Unconditional Acceptance

An Interview with Joanne Friday 

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mb62-Unconditional2Joanne Friday is a Dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing. In 2003, she received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh, her teacher for twenty years. Joanne leads meditation retreats for Sanghas and groups throughout the Northeastern

U.S. She lives in Rhode Island, where she is the guiding teacher for the six Sanghas that comprise the Rhode Island Community of Mindfulness. She is also an Associate Chaplain at the University of Rhode Island. Joanne was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on October 11, 2012 for this issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

 

Mindfulness Bell: October 11, is Thay’s Continuation Day. How do you see his continuation in yourself?

Joanne Friday: My ordination as a Dharma teacher was a clear example of how I see transmission and continuation. I had no thoughts of ever being a Dharma Teacher; it never had entered my mind. One day I received a letter from Plum Village inviting me to receive Lamp Transmission. After opening the letter, I went through feeling completely unworthy, and I thought, “Oh, they’ve made a mistake—my name was switched with some other person.” I really was stunned. After two minutes or so, it was as if I was struck by a bolt of lightning and I thought, “This has nothing to do with you.”

Since my first encounter with Thay, I have felt him to be very alive in every cell of my body. And the transmissions from my parents, from everybody who’s ever loved me, everybody who’s ever cared for me, all of them are alive in every cell in my body. So to say that is not good enough is an insult to all of them. This was not about my little egocentric self; it had nothing to do with me.

To prepare for the ceremony, my normal habit energy would have been to try to come up with the perfect Dharma talk, and have everybody think I knew everything about the Dharma. Instead, I could not even think about it and I had not one ounce of anxiety in those three months before the Lamp Transmission. At that time, as part of the ceremony, each new Dharma teacher gave a short talk after their ordination. Walking to take my seat, I still had no idea what I would talk about, and yet I felt nothing but pure joy, and I thought, “I wonder what I’m going to say.” So I told them the story I am telling you.

I said, “Thay gives a beautiful teaching on no-birth, no-death, using a sheet of paper. I received another deep teaching on non-self from a sheet of paper. I got this letter asking me to be here and this was my experience—I realized it is all about my non-self elements; it has nothing to do with me. It’s been so much fun; it feels so free. This is really amazing. I have almost no self-confidence, but I have total confidence in my non-self elements; clearly I do because I haven’t been the least bit anxious, and so I think I am experiencing non-self confidence.” And Thay was laughing and everyone was laughing.

And that has been the truth ever since. If I get invited to share the Dharma, I do my best to stay out of it. My goal in sharing the Dharma is to transmit what was transmitted to me and leave my little self out of it. And I don’t get tired. If my ego starts getting involved, I get tired, and so it is a good indicator that I need to go do some walking meditation and get out of the way.

MB: I went to your Day of Mindfulness in Portola Valley, California. I remember that you talked about your own life and challenges you’ve had. You are transmitting what you’ve learned and you’re getting out of your own way, and yet you are talking about your own life. I’m wondering about the balance between those two.

JF: I don’t think any of us experience things that are unique to us. When we experience suffering, the story line may be different for each of us, but suffering is suffering and that is universal. I think that’s where we can really understand interbeing. I share my own experience because the Buddha said to trust your wisdom, trust your experience. When I speak from my own experience, I can speak with conviction, because it’s true for me. Hopefully it will be something that others can put to use, too. My interest in Buddhism is how we apply the practices that the Buddha gave us to the suffering we encounter in our daily life, to transform it and become free.

Gentle Diligence

MB: Would you be willing to give an example from your own life of how you have used the practice to get free?

JF: Probably the most profound example was getting a diagnosis of cancer. My mother was dying at the time and she had been in the hospital. I had just signed her over into hospice care, and I went downstairs to the waiting room and got a call saying I had cancer. I remember feeling as if ice water were running over my body. Real fear. But within a minute, I breathed, I sent metta to myself, and then the question came to my mind: “Are you sure?” As soon as I asked the question, I felt peace, because I realized, “I have no idea. It could be almost nothing; it could be death. I don’t know.” So for me to get all wound up about it would really not make sense. I realized, “I need to find out, and that’s it. And right now, I need to be present for my mother in the hospital.”

The first thing was breathing. The breath was right there as the default position. The second was metta. I have practiced metta for twenty years, so it was right there. And then to ask, “Are you sure?” That takes me right to nonattachment to view and “don’t know mind.” And in “don’t know mind,” there’s every possibility. It’s such a wonderful place.

And then I thought, “Wow, I’ve been practicing the Five Remembrances* for years.” I have been aware of impermanence, but never as aware as when I got that phone call. The next thing that came to mind was: “If you have limited minutes to be on the planet”—later I thought it was really comical to think in terms of “if ” —“how many of them do you want to spend in fear and speculation?” And the answer was, “Zero.”

So that, to me, is a clear and concise example of how the practice can be applied in daily life. And the most beautiful thing to me was, going through a year of cancer treatment, I probably didn’t spend more than maybe a half an hour in the entire year in fear and speculation. I told my husband, “You know, the real tragedy wouldn’t be to die of cancer; to me, the real tragedy would be to have wasted this time.” To not have enjoyed the time I did have.

That was reinforced after the first chemotherapy infusion I had. I was treated in New York City, and as we walked out of the hospital, a bus came around the corner cutting in too close, and my husband pulled my arm and yanked me back from it. He said, “Be careful, they’re driving like crazy people.” He looked at me, I looked at him, and we just cracked up. I said, “Wouldn’t that be ironic, here we are, we’re convinced I’m going to drop dead of cancer, and instead we get hit by a cross-town bus.” [Laughs.] It was such a beautiful teaching, because we have no clue when the time will come or how it’s going to happen. Becoming more comfortable with impermanence is such a relief. It really frees us up to enjoy life.

MB: That is an incredible example. Thank you. You used all these potent tools one after the other in a very short period of time.

JF: It’s just following directions. Thay offers the practice in a very gentle way, instructing us to be gentle with ourselves, to not do violence to ourselves. At that point I had been practicing for about seventeen years, and I felt like I had a very laid-back practice. I felt like I was probably not strengthening my mind as much as I could, my practice was not as rigorous as other practices, and I was not sure if it was as solid as it needed to be. But clearly the benefits of gentle diligence over time were there because there had been absolute transformation at the base. I can usually only see progress in my practice by noticing that I am responding very differently to a situation than I would have reacted ten years earlier. In this instance, I would have been completely tied up in knots; I would have been a nervous wreck. I would have been trying to figure out what was going to happen and completely caught in fear and speculation. I know that my mind had been trained in that way.

But the training in gentle diligence, paying attention in everyday life, and taking good care of strong emotions when they come up really paid off. When attachment to views arose, it was such a gift to be able to look clearly, to not get caught in the surface of things. And to just do that over and over and over and over and over and over. If we practice like that, when the going gets tough, the practice is there for us.

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MB: That’s a beautiful example of how we can train our minds without effort, without stress.

 JF: We don’t have to create a war with ourselves. There doesn’t have to be any judgment, criticism, any of that. It’s just to notice, and to do the practice, then to notice. To strengthen our mindfulness and concentration.

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Healing the Inner Child

MB: In the book Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, you tell a wonderful story of transforming your anger to compassion by connecting with your inner three-year-old. Do you connect with your inner child on a regular basis? What have you found helpful in keeping her nourished and happy?

JF: When I went to my first retreat, I signed up for a consultation with Thay Phap An. I was brain-injured from a car accident and I was in a state of real confusion. I wanted to talk about a woman who had been very angry with me, so I said, “There’s this woman, she’s a really angry person.” And he said, “That’s not correct.” He said that whenever we assign a label to anyone or anything, it’s incorrect, because everything is impermanent. So we’re assigning a permanent status to something that is inherently impermanent. That has been a wonderful teaching; I use it all the time.

And then he went on to teach me about healing the past in the present moment and doing Beginning Anew with myself. It was such a training in the ability not to hold on to resentment and anger. And to look at myself and ask, “What is this person bringing up in me?”

I’ve been doing the practice of healing the inner child ever since. There’s hardly been a day that I haven’t used it, in one way or another. When I’m experiencing a strong emotion, I simply notice and embrace that feeling, breathe with it, and hold it. For me, just being with that feeling will usually bring a memory back of another time and place. It might have been last week or it might have been when I was three.

It inevitably takes me to times and places when I needed love and compassion and I didn’t get it. So my job is to provide that for myself. I can show that child a lot of love and compassion. My main goal in the practice is to bring the child into the present moment, to let her know the good news that she is no longer three. We’re adults now, and if people are yelling, we can leave. We don’t have to be there.

Many people do not access memories from the past when they embrace difficult emotions. If that is the case, you can breathe and send metta to yourself in the present because that child is still alive inside of you. A lot of healing can happen by doing this practice—accepting what is in the present moment and accepting ourselves unconditionally.

MB: How is your inner child today?

JF: I think that she is doing better and better, every day in every way. [Laughs.] I find there are fewer times that I need to spend a lot of time with her. Mostly now it’s a recognition, like Thay says about his anger: “Hello anger, my little friend, you’re back again.”

About fifteen years ago, my husband Richard and I were at a retreat and we were practicing noble silence. He gave me a note that said, “I called home, and so-and-so left a message. She wanted to borrow this thing of yours, so I called her back and said sure.” I was over-the-top enraged. And I was surprised at how angry I was, because I thought, “If I had retrieved the phone call, I would have called her back and said sure.” So I knew there was more to this than was meeting my eye.

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Luckily we were in noble silence, so I couldn’t say a word. I sat myself down, did my breathing, did my metta for myself, and then I invited that feeling up and what I found was [a feeling of] not being considered. When I invited the rage up in me, I was transported back to being eleven years old. At that time, I had a surrogate father. This guy who lived upstairs fell in love with me when I was a month old, and he was a blessing in my life. He showed me unconditional love and was prominent in my life until I was eleven, when he died of a heart attack.

Sitting on my cushion, when I got in touch with the rage, I was transported right back to the conversation when my parents told me he had died. They said he had the heart attack two days before, but they didn’t want to tell me because they didn’t want me to see him with tubes in his body; they thought that would be too upsetting for an eleven-year-old. And now he was dead. I realized that I had completely buried that memory. If you had asked me a week before, I would have had no recollection of that conversation ever happening.  As I was sitting, I realized that to be told someone is dead when you are eleven—there’s nothing you can do about that. So I surmise that I was enraged because they had made a decision concerning the most important thing in my life and nobody asked me.

When I went back to revisit the conversation as an adult, I could give that eleven-year-old all the understanding and love and compassion that she needed, that she didn’t get at that time. I could validate her rage at not being considered. And I could see my parents as only trying to be good parents. It was all with the best of intentions that they created the situation. To see it all with no criticism, no blame for any of us, just understanding and compassion.

Thay says mindfulness leads to concentration, concentration to insight, insight to understanding, understanding to compassion. That’s how it works. I find that to be true every time. When I get to that place of understanding, there’s nothing but compassion. I wind up feeling compassion for myself, feeling compassion for my parents, and feeling compassion for my husband, because I look at him and think, poor guy, there he is trying to do something wonderful and here sits his wife, who is enraged. He knows nothing about this baggage I’m carrying.

MB: That story took place in the context of a retreat, where you were in noble silence and you were able to go deeply and work through these things internally. I’m curious how you would advise people who are in the midst of a busy life, when a trigger like this comes up, but it’s not in the context of a retreat.

JF: Most of the retreats I offer are in silence because of my experiences of this kind of healing. To be able to practice in silence helps me develop my mindfulness and concentration. And it helps me to hard-wire in the practice, so that when I am in the rest of my life, where there is not noble silence and most people aren’t practicing at all, that gentle diligence kicks in; it becomes a default. I can recognize that I have been overreacting to not being considered for over forty years. The blessing is that I don’t have to be controlled by it. I don’t have to react blindly out of ignorance to what I’m carrying around.

Once I know that there’s a block of suffering in me that can be watered and brought to the surface, I can recognize it for what it is and I don’t have to react to it. If I’m in my daily life and somebody does or says something that’s hurtful, I make a note of it. I’ll try to say, “For future reference, the next sit I do, I need to spend some time with that.” I just make an appointment with myself to take good care of that.

The more that I do it, it doesn’t take long at all. It’s not like I have to sit for three hours and work with it. It’s a very quick recognition now, for the most part, and I can go do walking meditation. If I can do a ten- or fifteen-minute walk, I can calm myself, get the mud to settle out of the water, then I know what to do and what not to do.

Making Good Use of Suffering

MB: What experiences in your own life have been most valuable in serving you as a Dharma teacher?

JF: I would say suffering. There’s nothing quite like it to help us to wake up. Thay says that he wouldn’t want a nirvana without suffering, and I can see why. The brain injury from a car accident is what brought me to the path, so suffering got me here. I look back at any suffering I’ve had in my life and ask: “What did it have to teach me? Did I benefit? Did I make good use of it?” If I didn’t make good use of the suffering, then it’s a waste of time.

MB: In Reconciliation, you write that you “discovered that mindful speech isn’t just choosing the right words to say—it’s transforming the ill will in my heart.” What guidance would you give to someone who wants to transform the ill will in his or her heart?

JF: One of the things I’ve been practicing with a lot is looking at stories that I’ve been told about myself or that I make up about myself and others. And getting caught in the surface of those stories and believing them. When someone does or says something hurtful, Thay invites us to look deeply, to not get caught in the surface of things, and that’s what leads to understanding, and with that comes compassion; it’s unavoidable. When I can understand somebody else’s suffering, any ill will is transformed into compassion.

When I’ve been able to cut through the story I’ve been telling myself, I feel almost childlike. I can simply show up without a story, show up not needing to make up one, and experience whatever is happening. It’s so delightful. When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I try my best to show up, pay attention, and respond skillfully to life.

MB: It seems like it’s about you, but not about you—like you’ve made yourself into a fertile ground for these seeds to grow, but anyone can do that.

JF: Anybody can. If I can do it, anybody can. I’m the perfect example. I feel so blessed to have come into contact with the Dharma as transmitted through Thay in this lifetime. He has spent his life looking deeply and doing everything possible to make the Buddha’s teachings understandable—even to me. He says he has a fire in his heart. I feel that that fire is what he transmits to us. We are the luckiest people in the world and this is a very happy continuation day for all of us.

*    The Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

 

Edited by Barbara Casey

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My Beloved Teacher

By Chan Luong

My teacher was a famous writer in Vietnam. The Buddhist and non-Buddhist young people of my generation knew Thay by his renowned book, A Dialogue with Young Adult.* Over fifty years ago, he called for reform in Buddhist practice in Vietnam and focused on the essence of the teachings rather than the manifold forms. I see him as a revolutionist monk.

Thich Nhat Hanh Many people talk about the enlightened beings of our century. My comment is the common Vietnamese saying: A teacher like Thay appears only once every few hundred years. Like other great beings, Thay has embodied compassionate living throughout his life. Since the day he founded the School of Youth for Social Service in 1964, Thay and Sister Chan Khong have ceaselessly reached out to people who suffered during and after wartime. Many of us already know about Thay’s books, his teachings, and his influence on numerous lives. I would like to share with you some of my fondest memories of Thay.

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 The Mindful Way

One time, during a retreat in the early days of Plum Village, some of us young people spent an afternoon with Thay, collating pages of a book for binding and publishing. After he had explained how to carry out the task, we all followed Thay around a large table, picking up pages and putting them together to complete the book. Thay walked slowly and mindfully with great ease. At the end, we realized the number of books each of us had collated was less than Thay’s. With surprise and wonder, we asked Thay how that could be. Thay gently smiled to us and said it was simply because he had more experience than we did. I thought how sweet he was! However, this experience helped me to understand that with practice, one can be mindful and productive at the same time.

During the time when I was fortunate enough to be Thay’s assistant in the Lower Hamlet, I saw how Thay spoke, taught, and played with young people. They were happy and delighted, and they adored Thay. There was never a wall between this most venerable monk and the youngsters. I felt the communication between them was deep, and Thay could easily transmit his teachings directly to them. They were called “mini OI members.” I have worked with teenagers for over twenty years as a clinician. If I have been able to help them make changes in their lives, I attribute it to the loving, compassionate, and mindful way that Thay has taught me. I know that I need to keep the light of mindfulness and compassion shining and learn ways to take care when the light dims.

