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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Dharma Talk: The Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

The Noble Eightfold Path is made up of Right View, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Thought, Right Action and Right Effort. Right View is the insight that we have within us of the reality of life. Our insight, understanding, wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and the happiness of those around us depend very much on the degree of Right View that we have. That is why Buddhist practice always aims at helping us develop a deeper understanding of what is going on within us and around us.

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Right View can be termed prajna. It can also be described as enlightenment, understanding, or wisdom. There are people who practice hard, but instead of developing Right View, they become more narrow-minded. By looking at their insight, their capacity of understanding, their ways of loving others, we can know whether their practice is correct or not. It is not a problem of the mind or the heart. It is a problem of right practice. Right practice is always pleasant and joyful in this very moment and always leads to dissolving notions and developing Right View.

Can Right View be transmitted to another person? This is an important question. Sometimes parents have a deep understanding of life, but they are unable to transmit their insight to their children. There are many reasons for this. One is communication. If the line of communication is broken, no matter how much insight you have, you cannot transmit it. Another is that you do not speak the same language. A third is that your insight might be too personalized. It works for you, but it must be practiced and presented in another way to others.

Wisdom insight is the kind of energy that makes us happy, alive, and loving. Sometimes we try to express it in words, as in the sutras or the Abhidharma, the treatise on the Dharma. When the Buddha was fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree, he had that kind of energy in him, prajna. It made him very happy and loving. He wanted to share that insight with others; that is why he thought of the five ascetics who had practiced with him in the past. But before he set off for the Deer Park in Sarnath, the Buddha remained near the Bodhi tree to enjoy his enlightenment. Enlightenment is enjoyable. The Buddha practiced sitting, walking, smiling to the trees, and playing with children from the village of Uruvela.

One day he went to a nearby lotus pond and sat for a long time, contemplating the lotus flowers and leaves. It was at that moment he discovered a way to communicate his insight to others. Insight is not made of concepts, but if you want to share your insight, you must use concepts, words, and notions. As the Buddha was looking at the lotus pond, he realized that people are of many different psychologies. Like the lotuses, some have roots deep in the mud, some have leaves still curled and underwater, some have buds partially exposed to the air, and some have leaves entirely above the water. That is why we need different means to share the Dharma with various kinds of people. The intention to create different Dharma doors was born at that time. One Dharma door is not enough.

During his 49 days of enjoying himself – sitting and walking around the Bodhi tree – the Buddha continued to translate his insight into notions and words. Then, during his first Dharma to the five ascetics, he spoke about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are the eight right practices. A sutra, or a Dharma talk, is a translation of the insight that has been achieved. Dharma talks are not insight in and of themselves. Sutras are just means of presenting insight in terms of concepts and notions. Even if it is a good description of the insight in terms of notions and words, there may be some difficulty. When you buy a map of New York City, you know that the map is not the city. You just use it to enjoy the city. It is important not to mistake the map for the city itself. Many people get caught by notions and words and miss the real insight. The Buddha said, “My teaching is like a finger pointing to the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.” Do not get caught by the words and the notions, or you will never touch the real insight.

The Buddha also said, “My teaching is like a raft that can help you get to the other shore. Don’t grasp at the raft and think that the raft is the shore.” Another day he said, “It is dangerous to misunderstand my teaching. If you don’t learn and practice with intelligence, you will spread more harm than good. It is like a person who does not know the better way to catch a snake. He may get bitten by it. A clever person will use a forked stick to catch the snake by the back of the neck, so he can pick it up safely. If you catch a snake by the tail, you may be bitten. Learning and practicing the Dharma is the same. You need intelligence, you need a teacher, you need sisters and brothers in the Dharma to help you learn and practice.”

Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. Right View is living insight that fills a person with understanding, love, and peace. It is quite different from Dharma talks, sutras, or books. We must use words and notions and the understanding behind them. Imagine someone who has never eaten a kiwifruit. When he hears the word “kiwi,” many concepts or notions are created in his mind. If you try to explain a kiwi to him, you might describe it as a fruit of such and such size, a certain color, feel, and taste. But no matter how well you do the job, you cannot give the other person the direct experience of the kiwi. It must be tasted. That is the only way. No matter how intelligent the other person is, kiwi cannot be understood until he places a slice of kiwi into his mouth. The same difficulty confronts anyone trying to convey insight or enlightenment. You must have direct experience. We practice mindfulness, concentration, and looking, touching, and understanding deeply, so that insight might be possible.

Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View are the basis of the practice. The practice of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are easy and natural when the practice of Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right View have become solid. The Venerable Nyanaponika, a German-born bhikkhu, has described mindfulness as the heart of Buddhist meditation. I fully agree. Right Thinking is a practice, and its essence lies in mindfulness. If you are not mindful, your thinking cannot be right. If you are not mindful, how can you practice Right Speech? You can make a lot of people unhappy and create a war within your community or family. That is why mindfulness in speaking is the heart of right speech. Right Action – not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc. – cannot be practiced properly unless mindfulness is the foundation of your being. The same applies to Right Livelihood; if you are mindful of the ecosystem and the suffering of other species, your attempt to practice Right Livelihood has a chance to succeed. If you are not mindful about what is happening to the earth, the water, the air, the suffering of humans and animals, how can you practice Right Livelihood? Mindfulness must be the basis of your practice. If your efforts are not mindful, those efforts will not bring about the good result you hope for. Without mindfulness, the more effort you make, the more you can create suffering and disorder. That is why Right Effort, too, should be based on mindfulness.

When you practice Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration is easy. The energy of mindfulness already contains the energy of concentration, and with mindfulness and concentration, you practice looking, listening, and touching deeply, and out of that deep looking, listening, and touching, Right View is the fruit. Understanding and insight grow. As Right View continues to grow, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort will become stronger. When you sit correctly, your thinking is clear, and you act accordingly and practice Right Livelihood. Everything depends on Right View, and Right View depends on Right Mindfulness.

The practice of mindfulness, concentration, and Right View are the essence of Buddhist practice. They are called the Threefold Training – sila (precepts), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight). Mindfulness is the foundation of all precepts. When you practice the Five Precepts, you see that they are not imposed on you by someone else. They are the insight that comes out of mindfulness: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to protect all life. I vow not to kill.” That First Precept is born from mindfulness of the suffering caused by the destruction of life. Precepts are a concrete expression of mindfulness. I you don’t practice the precepts, you cannot say that you are practicing mindfulness. To practice mindfulness means to practice the precepts in your daily life.

“Aware of the destruction of families and couples, aware of the suffering of the children who are sexually molested by others, I promise to practice protecting the integrity of the individual and the family. I vow to protect children from abuse. I vow to refrain from any act that creates a disintegration of families or couples. I vow to do my best to protect children.” This Third Precept is born from our mindfulness of what happens when we practice sexual misbehavior. All precepts, whether they number 5, 10, 14, 250, or 380, are born from the practice of mindfulness. Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are all practices of the precepts. When you live your daily life this way, your mindfulness will grow. The energy of mindfulness brings about concentration. You are concentrated in your daily life. You are concentrated in your sitting and walking meditation, and you look deeply and touch deeply, which brings about more and more insight. More insight helps you practice mindfulness in your daily life more easily.

If we look into any one of the eight branches of the path, we see that the other seven are present in it. If we look at Right Speech, insight is present because correct speech is born from insight. We can see that we have concentration. If we are speaking mindfully about something, we know what we are saying. Right Action, Right Livelihood, and Right Effort are also found in Right Speech. We can see the nature of interbeing in all elements of the path.

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Mindfulness practice must be applied to our daily life in order to be true practice. At Plum Village, we practice not only in the meditation hall, but in the kitchen, the garden, and the bathroom as well. It is helpful to slow down. We enjoy walking, reading, bending down, and all that we do in mindfulness. When you drive, hold your baby, wash your dishes, or work at the office, you can practice mindfulness. But for that to be possible, you need the support of a Sangha. You must create a Sangha where you live, because you need the support of brothers and sisters in the practice. The Buddha was quite clear that the Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of our daily lives, not of intensive retreats alone. The Noble Eightfold Path is the practice of an engaged Buddhist. Right Action – not to kill but to protect all life, not to steal but to be generous in giving time and energy for the people who suffer, not to break up families and couples, not to harm children but to protect them – all these things are meant to be practiced in real life.

To say “engaged Buddhism” is redundant. How can it be Buddhism if it is not “engaged?” To communicate, we must use words, and hopefully our words will be heard and understood. In his first Dharma talk to the five ascetics at Deer park, the Buddha offered the Noble Eightfold Path, and in his last Dharma talk, spoken to the monk Sudhana, the Buddha also offered the Noble Eightfold Path. He said that where there is the Noble Path, there is insight. We must use our intelligence to apply the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to our daily lives.

