support. And then he can try to help his associates do the same, and they will practice helping all employees in the workforce to go home and take care of themselves and their families. You can inspire them to have that kind of volition, that kind of intention, that kind of motivation. You give them the third nutriment. As leader, you might say, “Dear friends, you come here not just to have a job and to feed your family. You come here to join us in helping people to suffer less. We work in a way that helps people go back to themselves and take care of themselves. In order to do that, we have to do it for ourselves.”

Making Good Use of Technology

Some of our brothers have proposed to Facebook and Google to create a website where people can come and learn how to breathe, how to walk, how to handle a strong emotion, how to generate a feeling of joy and happiness for themselves and for other people. Facebook has promised to help make that happen. If Google has a mindfulness website, all the employees of Google can go there and learn how to take care of themselves and their families. Then they will have insight into what kind of electronic gadget or device will help us to go in that direction.

Suppose you talk to your smartphone. “Dear friend, I suffer. What shall I do?” And your smartphone says, “Oh! The first thing you have to do is to breathe in mindfully and go back to yourself.” This is the advice of a good teacher. An electronic device can tell you, “Dear friend, you are not in a good situation to do something. You have anger in you. You have to go home and take care of your anger.” When you are driving a car while falling asleep, a sensor would detect that. It might invite the bell to sound and say, “Dear friend, you are sleepy. Wake up! It’s dangerous to drive in this condition.” That is the practice of mindfulness.

The electronic devices that you invent can do that kind of work. iReminder; iReminding; iReturning. Returning to yourself. We spent two hours consulting with Google executives and engineers to find ways to make good use of technology to help people take care of themselves and suffer less.

There are many new functions they can put in telephones to help us, like the bell of mindfulness every quarter of an hour so that you remember to go back to yourself and to take care of yourself. In Plum Village, every time we hear the bell, we stop our thinking, we stop our talking, we stop our action, bringing our mind back to our body, and having the insight, “Ah, we are alive! We are present, sitting, walking on this planet, how wonderful.” You enjoy breathing in and out three times in mindfulness in order to celebrate the fact that you are still alive. When you are confused, when you are angry, you can talk to your phone, and your phone can remind you what to do and what not to do.

There was a young engineer who said, “But if we do these things, it’s like we are imposing on others what they don’t need.” Thay said that there are real needs, and there are needs that are not real. When you look for something to eat when you are not hungry, but are trying to forget the suffering in yourself, that is not a real need. If technology is trying to satisfy these kinds of needs, you are not helping people, you are only giving them the kind of sense impressions that cover up their suffering. But they have real needs, like going home to themselves and taking care of themselves, taking care of their families. That is why you have to help people to identify the real needs, and needs that are not real.

I think we planted a lot of good seeds in the minds of these Googlers. Let us see what will come after a few months.

Enjoyment Is the Practice

Thinking that work is one thing and life is another thing is dualistic thinking. For example, after you park your car in the parking lot and begin to walk to your office, you can choose between mindful walking or walking just to arrive at your office. If you know how to walk mindfully, then every step from the parking lot to your office can bring you joy and happiness. You can release the tension in your body and touch the wonders of life with every step. Walking this way is a pleasure. On the one hand, you see walking as life; on the other hand, you see walking as labor, as work.

When you wash the dishes, there’s a way to do it that helps you to enjoy every moment of dishwashing, so washing the dishes is not work, it is life. If you want to know how to wash dishes, read my book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. If you know how to mop the floor and cook your breakfast in mindfulness, it becomes life, not work. When a doctor receives a patient, it is work. But with compassion, with joy, you can transform the meeting between you, the doctor, and the patient, into a beautiful relationship, and that’s life. So life and work are not two different things.

When Thay does calligraphy, he begins every session with a cup of tea. Tea was invented by monastics in the Zen tradition who found that by drinking it, they were more awake for sitting meditation. So tea and meditation have been together for thousands of years.