One year when we celebrated Christmas at Plum Village, the monastics and laypeople spent hours creating the festive occasion. Tables were beautifully decorated with leaves and dried flowers. Food was abundant. Thay mindfully walked to the table to invite the bell marking the beginning of dinner. Then we suddenly noticed him calmly holding a big spoon to invite the bell, as the inviter was not available. There were no reprimands, no interruptions of the celebration.

I thought Thay felt that his lay students may be a little shy about their compassionate actions in life. One day, in a question and answer session, Thay responded to the big question, “What is compassion?” He simply said: “Compassion is like when you are inside your home, warm and comfortable with a cup of hot tea in your hand. It is cold and dark outside. You hear a calling, put the cup of tea down, and walk out in that cold, dark, and windy place to help.” Thay’s words have profoundly affected my ordinary and humble life as an OI member.

Those of us who live “down under,” far from France, often receive a special treat before our departure from Plum Village: having tea or walking with Thay. Moments of sitting or walking meditation with Thay remain fresh and vivid in my memory. When we walk beside him, we feel his presence; his energy of mindfulness is so powerful that peace emerges in us.

Life-Changing Pilgrimage 

In 1988 I went to India with Thay and a delegation of just over thirty people. We arrived at the Lumbini Motel in a remote village after a long and dusty trip. The showers didn’t have hot water. I managed to get some help from motel staff and carried a bucket of hot water to the shower room. When I accidentally crossed paths with Thay, he gently asked me where I had found the hot water. I offered to fetch some for him. But he quietly said, “Thay already had a shower with cold water.” We had all forgotten to look after our teacher, but still he had kind words for us.

While in India, we pilgrims followed Thay to Vulture Peak. Every day we walked up the mountain, listened to Thay’s Dharma talks, and watched the sunset together in silence. Gazing into the distance with my mindful breath, I felt the beauty of the sunset flow through me, and I didn’t need it to last forever. We also felt the presence of the Buddha on Vulture Peak through Thay’s words. Since that day, when I encounter difficulties in life, I silently say, “Namo Shakyamunaye Buddhaya” to get in touch with the Buddha in myself.

One day, others were busy at the Indian market or resting, and I sat with my teacher on the rocks. We enjoyed the silence together. Unexpectedly, Thay said, “Just breathe, dear.” Thay’s gentle words left a deep imprint in my mind. Years later, I read the book Breath By Breath. The author, Larry Rosenberg, commented that Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I have watched my breath [for] over fifty years [and it has]…only grown in interest.”

That pilgrimage to India with Thay changed my life forever. While traveling on a full moon day, we stopped so that Thay could recite the precepts. There were no candles, no table. Thay gathered some Bodhi leaves and rocks to make an altar under the tree. With some simple incense, he conducted the most beautiful ceremony I ever attended. That experience taught me that we could create something beautiful with our mindful energy, and that without mindfulness, ceremonies could become empty rituals.

A Rare Combination

Our teacher is a rare combination of a great poet and a venerable monk. Therefore his teachings are profound, yet gentle, loving, and compassionate. His teachings and ways of organising have never been doctrinaire. Many of us feel like we have come home when we hear him talk.

Thay is a kind teacher, and he sees that the teachings of impermanence and non-self are not easy for many of us to practice. His insight about the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is incredible. Thay says that without impermanence, a young plant cannot grow into a tree, a child cannot grow to be an adult. Personally, I had never heard anyone talk about impermanence in that way before. His Dharma talks about non-self are very clear. He helps us see the ultimate dimension of life through the historical dimension, leading to the ending of our suffering.

Thay can be fierce in his teaching. He has told us many times that he doesn’t like us to be like parrots that repeat words they do not understand or like empty husks of grain that practice outer forms and have no substance inside. He’s also a sweet and loving teacher who wants to know whether each Plum Village hamlet has enough firewood and food for winter days.

Thay sees interbeing in all things. He often tells us that each of us is a flower in the garden of mankind; each kind of flower has its own beauty. If you are a chrysanthemum, a daffodil, an orchid, or a rose, be a beautiful chrysanthemum, daffodil, orchid, or rose; do not strive to be a different kind of flower, making yourself unhappy. He also says a garden is beautiful because it has different kinds of flowers.

Many practitioners may still seek the bliss of entering Jhana, detached moments from the world. But I love my teacher’s incredible “stillness in action,” a testament to his solidity and deep peace. Larry Rosenberg writes, “Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage draws on both Theravada and Mahayana teaching. He more than anyone else demonstrates the importance of bringing breath awareness into daily life, of staying awake in the midst of all our activities. He is unrelenting in his teaching, and it took such a strong message to get through to me.” Such a message is as vital to us, Thay’s students, as it is to Larry.

Lightness Fills My Path

Plum Village has grown so rapidly; nowadays, even when you stay on a retreat, you only get a glimpse of Thay. As he is approaching his senior years, everyone contributes to protect and preserve Thay’s energy for the Dharma. The new generation of practitioners may not have as much teaching of mindfulness directly from Thay as in the early days.

We know that Thay is growing in years, and we know deeply the universal law of impermanence. I remember that one year, at the end of a June retreat for OI members in Plum Village, Thay conducted a simple closing ceremony. Afterwards, we all stood up and offered a lotus flower with our joined palms as our way of saying goodbye to Thay. While Thay slowly walked out of the hall, suddenly, in that solemn silence, a voice arose: “We love you, Thay.” I thought that loving voice spoke for all of us that day.

* Noi Voi Tuoi Hai Muoi

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Mai Than-Trong, Chan Luong, became an OI member in 1988 and ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. She was one of the founders of the Lotus Bud Sangha based in Sydney, Australia. Mai is currently a semi-retired senior psychologist in Sydney.

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Dharma Talk: A Peaceful River

By Thich Nhat Hanh

New Hamlet, Plum Village
January 26, 2012

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Dear Sangha, today is the 26th of January, 2012. We are in the Full Moon Meditation Hall of New Hamlet.

Today’s gatha from the sutra we are studying says that all of us contain a stream, and we don’t have a separate self. The gatha is as follows: Living beings is the name of a continuous stream and all phenomena as the object of perception are only signs. Therefore there is no real change of birth into death and death into birth and no person who realizes nirvana. (1)

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There are two things this gatha is teaching us. First, we don’t have a separate ego, a separate self, and second, everything comes from our perceptions, everything is an object of our perception. There is no one who attains nirvana, because if there is no separate self, then who will do that? At first we think we have to choose: either we are in the ocean of death and birth, and then we suffer, or we are in nirvana so that we don’t have to suffer. But after that we have to go further in our understanding. We have to see that birth and death is nirvana. If we are deeply in touch with birth and death, then we are in touch with nirvana. These two things are not separate; because of that, there is nobody in the stream of birth and death, and there’s nobody to go to nirvana. So we don’t have to do anything. We don’t even have to practice.

I wrote a poem about a stream, a little stream that begins at the top of a mountain. When the rain comes, it becomes a river. Many small streams come together to form the river, and the river flows down the mountain. We are describing a very young river. We are like this young river. When we are young, we are excited and we want to go very fast. Youth is always like that. We always want to attain something quickly. We all go through that stage; some have already gone through it, some are doing it right now. We want to attain something, we want to finish something, we want to go somewhere.

There are some young monks who very much want to become venerable elders quickly, so they act very serene, just like an old venerable one; they act older than their age. And there are some old monks who just want to wear the monastic robe of the novice monks so that they can look young.

So the young river was dancing and singing as he ran down the mountain quickly. He was very enthusiastic, and of course on the way he saw other streams and they all mingled together. We can see clearly that one stream, one river does not stay separate; it merges with many different streams as it travels. And our stream of life is the same: every day we have so many inputs, entering us all the time. If what enters into us is nourishing, that is good. But if what comes in is not fresh, it can make the stream of life not very good. Listening to the Dharma talk this morning is a nourishing input and helps us grow. The talk can contain insight and compassion. If we can absorb all of those little rivers within the Dharma talk, then our river later on will be very clear.

But also we have outputs. As the river flows down the mountain, it both takes in and gives out. For example, the river has to share some of the water with the grass. When the river arrives at the plains, there is no steep slope, so the river slows down. This happens to us as we grow older. We’re not excited; we have more peace. We have the ability to see what happens in the present moment because we have slowed down. When the river flows to the field it becomes a more peaceful river, and it has become larger, like the Fragrant River in Hue, the Red River in North Vietnam, the Mekong River, the Amazon River, the Mississippi, the Ganges.

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The Cloud Is Impermanent

When the river slows down, it has time to reflect many colorful clouds. Clouds have many, many colors. Then the river starts to become attached to the clouds: “Oh, that cloud is so beautiful! Ah, that cloud is also beautiful!” And the river runs from one cloud to another cloud.

We, too, are a river; we’re a stream of water and we become attracted to that cloud, that image. We become attached to many exciting, colorful, and interesting things. But the nature of everything is impermanent, including the cloud. Now the cloud is here, but in the afternoon it will move on.  As the clouds disappear, you run from one cloud to another cloud, trying to hold on. We, too, run after this or that project, after another beautiful woman, another handsome man. We feel some emptiness in our hearts and we are like a river running after a cloud. But the truth of the cloud is impermanence. Its nature is to disappear. We lose our breath running after this cloud, then another cloud, and then because we have that feeling of emptiness inside, we feel lonely.

Then one day the river is so sad, missing the clouds, and she has no desire to live. The sky is empty, there is no cloud to run after, nothing for us to run after. So the river wants to die. She wants to commit suicide, but the river cannot kill herself. It is impossible. A stream must continue; it cannot stop running.

And it is the same for us. We are a river of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We say we can kill ourselves, we can commit suicide. But we can never do this because we will just appear in another form. So we have to run in a way that the stream becomes larger and larger, more and more limpid, more and more beautiful, and go in the direction which makes life more beautiful. The river was so empty and so lost, but she has to come back to the river, back to herself.

Already Enlightened

For the first time the river listens to herself. When she listens at the edge of the river, and hears a little lapping of the waves, that is like the sobbing of the river. But looking deeply, suddenly she will see that, oh, this little wave on the side of the river is also the cloud. And I, the big river, am already a cloud. I have all the clouds in myself. I have all my projects in myself, all the dreams in myself, all the aims in myself.

The nature of the river is a cloud; the nature of the cloud is a river. Because they are both made of water. You are already water. Why do you run after water? You are already what you are running after. That is the first insight of the river.

In Buddhism we have three doors of liberation. (2) One of the doors is aimlessness.You don’t need to aim for anything.You don’t need to go anywhere. The third door of liberation is aimlessness. The second door is signlessness. The first one is emptiness.

Aimlessness means that you don’t need to aim for anything; you are what you are searching for. When the river realizes that she’s water, and that the cloud is in her because she is also water, she has no aim to run after, and she’s in peace. And it’s the same with us: we run after the Buddha, we run after satori, enlightenment. You don’t need to run after enlightenment; you are already enlightened. Where you are, steadily there, peaceful, clear in your mind, you are already what you are searching for.

When the river has found that deep vision, he runs peacefully and arrives at the ocean, which is also water. Wherever you are, you are already water. When conditions change and there is too much heat, you become water in the form of vapor, in the form of a cloud. Then as you flow peacefully as a river, there are plenty of clouds. But the river has no desire to run after the clouds because the river knows that all these clouds are himself. He doesn’t need to run after all these beauties, all these attachments. The river realizes that he is cloud.

And that night when the river realizes she is river, she is cloud, there is no discrimination between cloud and water vapor and water. That night there is a big enlightenment of cloud, moon, river, vapor, water, and they come together for walking meditation. They are together; they are one. They manifest in different forms, but they are one. They have already reached the door of liberation, aimlessness. They are not confused by the signs of their forms, and they experience non-self, interbeing. They are one.

Nirvana in You 

We see the wonders of every second, of every minute. The sunshine is so beautiful. The Sangha is so beautiful. We are a river; we must run. Why do you think you can kill yourself? You cannot kill a river. The river continues to search for a way to continue. That is your practice. You only need to practice like that. You don’t need to learn thousands of sutras.You just walk on the Earth, really be with the Earth, be with the sun. The Earth is a wonder, the sun is a wonder. You are one.

The Earth is a great bodhisattva, the sun is a great bodhisattva. We cannot be different, we cannot find a better bodhisattva. You need only to practice like this; it’s enough. When you can walk mindfully, deeply, be one with the Earth, be one with the sunshine, be one with the universe, you can see that every step brings you to that great reality. So all your doubt will be removed.

In reality, there is nothing lost, nothing increased. Losing here, increasing there, you can see that nothing lasts. So our brother is lost, but he appears here, there, and in yourself, in many other people. Don’t try to find nirvana far away. You can find nirvana in you, in the present moment. Nothing is born, nothing dies.

Everything is no-birth, no-death, no increasing, no decreasing. We see the world of suffering and we see the world of enlightenment, because we are dualistic in our view. If you can touch the world of beauty in the world of ugliness, then you can touch the world of suffering in the world of enlightenment. The world of enlightenment is within the world of suffering. Don’t think that enlightenment is different from ignorance. From ignorance you can get enlightenment. You have to see that in suffering there are quite a lot of elements to help you reach enlightenment.

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We have to learn to take care of our suffering in order to change, to transform, to be liberated. So when we have suffering, we have to suffer together. Don’t suffer alone. When you suffer alone you cannot find the way out. But if we suffer as a Sangha, together, we will find a way out. I’m very happy that I have you all together with me. I have gone through many difficult situations, but you are there, and we all work together for transforming our pain.

So like the river, don’t try to run after clouds. What you are running after is already here in you. The water is in you; the cloud is also water. It is not a promise of the future. Heaven is here and now. The Kingdom of God is now or never. You can stay where you are, not running after anything. You have to practice, “I have arrived, I am home.” That is our anchor. It means we dwell peace fully, happily, here and now.

I vow to bring my body, my mind, my action, and my speech to end all the war, the quarrels, and bring understanding and love to everyone. That is our duty. It’s our mission. Our mission is to bring understanding in life—to ourselves first—and then together, to one another. We try to bring understanding to close friends, to beloved ones both near and far away. We dwell peacefully, mindfully, in the present moment, in order to protect our beautiful green planet, and we vow to see the interbeing of everything in order to transcend the signs, the appearance. In this way we touch reality.

You have to be aware that every word influences the whole Sangha. Every bodily action influences the whole Sangha. When you think something, it influences the whole Sangha. You are a cell of a body. You have to think in a way that brings happiness and purity to the Sangha. You have to speak in a way that brings purity and understanding to the Sangha. We have to act in a way that brings understanding and beauty to the Sangha in order to create the Pure Land. To truly arrive, not to be carried away by appearances, to transcend the signs. You love me—it means you love you. You love you—it means you love me.

Applied Buddhism is the way to touch reality, in order to see that birth and death are only doors by which you enter and leave. It looks like you are born, it looks like you die, but really you are born every second, you are dying every second.

So, friends, don’t think that this body is just you, because you are a river. This river continues to flow and to flow. And if it stops here, it will appear on the other side.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong; edited by Sister Annabel and Barbara Casey.

1. Gatha 44 from the Yogacarabhumishastra by Acarya Asanga

2. The Three Doors of Liberation:

Emptiness: Interbeing; the realization that we are empty of a separate, independent self. When we practice eating meditation, seeing the cosmos in our food, this is the practice of emptiness.

Signlessness: Not getting caught in the appearance or the object of our perception; not being limited by the form: i.e., seeing that the cloud and the river are the same in essence, both made of water.

Aimlessness: The realization that we already have Buddha nature, that all the elements for happiness are already within us. The practice of aimlessness is the practice of freedom.

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Dharma Talk: Liberation from Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh 

Each Saturday afternoon during the September 1996 “Heart of the Buddha” retreat at Plum Village in southwestern France, the entire community gathered in the New Hamlet for a question-and-answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay responded to written questions that had been left inside the large bowl-shaped bell and also to raised hands. The following is a selection of these dia­logues. 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: When thoughts and feelings arise in my meditation, I try to note them, watch them pass, and come back to my breathing. But sometimes I just become engulfed by my pain. What advice can you offer?

