By Thich Nhat Hanh
August 24, 2014
European Institute of Applied Buddhism
Dear Sangha, today is the 24th of August 2014. We are on our last day of the retreat “To Understand Is to Love.” Later you will go back to France and to Holland, and you should continue your practice. I want to give the children some homework. It’s not urgent. Take your time, do it with joy. You are not under pressure.
Brother Phap An will have this bag of seeds for you. There are many seeds of corn in this bag. This is not to make popcorn; this is to do homework. Each of you will receive one seed of corn. In this little seed of corn, there is quite a bit of knowledge, understanding, and art. If you give it a chance, the seed of corn will sprout and bring forth several beautiful leaves. It will send many roots deep into the soil. After receiving your seed, you should take it home and plant it in a small pot. Be sure that the soil is damp. You may like to water it a little bit every day. One day, the seed will sprout. This is a miracle. It will begin to send down a root; it will send up a stem with one, two, three leaves.
Here is a plant of corn planted and grown by the sisters of the New Hamlet of Plum Village. Although it is big now, it began as a small seed. After a while, you don’t see the seed anymore, but you know that the seed hasn’t died. If the seed dies, no corn plant is possible. So when you don’t see something anymore, don’t hurry to say that it has died. It has just transformed itself into another form. When you don’t see a cloud in the sky anymore, don’t say that it has died. It is always here in another form. Your cloud is here, it continues always. So our conclusion is, nothing can die.
When you grow up and study science, you will learn that scientists also say that nothing can die. This morning when we chanted the Heart Sutra, we chanted, “Nothing is born, nothing dies.” So the seed of corn has not died; it has become a plant. It does not retain the form of a seed but the seed is always there. If you look deeply into the plant of corn, you can still see the seed everywhere in the plant. Originally, the seed was small and yellow in color, but now it is big and green. But if you are intelligent, when you look at the corn plant, you can see the seed of corn still there. You can say, “Hello, my little seed of corn. I know you have not died. I can see you in the plant of corn.” You can tell her, “My dear little plant of corn, do you remember when you were a tiny seed?”The plant of corn may be surprised. It may say, “Me? A little seed? I don’t believe it.” You know that your beautiful plant began as a little seed because you planted it in a little pot. Your homework is to try your best to convince your corn plant that she began as a little seed. Eventually, your plant of corn will agree with you.
We Began as Seeds
You are a little boy or a little girl. You also began as a little seed. The seed that was you was much smaller than the seed of corn. One day your father and your mother prepared that seed and planted it in the womb of your mother. Half of that seed is your father and half is your mother. That was your beginning, what we call your day of conception. And from that day, you grew quickly. You stayed in the womb of your mother for about nine months. In there you grew until you didn’t have enough space. Then you gave a kick to show you were getting ready to come out.
But the time in the womb of our mother is the most wonderful time. It’s not too warm; it’s not too cold. The weather is perfect in there. You are floating in a liquid, so soft, so comfortable. It is like a paradise. You don’t have to worry about anything. You don’t need to breathe, you don’t need to eat, you don’t need to drink, because your mother is doing all of that for you. There’s a long cord linking you to your mother, called the umbilical cord. You receive air, food, and drink through that cord. When you are born, the cord is cut and you have to be on your own. It’s a very difficult moment. You have to try to breathe in and out by yourself for the first time. There is some liquid in your lungs, which you have to spit out so you can breathe. It is not an easy moment. You suffer. That is why you cry.
Now you have grown up into a little boy or a little girl, and you may have forgotten that you began as a tiny seed. You know that seed comes from your father and your mother. You have not begun from nothing. You are a continuation of that seed. So it is wrong to think that father and mother are only outside of you. Father and mother are also inside of you. In your body, there are billions and billions of cells, and father and mother are fully present in every cell. You carry your father and your mother into the future. One day, your father and your mother may seem to die. But that will not be true, because they are always alive in you. Thanks to you, your father and your mother will go far into the future.
Next year when you come to the retreat, please report to Thay on your homework assignment.
What Happens When We Die?