Then Thay mixes some of the tea with the ink, and when he draws half a circle, he follows his in-breath. When he draws the second half of the circle, he breathes out. So there is the breathing in the circle, there’s mindfulness in the circle. From time to time he invites his own teacher to do the circle with him. In his hand is the hand of the mother, of the father, of the ancestor, of the teacher, of the Buddha. To do the circle in mindfulness, there must be the hand of the Buddha in his hand. So during that practice of drawing the circle, there is mindfulness, there is concentration and insight. This insight is made not by a self, but by a collective of selves. The Buddha is there and helps to make the circle in mindfulness.

So if you say that Thay is working hard, you are not right, because he enjoys making the circle. That is also his life and his practice. Meditation, working, and practicing become one.

In the monastic life of Plum Village, we do four things in our daily life. We study the Dharma and we practice the Dharma. Third, we work: cleaning, cooking, organizing a retreat. And fourth, we play: having tea with each other, playing basketball, and things like that. These are the four aspects of monastic life.

These four aspects inter-are. You do not enjoy only the time of playing, because the time of playing is also learning, is also building brotherhood, sisterhood, and cultivating health. Enjoyment is the practice. So within the playing is the studying, the practice, and the work.

We learn and practice in a way that cultivates joy. We can do walking meditation and sitting meditation the same way we play a game. It can be very joyful, just sitting together and doing nothing, or walking together. When you listen to a Dharma talk, allow the seeds of joy in you to be watered. It’s not good practice if you suffer.

When we organize a retreat or a Day of Mindfulness, we do it with compassion. We have a chance to serve, and that gives us a lot of joy. That’s not work, that is practice. When people come and practice, we practice with them. So there is no distinction between working and living and practicing.

That is the meaning of monastic life. The four aspects of life: learning, practicing, working, and playing. Each of the four has the three others inside it. As a lay practitioner, you can do the same. That is why you have to transcend dualistic thinking about work and life. We have to train ourselves to do our work in such a way that every moment of work is a moment of life.

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.

First Retreat for Scientists

By Gratia Meyer, Ph.D.

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The six-day Retreat for Scientists in the Field of Consciousness brought scientists and practitioners to Plum Village from around the world, speaking many languages. About one hundred of the attendees represented various fields of study, from neurophysiology to psychotherapy.

They had one common goal: to learn more about the link between neuroscience and meditation.

Speaking to the seven hundred participants, Thich Nhat Hanh carefully and skillfully broke down the meaning of the Verses on the Characteristics of Eight Consciousnesses by Master Hsüan Tsang.

In this retreat I sat on the cushion as a professional in the field of neuropsychobiological development from conception to death. As I listened to Thây’s dharma talks, his teachings penetrated and integrated with my scientific expertise.

In the past thirty-five years, I have never experienced such clarity and understanding of how neuroscience and mindfulness inter-are. This retreat allowed me to synthesize Thây’s skillful teachings with my research and clinical application. His talk on modes of cognition, objects of cognition, and moral natures of cognition complemented the three developmental domains of reasoning, attachment, and moral development that I have been researching. In my work I am using this research to create an assessment tool to help alleviate and prevent suffering.

On the last day of the retreat, listening to Thây’s final dharma talk, I could not sit still as the seed of understanding germinated and began to blossom. Here is what I heard: We and our physical world are interconnected with an inconceivably vast system of realms. We exist in different dimensions at any given moment. We also interpenetrate and interact in such a way that each action reflects or projects itself onto the realm below or above, with all of the modifications, changes, and distortions that are a direct result of such interaction.

The ancient Chinese philosophers described the eighth consciousiness, store consciousness, as a young lady who is pregnant with a child. Her job is storing, keeping, preserving, and being the totality of seeds. There also is the husband of the vessel, the father of the baby. He feels he owns the vessel, and therefore she loses her freedom. She is being possessed by the seventh consciousness, manas, which is called the lover, procreating and grasping love through mental representations and illusions. The practice of meditation and concentration is to free the eighth consciousness and to reclaim the great wisdom at the of root of all interbeing.