Thay: You feel you are engulfed by pain because the energy you use to embrace it is not strong enough. That is why it is crucial to cultivate the energy of mindfulness as the agent of transformation and healing. When you are mindful, you are strong, the Buddha is with you, and you are not afraid of the afflictions that arise.

Suffering and happiness inter-are. You cannot eradicate suffering and retain only happiness. That is like wanting only day and not night. When you suffer, you learn compas­sion and understanding. But your suffering can also overwhelm you and harden your heart. When this happens, you cannot enjoy life or learn compassion. To suffer some is important, but the dosage should be correct for us. We need to learn the art of taking good care of our suffering so we can learn the art of transforming it.

Mindfulness does not regard pain as an enemy that needs to be suppressed. It does not want to throw the pain out. It knows the pain is a part of us. It is like a mother embracing her baby. The mother knows the baby is a part of her. The crying baby is our pain, and the mother is our tenderness. There is no barrier between our tenderness and our pain.

Almost all pain is born from a lack of understanding of reality. The Buddha teaches us to remember that it is not the object of craving that makes us suffer, it is the craving that makes us suffer. It is like a hook hidden in the bait. The bait looks like an insect, and the fish sees something it thinks is tasty, not knowing that there is a hook inside. It bites and the hook catches it. Our temptation and craving are due to a lack of understanding of the true nature of the object we crave. When mindfulness is present, we begin to understand the nature of our craving and our pain, and this understanding can liberate us.

Q: My mother had Alzheimer’s when she was 65. I am now 63 years old and my short-term memory does not work as well as it used to. I can’t remember names, and I have to write down many things so I will not forget them. Please shine your light on this problem.

Thay: I used to have a very good memory, and the first time I noticed my memory betraying me, I suffered. You realize that you are no longer young, and you don’t believe it. You find out that you are no longer bright, remembering everything, and you feel hurt. It can be difficult to accept the fact that you are growing old. But we have to accept the situation as it is.

The Buddha said, “When I was young, I was arrogant of my youth, my intelligence, and my learning. To get rid of this kind of arrogance, I learned about impermanence.” Every one of us has to go through this same process of change. One night, I could not sleep because I had forgotten the name of a person. I just could not accept the fact that I had grown old. That night I suffered, but I began to learn to accept reality as it is. Since that time I have been at peace with my reality. Now if I can’t remember something, if I cannot do something as well as I used to, I just smile.

Not remembering everything may be a good thing, because you have a better opportunity to enjoy what is there in the present moment. All of us have some kind of disability. Sometimes it is very apparent, sometimes it is not. We are much more than our disability. There are many ways of being alive, and we should learn from each other.

Q: Thay, you said that we should look into the nature of our suffering to see where it comes from. You also said that to understand suffering, we don’t need to go to the past—if we look at it in the present moment, we will understand its nature. Is there a conflict in these two practices?

Thay: You may think that you have to lose the present moment to understand the cause of your suffering, but that is not correct. It is possible to bring the past into focus as the object of your inquiry, while staying firmly grounded in the present moment. This is very different from not paying attention to what is going on in the present moment and getting lost in the past.

The present is made up of the past. If you touch the present moment deeply, you touch the past. If in the past you did something that created happiness for someone, that happiness is still here. In the present moment, you can touch that, and it can still make you happy. If you made a mistake—said something unkind, hurt someone—you feel regret, and that is still there in you. You can practice Beginning Anew with that person, even if she is no longer there, and heal the wound of the past. People say we cannot go back to the past and repair the damage. But if you understand that the past is still available, you can touch it through the present moment. Touching the present deeply, you touch all your ancestors, and you have the power to transform the past.

The same is true with the future. If you are firmly rooted in the present moment, you can make plans for the future without losing yourself in fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

Taking care of the present moment does not mean ignoring the past or the future. If you are fully alive and in the present moment, you can heal the past and be fully ready for the future. Do not divide time into three parts and think that to be in the present moment, you have to oppose the past or the future. Remember the interbeing nature of time.

Q: As an artist, passion is awakened in me when I create, and this sometimes takes me away from mindfulness. Is it possible to create and still live in the world of the Dharma?

Thay: Inspiration brings us energy and motivates us to create. If you are inspired by an idea, your passion to realize your idea may not be a negative thing. Just accept your inspirations as they arrive. As practitioners, we practice breathing in and out mindfully and recognize that feeling and look into it. It’s not a matter of discarding our passion and our inspiration. There are ways we can make them into positive things that can make people very happy.

When we think of those who will look at our painting, eat the food we are cooking, or read the novel we are writing, we will know what to paint, what to cook, and what to write. Because we practice the Five Mindful­ness Trainings, we know that we don’t want to offer toxins to those who will consume our art. As artists, we also need to be nourished with wholesome nutriments. If we consume negative things, we will offer negative things to the people who consume our art. As responsible people, we have to practice looking deeply into our lives, our passion, and our inspiration.

Compassion and loving kindness are elements of art. If we know how to use them, we can create very beautiful art. We may write a song that will inspire people to see into their true nature, smile, and get in touch with the wonders of life. When you write a novel, use your mindfulness to create compassion. As a poet and a writer, I know that I create in every moment of my daily life, not just when I sit at my desk with a sheet of paper in front of me. That is the moment when I deliver my baby, but I conceive the baby throughout my daily life. A Buddhist scholar said to me, “Thay, I hear that you grow lettuce. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your time writing poetry? Anyone can grow lettuce, but not many people write poems the way you do.” I told her, “If I don’t grow lettuce, I will not be able to write poems like this.” Mindfulness is our guide, nourishing our inspiration and our passion. With mindfulness, we know that the babies we create need to grow up into bodhisattvas for the sake of the world.

Q: How can I stay informed about violence in the world without consuming violence as a nutriment?

Thay: It is good to know what is going on, but it may not be necessary to watch the morning, afternoon, and evening news. It is possible to listen to the news only once a week or once in three months and still be in touch with what is going on. One of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings asks us that we stay in touch with suffering, so that compassion can be born in us. Compassion is the energy that motivates us to alleviate suffering. We must touch the suffering, but we have to be aware of our limits. The amount of suffering we touch must not be more than we can digest; otherwise, we will not be able to help anyone. If we listen to bad news every day, we may be overcome by despair.

We must also listen to the good news. Good news can bring us joy and hope, but it is seldom broadcast because it is not sensational. During a mindfulness retreat, we can be happy in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The transfor­mation of anger is quite an achievement. This is a kind of news, but no one comes here to report about it. It is not sensational enough by media standards. We are co-respon­sible for the kind of information the media offers us. If we consume bad news, they report bad news. If we don’t buy it, the media will not produce it.

Q: Can a marriage be happy if one person is practicing and the other is not?

Thay: The best way to share the practice is formlessly. If you practice breathing, smiling, and looking deeply, at some point your partner will see the benefits of your practice and ask, “Why are you so happy, so relaxed, smiling so much?” Then, they will begin to ask, “When you get frustrated, when you get angry, what do you do? I would like to learn.” At that time, you will have a chance to share your practice. You might say, “Darling, when I get angry, I practice walking meditation, and I feel better. I don’t know if you want to try it, but this is how I survive.” Use ord­inary language. Don’t make it too Buddhist. If you dwell too much on the form, it might turn the other person off.

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When you practice walking meditation, just walk naturally. When you walk along the path by the river or in a garden, don’t look too ceremonious. You can be very happy and natural, smiling, without turning people off. You don’t need incense. You don’t need to bow a lot. Do not impose your practice on your partner. Don’t say, “I am practicing spirituality, and you don’t know anything about it!” Try to avoid saying, “Darling, I am practicing Buddhism.” Just let the methods of practice enter you in a gentle, natural way. Practice well, and when you become more refreshed and tolerant, she may ask, “Darling, how do you do it?” Perhaps she has been practic­ing something already. Learn about her practice. When it is your turn, you can share.

Q: Last year in Canada, a father and his three young children were struck by another car. Two of them died immediately, another after three days, and another managed to live after three days in a coma. If they had left home one second later or earlier, the tragedy might not have oc­curred. Why do things like this happen? In our search for sense in a senseless world, is there a karmic connection in tragedy like this?

Thay: I would like to offer an answer to this question in two parts. The first half of the answer is to ask ourselves, “Who is responsible for this?”

There is sickness, old age, and death. This is natural suffering. But there is also much suffering that can be avoided. Because of our lack of mindfulness and insight, because of our ignorance, craving, and anger, we create suffering for ourselves and others. Looking deeply, we can see that in our hands we have the power to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Accidents on highways are due to many causes, includ­ing drinking too much. Have we done anything to reduce the drinking of alcohol and other dangers on highways? We may think that someone somewhere else is deciding all these things. We pray to God or blame him when these things happen. We are co-responsible for everything that happens, and we can, to some extent, reduce the suffering that people are undergoing at this moment.

The second half of the answer is to remember that we have a way to cope with uncertainty and suffering. When a three-year-old child dies because of an illness that cannot be healed, or when many people are killed in a plane crash, if we look deeply. we can see the causes leading to some of these events. But there are other things that happen that we have no means to investigate or understand. If we look with the eyes of the Buddha, we discover that what happens to one happens to all. If a danger befalls one person in the family, not only does that person suffer, but the whole family suffers. Yesterday while we were practicing medita­tion, someone was killed on the highway. If we look deeply, we see that this was an accident for us also. We have to bear the suffering together if we have the insight of non-self.

If other people are not happy, we cannot be happy either. We have to do our best to make someone happy, and then happiness will be ours also. The same is true with suffering. When you know that children are dying of hunger, you cannot be happy. But when you know that you can do a little every day to contribute to the removal of some pain, you feel better. You are not doing it only for the dying children. You are also doing it for yourself.

If we learn to live deeply in the present moment, we will not regret having not lived the moments that have been given to us, and we will not suffer too much. If you love someone, don’t wait until she dies in order to cry. Today, if you can do anything to make her happy, do it. That is the only answer to accidents.

Q: Thay, I think I understand the precept not to kill and also the teaching of impermanence. If a person is suffering very deeply, although he enjoys his beautiful life, is it wrong for him to decide, calmly and with love and understanding, to shorten his life just a little bit and kill himself?

Thay: The question is very delicate, and we should avoid as much as possible making generalizations. It is always open and not dogmatic. I wouldn’t say that it is always wrong, but the decision is difficult, and not only do you rely on your insight, you have to also rely on the insight of your Sangha. Other people who practice with love, understanding, and an open heart can shine light on reality and support you.

In the time of the Buddha, there were a few cases when a monk or a layperson suffered so much he or she had to use that kind of means. He or she was not condemned by the Buddha. But the Buddha had a lot of understanding and wisdom. When we make a decision like that, we need to be wise and know that we will not cause a lot of suffering to the people we love. There are cases when it is possible, or may be advisable, to take one’s own life. But I don’t want people to make use of that kind of answer so easily. There­fore, I would say that I would do my best to use my eyes of wisdom, and I would also want the Sangha eyes to tell me what to do. Your family is a Sangha and your friends are also a Sangha. We trust that those who love us have enough understanding to support us in such a situation. 

Q: What happens to the consciousness after death?

Thay: It may be more helpful to ask, “What happens to the consciousness before death?” If you touch your conscious­ness deeply and understand it, you will be able to answer this question by yourself. If you do not know what your consciousness is now, what is the use of asking what it will become after death? Your consciousness is something wonderful. There is a huge volume of literature in Bud­dhism called the Abhidharma, concerning how the mind works. Understanding your mind helps tremendously in dealing with internal formations like fear, anger, or despair.

Consciousness manifests according to conditions. When conditions are sufficient, we perceive a flower and we call it “being” or “existing.” Later, if one or more conditions are no longer present, the flower will not be there for us to perceive, and we say it does not exist. But the flower is still there. It is just not manifested in a way that we can perceive. The same is true if your grandmother dies. Everything depends on conditions in order to reveal itself. “Reveal” is a better word than “born.” When the conditions cease to be sufficient, the flower hides itself, and we call this “nonexistence” or “nonbeing.” If you bring in the missing condition, it will appear again. This is also true with your grandma. You may think she is no longer here, but she is always here.

Life is too short to speculate about such questions. If you touch everything in your daily life deeply, including your consciousness, you will be able to answer this question in the best way, with no speculation at all. 

Q: How can one be a true seeker for spiritual truth without being attached to the search?

Thay: To me, spiritual is not separate from non-spiritual. If I drink a cup of tea in mindfulness, it is spiritual. During that time, I am a free person, totally present in that moment of life. Tea-drinking becomes spiritual because I feel happy and free doing it.

You can change your baby’s diaper mindfully, breathing and smiling. You don’t have to quit being a mother to practice spirituality. But it takes some training. We come to a retreat to learn to do everything mindfully and spiritually. If, in a retreat, you are able to walk, brush your teeth, eat your breakfast, and go to the toilet mindfully, when you go home you will be able to practice everything like that.

Spirituality is not something you search for by abandon­ing your daily life. To be spiritual is to be free. It does not make sense to say that you are attached to spirituality unless spirituality is defined in another way. In the context of our practice, spirituality is drinking your tea or changing your baby’s diaper in mindfulness. 

Q: During my time at Plum Village, I have felt embraced by the affection of the Sangha and the beauty of your teaching. Now I’m going home, where there is a lot of violence, and I feel like an orphan. This soft, sweet message of affection could make me seem weak in front of all the violence. What can I do to face these challenges without compromising and renouncing this message?

Thay: Your problem is like that of a gardener. Suppose you go to a land far away from your home and see beautiful crops. You would like to bring some of the seeds home because you want your friends to enjoy the same crops. You come home with seeds in your pocket. Our time together here is to get these seeds. They are now there in your store consciousness and you are going home with the intention of cultivating them so that you, your family, and your society can enjoy the pleasure of harvesting that crop. Therefore, you have to treasure these seeds and not allow them to be destroyed. Organize your daily life in a way that encourages you to cherish these seeds. Create a nursery so that chickens and other animals will not destroy the first tender plants. When the seedlings become strong, together with friends you can plant a real garden. Like a gardener, we are taking care of the seeds and the plants. We practice watering, cultivating, and protecting our crop.

It would be wonderful if a few friends join you, but many of us begin with one person. Mahatma Gandhi said that one person is enough in the beginning. One person can bring down a dictatorial regime. Have faith in yourself and in the Buddha within you. The Buddha also began alone. You are a future Buddha, therefore, you can do it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and the author of over 70 books. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in France, where he guides the practice of 100 monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. He also travels worldwide, lecturing and leading retreats on “the art of mindful living.”

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Dharma Talk: Taking the Hand of Suffering

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Some days the sky is completely clear, without a single cloud. When we look up, we see the blue sky – very peaceful, very powerful. The blue sky is always there for us. When it rains and storms, clouds cover the sky, but we are confident the blue sky is still there. And we are at peace, because we know that blue sky and fine weather will return after the rain.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes our mind is very clear like a blue sky. We have so much happiness. We practice walking meditation with our brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and feel so happy. Our hearts are at peace and open, with a lot of space and freedom like the blue sky. We feel light and free, and we smile. We are kind to everyone. We make ourselves happy and we make others happy. If we practice mindfulness on days like that, our happiness will increase, and so will the happiness of those around us. We know how to benefit from the times when our mind is as clear as the vault of the blue sky without any clouds. That is a very important practice.

But there are also times when our mind is not clear. It is not at peace, it is not free. We have worries, afflictions, and sadness in us, like the sky has clouds. We cannot see the blue sky of our minds anymore. We see only clouds in all directions.

Sometimes we are not angry or in despair, but our heart is full of clouds. This is a very common state of mind—the absence of happiness. Just a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of sadness, and we don’t know whether it is real anxiety or real sadness. We know that it’s not happiness, but we are not sure that it’s suffering. We’re bored. Everything is too ordinary; nothing is clear or bright. As the poet said, “Today the flowers rise high, and I am sad. I don’t know why.” When a day passes with that kind of sadness and boredom, it’s a terrible waste. We want to get beyond that sadness and boredom, and touch the blue sky.