Dear friends, this year in Plum Village, we had a twenty-one-day retreat in the month of June. The subject was, “What Happens When We Die?” In our daily life, we are too busy to think about that, but deep inside us, we know that we will die one day. There are those who say that it’s not healthy to spend your time thinking about death. But to meditate on death is a very beneficial act. If you understand the nature of death, you’ll become very alive. You will enjoy every moment that is given you to live. Everyone who understands death is a hero. You have to have powerful mindfulness and concentration in order to experience a breakthrough.
In Buddhism, sometimes we use images when we meditate. We can visualize a wave on the surface of an ocean. Every wave has her wave body and the wave body is fragile and impermanent, subject to being and non-being, subject to birth and death. But looking deeply, we see that every wave also has her ocean body. Her ocean body is not outside of her. Her ocean body is inside of her; she doesn’t have to look for it. If the wave recognizes her ocean body, she will no longer be scared. She is free from the notion of being and non-being, birth and death.
We have our physical body, but that is not our only body. We also have our cosmic body. Everything from the cosmic body has produced this physical body. The cosmic body is like God, the ultimate. If you are able to touch your cosmic body, you are no longer afraid of being and non-being, birth and death. So a practitioner of meditation needs to meditate on this important issue and be free of fear.
In the Buddhist tradition, there is the wonderful teaching of interbeing. A typical example is this sheet of paper. The sheet of paper manifests itself as having recto, verso, a left and a right. The left cannot be by itself. The left has to lean on the right in order to express herself. And the right cannot exist by herself. The right has to lean on the left in order to express herself. That is true with everything, including birth and death. Birth cannot be by itself. Birth has to lean on death in order to manifest itself. Death cannot be by itself. It has to rely on birth in order to manifest itself.
When we look into our body, we see that birth and death manifest together every moment. If there is no death, there will be no birth. Many cells are dying this very moment. Death is happening now, not in the future. Because of the death of many cells, other new cells are possible. It’s clear that the birth of new cells relies on the death of old cells. Birth and death like to be with each other. There can never be birth without death, and there can never be death without birth.
The death of a cloud means the birth of the rain. Birth and death inter-are. This is a very deep teaching. On the surface, it seems that there is birth and death, but looking deeply, we see that there is no birth and no death.
The first law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot create new matter or energy and you cannot destroy matter and energy. That is the law of conservation of energy and matter. You can transfer one form of matter into another form of matter. You can transfer matter into energy. You can transfer one form of energy into another form of energy. And you can transfer energy back into matter. So science has discovered that the nature of reality, namely matter and energy, is the nature of no birth and no death. But so far, that discovery has been applied only to technology. It has not been applied in psychology to help us overcome our fear. We need to do this because when we overcome the notion of birth and death, we have a lot of freedom and we can enjoy every moment of our daily life.
The Removal of All Notions
In Buddhism, we speak of two levels of truth: the conventional level and the ultimate level. On the conventional level of truth, there is birth and death, being and non-being. But looking deeply, we discover the ultimate dimension of truth and we find that there’s no birth, no death, no being, no non-being. Right view, which is the foundation of the Noble Eightfold Path, is a kind of vision, a kind of insight that is described as the absence of the notion of being and non-being. The Katyayana Sutra is a short but very famous sutra on emptiness. In it, the Buddha described right view as a kind of insight that is free from the notion of being and non-being. The Buddha told the monk Katyayana that most of the people in the world are caught either in the notion of being or in the notion of non-being. If you look deeply, you’ll be able to overcome the notion of being and non-being, and you will get a lot of freedom.
We imagine that there is a flow of time from the left to the right. [Draws on the board.] This is the direction of the past, and that is the direction of the future. Every one of us has a birth certificate and we believe that we began the moment we were born. That point can be called B, or birth. Most of us think that before point B, we did not exist. Before I was born, I was not here. So before point B, we belong to the realm of non-being. From point B on, we pass into the realm of being. The Buddha called that wrong thinking. Your thinking is caught in the notions of birth and death, being and non-being.
Imagine the birth of a cloud. Has a cloud come from the realm of non-being? Before expressing herself as a cloud, she has been the water in the ocean and the heat generated by the sun, and so on. So the birth of a cloud is really a continuation. It’s not a moment of birth; it’s a moment of continuation. The birth of a child is a continuation of the father and the mother. So our birthday can be considered a continuation day. Next time you celebrate your birthday, instead of singing, “Happy Birthday,” sing, “Happy Continuation Day.”