This truly is transformation at the base.

Gratia L. Meyer, Ph.D., Ancient Purpose of the Heart, a clinical psychologist and developmental neuropsychology researcher, is a member of Eyes of Compassion Sangha in Denver, Colorado.

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Where Is the Observer?

By Svein Myreng

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When I was a student, almost thirty years ago, I went through a time of despair. Meeting scientifid and existentialist thinking wiped out the religious belief I once had. I found myself in a meaningless universe of dead matter, where consciousness and life seemed to be just a coincidence. This triggered a great fear of death in me, and engendered heavy questions about the meaning of life.

The first crack in my faith in science came when I listened to a lecture by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had received the Nobel Prize in Literature just a few years earlier (in 1978). With his background in traditional Judaic culture, Singer’s writing is a beautiful door to deeper mysteries in life. He argued eloquently that science cannot give all the answers, and in fact, we humans know very little. Holding up his fountain pen, he said, ”If this pen is the whole of reality, our knowledge is only the little ball on its tip.”

Somewhat later, I came in touch with the writings of D.T. Suzuki. He described Zen as “acquiring a new point of view for looking at things,” beyond the conceptual divisions between inner and outer, self and others. Instead of proposing another set of beliefs, as I felt other religions did, Suzuki pointed the way to an entirely different way of experiencing reality. Most importantly, he suggested that you could seek this new way of experience yourself, beyond words and theories. For me, this was the start of meditative practice, which changed my life forever.

Science vs. Religion

My meeting with Singer and my encounter with Zen enabled me slowly to break out of the straitjacket of scientific thinking as I knew it at the time — almost entirely reductionistic and materialistic. Science has shaped the lives of everybody in the affluent world to a larger extent than we tend to realize — through technologies that have made life much more comfortable, advances in medicine, and so on. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s in Norway, the belief was strong that science would soon replace religion completely, making the world’s faiths a thing of the past.

Therefore, it’s interesting that new discoveries in science seem to validate meditation and similar practices, which many scientists scoffed at not that long ago. From what I understand, studies have confirmed that there is a clear connection between meditation and higher activity in areas of the brain connected to happiness and well-being, and that meditation can actually change the physiology of the brain — something which goes completely against scientific belief of just a decade or two ago. As science has developed more powerful tools for investigating brain activity, it can find correlates between certain activities in the brain and certain sense activities, emotions, and so on.

Still, there seems to be some scientific arrogance when it comes to valid and invalid ways of finding knowledge. I couldn’t help chuckling a bit when I read the following quote from one scientist commenting on the happiness research: “We have all seen those Buddhists, who seem to be so relaxed and happy. Now, we actually know that they are relaxed and happy.” Apparently, happiness is not a fact before it shows up on a brain scan.

When I look at a little blue flower, though, I see a blue flower and not electrons jumping around in my brain. For the time being, there seems to be no place for my personal experience in brain research. To quote B. Alan Wallace, a scientist and a long-time student of H.H. the Dalai Lama: “Strictly speaking, at present there is no scientific evidence even for the existence of consciousness! All the direct evidence we have consists of nonscientific, first-person accounts of being conscious.”(1)

Looking at the Mind

A denial of the subjective seems to come from the old ideal in science that the observer should be as separate from the object of study as possible, with only the object side of the subject-object relationship falling within the scientific field of knowledge. This has allowed science to understand the “outer” world to a tremendously larger degree than ever before in the history of humankind, but leaves it far behind in understanding the mind.

These sharp subject-object distinctions have, however, been challenged in fields as different as quantum physics and the social sciences, where the role of the observer has turned out to be crucial. In the study of consciousness, which cannot be measured as a “thing in the world,” the subject’s perspective is even more important. This is where the great contemplative traditions enter.