In the sutra, the Buddha taught us the way of changing the peg. When we have a mental formation that we don’t like very much, we can change it with another mental formation, like a carpenter changing a peg that holds two planks of wood together. The carpenter hammers a new peg into the place where the rotten peg is; the rotten peg goes out. That is changing the peg. When we are bored, we can change the peg by bringing another kind of mind along, a mind that is fresher, happier. Boredom has arisen because this freshness has not yet manifested. Now, what can we do for this freshness to take the place of our sadness and boredom? An elder brother or sister can help us, or a younger brother or sister can help us. They can rescue us from our sadness. That person is as fresh and joyful as a morning bird. That person comes and takes our hand, and leads us out of our sadness, our darkness. Thanks to the presence of the Sangha, thanks to a fellow practitioner, we are able to get out of this darkness. Or maybe we can do it on our own. We have the sutras, poems, practices, and short stories that can help us develop positive mental formations. In this way, we “change the peg.”

There is another aspect of the practice. Instead of changing the peg, we allow the feeling to stay, because our desire to change the peg immediately sometimes has a negative side to it. When we have some kind of sadness or anxiety, no happiness, we should embrace our sadness, our anxiety. Don’t be in a hurry to get rid of it. We should ask, “My mental formation, are you suffering or not? Are you my enemy, my little mental formation?” Don’t treat it like an enemy. Don’t be in a hurry to find a way to oppress it. Embrace it and allow it to stay. “Dear mental formation, I know you are there. Now stay with me a little bit. Are you really suffering?”

Our mind is like the sky. Sometimes the sky just has blueness, sometimes it has clouds. Why do we have to be so anxious? The Earth has different climates and weather, and our mind does too. The sky is changeable and people are also changeable. There is morning rain, thunder, sunshine. There are times when the sky is cloudy, times when it is dull, times when it is blue and clear. Some people have boredom or sadness from time to time. It’s quite normal. We say to our boredom or our sadness, “I know you are there.” It’s okay. And we have to be happy, although the feeling is sadness. We accept that this is real. This sadness is real, this anxiety is real. It couldn’t be anything else. So our new attitude is to embrace it, to be its friend. And then, it becomes very easy to bear. It’s just anxiety or sadness, and it’s not so difficult to bear.

Don’t think that happiness is the absence of all suffering. If we understand it like that, we have not understood happiness. We don’t have to oppress or push all our suffering out of us in order to have happiness. We can have happiness if our suffering is still within us. It’s like gardening. If we are good gardeners, if we garden organically, we know our garden will have flowers, and it will have garbage. If there are flowers, there is garbage. A good gardener will never burn the garbage or dump it somewhere else. They keep the garbage in order to make com­post. The garbage, the compost makes the flowers and fruits of the garden grow better. If we want to have the vegetables and the fruit, we must have the garbage.

As practitioners, we know that our minds are gardens. In our minds, there are positive, pleasant mental formations, and there are negative, unpleasant mental formations. To be good gardeners, we need to have a heart of great understanding. We have to accept both the flowers and the garbage in our garden. When we see garbage, we are not angry or sad, because we know the garbage can always be transformed into flowers.

We may want to push away unpleasant mental formations, to transform them as quickly as possible. But I suggest that when the sky of your mind is cloudy, you practice to give rise to a kind of caring. Return to that mental formation, make its acquain­tance. “Mental formation, are you my suffering? Are you my enemy? I know you are my friend. You have been my friend in the past, you are my friend in the present, and you will be my friend in the future. So we should learn how to live together with peace and joy, and with a non-dualistic attitude.” It is not possible to have flowers without compost, without garbage. It is not possible to have happiness without sadness. Because of our suffering, we really know how to maintain our happiness. Some days, our cloudiness lasts a long time, and then, when the sun comes out, we see how wonderful it is. To accept the rainy days is very important.

When it rains, we are not afflicted, we are not suffering. We accept the rain. We cannot go outside. We close the door to keep warm. We have our lunch and our tea inside. Our mind is the same. When our mind is clear, we do different things than we do when our mind is cloudy. We should not be afraid. If our mind is dull, we know how to practice. If it is clear, we know how to practice. We do not oppose any kind of mind. When we sit down with our dull mental formation with all our caring and love, we will begin to understand it, and we will say, “Cloudy mental formation, I really need you. Because of you, I have the capacity to see my beautiful mental formations. And I don’t want to oppress you. You are not my enemy. I know you are necessary for the manifesta­tion and growth of positive mental formations.” When we know how to take hold of our cloudy mental formations and do walking meditation with them, then quite naturally, the situation becomes easier to bear. We no longer have a desire to push it away. We just want to take its hand and look deeply at it. Then the situation will become more bearable and we can accept a day that is rainy and windy very easily. That is my practice.

This practice is based on the non-dualistic way of looking at things. I asked a very young sister, “Is your mind sometimes cloudy like the sky today?” She replied, “Yes.” She is still very young, but she still has cloudy days in her mind. I asked, “What do you do when you have those cloudy days in your mind? Tell me.” She said she was not worried, because although she was still very young, she had the experience of those moments in the past, and they always give way to clear moments later. So they do not disturb her. She did not have to push them away, and she was not anxious about her cloudy mind. She also has the seeds of happiness. And her elder brothers and sisters have seeds of happiness and they can water her seeds. When seeds of happiness manifest, the cloudiness disappears.

A famous nun in the eleventh century wrote a gatha. She said, “Birth, sickness, old age, and death are just everyday things. Why do we always pray to be liberated from them? If we spend our whole time trying to get away from birth, sickness, old age, and death, we will just be more caught in them.” If we can take the hand of birth, sickness, old age, and death, it’s no problem. But if we want to run away, we want to push away, we will be caught even more, because in that attitude is struggling. That is the dualistic view, and we get caught.

Our method is not to have that dualistic attitude in our practice, but to find a way to look at our mental formation with the eyes of non-dualism, with love, as a friend. We must know how to invite that suffering to sit down with us, and ask, “My dear suffering, what is your nature? Are you my enemy?” We will take the hand of our suffering and do walking meditation, sitting meditation. And we know that the suffering will help us see and experience peace and joy, liberation and happiness. We have to be grateful to our suffering, because without suffering, we cannot grow up and have the capacity to accept the great joy of liberation. Therefore, the attitude of running away from, destroying, or oppressing our suffering is not an intelligent attitude.

One day in waking meditation, I embraced my state of mind, and I asked, “Are you really suffer­ing?” It wasn’t really suffering. It was just kind of a normal thing, like a cloud in the sky. After the rain, there will be sunshine, and after the sunshine, there will be rain. And I could see there was no need to get rid of this mental formation. “I accept you as you are. I can be happy with you.” And therefore, it didn’t make me suffer anymore. I could live with it very naturally, as something wonderful. “Your presence is natural. I accept you as you are.” I invite you to practice this way, and you will see it is a wonderful practice.

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I would like to offer you an exercise. It may take weeks to do; it may take days. It’s up to you. It’s not the kind of homework you do with a pencil and a sheet of paper. You will have to do it with a lot of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and mindful breathing. You may like to ask for help from another brother or sister, so you can do the work in a deeper way. The focus of the exercise is a period of time you considered hard for you. This difficult time belongs to the past, but you are grounded in the present moment. You bring the past into the present moment, and consider that moment as the object of your inquiry, the object of your meditation. Practice looking deeply into it. This lesson is not the work of the intellect. The intellect can play a certain role in this exercise, but you need your heart. You need your mindfulness, concentration, and insight—body and mind united—in order to practice looking deeply and to recognize every aspect of the crisis.

First, look at the event in space and time, and describe it. When did it start? How long did it last? Where did it happen? How did it happen? What triggered that difficult period? Look at the elements within you that helped trigger that difficult moment, and the elements without—around you—that helped trigger it. Did it come out of the blue? What ground served as its base for manifestation? Look deeply to recognize the roots of that affliction, of that difficult period of time. Some elements are close, and you can easily recognize them. Some elements are far away, rooted in the past, maybe in the time of your parents or ancestors.

You can always ask another person to help you to identify the elements that came together and brought you to that difficult period of time. When you feel you have finished, you may tell yourself that there must be more. If you practice looking more deeply, you can identify other elements as the roots of the affliction. And you can always rely on the Sangha eyes, on your brothers and sisters in the Dharma to help you to see more clearly. How did you feel? How did you behave in terms of thought, words, action? How did you react? You acted and reacted. You need a lot of concentration. Remember how you behaved in terms of thinking, speech, and action. And again, you can ask your friend who was there, “Dear friend, how did I look at that period of time?” You have to bow to him, “Please, please, help.” And he will help you see yourself. Your eyes alone may not be enough. You need the Sangha eyes to see the situation better. In Plum Village, we know that any exercise could be initiated by ourselves, but the work of looking deeply, of having deeper insight, deeper understanding, can be supported by our brothers and sisters in the Dharma. When you do this exercise, please go to the brothers and sisters who were with you during the difficult time, and ask them to help you look and reveal all aspects of the crisis, both inside and outside.

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You were suffering. How did you feel in your heart, in your body? Did you apply the teaching you have received in order to calm down, to get relief? Or did you just allow the suffering to overwhelm you? Did you ask for help from your brothers, from your sisters, from your teacher? Or did you just allow yourself to be seized by your suffering, and become a victim of your suffering? You have to be honest with yourself.

What if, in the difficult moment, you tried walking meditation or sitting meditation, but it didn’t help at all? Why didn’t it help? Did you ask for help? Did you tell your big brother that you tried hard with the walking, the sitting, but did not feel relief? Did you lose your faith in the practice? Because in difficult moments, you would rely on your practice to get better, and if you did not succeed, you may tell yourself that the practice is not effective, and you lose some trust in the practice. You have to look at all these things with courage.

Did you blame the other person, the person who you believe triggered Hell for you? Or did you blame the situation? You lost your confidence in the Dharma; you lost your confidence in the Sangha. Your faith in the Dharma and the Sangha became very weak, and you lost the confidence in your practice, because you did not get quick relief after some time trying. It did not happen. Did you blame the other person? Did you blame the situation? Did you blame the Sangha?

And in your suffering, did you have the tendency to punish the other person, or punish the Sangha? Did you have the idea of punishing, even if you did not do anything to punish? If you believe that the other person made you suffer, it’s natural that you want to make him or her suffer a little bit, so you can get relief. You may believe that punishing him or her, or the Sangha will give you a little relief. That’s a natural tendency of humans.

Did you have the idea of shutting off from everyone? You no longer wanted to have communication with other people. Did you have the idea of boycotting the Sangha as a form of punishment? “I don’t want to talk to them anymore. I hate everyone. They are not really my brothers or sisters. They didn’t know how to be compassionate and understanding.” Did you want to punish by shutting yourself off from the Sangha? “I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to listen to them. I have suffered so much.” Did you have the idea of running away? Just quitting? Running away is a form of punishment. “Because the Sangha is not nice to me, I run away. I don’t appreci­ate you.” If not the Sangha, but your partner or your family, your society or your church, it’s the same.

In your suffering, you might have felt that you are completely, absolutely alone. Cut off. No one in the Sangha was able to understand you. No sharing of suffering was possible. Did you intend to look for someone who can share your anger, your suffering, your fear? Because the tendency is that when you get angry with someone, you have the tendency to blame that someone for having made you suffer, and you want someone else to support your view that that person is bad, that he or she always makes us suffer. So, did you seek for an ally? Did you find someone who supported you that way, who agreed with you that the other person is impossible, the other person is always making other people suffer? Did you get relief when you found someone like that? Or were you lucky to find someone who did not support your view, but helped you practice looking more deeply, in order to understand the problem more deeply?

Did anyone sit close to you and say, “Dear friend, I know that you suffer. I am here for you. I support you in the practice.” And did anyone tell you that the best way to handle the situation is with compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are the instruments of the bodhisattva. If you apply your compassion and your understanding to the situation, you will get relief very quickly. Anything you do will come from understanding or compassion. The act of blaming isn’t motivated by understanding and compassion. The act of punishing isn’t motivated by understanding and compassion. Shutting off from others, running away, all these things do not seem to be motivated by understanding and compassion.

What will you do if you are plunged into that situation again? Would you do the same things? Or would you behave differently? Have you learned anything from that time when you suffered so much? How did you come out of it? Did you do anything to get out, or did it just die out slowly, the difficult moment, that difficult period? Did something happen or did someone intervene so that the period of Hell ended? How did it stop—abruptly or slowly? You have to remember, because everything is imperma­nent, even your suffering.

Did anyone remind you during that period of time that the suffering is going to end? It will not last forever. Did anyone remind you of that? Suffering, like any other thing, is impermanent. And we know that suffering will end some day. You have to remember that. Because during the time of suffering, we may think that it will last forever and you will not be able to survive the suffering. It’s like a strong emotion, a storm. The storm always stays for some time, and any storm will stop after some time. Your suffering is the same. Did anyone remind you of that?

Every time you suffer, you have to remember that suffering is impermanent. Suffering will not be there forever. Seeing this, you get relief already. “I wish that it would not stay too long. I know it will die, but I wish it would die quickly.” But wishing is not the only thing you can do. You can do something in order to speed up the ending of the suffering. How did you get out of your difficult moment? Did it end by itself? Did someone help you? Did something happen to rescue you? Or did you get out of it because you had already hit the bottom? And when you hit the bottom, you begin to emerge again.

This is a very important exercise. We have to do it totally, as deeply as possible, because we can learn a lot. Through the practice of looking deeply, transformation will take place. After you finish the exercise, you know that the next time you suffer will be different. You know how to go through it in a much lighter way, smiling. And you are no longer afraid. Difficult moments may come, but you know how to handle them.

Bodhisattvas are not afraid, because they know how to deal with the storms, the difficulties. They know how to handle these difficulties. Bodhisattvas are not people who don’t have difficulties. Bodhisattvas are those who know how to handle the difficult times. You are a student of the bodhisattvas, or you want to become a bodhisattva yourself. Therefore, you have to learn to hear with your eye, to look with your ear, to listen with your tongue, to speak with your body, to take care, because bodhisattvas are always using their eyes, their ears, their tongues, their bodies, and their minds to get through the difficult moments.

When you have understanding and compassion, you only think in a way that can bring you space and relief. You will only say things that can bring more harmony and relief, and you will only do things that can bring about relief and reconciliation. And the most important thing to do is to generate more understanding and compassion. If you know how to apply them in the three levels of action—thinking, speaking, and acting—then the relief can come very quickly. Reconciliation can take place very quickly.

In the future, you are likely to be plunged into a period of time like that again. If you are not prepared, you will suffer just like the last time. So look deeply at this difficult time, and prepare so that when an event like that happens again, you’ll be more ready to handle it. And you have a brother or a sister who will be able to step in and help you go in the direction of understanding and compassion. When you begin to think and act and speak in terms of compassion, peace begins to settle in you and relief comes very quickly. These are the experiences of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And those of us who have practiced know that in these moments, understanding and compassion should be generated by you and by the people who practice with you. The energy of under­standing and compassion can bring relief right away. It can shorten the period of crisis, so you begin to experience joy again.

When you were in school writing a thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation, you spent one year or even two years to write on this project. But what you get is only a diploma. This exercise is very important. If you do it totally and deeply, you get liberation, you get happiness. So invest yourself into the practice. Out of our success and our insight, we can help many people around us. This is not a dissertation to be submitted to a teacher; this is a real practice. This is a gift you make to yourself, to society, and to the world. Whether you can help people, society, living beings in the future depends on the success you get in this kind of practice. So invest yourself entirely into the exercise, and if you want to share it with Thay, please don’t hesitate to do so. If you want to share it with another brother or sister, please do so. This is not for a degree or a diploma, this is for your libera­tion. your happiness, and the liberation and happiness of many, many people.

Photos by Nicholaes Roosevelt.

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Dharma Talk: Throwing Away

Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

June 7 – 8, 2006

Thich Nhat Hanh

During the Breath of the Buddha retreat at Plum Village, Thây focused on the Sutra on Mindful Breathing, which he had just translated from the Chinese. In this excerpt from two Dharma  talks,Thây discusses exercises 11 through 14.

Exercise 11: Skillfully he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind. Skillfully  he  practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.   

Exercise 12: Skillfully he practices breathing in, liberating his  mind. Skillfully he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

mb43-dharma2The practice of concentration helps us to understand the nature of affliction, and with that kind of insight, we can burn affliction away. Concentration as energy has the power of transformation. Concentration is something extremely important in the teaching of the Buddha. 