And can you imagine the cloud dying? Do you think that when the cloud dies, it passes from the realm of being into non-being? It’s obvious that the cloud cannot die. A cloud can become rain or snow. So the moment of death is also a moment of continuation. There’s no reason to cry. Because it is a moment of continuation, it can be a very happy moment. If you have the insight of no birth, no death, you can die happily without fear. You know that you are free from being and non-being, birth and death. It’s wonderful to be a cloud floating in the sky, but it is equally wonderful to be the rain falling on the ground. So the death of a cloud can be a joyful moment––it becomes the rain and falls joyfully on the ground. Not only is the birthday a continuation day, but the death day is also a continuation day. The birth of something is the death of something else. The death of something means the birth of something else. They always go together.
Conceiving point B is the beginning of many kinds of problems. Since point B exists, another point also exists. It is the point D, death, because birth cannot be without death. You believe that from point B, you belong to the realm of being until the time you come to point D. From point D, you pass from the realm of being into the realm of non-being. That is why the two pairs of notions––birth and death, being and non-being––manifest together. If we are able to remove one pair of notions, we can also remove the other pair. In its highest form, right view as the basis of the Noble Eightfold Path transcends the notions of being and non-being, birth and death. The teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path may look very practical and simple, but it is also very deep.
When you are able to remove all these notions, you have a great deal of freedom and you can touch the ultimate in you. God is the ultimate. God is the removal of all notions. You cannot describe God in terms of being and non-being. There are theologians, like Paul Tillich, who say that God is the ground of being. That is not a good definition. If God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of non-being? That is why “To be or not to be?” is not the question.
No Coming, No Going, No Sameness, No Otherness
Two other pairs of opposites can help us look more deeply into the reality of nature: coming and going, sameness and otherness. These are concrete subjects of meditation.
Suppose we meditate on the subject of a little flame. We do not see the flame, but we do not say that the flame belongs to the realm of non-being. The flame is there somewhere, hidden in many of its conditions. Conditions of the flame’s manifestation are both inside and outside the box of matches. One condition for the flame’s manifestation is oxygen. If there is no oxygen, a flame cannot manifest. So we can talk to the flame because it does not belong to the realm of non-being. “My dear little flame, I know you are there somewhere. Please manifest yourself.” You can hear the flame telling us, “Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I am ready to manifest, but I need a last condition: the movement of your finger.”So we are providing the last condition for our flame to manifest. [Lights a match.]
This flame has not come from the realm of non-being and it will not go back to the realm of non-being. This flame is free from the notions of being and non-being, birth and death. We may ask, “Dear little flame, where have you come from?” The flame will tell us. You can hear it very clearly. “Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I have come from nowhere. I have not come from Amsterdam. I have not come from Frankfurt. When conditions are sufficient, I just manifest. My nature is non-local.”
We know that the flame has told us the truth. Her true nature is the nature of no coming. The nature of your beloved one also is the nature of no coming. When you fall in love with someone, you may ask her, “Darling, where have you come from? You are such a wonderful manifestation.” When you love someone, you think that one day she will have to die and she will go away. That is the birth of anxiety. The basis of anxiety is being and non-being, coming and going. Coming may mean coming into existence. Going may mean going out of existence. When your beloved one is no longer there, you say, “Darling, where have you gone? Why did you leave me alone like this?” Even before she leaves you, you have anxiety, which causes you to suffer.
Now we ask the flame, “Darling, where have you gone? You have manifested for us and now you are no longer visible, so where have you gone?” You can hear the flame telling you, “Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I have not gone anywhere. I have not gone to Amsterdam. I have not gone to Frankfurt. When conditions are no longer sufficient, I stop manifesting. My nature is no coming, no going.” That is true with everything, including ourselves.