The practice of Right View helps us develop a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. If you have deep insight into the truth of the suffering of beings, the truth of origination, the truth of cessation, and the truth of the path, you have Right View. In fact, if you have a deep insight into any of these Four Noble Truths, you have deep insight into all four. Each truth contains all the others. This is the teaching of the Buddha about Right View from the historical dimension.

From the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said about Right View. There is a Zen story about two monks walking together. One sees a beautiful bird fly by. It is so beautiful that he wants to share the sight with the other monk. But the other monk has a pebble in his shoe and he is bending down to remove it. When the other monk looks up, there is no bird at all. So he asks, “What is it you want me to see?” But the bird is no longer there. All the first monk can say is, “A beautiful bird has just passed by.” It is not the same as showing him the bird. It is impossible for him to share his wonderful feeling. Sometimes we must just be quiet, when it is impossible to convey the insight.

A philosopher came to the Buddha and asked, “Is there a self? Is there a world?” Bombarded with questions like these, the Buddha said nothing. The philosopher became frustrated and left. Finally Ananda asked the Buddha, “You always say there is no self. Why didn’t you tell him?” The Buddha replied, “Anything I would have said would have done him more harm than good. I said nothing at all, to protect him from wrong views.”

Another time, an ascetic asked the Buddha to explain ultimate reality without using the terms being and nonbeing. The Buddha maintained silence for a long time, and the ascetic bowed three times and left. Ananda marveled and stated, “Lord, you did not say anything, yet he seemed to understand you.” The Buddha replied, “For a good horse, you don’t need a whip.”

Sometimes in Zen circles, they use language that is difficult to understand. This language is not made of concepts. It is a language to help us drop our concepts. From time to time, I try to use that kind of language myself. In 1968, when I was in Philadelphia for a peace demonstration, a reporter asked me, “Are you from the north or the south?” He wanted to put me in a box. If I said I am from the north, he would think I was anti-American. If I said I am from the south, he would think I was either with the National Liberation Front or pro-American. So I smiled and said, “I am from the center.” I hoped that would help him find a way to transcend the conflict. To understand the speech used in Zen circles, you must become familiar with this kind of language.

One Zen student said to his teacher, “I have been at the monastery for three years, and you have never told me about the true way of ultimate reality.” The teacher pointed his finger and said, “Monk, do you see the cypress in the front yard?” It is very important to notice the trees in the front yard. That monk had been living in the monastery for several years and he passed that cypress tree thousands of times, yet he never became aware of its presence. If he had been mindful, he could have touched the ultimate reality directly. How could he expect to touch ultimate reality if he had not even touched the tree in the front yard?

The story of that cypress tree became very well known throughout China. Another monk who heard the story of the cypress tree traveled very far to visit that teacher to ask him about it. But by the time the monk arrived, the teacher had already passed away. He was distraught as he now had no chance to ask his question. Another monk pointed him in the direction of the former teacher’s head disciple and suggested he direct his questions to him. The visiting monk went through many formalities to obtain an audience with this disciple, who was now senior monk. After listening to the visitor’s inquiry about the famous cypress tree, the senior monk answered, “Cypress tree? There is no cypress tree here.” The visitor could not believe it; the entire country had heard about that cypress tree. It had become an important topic of debate. Yet the head of the very temple where it originated did not seem to know anything about it? He tried to explain to the head monk that it was a very deep subject of meditation. He asked him if he was really the disciple of the master. The senior monk replied, “I am.”

When I first heard this story, I understood the senior monk’s intention to “kill” the cypress. Too many people were caught by it. If the visiting monk is intelligent enough, he can be enlightened by this “new” cypress. The cypress is a Dharma door. When you understand this type of exchange, you change your way of looking and understanding, and that can help lead you to enlightenment.

Another teacher when asked a philosophical question, replied, “Have you eaten breakfast?” When the disciple said, “Yes,” the teacher said, “Then please go and wash your dishes.” Washing the dishes mindfully is the door to the ultimate reality, the key to Right View and the whole Noble Eightfold Path. In the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said. In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra it is said, “no ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path; no understanding, no attainment” – no Right View, no Right Thinking. These are all notions, and you must free yourself from notions and words. The Buddha said, “My teaching is just a raft to help you get to the other shore. Don’t be caught by the raft.” We do our best practice this way.

This lecture was given in Plum Village during the 1994 Summer Opening. A book on Basic Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh will be published later this year.

Photos:
First photo by Gaetano Kazuo Maida.
Second photo by Tran Van Minh

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