Sangha News

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

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thirty Years of Plum Village

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

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

By Jerry Braza

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

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

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

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

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Dharma Talk: A New Teaching on the Twelve Nidanas

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interbeing

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

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

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

Restoring the Meaning of the Nidanas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correcting Misinterpretations of the Buddha’s Teachings

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Skandhas Are Not of Themselves Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we need only five nidanas:

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

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

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

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

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Edited by Barbara Casey and Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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

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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