To concentrate means to concentrate on something. In the teaching of the Buddha, many kinds of concentration are proposed. According to our need, we can apply one or two of these concentrations to free us, like concentration on impermanence, concentration on non-self, concentration on compassion, concentration on interbeing, and so on. Each concentration, each samadhi, has its own name.

The Buddha spoke about the three doors of liberation, which are considered to be three concentrations: emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness.

Emb43-dharma3mptiness is not a philosophy, a description of reality. Emptiness is a practice. Emptiness does not mean non-being, non-existence. There’s a big difference between non-existence and emptiness. Suppose we look at the glass. It is empty. The glass is empty, but the glass is not non-existent, right? In order to be empty, you have to be there. That is one thing you can learn—emptiness is not non-existence. The second thing is that when we say the glass is empty, you have to ask, “Empty of what?” It’s not empty of air. It is empty of tea, but it is full of air. So the intelligent question to ask is, “Empty of what?” The first answer may be: empty of a separate existence, empty of a separate self.

This is the simplest description in the Buddhist scriptures about emptiness, about interbeing: this is, because that is. As practitioners, we don’t just speak of emptiness as a teaching philosophy. We have to transform emptiness into a complete practice.

Signlessness is the second door of liberation. “Sign” means the appearance or the form. We are used to seeing the form that is the object of our perception. Nimita is the form. Animita is formlessness, or signlessness. The practice is not to be attached to the form, and this needs some training.

Those of us who have lost a loved one, we know grief. But if you are equipped with the concentration of signlessness, formlessness, you can overcome your grief, your sorrow, very quickly. You are capable of seeing things in the light of signlessness: nothing is born, nothing dies. Everything continues in this new form. You also! Your nature is the nature of deathlessness.

Aimlessness is the third door of liberation. Apranihita is the Sanskrit term. Apranihita means you don’t put anything in front of you as object of your pursuit. What you are looking for is already there, not outside of you. You are already what you want to become. You are wonderful just like that. Don’t try to be something else, someone else. You don’t have to go to the future in order to get what you want. Everything you are looking for, it is right here, in the here and the now, including the Kingdom of God, your immortality, your deathlessness. Your enlightenment is right here. And that is truly the third door of liberation: aimlessness.

The Concentration on Loving Kindness 

There is a concentration called maitri, karuna—love, compassion. And the contemplation on love, on compassion, can bring you a lot of relief, can bring the nectar of healing to you.

Suppose someone has made you suffer. You think of him or her as very cruel. That person has inflicted on you a lot of suffering, on your family, on your country. And because of that you want that person or that group of persons to suffer a lot for you to get relief. You are thinking in terms of punishment. That hate, that anger, that will to revenge is a kind of fire that continues to burn your body and your mind, and you are in hell. Hell is here in the here and the now.

Just before, we spoke about the Kingdom of God being in the here and the now. But that is true of hell. Hell can be in the here and the now. If we allow the flame of affliction to burn us, there are moments when lying on our bed we cannot sleep because our whole body, our whole being is burned by the fire of hate, of anger, of despair.

The concentration on maitri, on karuna, on compassion, will help you to suffer less.

With your attention focused on the other person, you can see that the other person suffers a lot also. The fact is that when someone suffers a lot and is not capable of handling his or her own suffering, she will spill her suffering all over, and you become a victim of that.

And you may be like that. You are suffering a lot, and if you don’t know how to manage your suffering, you continue to suffer and you will make others around you suffer, including the people you love.

Looking deeply, we see that the other person, as a child, did not have a chance to learn love and compassion from his or her parents. The parents have caused a lot of wounds in him, in her, as a child; and no one has helped him or her to heal the wounds in the child. And then when they went to school, the teacher did not help, and the students around did not help. The seeds of anger, suffering, and hate continued to grow.

Such a person needs help, not punishment. By looking deeply and recognizing the presence of suffering in that person, you might see the truth that that person needs help. And now if we punish him, he will suffer more.

This insight may motivate you to do something to help that person. With that kind of insight, the hate and anger vanish, because that insight brings the nectar of compassion. And the nectar of compassion is wonderful. You stop suffering right away. The fire that has been burning, stops burning. That is the effect of metta meditation, the meditation on compassion.

Compassion for a Suicide Bomber 

Nowadays we learn that there are many young people in the Mideast, they are ready to die, to blow themselves up with a bomb in order to kill as many as possible. We call them terrorists, and we believe that in order for the world to be peaceful, you have to kill all these terrorists. So you invest a lot of money and energy into what you call the war against terror. The more you kill, the more terrorists you create, because the killing is an act of punishment. Then the family and the friends of the one who is killed burn with the flame of anger, the will to punish. In killing one so-called terrorist, you create three, four terrorists more. That is what is happening.

There are many young people who suffer so much hate and despair, not only in Iraq, but also in Europe, in America. The number of young people who kill themselves every day is enormous. When you are burned by the flame of despair, of hate, of violence, you suffer so much. And as a young person, you don’t know much about your mind, about the practice. You believe that the only way to stop the suffering, the burning, is to kill yourself.

I guess for many young people, to die is much easier than to live, because they are overwhelmed by the emotions—of hate, of despair. And then you are told that by dying you might help the cause of justice, and you can go to paradise right away after death.

These kinds of perceptions and feelings lead to the act of suicide bombing. If you look deeply, you see that these people need help. And the operation to kill them is not the right answer. We have to help them to see there is a way out of suffering, that only love and compassion and understanding can solve the problem.

One side is using violence. The other side is responding with violence. And the situation goes on without a chance to stop. The way out is shown by the Buddha. Hate cannot respond to hate. Violence cannot respond to violence. There must be another way. The meditation on compassion is essential.

During the war in Vietnam we were able—myself and many friends of ours—to see that the young Americans who came to Vietnam to kill or to be killed were also victims of a wrong policy. With that kind of insight we tried to work for reconciliation rather than supporting one side of the war.

In my experience, the concentration on compassion is a wonderful practice. You may need only fifteen minutes of breathing deeply and looking deeply to recognize that the other person is a victim of his or her own suffering. That person needs you, needs your help, and does not need your punishment. Suddenly the nectar of compassion is born, your heart is blessed with that nectar, and you don’t suffer any more. Instead, you want to do something, to say something, and if you are not capable of loving speech you can write a letter. You can say something kind in order to help that person. But you cannot help that person until you have been able to help yourself. Peace and compassion always begin with yourself.

The Reality of Impermanence 

Exercise 13: Contemplating impermanence, I breathe in. Contemplating impermanence, I breathe out.

Impermanence is a key that can unlock the door of reality. It is also a concentration, a practice. Intellectually we know that things are impermanent. We can agree with the truth of impermanence. Our scientists also agree that things are impermanent. But in reality we still behave as though things are permanent.

We have to keep the insight of impermanence alive. When we come in touch with anything, we should be able to see the nature of impermanence in it.

mb43-dharma4We have to distinguish between the notion of impermanence and the insight of impermanence. We may have the notion of impermanence, we may have understood what impermanence is, but we do not have the insight of impermanence. The insight is something alive.

Impermanence is a fact that science has to recognize. When you are able to see the nature of impermanence, you’ll begin to see the nature of non-self. Because non-self is not different from impermanence. Since everything is changing in every second, nothing can remain itself in two consecutive moments. So impermanence means non-self. They are the same thing.

Looking from the angle of time, you say, impermanence. Looking from the angle of space, you say, non-self. They are exactly the same thing.

In the Pali canon, non-desire comes next. In the Chinese canon, throwing away is next.

Throwing Away What?

Exercise 14: Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go. Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

Throwing away is a wonderful practice. You might like to ask, “Throwing away what?” What is to be thrown away?

We have learned that wrong perceptions are the ground of all afflictions— fear, anger, discrimination, despair. So it’s easy to know that throwing away here means to throw away wrong perceptions—ideas or notions—that are at the base of our suffering. It is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation. You have an idea, and you entertain that idea for a long time, and you continue to suffer.

Every one of us entertains an idea about happiness. It may be because of that idea of happiness that we’ve never been happy. So it’s very important to throw away that notion of happiness.

A nation is a community of people, and they may entertain together one idea, one ideology. Each political party—the socialist party, for instance—entertains an idea. And we might get caught in that idea. An ideology may be a trap, and your nation may be caught in it for sixty, seventy years, and during that time you create a lot of suffering. Those who do not agree with that ideology, you put them in psychiatric hospitals. The moment you release that idea, happiness begins to be possible.

So throwing away is very important. It takes insight and courage in order to throw away an idea.

The word is “throwing away.” It’s very strong; it’s not just letting go. The Sanskrit, the Pali term, is “throwing away” in a very strong way. The Vietnamese meditation master Tang Hoi, he used the word phong xa for throwing away. Tang Hoi was the first teacher of meditation in Vietnam, who lived in the first half of the third century.

Insights from the Diamond Sutra 

The Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away four notions. The first notion is the notion of self. It is by intensive training that you can throw away the notion of self.

If a couple knows how to live in a spirit of non-self, there will be no difficulty, no anger, no discrimination, no despair, because they have realized the truth of non-self. If a father and son, mother and daughter, have the insight of non-self, they look at each other as interbeing.

mb43-dharma5There is the idea that I am this body. This body is mine, belongs to me. This is a notion that does not correspond to reality. When we say the words “I am,” we say it on the ground of the notion “I am,” and still people do not believe very much in that statement. That is why they try to justify it with a kind of argument.

In order to demonstrate that “I am” is a reality, René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” One day I saw a cartoon picturing Descartes touching a horse. He declared, “I think, therefore I am.” And the horse asked back, “You are what?” That is a good question. If you can answer what you are, you may have a better idea that is closer to reality.

In the scripture it is written, “This is, because that is.” This is a statement about interbeing. If you are not there, I cannot be here.

So it is very important to throw away the notion “I am,” the notion of self, because it does not reflect the truth. By looking deeply into the nature of reality, you are capable of throwing away that notion of “I am.”

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to throw away is the notion “man,” human being. This is not too difficult. When we look into the human being, we see human ancestors, we see animal ancestors, we see vegetable ancestors, we see mineral ancestors. We see that the human is made of non-human elements. We see that we are at the same time a rock, a river, a cloud, a squirrel, a rose. And if we take away all the non-human elements, the human being is no longer there.

This is the deepest teaching on deep ecology. In order to protect the human being, you have to protect elements that are not human, because these elements are our ancestors, and if you destroy them there is no way we can be here. That is why discrimination between man and nature is a wrong view. You have to see you as nature, one with nature.

That is why harmony, respect of life, is possible. So throw away the idea that the human being is the boss, man is the boss, man can do anything to nature. The key is contemplation on impermanence of non-self.

The first to be thrown away is the notion of self, the second is the notion of man. With liberation from that notion, we become less proud, less arrogant as a species. We have to respect and protect other species in order for us to have a chance. That is why we said the Diamond Sutra is the oldest text on deep ecology.

We have the notion of la matiere inerte. But if you look deeply into the notion that matter is something without soul, without life, we see that is not true.

First of all, matter is the object of our perceptions. For a long time we believed that matter exists as a separate entity, and matter is something that does not move. But now as science advances, we see that matter is not static and immobile as we thought. In fact, the atoms, the electrons, move a lot. They are very alive. And looking more deeply, we see a lot of our mind in it, and we are not sure that they are there, in the way we imagined. So the distinction between living beings and non-living beings disappears after meditation. There is no longer any discrimination.

The fourth notion to be thrown away is the notion of lifespan. We believe that there is time, and we are born at one point of time. Our birth begins here, and we shall die at another point of time—death. I’ll only spend seventy, eighty, ninety or one hundred years on this planet. After that, I’ll be gone. This is what we believe. But as we look deeply, we see that this is a notion, a wrong perception. Birth is a notion, and death is also a notion. It’s not reality.

We have spoken of the deathlessness of a cloud. The cloud can never die. It can only become rain or snow. In our mind, to die means from something you become nothing; from someone you become no one. But if you look deeply you don’t see anything like that. A cloud can never die. If we look deeply we see that the nature of the cloud is also the nature of no birth. In our mind, to be born means from nothing we become something. From no one we suddenly become someone.

The cloud does not come from nothing. It has come from the water in the river, in the ocean. It has come from the sunshine, the heat. And you know that the birth of a cloud is a poetic image. It is a new manifestation. Before being a cloud, the cloud has been many other things.

Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Birth and death are notions that cannot be applied to reality, because nothing can be born from nothing, and nothing can become nothing at all. This meditation practice of looking deeply will bring about insight. It will dissipate our fear and our despair.

Those are the four basic notions that are at the foundation of our fear, our desperation, our suffering. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to practice looking deeply, so that we can throw them away. The practice of throwing away your notions, your views, is so important. Emancipation and liberation would not be possible without this practice of throwing away.

If we suffer a lot, it’s because we still entertain a number of ideas. The practice of meditation helps us to get free from these ideas.

Our World Needs Wisdom 

So the object of our meditation is not something alien to our daily life. The way proposed by the Buddha is to help yourself and to help the people around you. It is to practice looking more deeply in order to be liberated from these notions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence.

Writing a letter to a suicide bomber is true meditation. Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight. As a teacher, as a parent, a journalist, a filmmaker, you are capable of sharing your insight so that you can wake up your nation, your people. And if your nation, your people, are awake, then your government will have to act according to the insight of the people.

Meditation is essential for our survival, our peace, our protection. In fact, it is wrong views that are at the base of our suffering, and throwing away wrong views is the most important, most urgent thing.

To come to a retreat is not to get away from it all. To come to a retreat is an opportunity to look deeper, and to see exactly where we are.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Greg Sever and Janelle Combelic.

 

The Sutra on Mindful Breathing

This is what I have heard at a time when the Buddha was residing in the Jeta Grove in the town of Sravasti.

On that day, the World-Honored One told the Bhikshus:

“Dear friends, let us enjoy the practice of Mindful Breathing. If a Bhikshu knows how to skillfully practice Mindful Breathing, and does so consistently, he will find his body and mind peaceful; he will acquire positive investigations and reflections; his mind will be calm and pure; and he will have perceptions leading to Wisdom and be able to bring his practice to completion.

“This is how a bhikshu should proceed:

“Whether the bhikshu lives in a village or in a town, in the morning he puts on his sanghati, holds his begging bowl, and goes into town for alms round. While doing so, he knows how to protect his body and his six senses, his mind skillfully focused on whatever is present. After the alms round, he returns to his dwelling, puts his sanghati and begging bowl away, washes his feet, goes into the forest, to an empty room, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty space in the open air, and sits down in an upright position. He holds his mindfulness in front of him, releases all worldly pursuits, and lets go of his anger, torpor, restlessness, regret and doubt, his mind determined to be in accord with wholesome dharmas, leaving far behind the five hindrances that cause afflictions, weaken his wisdom and constitute an obstacle on the path of Nirvana.

1. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his out-breath.

2. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in a long or a short in-breath, fully aware of his long or short in-breath.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out a long or a short out-breath, fully aware of his long or short out-breath.

3. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, fully aware of his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, fully aware of his whole body.

4. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, relaxing his whole body.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, relaxing his whole body.

5. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing joy.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing joy.

6. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, experiencing happiness.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, experiencing happiness.

7. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his feelings.

8. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, calming his feelings.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, calming his feelings.

9. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, aware of his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, aware of his mind.

10. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, gladdening his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, gladdening his mind.

11. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, concentrating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, concentrating his mind.

12. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, liberating his mind.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, liberating his mind.

13. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating impermanence.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating impermanence.

14. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating letting go.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating letting go.

15. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating non-desire.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating non-desire.

16. “Skillfully, he practices breathing in, contemplating cessation.
Skillfully, he practices breathing out, contemplating cessation.

“Bhikshus! That is how the practice of Mindful Breathing helps make our body and mind peaceful, helps us acquire positive investigations and reflections, makes our mind calm and pure, helps us have perceptions leading to Wisdom, and brings our practice to completion.”

After the Buddha had finished his teaching, the bhikshus, having listened to the Buddha, happily put the teachings into practice.

Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 2, No. 99, Tsa A Han (No. 29) 803.
Chinese translated from Sanskrit by Gunabhadra, A.D. 435-443 ( Liu Song period ).
Translated from Chinese by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Dharma Talk: Karma, Continuation, and the Noble Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Good morning, dear friends. Today is August 5, 2005. We’re in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village on the last day of our summer session.