An important part of what a long-term (or not so long-term) meditation practice teaches us is to look at functions of the mind in ever more subtle ways. Thoughts come and go, feelings constantly change; even the subtle impulses that come before we move a hand or foot can be seen clearly when the mind is still. We can notice how a sense perception arises when an impression, for example a sound or a bodily sensation, comes together with a sense organ, for example our ability to hear or to sense with our body.

All thoughts, feelings, impulses, sounds, forms, smells, etc. can be objects of our consciousness, but can the subject become an object? Where is the subject? What does it mean that I experience something? Where is the mind located? In an appendix to The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh quotes Shantideva’s Siksasamuccaya:

“Mind cannot be apprehended, inside, or outside, or in between both. For mind is immaterial, invisible, non-resisting, inconceivable, unsupported, and homeless. Mind has never been seen by any of the Buddhas, nor do they see it, nor will they see it.… ‘where there is an object, there mind arises.’ Is then the mind one thing, and the object another? No, what is the object, just that is the mind. If the object were one thing, and the mind another, then there would be a double state of mind.”(2)

This quote, which has fascinated me for years, does not deal with philosophy. It is about something that is observable. My own meditation practice is not yet strong enough to go as deeply as I would like into its implications. Still, I can offer a few glimpses.

Manas at Work

When we take for granted that there is a me, an observer separate from what is observed, we aren’t looking closely enough. The impression of the distinct observer may be due to other sense impressions located in the body, or to the incessant, semi-conscious thinking that says “I am like this, this is me, this is mine.” (Manas in the vijñanavada model of consciousness.) As an example, if you have a sense impression of a tingling in your foot, do you actually experience it in your foot, or in your head? How does thought make it “my foot tingling”?

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The belief that consciousness has its origin in the brain may support the illusion of the independent observer. Thây strongly challenges this view: “We shouldn’t say that consciousness is born from the brain, because the opposite is true: the brain is born from consciousness.”(3)

In my youth, I felt separate from other people, almost as if separated by a glass wall. This was probably a rather extreme feeling, and it was very unpleasant. Only a subtle separation between observer and observed, however, is enough to rob us of the greatest joy in life. Even if the barrier between me and my surroundings is ever so subtle, it’s still a barrier. When the barrier disappears, if only for a short time, the world appears completely different — sacred, beautiful. As layman P’ang in old China said, “Wonderful snowflakes, each one falls in the perfect place.”

  1. B. Alan Wallace, The Taboo of Subjectivity (California: Oxford University Press, 2000), page 3.
  2. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975). The Siksasamuccaya is translated by Edward Conze; I have exchanged “mind” for Conze’s “thought.”
  3. Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Four Layers of Consciousness” in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Summer

Svein Myreng, True Door, is a senior dharma teacher who lives in Oslo, Norway and practices with the Sangha of Floating Clouds. He thanks his wife and kalyanamitra (spiritual friend), Eevi Beck, for help with this article.

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On Karma

By Barbara Casey

mb44-OnKarma1For over six years Barbara corresponded with a prison inmate named Claude. He had been convicted of aggravated assault, which means that he did someone serious harm. In a letter to her, Claude asked Barbara for insight about karma, and she asked some dharma teachers to respond as well.

Barbara, there is something that I’ve been wanting to ask you concerning Buddhist teachings and I find this to be a good time to do so. I just hope that you’ll not think my question somewhat ignorant.

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According to karma, as I understand it, if a person is unruly during his lifetime he’ll suffer as a result in some future life. It is my understanding that if someone causes a horrible death to another human being, he’ll also experience a similar death sometime in his future. My question is, if this is true, and I’m not sure that it is, if this person who committed the horrible crime is to experience something of the same, how is it to come about? In other words, and I use myself as an example, let us say that I committed the horrible deed and am supposed to experience the same. Is the person who causes me to experience the same type of death held responsible for doing so?

— Claude

Dear Claude,

It really touched me when I read your question about karma. First of all, I have to say that I don’t think there is such a thing as an ignorant question – I think that ignorance only happens when someone has a question but doesn’t ask.