We ask the flame to manifest again. [Lights a match and uses it to light a candle.] And we create another flame. We ask this flame, “My dear little flame, are you the same flame that manifested before, or are you a totally different flame?” This flame will tell us, “Dear Thay, dear Sangha, although I am not the same flame as the other one, I am not a totally different flame either. I am somehow the continuation of the other flame.”We can keep this candle lit for one hour, and we believe that we see the same flame. But that is not true. There is a series of flames, which succeed one another. The flame is not a self; it is only a series.
Everything manifests not as a self but as a series. When you look at your family album and see yourself as a five-year-old boy or girl, you may ask, “Am I exactly the same person as that little boy or girl, or am I a different person?” Of course, you still have the same name as that child, but things have changed so much. You look so different. Are you identical to him or her, or are you another person? Although you are not the same person, you are not a totally different person either. That is the truth of no sameness, no otherness. We think that we always remain ourselves; the one who is born and the one who is going to die is exactly the same. But sameness and otherness is a wrong view in the same way that being and non-being is a wrong view.
There was a layperson in the time of the Buddha whose name was Anathapindika. He bought a beautiful park from a prince and offered it to the Buddha to make a practice center. On the day of Anathapindika’s death, the Buddha sent two beloved disciples to help him to die peacefully. When Anathapindika saw the two monks coming, he was so happy. He tried to sit up, but he was too weak. Shariputra was one of the most intelligent disciples of the Buddha, and he was accompanied by the venerable Ananda, his younger brother in the Dharma. The two monks said, “Dear friend, don’t try to sit up. Continue to lie down. We will bring our chairs close and talk with you.”
When the two monks were seated, venerable Shariputra asked, “Dear friend, how do you feel in your body? Is the pain in your body increasing or decreasing?”
Anathapindika said, “Dear venerables, it does not seem that the pain in my body is decreasing. It is increasing all the time.”
When Shariputra heard that, he offered a guided meditation on the Three Jewels––Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This practice is called the three recollections. He knew that Anathapindika had spent many decades serving the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and he had gotten a great deal of pleasure doing so. The practice is to water the seed of happiness in the dying person so it will counterbalance the pain in his body. When his mind is focused on the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, seeds of happiness manifest, so he does not think of the pain in his body. He began to smile. This is a very intelligent practice. If you are to sit near the bed of someone who is dying, you may like to practice watering the seeds of happiness and joy in him or in her, in order for him or her to suffer less.
After that, Shariputra gave him a guided meditation on the six sense organs. “Breathing in, I know this body is not me. I am much more than this body. Breathing in, I know that this consciousness is not me. I am much more than this consciousness.” We know that there are six sense organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The purpose of the meditation is to help a person see that he is not limited to the six sense organs.
Shariputra continued with the meditation on no coming, no going. When conditions are sufficient, the body manifests. It has come from nowhere. When conditions are no longer sufficient, the body ceases manifestation. It does not go anywhere. The meditation is to help a person touch his nature of no coming, no going, no birth, no death.
At that point, the layman Anathapindika began to cry. The venerable Ananda asked him, “Dear friend, why do you cry? Do you still regret something?”
“No, venerable Ananda, I don’t regret anything.”
“Maybe you do not succeed well enough in your guided meditation?”
“No, venerable Ananda, I do it very well.”
“Then why do you cry?”
Anathapindika said, “I cry because I am so moved. I have been serving the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha more than three decades. I have never received and practiced such a wonderful teaching, the teaching of no birth, no death, no coming, no going.”
Ananda said, “Dear friend, we monastics receive this kind of teaching almost every day.”
Anathapindika said, “Dear venerable Ananda, please go home and tell our teacher that many of us laypeople are so busy that we may not have the time to receive and practice this wonderful teaching. But there are many of us who are capable of receiving and practicing it. So please tell our teacher that he should also offer this teaching to laypeople.”
Venerable Ananda said, “Yes, I will go home and tell the lord.”
That is the last request made by the layman Anathapindika. After that, he passed away peacefully and happily.
This sutra is called The Teaching Given to the Dying. It is available both in the Pali canon and in the Chinese canon. It is available in the Plum Village chanting book. If you are a doctor or a nurse or someone who assists dying people, you may like to learn from the way the venerable Shariputra helped the layperson Anathapindika to die peacefully.
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Transcribed by Natascha Bruckner; edited by Barbara Casey