 Thich Nhat Hanh

Today I would like to speak about reincarnation, rebirth, and continuation. If we look at an orange tree we can see that it makes an effort every day to have a long continuation. Every day the orange tree makes leaves, and in the spring it makes orange flowers, which become tiny oranges. In those oranges are seeds, and that is how the orange tree assures its continuation. The orange tree has to continue.

And we do, too. We are humans and it is a natural tendency to prepare ourselves to continue. So continuation, rebirth, reincarnation is normal. How do we continue ourselves? This question begins our meditation together. Every time you produce a thought, that thought is a continuation. That thought will have effects on us, on our body, our mind, and on the world. The effect of that thought is our continuation. Producing a thought is the cause; the effect is how that thought impacts us and the world.

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To think is an action. Because the thought may be very strong, it may be painful, it can modify our body, it can change our mind, it can change the world. So thought is a form of action.

In Buddhism we use the word karma. Karma is action, action as cause and action as fruit. When action is a cause, we call it karmahetu. The Chinese word for karmahetu contains the character for karma and a character that means “seed.” When we produce a thought, the production of the thought is a karmahetu, karma-cause. That thought will have an effect on our mental and physical health and on the health of the world. And that health, good or bad, is the fruit of the karma, the fruit of the thought. Karmaphala is the karma-fruit. So karma is action, action in the cause and action in the fruit.

Right Thinking 

When we produce a thought, we have to ensure that the thought is a good thought, a right thought, because if it is, it will bring us physical and mental health, and it will help the world to heal itself. Our practice is to try to live in such a way that every day we produce only good thoughts, thoughts in the direction of right thinking. We have to train ourselves to do that. A bad thought can destroy the physical and moral health of ourselves and of the world. So we have to be careful to produce only good thoughts.

Right thinking is recommended to all of us by the Buddha. It’s action in the form of thought. Each time we produce a thought, that thought carries our signature. You cannot say, “No, I didn’t produce that thought.” That is karma. Karma-cause, karma-fruit. If it is a cause, it will lead to a fruit—the fruit will be bitter or the fruit will be sweet, depending on the nature of the karma.

Right Speech 

First, we have to understand that thinking is action. When we say some thing, that speech will have an effect on our body, on our mind, and on the world. Good speech will give us joy and health — physical and moral health — and it will change the world in the direction of goodness. We should produce right speech, which inspires understanding, joy, hope, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Your speech is the seed, it is the cause. And what it produces in you and in the world is the karmaphala, the karma-fruit. Action as cause and action as fruit.

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Sometimes action-fruit manifests immediately after the action-cause. Sometimes it takes months or years before it leads to a result, but sooner or later the cause must become the effect.

Right Action

The third kind of action is the physical act, the act carried out by the body. With the body you can do things. You can kill a person, you can kill an animal, you can kill a tree. You can save a person, you can save an animal, you can save a tree. The Buddha recommends right action because the action will have an effect on your physical and moral health as well as the world’s. We have to ensure that our actions are in the direction of right action.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher in the existential tradition. He said that man is the sum of his actions. When a child is born, he hasn’t acted yet, so he cannot be defined. But as the man begins to act, we can look at his actions and see the man. Man is defined by his acts. What Jean-Paul Sartre said is very close to Buddhism.

But Sartre’s declaration was not detailed enough, because we need to include thoughts. Our speech comes from what we are thinking; thinking is at the base of all speech and of all action. We may say that man is the sum of his thoughts, his words, and his acts. I think that Jean-Paul Sartre would agree, because in using the word “acts” he meant to include thinking and speech. Thinking as action, speech as action.

Thoughts, speech, and action create karma, and we produce this energy every moment of our daily life. You continue to say things, you continue to do things, and every thought, every word, every act of yours carries your signature. And that is your continuation. It is never lost.

The scientist Lavoisier, said, “Nothing is lost.” He’s a Buddhist, essentially. Nothing is created, nothing is lost. What you have produced as thoughts, as speech, as acts, continues to influence the world, and that is your continuation. Your continuation is your rebirth and your reincarnation. Nothing is lost. So you have to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

We want to continue in beauty. And we know that in order to continue in beauty we have to ensure that our thoughts are right thoughts, our speech is right speech, and our acts are right action. These are three branches of the Noble Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.

Right View 

What is right view? Right view is our way of understanding the world; it brings insight into the ultimate reality. We are so often the victims of wrong views, and based on wrong views we create suffering for ourselves and others. So we have to avoid wrong views, wrong perceptions. If we continue to suffer because of violence and terrorism, it is because we need right view. The terrorists have a wrong view of themselves and of others, and the anti-terrorists also have wrong views about themselves and about the terrorists. Based on wrong views, we keep killing each other, so we have to look more deeply to obtain right view. With right view we will be able to stop the violence and terrorism. Right view is the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action, and that is why the Buddha began with right view.

The Buddha describes right view in a precise, deep, and clear way. A right view reflects wisdom, the nature of existence.

Impermanence

For example, the Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, of phenomena, and other wise men have also spoken of this. For example, Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly changing. It is a fact that everything changes. Right view goes in tandem with the insight of impermanence. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have right view we don’t suffer, and we can create happiness.

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This is not just philosophy, it is life. For example, when you have difficulties with your partner, and you are about to argue with each other, the Buddha would say to you, “Dear friends, close your eyes. Imagine your beloved in three hundred years. What will she become?” When you can see what happens three hundred years from now, you see that it’s not wise to argue, because life is impermanent. If you can touch impermanence, when you open your eyes you will no longer be angry. You’re saved, because of the insight of impermanence.

Intellectually, maybe you agree that things are impermanent, but in your practical life, you act as if things are permanent. The Buddha does not speak of impermanence as a philosophy, but as a practice. We should practice concentration on impermanence. For example, all day, when you look, when you listen to something, you should get in touch with the insight on impermanence.

Looking at a flower, you see that it is impermanent. Looking at a person, you see that he or she is impermanent. So the insight on impermanence stays with us all the time, and that is why it is not a theory, but a concentration. It is the concentration on impermanence that will save you, and not the idea of impermanence.

With mindfulness we can keep the insight on impermanence alive and that will protect us from producing wrong thinking or wrong speech. So right view is the view that contains the nature of impermanence.

Non-self 

We imagine that every person has a separate soul that remains the same forever, even as the body ages and decomposes. This is a wrong view, because it goes against the truth of impermanence. Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. So if we accept the reality of impermanence, we have to also accept the truth of non-self.

Impermanence is seen from the perspective of time. The same thing viewed from the perspective of space is non-self. Non-self and impermanence are the same thing.

When the son sees the father as a different person, as someone who has caused a lot of suffering and difficulty for him, he wants to punish his father with his words and actions. He doesn’t know that to make his dad suffer is to make himself suffer at the same time. You need to understand that you and your dad share the same reality. You are the continuation of your dad. If your dad suffers, you will also suffer, and if you can help your dad not to suffer, then your happiness will be possible. With the insight of non-self we can avoid many mistakes, because non-self translates into right view.

Terrorists and anti-terrorists think of themselves as two different entities. The anti-terrorist says, “We must punish the terrorist, we have to eliminate him.” And the terrorist also thinks that the other person is the cause of the suffering in the world, and in order to survive, he has to be eliminated. They don’t know that they are the same.

All the parties in a conflict have to understand the insight of non-self. If the other side continues to suffer, if there’s no safety, peace, or understanding on the other side, there won’t be safety, peace, or understanding on our side. When both sides realize that they inter-are, when they touch the nature of non-self, then there will be right view. With right view we will think, speak, and act in the right way, and then safety can become a reality. Right view is a view of reality that translates into impermanence, non-self, and interbeing.

Interbeing

When we look deeply into a flower we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds, manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. So when I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud, touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. With the eye of the Buddha, we see the clouds and the rain in the flower. And we can touch the sun, without burning our fingers. Without the sun nothing can grow, so we cannot take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be separate; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.

The same is true for me, for you, and for the Buddha. The Buddha has to inter-be with everything. Interbeing and non-self are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily life we can touch the truth of interbeing, of non-self in every moment. You are in touch with the clouds, with the rain, with the children, with the trees, with the rivers, and that contact reveals the true nature of reality, the nature of impermanence, the nature of interbeing, of non-self, of interdependence. If you can touch reality like that, you will have right view. And when you have right view, all your thoughts will be right, all your words will be right, and all your actions will be right.

This is why cultivating right view is the basis of the practice of Buddhism. And we can practice as an individual, as a community, as a city, as a nation. If we are shut in the prison of permanence, of self, we cannot obtain right view. In order to cultivate right view, we have to have concentration. We have plenty of intelligence to understand the notions of impermanence and non-self but the notions do not help us. That’s why we have to train ourselves to see things in their true nature. We have to keep this insight alive in every moment. That is why concentration is very important.

Right Concentration 

The Sanskrit word for right concentration is samadhi. The notions of impermanence and non-self are useful, but they are not powerful enough to liberate you, to give you a right view. So you have to have concentration. Samadhi prajna is right view, insight, which is at the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action. But to cultivate prajna we have to practice concentration. We have to live in concentration, to touch deeply into things in every moment. We live deeply when we can see the nature of impermanence, of non-self, and of interbeing in the flower, and we can do this thanks to the practice of concentration. Without samadhi there is no prajna, there is no insight. So concentration is a door that opens onto the ultimate reality. It gives us right view.

Right Mindfulness 

But before we can have concentration, we have to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is smrti.

Mindfulness is the energy that can help us bring the mind back to the body so that we can establish ourselves in the present moment. In that way we can look at the blue sky. We can look at the clouds. We can look at the child who is sitting in front of us. And we touch deeply the wonders of life. That’s mindfulness.

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Mindfulness is the capacity of recognizing what is happening in the present moment. When pain manifests, we will be able to embrace that pain, in order to transform it. With strong mindfulness, we can realize the Kingdom of God is available, and the joy of living is possible.

Andre Gide said that God is happiness. I like that. And he said, “God is available twenty-four hours a day.” I also agree with him on that. If God is available twenty-four hours a day, then His kingdom is also available. The only question is whether we are available for the Kingdom of God, available for happiness. Mindfulness makes us available to the Kingdom of God, to the wonders of life that are here, in the present moment. I know there are many Buddhists in France, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Andre Gide, and the scientist Lavoisier.

Mindfulness is what we practice in Plum Village. We walk in such a way that every step produces mindfulness. When we breathe, when we wash our hands, when we cook, we do all that in mindfulness. Generating the energy of mindfulness is the basic practice because mindfulness is the carrier, the bringer of concentration.

When you are mindful of something, you are concentrated. The energy of concentration is in the mindfulness. As you continue, that concentration will become stronger and stronger. With vigorous concentration you can make a breakthrough into reality, and then you can touch impermanence as a reality. You can touch interbeing, non-self.

The Buddha began with right view, but I would like to begin with mindfulness.

Right Livelihood 

Then we have right livelihood, our work, our job. The Five Mindfulness Trainings instruct us to choose a livelihood that will help us produce right thoughts, right words, and right actions. Unfortunately, there are kinds of work that harm us, that harm the environment, that bring violence. We have to look with mindfulness, to see what kind of work to have, so that we will be able to practice right thinking, right speech, and right action in our work.

Schoolteachers can practice in such a way that their thoughts, their words, and their actions nourish their students every moment of the day. The children in their class may have a lot of suffering. Perhaps their parents have not offered them enough of the appropriate kinds of food. They have not had the chance to receive right thinking, right speech, and right actions, and they’ve been wounded.

As a teacher, you look at the child and you see the suffering. And you know with right thinking, right speech, and right action you will be able to heal the child’s wounds. You have the ability to give that child a second chance by playing the role of the dad, the mom, for the child. The class can become a family. If you’re a doctor or a therapist, you can do the same thing. If you have understanding and compassion, you have a lot of power because when people come to you, your right thoughts will help heal people. You can help them because you have healed yourself by developing the energy of understanding and compassion.

The Buddha spoke of right livelihood, not only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Right livelihood helps you produce right thinking and right speech. We need to take the time to look at our work, to see whether it supports us in producing right thinking and right speech every day. 

Good thoughts always go with understanding and love. An occupation that causes you to produce thoughts of anger and of discrimination is not good for your health or for the health of the world. You may have to accept another form of work with a lower salary that will give you the chance to generate good thoughts and good speech. It’s possible to live in a healthier, happier way. If you have right view, you will have enough courage to stop the course of violence and of attachment. So right livelihood is very important, and we can define this in terms of right thinking, right speech, and right action.

Right Effort 

The eighth is right diligence, right effort. The Buddha taught how to cultivate and take care of our energy, and he also taught how to practice conserving energy. In Buddhist psychology, we see our consciousness as having two layers. The lower layer is called the store. It’s always operating, even in our sleep. The store receives information and classifies it, and it makes a lot of decisions without the intervention of the mind consciousness, which is the upper layer.

When you drive a car you think it’s the mind consciousness that is driving, but actually a large part of the work is done by the store, without our conscious thinking. When you do your everyday work, the store plays an important role.

When the store operates, it takes less metabolic energy than the mind does. The mind consciousness takes a lot more sugar, glycogen, and protein to work. At the level of the store things are done very quickly and inexpensively, so most things are handled by the store and the mind consciousness does just the final part. In the store many seeds are buried, good seeds and bad seeds. The seed of anger is there. The seed of despair is there. The seed of meanness, the seed of compassion, are there. The seed of joy is there. So to cultivate right effort the Buddha proposed four practices.

Four Practices for Cultivating Right Effort 

The first practice is, don’t water the bad seeds. You know that there are negative seeds in you, and if they manifest, you will suffer. So let them sleep peacefully. When you watch a film, when you read a newspaper, when you listen to music, there is a chance that a seed will be watered and will manifest. We have to consume in mindfulness so that the bad seeds are not watered. When we love each other we have to sign a peace treaty. “Darling, I promise never to water the bad seeds in you or in me, and you have to do the same. You have those seeds. You must not water them in you, and don’t water them in me.” 

The second practice is that every time a bad mental formation manifests, we have to make it go back to sleep, because if we keep it here too long, then it strengthens down in the base. If we leave it up in the mind for an hour, then that seed has an hour of strengthening. It’s dangerous. 

The third practice is to allow the good seeds to be watered so they have a chance to manifest in the mind. For example, a Dharma talk is a kind of rain that can water the good seeds in you. When they manifest in the mind consciousness, the landscape will be much more beautiful. 

The fourth practice is when the good seed has already manifested, we help it to stay in the mind consciousness as long as possible. Like when you have a friend who comes to visit bringing good news, you try to keep that friend with you as long as possible. 

That is the teaching of the Buddha on right effort, diligence, and conserving energy. It’s very concrete and practical and is done in a natural, relaxed way. We don’t need to fight or struggle; we don’t have to make exhausting efforts. Naturally and with a lot of pleasure, we can enjoy the practice. 

These are the eight right practices representing the Noble Eightfold Path proposed by the Buddha to all of us. If a teaching can reveal the Noble Path, it is an authentic teaching of the Buddha. 

The Right View of Reincarnation 

Continuation is happening now, because every day you continue to produce thoughts, words, and actions that carry your signature. We don’t have to wait until this body decomposes to continue. 

Most people think of reincarnation in terms of a permanent soul. This is popular Buddhism. But we have to rise to the level of right view. Continuation is a necessity, it is a truth. But this continuation must be seen in the light of non-self, of impermanence. 

If, for example, you want to recognize my continuation, do not look in this direction. [Thay points to himself.] There is a part of my continuation in this direction, but when you look all around you, you will see other forms of the continuation. So don’t wait for the body to decompose. We’ve already begun our continuation. You know that you have the power to change. You can ensure a beautiful continuation. Let’s suppose that yesterday you produced a thought that was not worthy of you, and today you’re sorry. You think, “I don’t want to be continued in that way.” You can correct it, you can transform that continuation. 

If you have touched right view, you will be able to produce a different thought, a thought that is worthy of you today, a thought that carries within it understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. The moment you produce this wonderful thought, it will go out and catch the other thought that you produced yesterday. And in the space of half a second it will be able to transform that thought. 

So you have the chance to correct the past; this is wonderful. We say that the past is already gone, but the past is always returning with its new manifestations, and with those manifestations we can correct it. 