I don’t think that karma works simplistically; that is, if you do something, the same thing comes back to you in the same form. I think it is more a matter of energy and intention and resources. For instance, if your training from childhood is to use violence when conflict arises, then it is logical that what will happen in your life is violence. So what we have to do is to train our minds first of all, and from our thoughts come our speech and our actions. Thây has said that choosing to live peacefully is a radical act. We have to re-train ourselves almost completely, letting go of self-protective mechanisms that are genetically bred in us. It’s a big job! Every time we take a breath or a step in mindfulness, we are changing. Every time we choose to let go instead of react in anger or ill will or revenge, we are changing that pattern. So we don’t just do it for ourselves, we do it for all of humanity.

I remember hearing of a Vietnam veteran who was overtaken by guilt because he killed five children during the war, killed them in a horrible way, because the Viet Cong of that village had killed his buddies. Thây told him: you killed five children, yes, that is very bad. However, you can choose to live the rest of your life in guilt about that, or you can choose to help children for the rest of your life. Now that former soldier has helped thousands of children throughout the world.

I know when I do something I regret, there is a strong determination in me not to do it again, and that energy helps me to move toward the good. A very small example is one time I was at a retreat, and I was so tired of standing in line that instead of waiting to wash my dishes after a meal, I just left them on the table. I felt really bad about it, and from that shame grew determination. I spent the rest of the retreat picking up dirty dishes that other people had left around; they were everywhere!

The definition of karma is action. Karma is not just past action, it is present action, happening right now. You create your future in this moment, and you can even change your past through determined intention for the good right now. It is always possible to heal. Thây has said that you can send a good thought out like an arrow and it catches the bad thought of the past and transforms it.

There is also the story of Angulimala. Briefly, he was a terrible fellow living in the Buddha’s time, killing for sport and wearing a necklace of thumbs to display his killing abilities. One day the Buddha was walking on alms round when Angulimala came up behind him and demanded that he stop. The Buddha kept walking. He demanded again, and the Buddha replied, “Angulimala, I have already stopped, it is you who must stop.” The Buddha went on to explain the Dharma to Angulimala, who gave up his killing and became a monk. I think this story is for all of us who regret things we have done, giving us hope that it is always possible to stop our harmful behavior and to heal and transform.

So that is a little of my experience and understanding. I also asked some dharma teacher friends to respond to your question, and here are their responses.

From Mitchell Ratner

In his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Thây notes that in the Ekottara Agama the Buddha lists four things that can neither be conceived nor explained, one of which is the notions of karma and consequence. So it certainly wasn’t an ignorant question!

During the Feet of the Buddha retreat [2004], Thây said some wonderful things about karma. We are always producing it through our speech, thought, and deeds. In the present moment we can always transform the karma that comes to us.

My notes from the June 20 question and answer session include the following exchange. Thây’s full answer was wonderful; I will give you a summary in my own words.

Question: How do we deal with regrets at the end of our lives?

We all make mistakes, especially when we are young. With mindfulness we can recognize the unskillful things we have said and done. The ground of the action was our mind. Now in the present moment we can do something to neutralize the bad karma. Developing the willingness to act, to continue, in a beautiful way can be done every day.

Suppose you said something not nice to your mother, and now your mother is dead, but the wound is still there. You must recognize the wound in you. Say, “Sorry mother, I am determined not to do it again.” Your mother inside you will hear that. [Claude, this is something you can do every day, to the person you wounded.]

The past is still there, disguised as the present moment. The moment you are determined not to do it again in the future, the wound is healed. A new life is in front of you.

While past actions did create karma, present actions create karma as well. It is possible to transform the ‘bad karma’ through our present actions. What is important to understand, I believe, is:

  1. what you did,
  2. why you did it,
  3. what were the consequences for others and yourself, and
  4. how to develop an inner determination not to cause that type of harm

From Jerry Braza

In my personal experience working with inmates within the Oregon State Prison system, your question regarding karma is a common one. I have had many inmates reflect deeply on the possible impact of karma in the suffering surrounding incarceration. In my own reflection on this topic, I have gleaned some insights from several Buddhist teachers, including our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has experience with the prison population.

