sunyata

Letters to the Mindfulness Bell

On my drive home from the Open Way Sangha retreat at Loon Lake, Montana, I stopped in Deer Lodge to stretch and rest from the no-speed-limit limit in Montana. I pulled up nearby the prison and found myself thinking about the people inside, what sort of misdirection, difficult childhood, etc. brought them to such a place, what their lives must be like inside, perhaps their only freedom being the freedom that mindfulness can bring. I thought of Thay's poem, "Call Me By My True Names." It was lovely to return home and find the Spring issue of The Mindfulness Bell. I was especially touched by Mark French's essay written from inside that very place, Deer Lodge Correctional Facility. (Ed. note: see p. 14, issue number 16; p. 10 this issue.) I also loved reading Lee Swenson's and Richard Gilman's essays about the Vietnam War Veterans Writing Group. Every time I read these kind of stories I am brought to tears. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend the last two veterans retreats at Omega with the help of scholarships. These men and women and their stories helped me rediscover my own. I know those moments Lee Swenson speaks of, when it seems impossible to breathe. I smiled then when I read Thay's Dharma discussion and thought how I have looked longingly at the top of another mountain, this three-year community of writers on war. Thay helps me to sit still and happy right where I am. Thank you for this issue of The Mindfulness Bell. Susan Austin Tetonia, Idaho

The new Mindfulness Bell arrived today. It is beautiful! This issue seems different in ways I can't quite pinpoint. It feels like a fragrant, ripe tangerine, each section promising a sweet taste of the universe. Many thanks for all you do to make it available to us. Leslie Rawls Charlotte, North Carolina

I was given the book Peace Is Every Step by a guest speaker who attended the Ashram class that is taught here in the facility where I am presently incarcerated. It is the first book I have read by Thich Nhat Hanh and I was deeply moved by the step-by-step teachings in this wonderful book. Over the last six months I have become aware of the need to obtain inner peace. I have read many books by many authors, but none of them has moved me as much as Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace Is Every Step has given me a much clearer view of what life really is and what true peace is all about. Mark Rice #95A4228 Elmira, New York

In response to a recent request for feedback about The Mindfulness Bell, I offer these thoughts. As an inspirational journal focusing on the positive aspects of practice in various settings and situations, the Bell serves the Sangha well. As a journal that takes a hard look at important issues, I would say the Bell leans towards the benign, and often sugarcoats the reality of practitioners' lives and their daily struggles with Buddhist practices and their applications.

I would love to see the Bell document how Buddhist practice has the power to transform lives and awaken people to new realities and not simply make their lives better in a psychological sense. I must admit, I sometimes wonder if anybody in the Sangha is having traditional spiritual experiences in meditation, "awakenings," experiences of emptiness (sunyata), which have been the experience and hard-won fruits of Buddhists for thousands of years, especially in the Zen lineages. Not to negate the importance of daily life experiences, but also to give weight to the truly transformative experience of waking up! As a practicing psychotherapist, I note that many of the benefits that members glean from mindfulness practice seem to fall within the same realm as the benefits of good psychotherapy. This is not to fault either system, but to yearn that Buddhist practice can take one "beyond" the personal and interpersonal, and yet be able to enrich both.

I would also appreciate longer and more in-depth articles, as opposed to the short and often "lite" articles that fill up much of the Bell. I can't imagine that in a young and growing community there aren't issues that need to be fully examined in the light of awareness and compassion, matters that plague all communities and organizations: money, power relationships, special interest groups, hierarchy, and decision making. How are things decided, who makes decisions, and under what authority? In the vacuum of openness and clarity, other less noble motivations can dominate. Those of us involved in Buddhist communities over the past 30 years can attest to this unfortunate reality.

When I was a young Zen student and met Thay over 20 years ago, he emphatically emphasized that for Buddhism to become truly American, it must be nourished by new energies, new models of practice, and not simply replicate foreign models (which are often in disrepute in their own cultures). Thay's message was a powerful fresh wind that blew away the restrictive concepts dominating my Buddhist practice. His message is as relevant today with a community numbering in the thousands as it was when he was living almost as a layman in a small apartment outside of Paris.

I am using this letter to formulate the unformulated within me, and in no manner intend any negativism towards the wonderful manifestation of Dharma that The Mindfulness Bell represents. For me, to live the Fourteen Precepts means to be able to speak and listen honestly and constructively, in a spirit of compassion and love, so that we can all benefit from the warmth and wisdom of the Sangha. Fred Eppsteiner Naples, Florida

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Seven Interbeings

By Tetsunori Koizumi

Interbeing as a Binary Relation

“Interbeing” is a new word invented by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), which he employs to explain the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. A sheet of paper, for example, is an interbeing as it is connected with a cloud through a chain of relationships. “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper,” Thay writes in The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Things that appear totally unconnected to most people—a sheet of paper and a cloud, in this example—become connected with each other in a relationship which Thay calls “inter-are.”