If you have said something that’s not worthy of you, say something else today, and that will transform everything. Do something different today based on right view and transform the whole situation. That is possible. 

If you have a Sangha that supports you, if you are supported by the collective right view, then it’s very easy to produce such thoughts, such words, such actions, to transform everything right now, today, to ensure a good future, a good continuation. 

The teaching of the Buddha is very deep, and at the same time very practical. This teaching has the capacity to heal us, to transform our pain, our fear. It’s good to have enough time to learn more about these teachings and put them into practice in our daily life. 

Translated from the French by Sr. Pine Tree.
Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Janelle Combelic. 

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Dharma Talk: True Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha, today is the twenty-third of June, 2005 and we are in the Lovingkindness Temple in the New Hamlet.  

Happiness is a practice. We should distinguish between happiness and excitement, and even joy. Many people in the West, especially in North America, think of excitement as happiness. They are thinking of something, or expecting something that they consider to be happiness, and, for them, that is already happiness. But when you are excited you are not really peaceful. True happiness should be based on peace, and in true happiness there is no longer any excitement.

mb40-dharma2Suppose you are walking in a desert and you are dying of thirst. Suddenly you see an oasis and you know that once you get there, there will be a stream of water and you can drink so you will survive. Although you have not actually seen or drunk the water you feel something: that is excitement, that is hope, that is joy, but not happiness yet. In Buddhist psychology we distinguish clearly between excitement, joy, and happiness. True happiness must be founded on peace. Therefore, if you don’t have peace in yourself you have not experienced true happiness.

Training Yourself to Be Happy 

You have to cultivate happiness; you cannot buy it in the supermarket. It is like playing tennis: you cannot buy the joy of playing tennis in the supermarket. You can buy the ball and the racket, but you cannot buy the joy of playing. In order to experience the joy of tennis you have to learn, to train yourself to play. In the same way, you have to cultivate happiness.

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to train yourself to be happy. You are here, and you look in the distance and see a pine tree. You make the determination that while walking to the pine tree, you will enjoy every step, that every step will provide you with peace and happiness. Peace and happiness that have the power to nourish, to heal, to satisfy.

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There are those of us who are capable of going from here to the pine tree in that way, enjoying every step we make. We are not disturbed by anything: not by the past, not by the future; not by projects, not by excitement. Not even by joy, because in joy there is still excitement and not enough peace. And if you are well-trained in walking meditation, with each step you can experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment. You are capable of truly touching the earth with each step. You see that being alive, being established fully in the present moment and taking one step and touching the wonders of life in that step can be a wonder, and you live that wonder every moment of walking. If you have the capacity to walk like that, you are walking in the Kingdom of God or in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

So you may challenge yourself: I will do walking meditation from here to the pine tree. I vow that I will succeed. If you are not free, your steps will not bring you happiness and peace. So cultivating happiness is also cultivating freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the things that upset you, that keep you from being peaceful, that prevent you from being fully present in the here and the now.

One nun wrote to Thay that she has a friend visiting Plum Village. Her friend did not take the monastic path; instead she married, and now has a family, a job, a house, a car, and everything she needs for her life. She’s lucky because her husband is a good man; he does not create too many problems. Her job is enjoyable, with a salary above average. Her house is beautiful. She thinks of her relationship as a good one although it is not as she expected; sure, you can never have exactly what you expect.

And yet, she does not feel happy and she is depressed. Intellectually she knows that in terms of comfort, she has everything. Many of us think of happiness in these terms, as having material and emotional comforts. Not many people are as successful as that friend, and she knows that she is fortunate. And yet she is not happy.

We Are Immune to Happiness 

We have the tendency to think of happiness as something we will obtain in the future. We expect happiness. We think that now we don’t have the conditions we think we need to be happy, but that once we have them, happiness will be there. For example, you want to have a diploma because you think that without that diploma you cannot be happy. So you think of the diploma day and night and you do everything to get that diploma because you believe that diploma will bring you happiness. And you forecast that happiness will be there tomorrow, when you get the diploma. There may be joy and satisfaction in the days and weeks that follow the moment you receive your diploma, but you adapt to that new condition very quickly, and in just a few weeks you don’t feel happy anymore. You become used to having a diploma. So that kind of excitement, that kind of happiness is very short-lived. We are immune to happiness; we get used to our happiness, and after a while we don’t feel happy any longer.

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People have made studies of poor people who have won lotteries and have become millionaires. The studies found that after two or three months the person returns to the emotional state they were in before winning the lottery. From two to three months. And during the three months there is not exactly happiness; there is a lot of thinking, a lot of excitement, a lot of planning and so on––not exactly happiness. But three months later, he falls back to exactly the same emotional level as he was before winning the lottery. So having a lot of money does not mean you will be happy.

Perhaps you want to marry someone, thinking that if you can’t marry him or her, then you cannot be happy. You believe that happiness will be great after you marry that person. After you marry, you may have a time of happiness, but eventually happiness vanishes. There is no longer any excitement, any joy, and of course, no happiness. What you get is not what you expected. Then perhaps you know that what you have attained will not continue for a long time. Even if you have a good job, you are not sure you can keep it for a long time. You may be laid off, so underneath there is fear and uncertainty. This type of happiness, without peace, has the element of fear and cannot be true happiness. The person you are living with may betray you one day; you cannot be sure that person will be faithful to you for a long time. So fear and uncertainty is present also. To preserve these so-called conditions of happiness you have to be busy all day long. And with these worries, uncertainties, and busyness, you don’t feel happy and you become depressed.

So we learn that happiness is not something we get after we obtain the so-called conditions of happiness: namely, the material and emotional comforts. True happiness does not depend on these comforts; nothing can remove it from you. When we come to a practice center, we are looking to learn how to cultivate true happiness.

The Buddha’s Teaching on Happiness 

When I was a young monk people told me that the teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in four short sentences. I was not impressed when I read these four sentences. People asked the Buddha how to be happy and he said that all the Buddhas teach the same thing:

Refrain from doing bad things
Try to do good things
And learn to subdue, purify your mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas. (1)  

Very simple; and because of that, I was not impressed. I said, “Everyone agrees that you have to do good things and refrain from doing bad things. To subdue and purify your mind is too vague.” But after sixty years of practice I have another idea of the teaching. I see now it is very deep, and that it is a real teaching of happiness.

Let us consider together. The gatha I learned is in Chinese, in four lines, and each line contains four words.

The bad things, don’t do it.
The good things, try to do it.

It does not seem to be very deep: nothing spectacular about it. Everyone knows, the good things you should do and the bad things you should not do. You don’t need to be a Buddha to give such a teaching. So I was not impressed. The third line and fourth lines are:

Try to purify, subdue your own mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas.

Now I understand that the bad things you should refrain from are those that create suffering for you and for other people, including other living beings and the environment. But how can you recognize something as good to do, or as bad to do? Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you to know that this is a good thing to do and this is a bad thing to do; to know that if you do these bad things you bring suffering to you and to the people around you. So the bad things bring suffering to you and others. This is a very simple and yet precise definition of good and bad. And of course, the good things are the things that bring you joy and true happiness. Anything that is good, try to do it. That means anything that can bring peace, stability, and joy to you and to other people. It is easy to say, it is easy to understand, but it is not easy to do or to refrain from doing. The first two things depend entirely on the third thing: to purify, subdue your mind. The mind is the ground of everything.

The Most Special Thing in Buddhism 

If there is confusion in your mind, if there is anger and craving in your mind, then your mind is not pure, your mind is not subdued, and even if you want to do good things you cannot do them, and even if you want to refrain from doing bad things you cannot. And that is why the ground, the root, is your mind.

When you refrain from doing bad things you are practicing compassion, because refraining from doing bad things means not bringing suffering to you or to other people. Practicing compassion is practicing happiness, because happiness is the absence of suffering. And then:

Try to do good things: karuna, maitri. This teaching is the practice of love, of compassion, and of lovingkindness. When you understand, the first two sentences have a lot of meaning. You practice love, you practice compassion, you practice lovingkindness and you know that practicing love brings happiness. Happiness cannot be without love. The Buddhas recommend us to love, and the concrete way is to refrain from causing suffering and to offer happiness.

You can do this easily and beautifully only when you know how to subdue your mind, how to purify your mind. This is very special. If you ask the question, “What is the most special thing in Buddhism?” the answer is that it is the art of subduing your mind, of purifying your mind. Because Buddhism gives us the concrete teaching so that we can purify, subdue, and transform our mind. And once our mind is purified, subdued, and transformed, then happiness becomes possible. With a mind that still has a lot of confusion, anger, craving, and misunderstanding, there can be no love and no happiness for oneself and for the world. So the most important thing you should learn is the art of subduing and purifying your mind. If you have not got that, you have not got anything from Buddhism.

T.S. Eliot was a poet, playwright, and critic, born in Boston in 1888. When he grew up he went to Europe and he liked it there so he became a British citizen. His poetry is a kind of meditation; he tries to look deeply and many of his poems are like gathas presenting his understanding. He said that he always tried to look deeply; those are the words he used: to look deeply, to understand the roots of suffering. He found out that the mind is the root of all suffering; our own mind is the foundation of all the suffering we have. That is exactly what the Buddha said. The suffering we have to bear and undergo all comes from within our mind, a mind that is not purified, that is not transformed and subdued. But T.S. Eliot only said half of what the Buddha said. The Buddha said that all suffering comes from the mind, but also that all happiness comes from the mind. All happiness too. So the mind that remains unsubdued, untransformed, confused with hatred and discrimination, brings a lot of unhappiness and suffering; but the purified and subdued mind can bring a lot of happiness to yourself and the people around you.

When you walk from here to the pine tree you begin with one step, and you train yourself in such a way that that step has within it the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you really practice walking meditation, you will find out that every step you make can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, bringing you a lot of happiness. Because the three elements–– mindfulness, concentration, and insight–– purify and subdue your mind and bring out all the goodness of your mind. When you walk like this, you are first aware that you are making a step: that is the energy of mindfulness. I am here. I am alive. I am making a step. You step and you know you are making a step. That is mindfulness of walking. The mindfulness helps you to be in the here and the now, fully present, fully alive so that you can make the step. Master Linji said, “The miracle is not to walk on air, or on water, or on fire. The real miracle is to walk on earth.” And walking like that––with mindfulness, concentration, and insight––is performing a miracle. You are truly alive. You are truly present, touching the wonders of life within you and around you. That is a miracle.

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Most of us walk like sleepwalkers. We walk, but we are not there. We don’t experience life, or the wonders of life. There is no joy. We are sleepwalking through our own life and our life is a dream. Buddhism is about waking up from your dream. Awakening. One mindful step can be a factor of awakening that brings you to life, that brings you the miracle of being alive. And when mindfulness is there, concentration is there, because mindfulness contains concentration. You can be less or more concentrated. You may be fifty, sixty, or ninety percent concentrated on your step, but the more concentrated the more you have a chance to break through into insight. Mindfulness, concentration, insight: smirti, samadhi, prajna. Every step you make can generate these three powers, these three energies. And if you are a strong practitioner then these three energies are very powerful and every step can bring you a lot of happiness, the happiness of a Buddha.

Mindfulness and concentration bring insight. Insight is a product of the practice. It is like the flower or fruit of the practice. Like an orange tree offers blossoms and oranges. What kind of insight? The insight of impermanence, of no-self, and interbeing.

Happiness Is Impermanent 

Impermanence means that everything is changing, including the happiness that you are experiencing. The step you are making allows you to get in touch with the Kingdom of God, with the Pure Land of the Buddha, with all the wonders of life that bring happiness. But that happiness is also impermanent. It lasts only for one step; if the next step does not have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then happiness will die. However, you know that you are capable of making a second step which also generates the three powers of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so you have the power to make happiness last longer. Happiness is impermanent; we know the law of impermanence, and that is why we know that we can continue to generate the next moment of happiness. Just as when we ride a bicycle, we continue to pedal so that the movement can continue.

Happiness is impermanent but it can be renewed, and that is insight. You are also impermanent and renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. Although it is impermanent, happiness is possible; the same with you. And if happiness can be renewed, so can you; because you in the next moment is the renewal of you. You are always changing, so you are experiencing impermanence in your happiness and in yourself. It’s wonderful to know that happiness can last only one in-breath or one step, because we know that we can renew it in another step or another breath, provided we know the art of generating mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

The Insight of Interbeing

Happiness is no-self, because the nature of happiness is interbeing. That is why you are not looking for happiness as an individual. You are making happiness with the insight of interbeing. The father knows that if the son is not happy then he cannot be truly happy, so while the father seeks his own happiness, he also seeks happiness for his son. And that is why the first two sentences have a wonderful meaning. Your mindful steps are not for you alone, they are for your partner and friends as well. Because the moment you stop suffering, the other person profits. You are not cultivating your individual happiness. You are walking for him, for her, you are walking for all of us. Because if you have some peace in you, that is not only good for you but good for all of us.

With that mindful step, it might look as though you are practicing as an individual. You are trying to do something for yourself. You are trying to find some peace, some stability, some happiness. It looks egoistic, when you have not touched the nature of no-self. But, with insight, you see that everything good that you are doing for yourself you are doing for all of us. You don’t have a self-complex anymore. And that is the insight of interbeing.

If, in a family of four, only one person practices, that practice will benefit all four, not only the practitioner. When that person practices correctly, she gets the insight of no-self and she knows that she’s doing it for everyone. Just as when she cleans the toilet, she cleans the toilet for everyone, not just herself.

When a feeling of anger or discrimination manifests, the practitioner recognizes that to allow such an energy to continue is not healthy for oneself or for others in the world. The practitioner practices mindfulness of breathing, of walking, in order to recognize the feeling of anger, to embrace the anger, to look deeply into the nature of the anger, and to know that practicing in order to transform your anger is to practice happiness for yourself and other people. If you don’t practice like that, anger will push you to do things or say things that will make you and others suffer. That is not something to do, but something not to do. And when you practice looking deeply into the nature of your anger, you are doing it for yourself and you are doing it for the world and you have the insight of no-self.

With the insight of no-self you no longer seek the kind of happiness that will make other people suffer. The insight of impermanence will help bring the insight of no-self. And no-self means interdependence, interconnectedness, interbeing. This is the kind of insight that can liberate you and can liberate the world. With that kind of practice you subdue your mind, you purify your mind. A mind that is not purified or subdued contains a lot of delusion. And that is why practicing looking deeply to see the nature of impermanence and no-self means to take away the element of ignorance and delusion within yourself. That is to purify yourself. When the element of ignorance is no longer there, the element of anger will be transformed. You get angry at him or her or them because you still have the mind of discrimination. He is your enemy. He makes you suffer. He is to be punished. All these thoughts are no longer there because you have already touched the nature of no-self.

Purify Your Mind 

To purify your mind is to transform your way of perceiving things, to remove wrong perceptions. When you are able to remove your wrong perceptions you are also able to remove your anger, your hate, your discrimination, and your craving. Because if you crave something, it means you have not seen the true nature of that thing. If you think of happiness in terms of fame, profit, power, and sex, it is not a correct idea of happiness, because you have seen people who have plenty of these things but suffer so much from depression and want to kill themselves. Understanding that you have wisdom within you frees you from craving. In the teachings of the Buddha, our mind can be intoxicated by many kinds of poison: the first is craving, the second is hate or violence, and the third is delusion. The three poisons. To purify your mind is to neutralize and transform these poisons in you. You neutralize these poisons by the three powers: mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

When your mind is purified, it is so easy to do good things and to refrain from doing bad things. But if your mind is still unpurified––filled with hatred, anger, delusion, and craving––you have a hard time doing good things and refraining from doing bad things. That is why this is the ground of every kind of action that benefits you and benefits the world.

We have invented many types of machines that save a lot of time. We can do wonders with a computer. A computer can work a hundred, a thousand times faster than a typewriter. In farming, it used to take several weeks to plough the fields; now you can do it in a few days. You don’t have to wash your clothes by hand anymore, there’s a washing machine. You don’t have to go fetch the water, the water comes to your kitchen. We have found many ways to save labor, and yet we are much busier than our ancestors were. Everyone is busy; that is a contradiction. Why is that? Because we have acquired so much and we are afraid of losing these things, so we have to work so hard to keep and maintain them. That is why even if you have a lot, you still suffer and become depressed.