One of the more prominent teachers working with inmates is Bo Lozoff, the creator of both the Prison-Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation. His foundations offer numerous books and resources at no charge to inmates. The beauty of Bo’s writings is that he makes complex principles more “user-friendly” for those in the prison system.

In his book We’re All Doing Time Bo shares: “One of the main rules we need to appreciate is called the Law of Karma. In the Bible, the way it is put is ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. The way it’s said in prison is ‘what comes around goes around’. “Every thought, word, and deed is a seed which we plant in the world. All our lives, we harvest the fruits of those seeds. If we plant desire, greed, fear, anger, and doubt, then that’s what will fill our lives. Plant love, courage, understanding, good humor, and that’s what we get back. This isn’t negotiable; it’s a law of energy, just like gravity.”

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Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield in his book A Path with Heart shares: “The heart is a garden, and along with each action there is an intention that is planted like a seed. We can use a sharp knife to cut someone, and if our intention is to do harm, we will be a murderer. We can perform an almost identical action, but if we are a surgeon, the intention is to heal and save a life. The action is the same, yet depending on its purpose or intention, it can be either a terrible act or a compassionate act.”

The Buddhist teachings regarding karma are encapsulated in Thây’s teachings, and in understanding karma it may be helpful to review the concept of consciousness. According to Buddhist psychology, we all have a mind consciousness and a store consciousness. Our store consciousness includes everything that we have experienced during our life, metaphorically stored in the form of seeds (it also contains the seeds from the lives of our ancestors). Positive and negative seeds are planted through the thoughts and actions of our past. Our mind consciousness contains the present activity of the mind. Our mind and store consciousness are like gardens where we have activated, planted, and watered the seeds of our feelings and experiences.

The practice of mindfulness helps us look deeply to know which seeds to water and how to transform the negative seeds that arise in the mind consciousness. Our practice reminds us that every moment offers us an opportunity to be aware of how our thoughts, feeling, perceptions, and mental formations are constantly affecting our actions and subsequent karma.

We all have accumulated negative seeds in our consciousness. For example, if a person has been emotionally abused in the past, the seeds of anger, sadness, and grief may be buried in their consciousness. When these seeds are activated intentionally (in meditation) or unintentionally in daily interactions, we have the opportunity to transform this suffering through various gathas such as “breathing in I am aware of my anger, breathing out I embrace my anger.” Mindfulness and concentration make it easier to transform the negative seeds so they are not passed on through further actions that can contribute to negative karma.

Thây’s concept of “interbeing” helps us to understand the significance that each one of us has on the lives of others. Aware that we are connected to all beings including animals, plants, and minerals, it seems clear that every action has the potential of affecting the lives of many others. If our thoughts are negative, these seeds are watered and most likely behaviors and actions will follow and karma continues.

Finally, in a public talk in Vietnam last year, I recall Thây offered a beautiful way to personalize and realize the impact of karma in our life. To paraphrase, “Every one of our actions is like putting our signature on everything we do.” This makes every day, every moment, every thought, feeling, perception, and mental formation significant. This is so easily forgotten in the busyness of life. Our practice offers us a powerful means to live our lives in ways that have the potential to break the karmic cycle.

The Path of Transformation

So Claude, these are some insights on karma.

I hope this helps. Claude, over the past six years (has it been that long?) what I have seen in you is a sincere, good, and dedicated individual – dedicated to transforming yourself and to helping others. This is excellent karma! I know that if I let my anger take over, I feel really bad afterwards and sometimes I feel like I have done damage I cannot heal, but then I take faith in the Dharma, and I know that this is a long path we’re on, this path of transformation. We are graced with some small insight, which leads us in the right direction, and that is all we need. We don’t need to judge where we are, we just take the next step in mindfulness, the next breath in freedom, and we’re already there.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the former editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

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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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