Technically speaking, interbeing can be regarded as what mathematicians call a “binary relation,” a relationship established on a set of elements by pair-wise comparison of them, defined in this case on the set of all things in the universe, including our consciousness. It is not difficult to see that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity. First of all, it is obvious that anything inter-is with itself, albeit in a trivial sense of that word. Thus, the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the law of reflexivity, namely, xRx, where the symbol R designates the binary relation of interbeing.

The binary relation of interbeing also satisfies the law of commutativity, namely, xRy implies yRx, for if one thing inter-is with some other thing, then the second thing inter-is with the first. By bringing three things into consideration now and examining the applicability of interbeing among the three pairs of two things that result from them, we can see that the binary relation of interbeing further satisfies the law of transitivity; namely, xRy and yRz imply xRz. In the above example, a cloud inter-is with rain and rain inter-is with trees, implying that a cloud inter-is with trees.

Given that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity, it becomes a matter of logical exercise, aided by a modicum of poetic insight, to establish the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. Thus, roses and garbage inter-are, another favorite example used by Thay to illustrate the concept of interbeing. We can also appeal to P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) who employs poetic insight to express the same binary relation of interbeing in a poem entitled “Music:”

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead, Are heaped for the beloved’s bed.

And that beloved’s bed, as we know, is the soil from which a new rose tree grows with a new set of rose leaves and flowers!

This Is Because That Is

The genius of Thay as a teacher of Buddhist thought becomes quite evident when he skillfully employs the concept of interbeing to explain the idea of sunyata, or emptiness, which is probably the most profound teaching of the Buddha on the nature of reality in the world around us. In terms of the binary relation of interbeing introduced above, the Buddha’s words as recorded in Samyukta Agama—“the Middle Way says that this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not”—can be expressed as follows: that x exists in M, or the manifest world, implies that there exists y, different from x, such that xRy; x does not exist in M if there does not exist y, different from x, such that xRy.

By applying this binary relation of interbeing repeatedly to all the other elements that connect a sheet of paper to a cloud, we derive another of Thay’s favorite expressions: “A sheet of paper is made of non-paper elements.” This can be expressed as: xR(~x), where x stands for a sheet of paper, and (~x) for non-paper elements. A natural conclusion that follows from this logical exercise is that a sheet of paper—indeed any thing, for that matter—does not exist as a separate and independent entity, and is therefore inherently empty.

The term interbeing, although it appears to designate something that lies in between being and nonbeing, is actually a word Thay invented to expound the Buddhist idea of the Middle Way. We must go beyond the concepts of both being and nonbeing if we are to understand the idea of emptiness. As he puts it in Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way: “The Middle Way goes beyond ideas of being and nonbeing, birth and death, one and many, coming and going, same and different.”

By going beyond our dualistic way of seeing things (either “something exists” or “something does not exist”), we are able to develop the right view to see things, not in the lokadhatu, or the manifest world where things appear to be born and to die and to exist independently of one another, but in the dharmadhatu, or the ultimate realm of things as they are. As we learn to see things as they are, it will become clear to us that there is neither being nor nonbeing, neither birth nor death.

A Child’s Wisdom

Let us now go back in time—as time is conceived in classical physics—to 1798 when Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a delightful poem titled “We Are Seven.” In this poem, Wordsworth writes about his encounter with an eight-year-old cottage girl:

A simple child, That lightly draws its breath, And feels its life in every limb, What should it know of death?

Asked by the poet how many sisters and brothers she has, this little girl answers:

“Seven boys and girls are we; Two of us in the church-yard lie, Beneath the church-yard tree.”

The answer confounds the poet because two of the seven brothers and sisters are already dead and buried in the churchyard. To the poet who reminds her that only five boys and girls are left if two are buried in the churchyard, the little girl answers emphatically, “O Master! We are seven.” As far as this little cottage girl is concerned, two of the seven brothers and sisters who are buried beneath the churchyard tree are not dead, as she daily plays with them in the churchyard.

Can we reject this little cottage girl’s answer as a reflection of her ignorance and concur with Wordsworth that she knows nothing of death? What is more intriguing for us is to speculate how Wordsworth would have responded had she answered, “O Master! We are seven—seven interbeings.” The poet, to be sure, would have been even more confounded by this answer. On the other hand, we can easily imagine how Thay would nod approvingly with a smile on his face. It was this cottage girl with her innocence of a simple child, not the poet with his knowledge of a mature adult, who was able to see things as they are.

Tetsunori Koizumi, a member of Blue Heron Sangha, is Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies in Columbus, Ohio. This article was inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma talks during the “Science of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June 2012.

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