Manufacturers of medicine will tell you that the kinds of medicine we consume the most in our society now —tons and tons––are tranquilizers and antidepressants, sedatives. The whole world is under sedation. We need a lot of tranquilizers because we have created a world that has invaded us. We can no longer be peaceful and happy, and that is why we want to forget ourselves. You want to protect yourself from the world, you want to protect yourself from yourself, and that is why you take tranquilizers, antidepressants, sedatives. We are not capable of touching the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, the wonders of life that have all the powers of healing and nourishing. We have brought into ourselves so many toxins, poisons. The world we have created has come into us. We cannot escape anymore. Not even in our dreams, in our sleep. And the drugs we take are to help us forget the world we have created for a few hours or a few days. When we go in this direction we are no longer civilized, because we are not going in the direction of peace, of solidity, of awakening. The drugs help us not to be awake to reality, because we want to forget reality–– the reality of the world, and the reality of the confusion, the craving, and the violence in us.

Peace and happiness are still available, once you are capable of seeing that the conditions we think are essential to our happiness may bring us the opposite of happiness—depression, despair, forgetfulness. And that is why we have to listen to the Buddha. We have to begin with our breath. We have to breathe in mindfully to know that we are alive, that there are still wonders of life around us and in us that we have to touch every minute for our transformation and healing. We have to use our feet to learn how to walk in the Kingdom of God, because each step like that will be transforming, healing, and nourishing. It is still possible.

So from here to the pine tree, I wish you good luck. Make a step in such a way that mindfulness, concentration, and insight can be generated, so that you are capable of being in touch with the here and the now, of touching the wonders of life. Forget about the conditions of happiness that you have been running after for a long time, because you know that once you get them, you will still be unhappy, and then you will have to use the drugs that other people are using. Buddhism is about awakening. We should be awakened to the fact that the situation of the world is like that, and we don’t want to go in that direction. We want true life, true happiness.

Translated from Vietnamese by Chan Phap Tue; edited by Barbara Casey. 

(1) This translation is from the Chinese version of the Dhammapada.

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Dharma Talk: Our Environment: Touching the Gift of Life

By Thich Nhat Hanh

At the Buell Theater in Denver, Colorado on August 29, 2007, Thich Nhat Hanh delivered a provocative talk on the effects of humanity’s lack of mindfulness toward the planet we call home. Thay later elaborated on this theme — and proposed an elegant course of action — in a letter to the sangha.

Thich Nhat HanhWhen we produce a thought that is full of anger, fear, or despair, that thought has an immediate effect on our health and on the health of the world. We may like to arrange our life in such a way that we will not produce thoughts of that kind very often. Producing a thought is already karma or action, and that is our continuation into the future.

mb47-dharma2Our speech may be an expression of right speech as recommended by the Buddha. Something we say may manifest our loving- kindness, our nondiscrimination, and our willingness to bring relief. After having uttered such a word we feel better in our body and mind. We receive healing and everyone in the world benefits from our speech of loving-kindness, forgiveness, and compassion. It is possible for us to say such things several times a day, bringing healing and transformation to ourselves and the world.

And when we perform a physical act that has the power to protect, save, support, or bring relief, that also brings an element of healing to us and to the world. When you are full of compassion, even if you don’t take action, action will take you. We may repeat such actions several times a day because that kind of love and compassion calls for action.

When we look at an orange tree we see it is producing beautiful leaves, blossoms, and oranges. These are the best things that an orange tree can produce and offer to the world. If we are human beings we also make offerings to the world every moment of our daily life — our thoughts, our speech, and our actions. We want to offer the best kind of thoughts, the best kind of speech, and the best kind of action; these are our continuation whether we want it or not. Karmahetu, action as cause, will bring about karmaphala, action as fruit. We are continued into the future through our own actions.

A Beautiful Continuation 

When this body disintegrates we cannot bring along anything like diplomas or fame or wealth. We have to give up everything. The only thing that follows us is our actions, the fruit of our thinking, of our speech, and of our acts during our lifetime.

Of course we can assure a beautiful continuation. If we have manifested one time it means that we have manifested several times already. This can be described as past lives. And if we have manifested in the past and in the present moment we shall be manifested in the future in one way or another.

To think that after the disintegration of this body there will be nothing left is a naïve way of thinking. With deep observation we know that nothing is really born and nothing can die. Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Those of us who have tried Buddhist meditation have seen that. Before the cloud manifested as a cloud she was something else — the water in the ocean, the heat produced by the sun, water vapor. The cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from something, from many things. The moment of the so-called birth of the cloud is only a moment of continuation.

Many of us have learned from the Buddha about the Middle Way, a path that transcends pairs of opposites like birth and death, being and nonbeing. Reality is free from these notions.

When we say that God is the ground of being, you may ask, who is the ground of nonbeing? Theologians like Paul Tillich say that God is the ground of being. But looking deeply we see that the notions of being and nonbeing cannot be applied to reality. The truth is that reality transcends both the notions of being and nonbeing. To be or not to be, that is not the question [laughter].

God cannot be described in terms of being and nonbeing. In Buddhism we have the expression nirvana or suchness, which means reality-in-itself. That kind of reality-in-itself cannot be described in terms of birth and death, being and nonbeing.

If your beloved has abandoned the form in which you used to see him or her, follow the advice of the Buddha and look deeply. Your beloved is still there, maybe much closer than you had thought.mb47-dharma3

Double Retribution 

Our karma, our actions, continue us. And they will manifest in two aspects. That manifestation has already started.

In Buddhism the term “retribution” refers to the fruit of your actions in the future. Retribution has two meanings: the first is our five skandhas — form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness; the other side of retribution is the environment. Retribution should be seen in its double nature. You are your environment; your environment is what you have created personally and collectively. That is why there is another step for us to take — to transcend the duality between our five skandhas and our environment.

When you look at the stars, the moon, you know that you are the stars, the moon. And when you look at the mountain, the forest, you know that you are the mountain, the forest. There is always interaction between the two forms of retribution. In fact elements like air, water, earth, fire are always going in and going out. When we breathe out, something goes out to the environment. When we breathe in, something goes into our body. So you are not only here but there.

Cognitive science and neuroscience ask about the relationship between the “in here” and the “out there.” We perceive reality subjectively and we ask the question whether the external reality is exactly the same as the subjective reality. If you pursue meditation deeply you will be able to transcend the duality of in here and out there.

You may believe that this flower is out there, but I am not sure of that at all. Whether the flower that you see there is something in your consciousness or outside of your consciousness, that is not an easy question to answer. In quantum physics or neuroscience or cognitive science it is a very hard question. But the Buddha has given us all kinds of hints so that we can touch reality as it is.

The Environment Is You 

There are two kinds of environment: the social environment and the natural environment. In Buddhist practice you should take care of your five skandhas but you should also take care of your environment because the environment is you. You help create that environment, whether that is the social environment or the natural environment.mb47-dharma4

A long time ago I wrote a small book on meditation with the title The Sun My Heart. In one sitting meditation, when I focused my attention on my heart — breathing in, I am aware of my heart, breathing out, I smile to my heart — suddenly I realized that this is not the only heart that I have. I have many other hearts. Suppose that I look at the sun in the sky. I know that it is also another heart of mine. If this heart failed I would die right away. But if the other heart, the sun, explodes or stops functioning as the sun, I would also die right away. So there is a heart inside my body and a heart outside my body; the sun is one of my hearts.

When you see things like that you are no longer sure that you are only inside of your skin, and you can transcend very easily the duality of self and non-self.

In Buddhist psychology we learn that there are many seeds, called bijas, in the depth of our consciousness. We have the seed of fear, anger, and despair deep down in our consciousness. As these seeds are watered they manifest in the upper realm of our consciousness in the form of energy. We call them mental formations. If the seed of fear sleeps quietly down there we are somehow peaceful, but if the seed of fear is touched it manifests as the mental formation of fear and we suffer. The practice is to keep the seeds down there and not give them the chance to manifest.

Neuroscientists and biologists tell us that the genes in our cells cannot turn on by themselves; they need the environment. That is why it is very important to assure that you are in a good environment, that you do something to improve the quality of your environment, to ensure that only the good genes, the good seeds are turned on each day. That is the practice of protecting ourselves, our children, our family, and our society so as not to allow the negative seeds to be watered so much.

In Buddhist psychology we speak of contact between the sense organs and the objects of perception. Suppose Sister Pine invites the bell to sound, and the sound stimulates our ear. The mental formation called touch or contact will bring about another mental formation called feeling, whether that feeling is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If that feeling is not something unusual, if it is of no importance, then store consciousness ignores it. We have many kinds of these feelings throughout the day. If the feeling is strong enough there is a mental formation called attention. If the feeling is deep enough in us it crosses a certain threshold and then there is attention — manaskara in Sanskrit.

The Practice of Appropriate Attention 

The environment touches a seed in us, drawing our attention to that particular point, and turns on a mental formation. That seed may be the seed of mindfulness or the seed of craving, anger, or confusion. If you live in a practice center the sound of the bell has a special meaning because you train yourself to understand it in a particular way. The sound of the bell means “please go home to yourself, enjoy your breathing and be fully present in the here and the now.” Our store consciousness has learned it well. Every time we hear the sound of the bell, without making any effort, any decision, we go back to our breath and we breathe at least three times, in out, in out, in out. This brings us peace and joy, and the insight that we are alive — what a miracle!

The sound of the bell brings about appropriate attention, the kind of attention that turns on good things like mindfulness and joy. But there are other sounds and sights that bring our attention to negative things like craving, fear, anger, distress. We have to organize our environment to have elements that are conducive to appropriate attention, otherwise it will bring about inappropriate attention. For instance, television programs might contain elements that can turn on the worst things in our children. When a child finishes elementary school she has seen 100,000 acts of violence and 8,000 murders on television. That is too much! In the name of freedom we continue to produce films that are full of violence, anger, fear, and craving.

Looking deeply if you see that your social environment is not conducive to peace, joy, compassion, and non-violence, you have to do something to change it or seek ways to move toward another environment that is safer to us and our children. Even if we have to take another job that will bring us a meager salary, live in a smaller house, or use a smaller car, we have to accept that in order for us and our children to be better protected.

If you are depressed you may have consumed sights, sounds, touch, and so on, that have stimulated the negative seeds in you and made them manifest in your daily life. That is why the practice includes taking care of the five skandhas but also the social environment.

According to the teachings of Buddhism everything is impermanent. Therefore it is possible for us to change our environment for the better. As a sangha we may want to sit down and have a Dharma discussion to find ways to improve the quality of our social environment. We can practice as a family, as a neighborhood, as a city, or as a nation. The social environment is crucial in determining our future.

Mindful Consumption in the Kingdom of God 

The fifth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings in Buddhism is about mindful consumption. We have to consume in such a way so as not to bring toxins like fear and anger into ourselves.

The difficult situation in which we find ourselves has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We have created an environment that is conducive to violence, hate, discrimination, and despair. Violence is now everywhere; in the family there is domestic violence. Our young people have become too violent and their teachers don’t know how to help them deal with their anger and fear.

We are doing violence to our environment and to nature. We are now facing global warming and weather changes. Even the Kingdom of God is impermanent. Even the Pure Land of the Buddha is impermanent.

When we look deeply into ourselves we can identify elements of the Kingdom of God that are available in the here and the now. That pine tree standing on the mountain is so beautiful, solid, and green. To me the pine tree belongs to the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha. To me the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha is not a vague idea, it is a reality. And your beautiful child with her fresh smile, she belongs to the Kingdom of God and you also, you belong to the Kingdom of God. But because you don’t know how to handle the Kingdom of God you are doing harm. The Kingdom of God is such a gift. If you are filled with mindfulness and concentration you can touch the Pure Land of the Buddha right in the here and the now.

In the Gospel there is the story of a farmer who discovers a treasure in a small piece of land [Matthew 13:44-46]. After the discovery he distributed all the other lands that he owned and kept just the land with the treasure. When you have such a treasure you do not need other belongings. With the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, we may realize that happiness.

When you are inhabited by the energy of mindfulness and concentration, every step you make takes you into the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha. The practice taught by our teacher should lead us to the treasure; we don’t have to run after fame, wealth, power, or sex.

mb47-dharma5If we are capable of recognizing that beautiful river as something that belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will do our best to preserve it and not allow it to be polluted. If we recognize that this planet belongs to the Kingdom of God, we will cherish and protect it so that we can enjoy it for a long time. And our children and their children will have a chance to enjoy it.

Mindfulness helps us to be aware of what is going on. Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent. We are eating our mother, our father, our children. We are eating the earth. Scientists tell us that if we can reduce the eating of meat by fifty percent it will be enough to change the situation of our planet.

The Buddha on Global Warming 

I have sat with the Buddha for long periods and consulted him about the situation of global warming. The teaching of the Buddha on this is very clear. It is a very strong teaching. The Buddha said that when someone realizes that he or she has to die, that person will first of all revolt against the diagnosis. The fear of dying is always there deep down in our store consciousness. And the Buddha advises us not to run away from that fear. Instead, we should bring it up in order to recognize it.

Breathing in, I know I am of the nature to grow old.
Breathing out, I know I cannot escape old age. 

Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to getsick, terminally ill.
Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape sickness.

Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to die.
Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape dying. 

Breathing in, I know that one day I will have to let goof everything and everyone I cherish.
Breathing out, there is no way to bring them along.

This practice helps you to accept old age, sickness, and death as realities, facts that you cannot escape. After you have accepted this you feel much better. Those of us who have been diagnosed as having AIDS or cancer react the same way. We cannot accept it, we struggle with ourselves for a long time. Finally we accept it and in that moment we find peace. And when we find peace, we are more relaxed, and we have a chance to overcome the sickness.

I have known people with cancer able to survive ten, twenty, even thirty years, because of their capacity to accept and to live peacefully. The Buddha told me that the same thing is true with our civilization. If we continue like this our civilization will come to an end. Before this civilization the earth has known other civilizations. Many civilizations have died because mankind was not wise enough. And the same thing will be true for ours. If we continue to consume like this, if we don’t care about protecting this wonderful planet, we will allow it to be burned with global warming. Maybe seventy percent of mankind will die. The ecosystem will be destroyed to a very large extent and we will need millions of years to start a new civilization. Everything is impermanent.

mb47-dharma6Many of us do not accept this. Oh no! God has created this world and God will not allow things like that to happen. But the fact is that we are not only our five skandhas but we are our environment, which is in a process of self-destruction. Many of us who see this course of destruction become victims of despair and fear. Before global warming brings death and destruction we will already have died of fear and despair. We will have died of mental illness before we die from the results of climate changes.

The End of Our Civilization 

Breathing in, I know that this civilization is going to die.
Breathing out, this civilization cannot escape dying. 

We have to learn to accept the end of our civilization. Just as we accept our own death, we accept the death of our civilization. We know that another civilization will be born later on, maybe one or two million years later. We touch the truth of impermanence and then we have peace. When we have peace there will be hope again. With this kind of peace we can make use of the technology that is available to us to save this planet of ours. With fear and despair we are not going to be able to save our planet, even if we have the technology to do it.

Scientists tell us that we have enough technology to save our planet, but psychologically, we are not capable. We are not peaceful, enlightened, or awake enough to do it. That is why, while scientists are trying to discover ways to improve our technology, we as members of the human race have to practice so that we can transcend our fear, despair, forgetfulness, and irresponsibility. A collective change of consciousness will bring about a new way of life, a mindful way of living. The technology that is available to us will be enough to help us save this planet.

If you can get in touch with the treasure that is described in the Gospel according to Matthew, you don’t have to run after anything else. You have the Kingdom as your wealth; you have a beautiful planet as a great gift. Just enjoy it. Breathing in, you get in touch with the stars, the moon, the clouds, the mountain, the river. Taking a step you make a step in the Kingdom of God. This is possible with mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful dwelling in the present moment. And then you don’t need to consume, to run after these objects of craving in order to be happy.

The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, very strong, and not difficult to understand. We have the power to decide the destiny of our planet. Buddhism is the strongest form of humanism we have ever had. It is our actions and our way of life that will save us. If we awaken to our true situation there will be collective change in our consciousness. Then hope will be possible.

Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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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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